A homage to Escoffier above Lake Lucerne

Gloriously old-school cuisine at a mountaintop wonderland

The Bürgenstock Hotel above Lake Lucerne
The Bürgenstock Hotel above Lake Lucerne

I have travelled to lunch by many modes of transport, including boats, bicycles and (on one memorable occasion in Mexico) a mule. To that list I can now add another: guests arrive at Lake Lucerne’s Bürgenstock resort by funicular railway.

It’s gourmet’s theme park, with seven restaurants to choose from, including Oak Grill, in the Bürgenstock Hotel, where the kitchen is in the young but capable hands of Manuel Zünd. Lunch started with a pleasantly piquant tartare of water buffalo, served in a marrow bone and tricked out with smoked egg yolk and spherified droplets of olive oil: a classic bistro dish elevated to haute cuisine.

I have always found it difficult to get too excited about a pork chop, but the specimen cooked by Zünd had come from a pig reared on the meadows behind the hotel, via the restaurant’s eponymous grill, and it was stunning: a sweet curl of fat, the meat perfectly cooked, with abundant depth of flavour. Zünd puts as much thought and effort into side dishes as main courses: sour cream-rich mash, for example, with pretty wafers of purple potato, or wild broccoli sautéed with hazelnuts and chilli. He is a chef to watch.  

At the Palace Hotel next door, the gourmandise is cranked up a notch. In the centre of the handsome dining room at the Michelin-starred RitzCoffier is the old wood-fired range from the original restaurant kitchen, stacked with shiny copper pans. They are purely decorative: head chef Bertrand Charles has a sleek modern kitchen in which to work, but he has a keen sense of culinary history too.

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The name itself is a contraction of César Ritz, the legendary hotelier, and Auguste Escoffier, perhaps the most famous chef ever to rattle a pan, who first worked together in Lucerne, and the restaurant is a homage to their collaboration. Charles is advised by both Mike Wehrle, the resort’s culinary director, and consultant chef Marc Haeberlin, owner of Alsace’s renowned Auberge de l’Ill, but it is very much his own restaurant. For a real taste of cuisine à l’ancienne it is hard to beat.

Charles chooses excellent caviar from the Parisian house of Kaviari, using it to fine effect on a tartare of wild seabass with sea-urchin cream and oysters, little cubes of cucumber echoing the flavour of the oysters, the cream gently musky and rich. Sparklingly fresh carabineros were served à l’Américaine: generous, sweet chunks of the aristocratic red prawns, bathed in a tangy, silk-smooth gazpacho infused with the prawns’ heads: a stunning dish.

Then Charles wheeled over the duck press. Dating from 1855, it must have pressed many thousands of duck legs, but I suspect none better than the half-wild Bresse duck (“the wild duck make a stop to see the ladies”, according to chef) that I had ordered. The blushing pink breasts were served anointed with the cognac-flamed juices from the press, and topped with a chunk of seared foie gras. Gloriously unfashionable and utterly delicious: classic, old-school French cuisine is alive and well, living luxuriously on Lake Lucerne.

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