Editor's note: chef Benoit Violier tragically died on 31st January 2016, aged 44.
This is my fourth meal on these historic restaurant premises, and my second since Benoit Violier took over the kitchen from Philippe Rochat in April 2012, who in turn had taken over from Fredy Girardet in 1996. During these transitions the cooking has not missed a beat, three Michelin stars being a constant across all three separate chef eras.
The dining room has two sections, seating around 50 customers and there is also a single kitchen table available. Tables are large and well spaced, covered with crisp white linen tablecloths and voluminous napkins. Benoit Violier was in attendance, as he always is (the restaurant closes at certain times of the year to allow staff holiday). He is ably assisted by chef de cuisine Franck Giodannine, with 22 chefs working in the kitchen on the night of my visit, four on the pastry section.
The wine list was extensive and was not exclusively French. As well as pages of Swiss wines there were good if not lengthy sections covering Australia, Spain, Germany etc. Example wines were Daley Villette Chasselas 2012 at CHF 95 for a wine that you can find in a shop for about CHF 50, Cuvee Frederich Emile 2004 was an excessive CHF 195 for a wine that you can find in the high street for under CHF 40, Didier Dagenau Silex 2011 was CHF 295 for a wine that retails at about CHF 100, and Vega Sicilia Unico 1998 was CHF 1045 compared to a shop price of around CHF 450.
There were two tasting menus. The longer one, which I went for, was priced at CHF 370 (£246) and the slightly shorter one was CHF 290 (£193). There was also a full a la carte selection, but with savoury dishes priced from CHF 79 to CHF 120, the final price if you chose this route would not be much cheaper than the shorter tasting menu.
As you look at the menu you are brought a plate of nibbles, and these are no mere afterthought, setting the tone for the level of quality that the kitchen aims for. Four thin Gruyere tuiles were stunningly delicate, with deep cheese flavour, accompanied by a pair of puff pastry fingers topped with black olive and Parmesan, the pastry absolutely superb, the flavour of the topping intense (20/20).
The amuse-bouche was sea urchin from Galicia, served with fennel, resting in a rose Champagne sauce and topped with caviar. This was another dazzling dish, the balance of the flavours between the saltiness of the caviar, the briny sea urchin, the slight sweetness of the fennel with the champagne a case study in flavour matching (20/20).
A wide selection of bread rolls was offered: olive, rustic, poppy seed, sesame seed, corn bread, baguette. These were very good indeed, though not the best bread that I have tasted (18/20). The first formal course was confit of foie gras using duck from Landes, with purple hibiscus flower jelly and a little salad with apple, with a sweet brioche roll on the side. The quality of the foie gras was impeccable, its texture silky and flavour deep, the apple in the salad providing just a hint of balancing acidity (20/20).
My favourite dish of the meal was one of morels from Auvergne. Both yellow and brown morels were used, resting in a meadow mushroom jus thickened with port, the mushrooms topped with a crown of celery and green peas. The mushrooms were superb and the celery and peas lovely, but the star was the sauce. This had stunningly deep mushroom flavour, creamy and perfectly seasoned. It was an example of classical French sauce making at its finest. I would have been entirely happy if they stopped the meal at this point and left me with a saucepan of this and some plain bread. It was one of the finest sauces that I can recall eating (20/20).
Frog leg crackers with spring vegetables and a parsley sauce was served with a mesclun salad. It was perhaps inevitable that this dish could not live up to its predecessor. The frogs legs were skillfully cooked, the parsley sauce had intensity without being too grassy, the vegetables very good, but this dish lacked the "wow factor" of the morels (18/20).
John Dory from Quiberon Bay in Brittany was cooked with salted butter and served with a verjus (pressed juice of unripened grapes) using grapes from nearby Paneyre. The fish was of high quality and perfectly cooked, the sauce again superb, this one having lovely acidity, garnished with a few chives and a skewer of mixed vegetables impressive (19/20).
A langoustine tail was served with asparagus from Valais in the south west of Switzerland, with a sauce of langoustine, olives and citronelle (lemongrass). This was a dish that was hard to fault, the langoustine perfectly cooked and having lovely, sweet flavour, the baby asparagus excellent, the sauce gorgeous, with the lemongrass just lifting the flavour without being too strong (20/20).
The final savoury course was Bresse pigeon coated with crystals of Celtiane potatoes, served with a rich "grand siecle" sauce and a side dish with asparagus, carrots, mange tout and cauliflower. The sauce was made from stock using the pigeon bones, enriched with foie gras and flamed with cognac. The vegetables on the side provided the balance necessary to what would otherwise be too rich a dish, with the pigeon beautifully cooked (20/20).
A vast cheese selection included four different aged Gruyere cheeses, the oldest aged for 36 months. There was also a four year aged Simmental cheese that I have not tried before but reminded me a little of Parmesan. Alongside were the usual grand cheeses of France in perfect condition, a beautifully ripe Brie de Meaux being particularly lovely. Five different loaves of bread were available to complement the cheese.
Nougatine of red fruit came flavoured with a "perfume" of Amaretto and limoncello, with pistachio ice cream and a garnish of a few pistachios. This worked very well, the fruit, which included gariguette strawberries, having lovely flavour (19/20). Caramelised pineapple came sprinkled with coconut snow and a rum sauce. The coconut added useful freshness to the dish, the pineapple rich from the caramelisation but still retaining some acidity (19/20).
At this point a selection of ice creams and sorbets is brought to the table, the waiter scooping perfect quenelle shapes from the containers. The Madagascar vanilla, caramel and sable biscuit ice cream, and the mango, raspberry and lemon sorbets were all superb, the star being the remarkably intense, perfumed mango ice cream (20/20).
Petit fours comprised a custom-made dark chocolate, a nut and coffee concoction, a delicate passion fruit mouthful, a sphere of blood orange encased in white chocolate, a coconut tart and a soft sphere of pistachio and strawberry. The coffee was a blend made by a Geneva coffee roaster, using 90% Arabica and 10% robusta beans.
Service was, just as at my last visit, terrific. There are lots of staff here so the basics like topping up of water, wine and bread happens effortlessly, but despite the traditional style of food the service was not overly formal, the waiters being friendly and enthusiastic. A typical bill, sharing a modest bottle of wine, would be around CHF 240 (£230). Of course this is hardly cheap, but is barely half of what you can easily pay in a Paris three star, and the food here is every bit as good as anywhere in Paris. It is lovely to see, in this day of sauce blobs and smears, the traditional technique of French sauce-making being shown at its finest here. Sauces for me represent the glory of French cooking, and yet are frequently scorned by modern chefs. Here you get pools of glorious, perfectly made classical sauces. Ingredient quality here is impeccable, culinary technique faultless, service as silky as it gets. Hotel de Ville is simply one of the best restaurants in the world.
Further reviews: 14th Sep 2012