A Culinary Team that Excels in Everything They Do

This summer, children 12 and under are dining in style at the distinguished L'Ermitage des Ravet, a fabulous hotel-restaurant located in a vineyard setting in the Lake Geneva region. Every Saturday at noon, master chef Bernard Ravet invites youngsters to enjoy a gourmet lunch with their families, at no charge (children 13-16, half price).

During the meal, M. Ravet and his wife Ruth take the time to explain how the food is prepared and served. By introducing children to the wonders of taste and flavor at an early age, they hope to help counter the influence of fast food and processed products. It's a creative endeavor from a culinary team who already excel in everything they do.

Gemütlichkeit has followed Chef Ravet and his restaurant with interest since our first dining experience, many years ago. Back then, we called it a near-perfect Swiss hotel and restaurant—a rating we stand by today.

Arriving in Vufflens

Surely everyone must gasp just slightly at their first glimpse of the castle when approaching the village of Vufflens-le-Château by road from Morges. Actually, it isn't a glimpse. One last turn in the road and suddenly there it is, spread out before you. The great brick structure, whose keep rises to a height of 200 feet, commands a scene of neat vineyards and farms for miles around, and shelters the tiny town huddling behind it. The Château, which, unfortunately, is privately owned and cannot be visited, remains in the family of Horace Bénédict de Saussure.

Particularly if one's destination is a couple of nights at L'Ermitage, the restaurant and hotel of Bernard and Ruth Ravet, this splendid tableau is a fitting gateway.

A few hundred yards beyond the fortress, in a house once used by the castle's servants, is the Ravet compound. This old farm building's premises are now a mecca for food-loving film stars, captains of industry and anyone else who can afford L'Ermitage's magnificent cuisine, wine cellar and hospitality. If you choose to pay the freight, a weekend, an overnight or even just a lunch, will be a memorable experience.

L'Ermitage delivers the whole package: idyllic location, beautiful grounds, superb food, personal service, wonderful guestrooms, and great charm.

Arriving by car in the middle of lunch, we parked in the graveled lot, grabbed our bags, and headed toward reception. We hadn't gone five steps before we were met, relieved of our luggage, and immediately shown to a corner room, Number Two, on the first floor of an annex which contains all nine guestrooms.

Number Two's best feature is its bed: a single, large mattress, probably queen-sized, soft without being mushy or saggy, and equipped with three hefty, down pillows and a long headroll positioned against the headboard. The latter is perfect for reading in bed. One sleeps between luxurious sheets covered by a wool blanket and a down comforter. We cannot recall a better bed in Europe.

One window in the room overlooks the garden and the main house's terrace, where meals are often served in summer; the other affords a view into the first-floor kitchen, where, from early morning to very late at night, uniformed Ravet minions slice and dice their way to culinary fame. The bathroom, which also has a window, is equipped with a double sink and both shower and tub. The toilet is separate from this room.

Ducks Unlimited

Like most affluent villages, Vufflens at night is very quiet. The only sounds we heard were from the beloved Ravet ducks. (L'Ermitage seems to be the Swiss version of Ducks Unlimited. They are everywhere: on the menu, splashing in the pond, in pictures and displayed in the hotel's boutique, even your room key comes linked to a fist-sized, wooden duck.)

We inspected several other rooms in the hotel and found them equally comfortable. We especially liked the spacious balconies of the first floor doubles, which are perfect for breakfast.

In Europe, hotels with charming settings, buildings and furnishings abound. L'Ermitage backs its charm with service that is faultless and friendly.

M. Ravet himself is a gracious, if somewhat retiring, host. His wife Ruth is equally friendly but does not speak English (try your German). Genius is said to be 10 percent brains and 90 percent hard work. M. Ravet definitely qualifies in the hard work category. Based on what we saw over three days, the man is a dynamo. In addition to cooking at both lunch and dinner, he personally bakes all the hotel's breads in a wood-fired brick oven. (Bakers as you know are early risers, and when we were guests in the hotel, M. Ravet was still in the kitchen at midnight.) Whether or not he also tends the L'Ermitage's flower, herb, and vegetable gardens we can't say, but we did spot him one early morning with a box of plantings digging away in a flowerbed. He also—along with Christian Martray, the hotel's bright and engaging young sommelier—chooses the wines for the hotel's 30,000-bottle cellar.

The Restaurant

Guests are first seated in the antique-filled salon on the ground floor, offered an aperitif and presented with the menu. One of several formally dressed young waiters are available for menu consultation and one of them, or Mme. Ravet, takes your order.

After a few minutes, your party is invited upstairs to the dining room. We went via the operating-room-clean kitchen, where approximately a dozen men in white chef's gear with red toques furiously chopped, kneaded, blended, sliced, and sautéed under the watchful eye of M. Ravet himself, who nodded and smiled as we passed through; the only person in the kitchen who had the time to acknowledge our presence. Though all were working flat-out, barely under control, the scene was perfectly ordered, unmarred by dirty dishes, utensils, or spilled puddles of sauce or stray ingredients.

There were perhaps 30 diners at large tables, well-spaced over two rooms with high ceilings and adjoined by a wide pass-through. The entire process from aperitif to final bonbon took more than three hours. There is one sitting, and we didn't finish until after 11:30pm.

Culinary Adventure

As you may already have surmised, L'Ermitage is expensive, the restaurant more so than the hotel. Only a serious "foodie," or someone not worried about the cost of things, will be comfortable spending the money it takes to dine at the Ravet table.

The "A" menu, La Saga Des Gourmandises, is seven courses, not including a selection of candies at the end and the delectable little warm-up plate of "kisses from the kitchen," which is brought for nibbling while perusing the menu, and costs a cool 225 CHF (€150) per person. Our choice was one step down, Le Panier de Saint-Fortunat, another multicourse adventure—again, including the starting and finishing delicacies—for 185-205 CHF (€123-137), depending on whether you choose foie gras or caviar as a first course.

We were so busy enjoying the food, our own conversation, and the wonderful mood and aura of the room, that we lost count of the courses. The menu says five but there seemed to be more. Perhaps most memorable among them were small rounds of duck and goose liver paté, so smooth, subtle, and absolutely delicious that they beggar description—at least by this writer. The duck, particularly, which had a slightly smoky flavor, was off the chart. We were somewhat surprised when M. Martray, the sommelier, suggested sauterne—traditionally a dessert wine—with this course, but it was an inspired pairing.

There was a small piece of char, a white lake fish, bathed in a warm broth and flavored with chervil, then surrounded by tiny bits of morel mushroom, tomato, and wispy asparagus tips. Next came a marinated, spit-roasted duckling from Bresse, and after that the magnificent cheese cart, offering perhaps 25 or 30 choices from France and Switzerland. Just when it seemed we could do no more, revival came in the form of fruity and refreshing house-made sorbets, the opening round in a series of sweet dishes. Years later, we remember these desserts as just a blur of tastes: fresh strawberries and rhubarb, flaky pastry, thick cream, honey, mocca, caramel and, of course, chocolate. The ingredients sound ordinary, but in the hands of the brilliant Ravet team, they are shaped into things celestial.

The service was, in a word, perfect. Each course arrived at just the right time and, after we had had a bite or two, someone arrived to explain it. Everyone, including both Ravets, the sommelier, and the waiters, were unfailingly polite and helpful, without a trace of condescension.

Was it the best meal we've ever had? Taken as a whole, it was probably our finest dining experience ever. As for the food on the plate, let's put it in our top five with the likes of Auberge de l'Ill in Illhaeusern (France), La Grappe d'Or in Lausanne and Les Sources des Alpes in Leukerbad.

Michelin gives L'Ermitage two stars. Fifteen minutes down the road in Crissier, the famed Philippe Rochat (formerly Girardet) is Switzerland's only three-star restaurant. But not everyone agrees with Michelin. Gemütlichkeit's not so scientific survey of gourmands—three Swiss and one American ex-patriot—turned up a slight, but unanimous, preference for L'Ermitage. Each gave the same reason: atmosphere. Rochat's ambiance, they say, suffers from the fact that by referring to it as the world's best restaurant, many food and restaurant writers, perhaps putting down the real or perceived arrogance of some of France's great three-star establishments, have turned Rochat into a tourist attraction. Whatever. L'Ermitage is very special.

Address: Hôtel-Restaurant de L'Ermitage, CH-1134, Vufflens-le-Château

Phone: +41/021/804 68 68

Fax: +41/021/802 2240

Location: Tiny village in the vineyards

Guestrooms: Nine total, seven doubles and two larger "suites"

Proprietor: Bernard & Ruth Ravet

Prices: Standard rooms CHF 380-400 (€ 253-266), deluxe rooms CHF 400-420 (€ 26-280)

Facilities: Restaurant, terrace, garden

Credit Cards: All

Disabled: Difficult

Closed: 24 December to 12 January. Restaurant closed Sunday and Monday. Breakfast served to hotel guests every day.

Parking: Free

Hotel Rating: Excellent 17/20

Restaurant Rating: Excellent 19/20