The day: 9th January 2008, Dinner.
The place: Rue Cheneau-de-Bourg, 3, Lausanne, (Switzerland), tel: +41 (0) 21 323 0760
The venue: La Grappe d’Or
The food: (Very) Traditional Italian
Airport: Geneva (BA)
The drinks: Short list, mostly Italian, a couple of Swiss wines
We are condemned to Italian cusine. In Lausanne for a couple of days, we had been tipped off by Chef Edorovio to go to Le Pomme de Pin, but alas on a Wednesday night it was fully booked. So, egged on by various raving reviews, off we go to Le Grappe d’or: we expect to find a temple of French cuisine, (eg. Frommer hails it as ‘the most sought-after citadel of food and drink’) but uhm, a bit weird, an inspection of the menu reveals vongole and tomato pasta, risotto… oh well, no time to lose by now, this is our third attempt to get some food tonight (yes, we had also tried and book ‘Le petit grappe’: according to the always knowledgeable internet guides, the name is due to it being run by the son of the more famous owner of the more formal and expensive “La grappe d’or”. But wait: we phone up, and some rather upset local answers rudely and hangs up on us. Undeterred, we turn up at the place in person: o-oh, at the address it really looks like a private home, where has the restaurant gone? Seems like the only alternative is to splash out on its more expensive, turned Italian “parent” next door…. We are condemned to Italian cuisine. This time it is by chef Giorgio Zanini, formerly at the Villa d’Este on Lake Como.
Inside, and we step in a time warp: what we presume must be the owner is a middle-aged-to elderly straightened up gentleman with jet black, slicked back hair and a pair of pointed moustache that would make Dali envious. The Head waiter is a grey haired, suave and soft-spoken gentleman that reminds us of so many Italian immigrants gone to look for fortune abroad (if you have seen Nino Manfredi in “Pane e cioccolata” you know what we are talking about. If not, that’s a title for your next rainy Sunday afternoon in front of your TV). The décor is elegant for sure, but feels slightly stiff and decadent.
But let us talk food now. Starters go from the 22CHF (1 Pound = 2.2 CHF) of the Bresaola maison, goose ham and rocket to the 25CHF of the not better specified “Antipasti ‘La Grappa’”, while ‘paste’ go from the 24CHF of the ‘mezze maniche’ (half sleeves) with sausage in a pecorino casing to the 27CHF of the clam stracci with cherry tomatoes. Mains include Rosemary beef tagliata at 45CHF and grilled langoustines and radicchio at 46CHF. There is also a truffle menu, but if you consider that the exchange rate was roughly 2.2 CHF in the pound, the prices for the truffle dish appear worryingly low (between 30CHF and 38CHF, with the exceptions of a lombata with truffle at 56CHF).
There were also specials on the board, and while perusing all this in comes the amouse bouche, grilled aubergines and courgettes slightly marinated in oil and vinegar
Ok, really nothing to write home about, but we do not want to start by being put off by this perhaps too simple beginning, what is wrong with you Woman, can’t you appreciate the basics?!
Ah, and the bread comes in, too, a ciabatta and some focaccia, as we were to learn later both baked in house.
Now for the real thing. We began with:
– Tagliatelle all’Ischitana (tagliatelle with rabbit and tomato sauce) (24CHF)
– Tuna ham risotto with basil and gold leaf (26CHF)
Now: tagliatelle, which are also made on the premises (but have a rather different texture from what we are used to, perhaps they dry them more) were rather rough on the surface (and we mean it as a compliment), not because they had been rolled out with a wooden pin, but because of the drying process that had let the durum wheat do the job (well, at least according to chef Zanini, who at some point came out of the kitchen to talk to his customers). But the sauce was quite bland, possibly because it had not been reduced enough to concentrate its flavour; it was too liquid, and we would not have minded a bit more strength in the pasta. Overall, though, it was not unpleasant, thanks mainly to the herbs, basil and thyme, which were coming out with character. But the rabbit was only playing second fiddle.
As for the risotto: well, initially we thought this might have been some homage to the old gold leaf risotto pioneer, Gualtiero Marchesi, but in fact it was quite an ordinary risotto (by which we mean no trademark sour butter (burro acidulato) here), in fact not too good cooking-wise (we elaborate: the mantecatura was rather unsuccessful, the rice was at the same time dry, a little undercooked and a touch too stodgy), but good in flavour. On the other hand, the Tuna ham was really superior, truly excellent. The combination of flavours? Well we did not mind parmesan and tuna…
To follow, we opted for:
– Suckling pig in ‘mirto’ sauce with potato mash (43CHF)
– Goose breast and leg “ciucco style” (slang for ‘drunk’, in practice with a Barolo sauce) (59CHF)
The goose was perhaps just a little dry, but overall it was very flavoursome. The accompanying polenta was also exceedingly good, the wine sauce though not particularly tasty.
The suckling pig was simply fantastic; the meat superb, moist, tender, succulent, flavoursome… we could go on and on. The cooking of it was equally good, bringing all the best out of these beautiful cutlets. The mash was also a pleasure: no compromises, just rough potato mash with high quality potatoes. The thyme sauce to be fair was not particularly aromatic.
To conclude, we ordered:
-Amaretto pannacotta with chocolate sauce (12 CHF)
– Limoncello Baba with yogurt ice cream (12 CHF)
The baba was very well made, airy, springy, spongy, soaked in Rhum. Well, in fact rather too much of it. The accompanying vanilla ice cream was also superlative, and the striking profusion of fruit made it a fresh and pleasant dish.
As for the amaretto pannacotta, taste wise it was good, but texture wise… Now sorry, yes Woman is bitchy, but we cannot let this really off-putting layer of gelatine on top go unnoticed (she knows well, something that happens all too often at our place), so here is exhibit number 1 for the prosecution:
Gelatine has to be dissolved thoroughly and mixed in, not let drop at the bottom. Ok, rant over, all is forgotten when out of the kitchen the chef appears with a shiny copper cauldron full of sabayon: it is served at another table, but there is plenty for everybody to enjoy, and could we not join in?
As simple as it was delicious. And when this was over, off went the dishes, and on came a bottle of grappa and one of limoncello, for us to help ourselves.
With a bottle of Swiss Pinot Noir Clavien 2005 at 58CHF (steeeep) and half a bottle of water at 5.20CHF, the total bill came at 221.20CHF, just making our £100 rule.
The service was mainly provided by a clever young waiter who’ll go far, and the head waiter, though a little wobbly in his knowledge of the dishes was also pleasant and professional. The kitchen is well organised, as the good timing of the dishes showed. This is definitely not a temple of refined French cooking, but rather a very upmarket version of a traditional Italian trattoria. The portions are movingly generous, there is a sense of true Italian hospitality, and it is the kind of cooking that goes straight for your stomach and your heart, making little effort to tease your palate in any subtle or complex way. The sauces are thickened not with cream but with starch, probably too much of it – as one can see quite clearly in the pictures. To us the whole felt very 70s. Having said that, this is – a couple of notches more refined – the type of home cooking you may still find in many places in Italy. The ingredients are all of absolutely top quality, and this came through particularly in the mains (though let’s not forget that tuna ham!), where both goose and pig were seriously good, in spite of the taming effect of the sauces.
On the other hand, we did have the chance to put this place in context in the following days: Lausanne is definitely a place where you can eat well, and somehow Le grappe d’or (but why did they not change their name when they took over the place?) falls in between rustic fare and haute cuisine. We do appreciate Chef Zanini’s effort to bring a piece of that kind of misty eyed hard working Italy of the olden days gone by with good ingredients and an evident passion. And also, perhaps, it makes sense commercially to find a throughly recognisable Italian niche in the midstof so many portentous straight French competitors. For us, though, it is a bit old fashioned to tease us back on our own, though should we have to come back with those difficult-to-please-eat-at home parents, we may just try it again.