The village of Vals, perched high above the upper Rhine valley in Graubünden, is not one of Switzerland’s more obvious alpine destinations. There are few picture-book wooden chalets, no networked pistes for skiers and there isn’t a Bulgari boutique in sight.
Traditionally, the main attraction has been the thermal baths, housed since 1996 in a quartzite building by Pritzker-winning architect Peter Zumthor. I’m not a spa person – I find them stressful, defeating the object somewhat – so the baths were never going to reel me in. But then I got word of rising star Sven Wassmer’s cooking at 7132 Silver Restaurant in the revamped 7132 hotel, and a visit to Vals suddenly seemed an attractive uphill climb.
Wassmer set up base here in 2014, joined the following year by his sommelier wife, Amanda Wassmer Bulgin (formerly chief sommelier at the Park Hotel Vitznau on Lake Lucerne), and accolades – including two Michelin stars for Wassmer – were not far behind.
The restaurant, which has just nine tables, boldly offers a single fixed-price tasting menu (SFr225, about £169, for nine courses, or about £207 for 12). It featured an impressive cast of curious local delights – from hemp to sheep’s sorrel – and unexpected, highly innovative combinations.
Proceedings opened with “pralines” of poularde, like two little eggs in a nest of hay; rounds of celeriac with crunchy, lemony ants; and Jerusalem artichokes topped with flakes of the chef’s air-dried beef. Further carnivorous excitement came in the form of roasted dry-aged beef from a 17-year-old retired Hereford dairy cow, delivering an explosion of meaty flavour.
There was magnificent warm-smoked arctic char with an intense pine-infused emulsion, and a pig’s tail course – disguised as pork belly – with dried scallop “crackling” and an Asian-accented sauce. A lone langoustine, startlingly handsome on its pristine plate, stole the show with its scattering of mountain sea buckthorn berries (foraged by the chef on his days off) and a sunset-coloured carrot purée.
Then, there was the thrill of Wassmer’s technical skill and wit: a fist-sized, freshly baked fermented potato bread resembling a jacket potato resting on a bed of roasted skins. I relished not knowing what was in store – and even being startled. And anyone who can transform “Marcel’s vegetables of the day” into a plate of outrageous deliciousness combining intense flavours, colours and textures, clearly knows his onions. As an exercise in using humble, local raw materials, it can hardly be bettered. I loved every mouthful.
Wassmer Bulgin has curated a gem of a list to accompany this feast (for a supplement of about £94 you can take the wine pairing option – do it). There’s champagne, bordeaux and burgundy aplenty, of course, but by choosing to stick with the element of surprise, she takes you by the hand through the nearby Bündner Herrschaft vineyards, the region responsible for some of Switzerland’s finest wines.
Gantenbein’s celebrated Chardonnay and stunning Pinot Noir featured alongside treasures such as a Pinot Blanc/Chardonnay field blend, a silky pre-phylloxera Completer and a seductively perfumed Merlot.
Silver’s offering is confident cooking at its best, with bold flavours and exciting combinations elevated to alpine heights. Forget skiing, forget spas: this is an original winter escape that leaves you feeling on top of the world.