Lydia Itoi investigates whether two of Switzerland's three-star restaurants are worth a splurge.

High on the Hog

The low-lying areas of the Vaud are pretty dead in February. Everyone is up in the mountains skiing, and all the picturesque lakeside towns lie quiet and shuttered. When you don't know how to ski and the lake is freezing, the best thing to do is go eat. The good thing about February is that the tables are cozy and reservations easy to come by.

The bad thing is that eating in Switzerland is not cheap. Eating in a Swiss restaurant with three Michelin stars is dizzyingly expensive. But you get what you pay for, right? It depends. On our recent visit to the two top-ranked tables of Switzerland, where dinner can cost $200-300 per person, we were reminded once again that not all three-stars are created equal. Neither are all diners the same - one person's gourmet paradise may be another's big disappointment, and at these nosebleed prices, who can afford to guess wrong? Before breaking into the Swiss bank account to eat at either Philippe Rochat or Le Pont de Brent, it pays to do your homework and find the perfect table.

Restaurant de l'Hotel de Ville, Philippe Rochat

We found something near perfection in the former town hall of Crissier, where Philippe Rochat took over from the legendary Fredy Giradet, considered by many to have been the greatest chef of his time. That is a heavy torch to carry, but Rochat has done very well. He's maintained the restaurant at three Michelin stars since taking over in 1996, despite rumors of a falling out with Giradet. More importantly, he has proved to be his own man, and he's keeping tiny, industrial Crissier (population 6,517, 3 miles north of Lausanne and 30 miles from Geneva airport) on the map as a site of gastronomic pilgrimage with a highly personal, modern, and creative cuisine.

It's a pilgrimage that Josep Vilella, cookbook author and food critic for Barcelona's Vanguardia newspaper, has made over 100 times. When he heard we were going to visit Rochat, he insisted on driving eight hours to meet us for dinner. Josep claims he has never had the same dish twice in all his meals at Rochat. You'd think that would limit our choices, but there is a very long debate before Josep and Rochat finally settle on our menu for the evening. The big dilemma was whether to have the rack of lamb or the truffled pig's foot. They decide to have both, so problem solved.

The oval, peaches-and-cream dining room manages to be both classical and contemporary at the same time, and so is the food. Beneath the hushed Swiss formality is a warm personal touch. The austerity of the dining room, hung with sober abstract art, is lightened by whimsical, Miro-like characters dancing across the Limoges china. In the entry, there a memorial portrait of Rochat's late wife, a long-distance runner lost in a tragic ski accident. The chairs are sleek but comfortable, which is good when eating a 12-course menu with interesting dinner companions.

The first dish was a stunningly beautiful Granny Smith apple veloute (like a fancy Jell-O mold) decorated with an S-curve of precision-sliced raw apples and punctuated with glistening black mounds of Imperial oscietre caviar garnished with tiny herb flowers. It was framed in a translucent square of green apple sauce flecked with more green - a study of spring, only a pale hope in freezing February.

Next came a baton of silky duck foie gras pate pressed with a thick layer of dried cherries in a gel made from marc de Savoie. The accompanying violet and pistachio brioche and thimbleful of refreshing raw parsley root/citric zest salad were the kind of touches that scream, "This is a three-star joint." The evening was shaping up nicely.

The next dish blew at least half of us away. A circle of feather-light cream of local Crissier cardoons was literally smothered under generous slices of the headiest black truffles we had ever had. There was a crisp little tartine toast on the side with yet more truffle. Josep and his wife ate this marvel calmly, since they are older and have had a lot more truffles than we have. The aroma was intoxicating, notable when so many modern truffles need more artificial enhancement than a Hollywood starlet. Instead of being a luxury garnish, the truffle was the mainstay of the dish --there was as much truffle as cardoon on the plate. We also liked the bold pairing of a luxury ingredient with a humble local vegetable.

The scallop with Normandy olive oil and Niemes citron was a bit jolting. The scallop was perfectly cooked, sliced, and reassembled with a complex but almost invisible architecture of garnishes on a tiny silver peg. The acidity of the citrus sauce was bold to the point of being overpowering. We decided the flavors were too unbalanced to be fully successful, but it was an audacious move.

The tiny square of North Atlantic turbot (a nice fat one, rich with natural gelatin), swam in a little pool of coconut milk sauce, like a Swiss on a Thai holiday. The next dish - a single pink shrimp as big and succulent as a small lobster, delicately dressed with whole-grain mustard and root vegetable chutney in a light red curry infusion - sent Josep barreling into the kitchen to kiss the chef.

The lamb was a tender age, nearly white since it had not yet been weaned, making what generally passes as lamb look like mutton. It came with a barricade of giant macaroni with smoky, bright-red pimientos de piquillo from northern Spain.

How lucky we didn't pass up the pig's trotter, because this time we all jumped up en masse to kiss the chef. It was a round pillow of unctuousness, the meat boned and stuffed into the crispy skin with as much black truffle as can be stuffed inside. The little scoops of root vegetable puree with rich demiglace sauce made for a millionaire's mashed potatoes with gravy. That dish was maybe the most delicious two bites I've had all year.

The cheese cart presented some tough choices, but the most interesting were the artisanally–aged hard mountain cheeses and a fresh goat cheese thickly covered with pepper and ground spices and bathed in a top-notch olive oil.

Even more difficult was the dessert cart. As a predessert, we had a parfait of blood orange sorbet perfumed with Napoleon mandarins, a frozen cyclone of citrus topped with a creamy citrus foam and a silvery spiral of pulled sugar. Then came a kebab of pineapple impaled on a whole Tahitian vanilla bean and roasted to a deep caramel. We also tasted a traditional sugar and egg tart, rustic and paper-thin. By the time we waded through coffee and petit fours and remembrances of great meals past, it was 1am and we were the last to leave.

Our tasting menu was CHF 360 per person, which included a supplement for the three extra courses. The 8-course winter menu featuring turbot, crab, and duck cost CHF 280. The nine-course menu most similar to ours (without the turbot, scallop, and pig's trotter and the extra dessert) came to CHF 295. (These prices include service and taxes but not wine.) Three star restaurants are not the place for budget travelers, but it is possible to watch the bottom line and eat well. One bargain is the lunch "menu rapide" Tuesday-Friday for CHF 165, which wouldn't include the most luxurious ingredients but would provide a taste of what Rochat is all about.

In general, there is no point in going to a place like Rochat and then trying to cut costs or calories - you'll still pay a lot and cheat yourself of the experience. We recommend the tasting menu route, since you can try many dishes and get full-on Rochat at a good price. The cardoon-truffle dish, for example, costs CHF 140 a la carte, 85 for the foie gras, 130 for the turbot, 180 for the shrimp, 120 for the lamb, 150 for the pig's trotter, 30 for the desserts - you get the picture. Dishes ordered a la carte are full portion sizes and therefore bigger than the tasting menu portions. The tasting menu works out to be a similar amount of food and price to ordering three courses a la carte, but you also get a more distinctive experience and more extras.

Le Pont de Brent

Switzerland's other three-star, Le Pont de Brent, has the same elite Michelin rating, similar prices, similar luxurious surroundings and impeccable service. Our dining experience, however, was completely different. For one thing, it is a more old-fashioned restaurant, both in décor and cuisine, compared to the more contemporary feel of Rochat. For another, there is the difference between a chef who is content to rest on his ever-mustier laurels and one who is at the height of his powers. There is also the important difference, particularly marked in restaurants in Europe, between going to a restaurant with an insider's introduction and going as anonymous American tourists.

However, since most Americans eat anonymously in Europe, we can only surmise that our lackluster experience is a good indication of what most Gemütlichkeit readers can expect. Not that insiders fare much better, from what we hear. Josep passed up dinner at Pont de Brent, preferring to eat lunch at L'Hermitage de Bernared Ravet and drive back home to Barcelona.

The restaurant is in a charming provincial house nestled in the hills above Lac Leman and Montreaux, on the road to Blonay. The richly paneled dining room is divided with strategically placed cabinets and floral arrangements into intimate sections that are rather cozy for such a formal setting. It's quite romantic, and it's easy to forget that there are other people in the room.

It gets less romantic when a tray of assorted canapés arrives, which immediately runs afoul of a pet peeve. There are two of us, but only one of certain types of amuses. Suddenly it's Darwinian competition for the best tidbits. There were two boring cheese straws, for example, but only one tiny round of gorgeous homemade rabbit sausage. At CHF 260 per person, you'd think they could splash out for an extra nibble of ham and cheese quiche or crab mousse. Overall, the flavors were robust, almost rustic, and solidly traditional.

The menu is pure French, not surprising since the chef is from Normandy. In more traditional places, it's a difficult decision whether to go a la carte or for the tasting menu, since hearty traditional dishes often don't lend themselves to miniature tasting menu proportions. Also, classically trained chefs trying too hard to be trendy with a multi-course, fussy menu don't play to their strengths. Appetizers ranged from CHF 50-85 a la carte, fish courses averaged around CHF 70, and meat courses about CHF 70, with an emphasis on game and roasts for two that warn of a 50-minute wait. Cheese started at CHF 18, and desserts were CHF 26. There was a 7-course "Pont de Brent" menu featuring veal sweetbreads and pigeon for CHF 180, but in the end we opted for the CHF 260, 10-course "Menu Gourmand," which could also be called the "Menu Glutton." There was a shortened 8-course version, sans foie gras and scallops, offered for CHF 225.

First up was a clever (in French) rhyming dish of razor clam and crab. A tiny warm salad consisting of bits of razor clam, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers and arugula were attractively arranged in a long, thin razor clamshell. There was also a small round of cauliflower-broccoli hash topped with a pink patty of spider crab. It was good, but the quality of the ingredients lacked a certain sparkle.

The foie gras pot-au-feu floated in a shallow pool of sparkling chicken broth with colorful bits of vegetables and a round of herbed pasta. Execution was a bit lazy - instead of being poached whole, which would keep most of the unctuous fat from leaking out, it was sliced then poached, which gives a slightly tougher result. The liver still retained a few fibers and unsightly veins. The bowl was too shallow to retain warmth, and after a few seconds, the food was stone cold.

The Brittany spiny lobster in vinaigrette was tender to the point of being oddly mushy, almost squeaky. It was perched on rounds of braised leek and garnished with batons of black truffle and dollops of rich lobster jus sauce.

A tough, stringy, overcooked scallop with plump cockles and braised fennel lurked under an overly salty froth of saffron and shellfish stock, garnished with strips of lemon zest. It made the citron scallop at Rochat, the weakest link in the previous night's menu, look like a masterpiece.

The strongest dish of the evening was a timbale of frogs' legs and diced white root vegetables, wrapped in a chestnut pasta and garnished with black truffle an a creamy froth. The frogs' legs were a shade below totally tender, but the dish was savory and satisfying.

The fried monkfish with Jerusalem artichoke puree and red wine sauce was also marred by imperfect cooking. The otherwise excellent fried fish had been sitting too long, and the crust had gotten a bit soggy. There is nothing inherently wrong with pairing fish with red wine, and the sauce was delicious if slightly too acidic for overall harmony.

The rosemary-encrusted leg of milkfed lamb was classically presented with much fancy-dining flourish: whole, in a paper sock, and with garnishes of roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Mme. Rabaey, the chef's wife, came over to supervise the carving herself. The quality of the lamb itself was outstanding, as was the sauce, but it was criminally tough and overcooked. They had managed to turn the world's tenderest meat into shoe leather. There were also splinters of bone treacherously embedded in the meat. By now we felt like storming into the kitchen to express our outrage.

The cheese cart was a depressing reinforcement of the stinginess we detected from the tray of amuses. Some of the cheeses were in deplorable condition, most notably the Vacherin Mont d'Or, which was nothing more than a hollow dried crust. We spotted the condiments for the spiced goat cheese with olive oil, but it was only a tease - they were out of fresh goat cheese that evening. In the end, we managed to spot an outstanding aged Gruyère. We noticed that later in the evening, they had finally replaced the Vacherin for a fresh one, and knowing that they had had it all along but hadn't offered it somehow made us feel even worse.

The apple crumble with caramel ice cream and apple sorbet was the kind of dessert we love, but the lemon soufflé was more like an excruciatingly sweet lemon meringue. By the time the tray of nicely made petit fours arrived, we were too full and too dispirited to care that there wasn't two of everything.

Pont de Brent was not our first disappointing three-star meal. It was yet another lesson in the dangers of trusting Michelin too much with your hard-earned cash. Michelin does not award three stars easily, but it is also very slow to demote three-stars that are no longer up to snuff. Presumably, Pont de Brent was outstanding, but now it is merely good. Another trusted source, Vedat Milor, founder of the dining blog, once put Pont de Brent on par with Rochat, but he says recent meals there have been "dismal" (at least for the highest standards of gastronomic excellence). Let the buyer beware. Pont de Brent is cheaper than Rochat, but in the end it was a worse bargain.

Restaurant de l'Hotel de Ville Philippe Rochat
1, Rue d'Yverdon
Ch-1023 Crissier
Tel: +41 (0) 21 634 05 05
Fax: +41 (0) 21 634 24 64
Closed Sunday and Monday, 2 weeks at Christmas and 3 weeks in July-August.

Pont de Brent
4, Route de Blonay
CH-1817 Brent/Montreaux
Tel: +41 (0) 21 964 52 30
Fax: +41 (0) 21 964 55 30
Closed Sunday and Monday and 2 weeks at Christmas