Mountains and I don’t mix – at least not in winter. I hung up my skis long ago; I hate the cold and the miserable discomfort of the obligatory kit. Nor does mountain food agree with me – but in the foothills of the Mont Blanc massif, in Switzerland’s southernmost canton of Valais, there is a restaurant for which I will not only make an exception, but a detour.
I was tipped off about Restaurant Les Alpes by grape-variety expert and Valais native Dr José Vouillamoz, and have since made many a pit stop at this classy eatery on the picturesque village square of Orsières. Chef Samuel Destaing found his way here in 1998 from Besançon in eastern France, via Alsace, and worked with Jean-Maurice Joris – the famous Valaisan hunter-chef-patron whose terrific food (and game in the autumn) made Les Alpes an obligatory stop for the gastronomically inclined – before taking over the reins in 2010 and soon winning a Michelin star.
There are several different menus (from SFr80, about £65) and plenty of choice à la carte (although I must point out that the waiters tend to give women menus without prices – an old-fashioned practice that is completely out of sync with the otherwise modern vibe). The starters make for a particularly happy hunting ground – at a recent lunch we divided loyalties between foie gras (about £30) topped with candied kumquats and a diaphanous, crackly sliver of oven-dried lemon, and a rabbit dish (about £29) played three ways: nuggets of tataki-style fillet, rillettes snuggled inside a crisp pastry tube, and a kaleidoscopic terrine that interleaved rabbit slivers with foie gras and chanterelles.
So good are these opening dishes that we skipped the mains and went back for second starters, delighting in a towering creation of seared scallops (about £31) arranged around a cylinder of cockles, mussels and tiny vegetables in a radiant saffron sauce, as well as monkfish and prawns (about £30) perched on a crimson beet risotto and topped with tiny pearls of popping rice.
It’s food that snaps, crackles and pops with nervous excitement and sheer beauty. “I like my dishes to sparkle and to tickle the tastebuds,” says Destaing. My tastebuds are already planning their next visit… in summer.