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August 10, 2012 8:38 pm
A generation ago, when the prospect of a career at the stoves was still a twinkle in the eye of Heston, René et al, Frédy Girardet was unanimously thought of as the world’s best chef.
Girardet’s home was Crissier, an otherwise undistinguished suburb of Lausanne in Switzerland, where he reigned until 1997, before handing over to Philippe Rochat, his right-hand man. Earlier this year, Rochat handed over the restaurant to Benoît Violier, who had in turn fulfilled the same role for him. This recent change of command seemed a good reason to return.
As an aspiring restaurateur, I once made the pilgrimage to eat chez Girardet and the memory of our dinner still lingered on, as did the sight of a half-finished bottle of Château Latour left behind at the next table.
Anticipating a hefty bill for dinner, we had booked into the modest Hotel Ibis, a five-minute walk from the restaurant, but this brief journey only underlined the incongruity of the restaurant’s location. To get there we trekked through a zone industrielle, home to Miele, Opel and Saab showrooms. The appearance of a young man, immaculate in dinner jacket and bow-tie, ready to open the restaurant’s front door on to a small square now named after Girardet, came as something of a surprise.
Inside, a smiling Madame Violier was there to introduce herself, to shake us by the hand and deliver us to a young waiter, who escorted us to our table. Three hours later, I was presented with the bill for SFr886 (or £580) for three, and the waiter quietly informed me that service was not included. Fortunately, our Swiss friend, who had guided us to three excellent Swiss wines – a 2011 single vineyard Chasselas from Raymond Paccot, a 2009 Cornalin from Didier Joris and a 50cl late harvest 2007 Marsanne made by Marie-Thérèse Chappaz – whispered that a 5 per cent tip would be sufficient. This was a small mercy.
By this time I had come to the conclusion that I had never eaten in a restaurant where so many different employees were on parade – although, alas, this generous staffing level was not so effective in looking after the customer.
We saw Mme Violier only at the beginning and the end of the meal. During the rest of the evening our dining room was under the management of a maître d’ in a buttoned-up lounge suit who took our order, expertly carved the guinea fowl that was one of our main courses and issued numerous sotto voce instructions to his staff.
But he never once made any personal contact with us – perhaps because he realised that we would never return; perhaps because we had ordered only Swiss wines rather than anything French and even more expensive. He never once made us feel welcome and nor, surprisingly, at the end of the evening did he inquire whether we had had a good meal.
In fact, the only occasion he did speak to us was after he had carved the guinea fowl and placed it in the appropriate position next to the semi-circle of macaroni on the plate. Then he took his iPhone out of his pocket and photographed his handiwork. When asked why he did this, he explained that it was to show the kitchen how the finished dish looked before it was placed in front of the customer.
There were some highlights: a whole omble, the freshwater fish from Lake Léman, was first class, while the contents of the magnificent cheese trolley were dispensed with generosity. But the heavily reduced sauces that accompanied the guinea fowl and the sweetbreads lacked freshness and any stimulating acidity, while the accompanying vegetables were overworked, designed to impress the eyes rather than the taste buds. A dessert that comprised one scoop of vanilla ice cream and six strawberries was a particular disappointment, as were the over-sweet petits fours.
There needs to be more dynamism in the exceptionally anodyne and crudely lit dining room, and more attention given to the customer rather than the restaurant’s own rhythms. The Venetian sommelier was a delightful and flexible exception to the rule, but the wines, other than those from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Switzerland, could certainly be improved. And, following the example of so many top restaurants in France, there ought to be a better-value set menu.
In short, not a meal to generate the happy memories of the one a generation ago.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville
1 rue d’Yverdon
1023 Crissier, Switzerland
00 41 21 634 0505; www.restaurantcrissier.com
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