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16/03/2009

Zum See, Zermatt, Switzerland

★★★★☆

In the mountains, there you feel free. We swung between Triftji’s moguls, scrunching the muffled slope, testing tentative routes down the steep, mottled face. A metre had fallen in two days, eerie and gentle, talc so puffily insubstantial we couldn’t even make snowballs from it. The powder brushed our waists; we turned, waded and fell. You’d never know the Matterhorn was rearing just above: a savage Toblerone cliché, now vaporised, cloaked in cloud.

We reached the restaurant ruddy and breathless – hat-haired, snow-flecked, sweaty-footed and stiff. The creaking barn is a reminder of the village’s origins, of a hard, hoary life, when grizzled men led Whymper and Roosevelt up scree and cliff, before there were chairlifts that began in Switzerland and ended in Italy, and when a glass of wine didn’t cost the same as an easyJet plane ticket. The past echoes also in Zum See’s food, in protean proteins: cheese and preserved flesh, and whatever else might last the winter. And since Italy is so close – 20 minutes, when you ski as fast as T does – there’s pasta too: buttered curlicues of tagliatelle and fat ravioli; and grill-dappled gratins and burnished röstis. This is Zermatt, though, so the menu also lists oysters and Perrier Jouët, and sea bass in ginger; and there are lissom, mink-wrapped women here who’ve never skied a day in their lives, combing their hair in mirrors drawn from preposterous handbags.

‘Your table is outside,’ says the genial Max Mennig, who runs the place with his wife, Greti. Icicles hang, undripping, from the awnings; and in the wet, bleaching light, the gloves are on. Breath misting, we wrap ourselves in blue blankets and drink the Fendant that arrives in a bucket of snow. It’s warming, despite its chill, with dryish, delicate notes of elderflower and peach. Before long, a plank of cheese and meat emerges, both sliced to transparence, rippling like waves. The Comté is as brittle as the ice on a puddle, salty and soured; the air-dried beef has a thick, masculine minerality, sliced by the acid crunch of cornichons and pickled silverskins. We cloak the cheese, a degree above freezing, in the meat, and press it to the black bread of the mountains, so ancient, fragile and ugly, so right, that the basket’s finished in minutes.

The plates arrive too hot to touch. A dozen sweetbreads are stunningly good, swirled in cream and morels, bulked and softened by a proper serving of noodles. It’s a superlative dish, soulful and generous: sweet, milky, squidgy thymuses. Equally delicious are kidneys in a mustard sauce, with more tagliatelle. The dense offal is heady with the sour, umami whiff of urine, in a deep, buttery sauce studded by the fragrant, almost citrus savour of popping mustard seeds. We drink Dôle with it all – more than one bottle, actually – glugging the ruby wine while the plates steam before us, contended, squiffy and at ease.

Puddings seem an afterthought for this kitchen: an apple strudel is stodgy and squat, overcinnamoned, in a crème anglaise of thick, bland egginess; and a hard, sterile meringue crumbles like chalk. The pavlova is smeared with vapid cream squirted from an aerosol, a spume devoid of anything approaching flavour, and with an unpleasant airy texture. The couple next door, who’ve walked across the glacier to get here, are sharing the signature Napoléon pudding. ‘Ve come here for zis every year,’ they tell us, and you have to wonder why zey bozzer. It looks like any old mille-feuille to me, with crisp layers of puff pastry and an almond paste, and it too is sprayed in shaving foam moonlighting as cream. Not, in truth, that we really care. Another bottle of Dôle, please, Max.

Towards the end, they find space for us in the muggy dining room, amid cramped, laughing tables, black wood, sepia photographs of rock and herd, twitching candles, and the honest reek of melted Gruyère. Our boots clunk like gavels on the slippery tiles. With excellent coffee, we all have poire Williams: crystalline rocket fuel, fruity and gasping. In a very after-lunch mood, I make a note in my little restaurant book: ‘William: best postprandial ever’. Then out and down we toddle, boisterous and unsteady, mending our rocking way to the Hennu Stall for the après-ski rumspringa. Above us, the lifts judder and stall, as the chamois pad to shelter, the mercury starts to tumble, the grey light wanes, and the nebulous cloud sinks and glooms into the valley.

Zum See, Max and Greti Mennig, 3920 Zermatt
Tel. +41 (0)27 967 20 45


See on the TFYS Map

Lunch for four, including drinks and service, costs CHF 400 (approx. £260 at current, punishing rates).

4 comments:

  1. I think Germans (which might also be applied to the Swiss) in general have rather nondescript desserts at their restaurants. Theirs is more a 'Kaffee und Kuchen' culture, where they stop for coffee and cakes at around 5 pm. And the cakes there should be of better quality, you'd hope.

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  2. Sounds like you were ripped off by the avaricious Swiss.And as for having to sit outside in freezing temperature-they can only get away with this treatment on the Brits who never complain/don't want to make a fuss.The Germans would have given them a good kicking and a table inside would have miraculously appeared.

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  3. Andrzej - thanks for that. It was quite a surprise, really, that the puddings weren't up to much. Perhaps we ordered badly, though I do think we saw a fairly representative sample. Someone told me that bread (and some cakes) are hard to make up in the mountains, because the yeast can't work properly. That's something of an excuse for them.

    L - Zermatt's a pricey town! And given that there are no cars, and that everything has to be carried up the hill in motorised buggies, you're always going to pay a premium. The place really was full, though - we saw for ourselves - and as long as the food's hot, I don't mind eating outside, even in that sort of temperature.

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  4. Well, well - I had missed this post. I am hoping to welcome Max at Le Cafe Anglais soon as he's a good friend of one of our shareholders, Alastair Scott.

    I genuinely doubt there is a more charming restaurant in the world than Zum See. Also, I have never had better White Asparagus. Did you try the Grolla?

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