Once he’s found a tie, our roving gastro-critic William Cash finds the Suvretta House in St Moritz transports him back to the first class dining room of a pre-war ocean luxury liner
Some St Moritz traditions just won’t die.
I learnt this the slightly embarrassing way after having a drink before dinner at the Suvretta House with the hotel’s General Manager Peter Egli on the day before Valentine’s Day.
‘William, can I ask a favour?’ Peter said as he led me and my wife towards Le Grand’s dining room. ‘Would you step into my office for a moment?’
I duly followed him. He reached into a draw of his desk.
‘Can you please put on this spare tie of mine? I know it sounds very old fashioned but we have found that our clients do not always like change. We are a last bastion of a lost tradition and we like it that way!’
Whilst sartorial dress standards may have been slipping at private member clubs and grand hotels – jeans and trainers in Mayfair (!) and only a jacket at Le Restaurant at Badrutt’s Palace in St Moritz – ‘change’ for change’s sake is viewed with some light eye-rolling by Swiss anglophile manager Peter Egli who looks as if he might have stepped off a Zurich location set for The Night Manager. That he is wearing a Cheltenham Festival-style trilby (lightly dusted with snow) in the hotel’s latest winter season brochure was approvingly noted by my milliner wife.
Somewhat unusually, Peter runs the Suvretta House with his glamorous wife Esther who orders a gin and tonic. Well, why not when she helped launch the Suvretta’s own ‘house’ gin brand, called Lady’s and Gentleman’s Gin, which is why the cover of the current edition of the Suvretta’s magazine is lemon slice yellow?
Before coming to manage the Suvretta, Peter and Esther used to work together in England at the Michelin Star winning Whatley Manor hotel in Wiltshire. It didn’t take long for the couple to transform the hotel making it a member of the Relais & Chateaux group within a year of their arrival and winning awards. They have repeated their success at the Suvretta, last year winning the prestigious ‘Prix Bienvenu’ of the Swiss Tourism Association.
But I am at the Suvretta not as a mere ‘tourist’ but as Spear’s roving gastronome-at-large. There’s nothing the Spear’s founder loves more than an exceptional ranking or rating. The award last year that really caught my eye was when Gault Millau – the French international restaurant authority – awarded its 15th Gault Millau point to head chef Fabrizio Zanetti, a native of St Moritz whose cuisine is well known for being a combination of classic French combined with German and Swiss influences – especially with game and fish from the surrounding Engadine forests and lakes – and local market vegetables and cheeses.
The hotel also has other restaurants, of course, including the informal and romantically cosy Stubli, serving more rustic regional dishes from the Graubunden Canton; and the Trutz, run this winter for the last time by Robert Jagisch who retires to be replaced by Christian Ott, and new Chasellas mountain restaurant run by new chef Steven Müller. But these can wait for another time (I hope) as well as the rooms and hotel itself.
I am here to try and understand what it takes to win 15 Gault Millau cuisine points (the maximum is 20 which was never given under the editorial of the original founders); and more importantly, perhaps, why so many of my friends not only stay at the hotel but choose to eat in the hotel almost every night. And the high-powered list includes Spear’s’ very own Discriminator, Alex Tomei – almost certainly the most exacting and impossible-to-please of all restaurant critics.
Our new columnist Elizabeth Hurley also adores the Suvretta proving that the hotel’s slightly disrespectful old nickname – ‘God’s Waiting Room’ – due to the age of some of the guests – has been unfounded ever since the energetic Eglis have taken over and once again transformed the hotel, attracting an ever younger and more glamorous returning clientele. They seem to like such innovations as ‘Yoga on Snow’, more sporting facilities, including ice hockey, the chance to try ‘Langlauf’ – cross country skiing; oh, and the best kids ski school in St Moritz which, thanks to the Teddy’s Club kids restaurant, also offers your child – from age five to 13 – a useful introduction to ‘early years’ international HNW social networking.
As we enjoy a cocktail with the Eglis in Anton’s Bar, for example, I notice a flurry of fashionable fur and the twirling legs of a very beautiful woman in the background with a fur hat on. Then another appears in another fur coat and high heels and music starts playing. When Esther sees me looking rather curiously behind her, she says: ‘It’s a fashion show. There’s usually something going on before dinner to entertain our guests’.
Normally, when you encounter a husband and wife ‘team’ in the ‘hospitality’ industry they tend to be running a Welsh farm house Bed & Breakfast or a villa hotel on the English Riviera (an establishment in Torquay run by a certain Basil and Sybil comes to mind).
It’s quite unusual to find a ‘couple’ running one of the most famous hotels in Europe. Known for its wealthy and glitzy international clientele, some of whose families have been returning to the Suvretta ever since the hotel was founded in 1912 by St Moritz hotel pioneer Anton Bon. But at the Suvretta there is an impeccable precedent for the appointment of the Eglis. For when Bon opened the hotel, it was co-run by his wife Marie and after his death in 1915, it was Marie who helped to give the Suvretta its distinct atmosphere of old world charm matched by the polished nickel heights of modern luxury comforts.
A visit for a ‘formal’ dinner to the Suvretta House is not just about putting on a dark suit and tie to enjoy the food – which I’m getting to – it is also a lesson in the nuances of international social theatre. One of the best things about the Suvretta is that guests on a ‘half-board’ basis (i.e breakfast and dinner) are not relegated to some secret dining room – mid deck – where they have to eat together as if on a school trip. The option to eat every night in considerable splendor at Le Grand’s dining room is very much part of the Suvretta tradition and why so many guests were wearing suits and ties, including children as young as ten.
To eat at Le Grand is to return to the rarified social atmosphere of the dolce fa niente that passengers on the great ocean liner age of the 1920s and 30s. Architect Karl Koller designed the dining room to be vast and long, with a decorated ‘cassette ceiling’, honey oak paneling and carved supporting pillars that immediately made me feel as if I was walking into the first class dining room of a great pre-war ocean liners like the Queen Mary, or maybe the SS Kron-Prinz Wilhelm would be more accurate (incidentally there’s a terrific new exhibition dedicated to the golden age of ocean liners at the V& A which runs until June).
The best table positions are as territorially fought over as debenture seats at Wimbledon or boxes at Royal Ascot. For any seasoned hotel lover and HNW observer, dinner at the Suvretta in the middle of February – high season – is like finding yourself in the opening night of a new opera production at La Scala in Milan, the private tasting room of Chateau Latour, the VIP client test track of Mercedes in Stuttgart, the gunroom at Purdey, the private dining room of the Yacht Club de Monaco and the members bar at Gleneagles – all at once.
Most of the restaurant guests were in dark suits (although suits are not strictly obligatory, only a jacket and tie). Some ‘stickler’ guests were in black tie, refusing to drop their standards after the management relaxed the formal dress code around four years ago. The new dress code had a mixed reaction from guests.
As one friend, a long time ‘returner’ whose family own European magazines and TV stations and have been going for 40 years later explained to me: ‘Black tie was popular with men as it was an easy dress code. You could pack one dinner jacket and never had to think about your wardrobe. The problem was their wives wanted to wear a different couture dress every night, with different jewellery. This meant arriving with more trunks than you needed for a monthly safari and practically bankrupting the poor husbands before the holiday had even begun. The new dress code has saved me a small fortune!’
We were greeted by ‘Marco’, the Italian head maître d’ who I noted had a row of four stars sewn above his dinner jacket breast pocket. They looked like society battle decorations. I later learnt that each star signified ten seasons of ‘service’ at the Suvretta House. The hotel is open for two distinct seasons every year: December to early April and late June to early September. So four stars is twenty years of Suvretta service.
We were handed our menus (published in French, English and German) and the first thing I noticed – and liked – about Le Grand is that it did not operate a form of apartheid whereby guests staying for half board are given one form of menu du jour whilst peripatetic Spear’s ambassador foodies like myself are allowed to roam a la Carte. Eating a four course ‘gourmet dinner’ at Le Grand every night is very much at the heart of the Suvretta experience. Guests can, of course, go off-piste and order off-menu but the range in the daily evening menu devised by Zanetti is usually sufficiently eclectic, innovative and seasonal for guests to stick to the house menu.
This daily hotel gourmet menu consists of entrées, what they call a Pour Le Bien-Etre – which is a super healthy energy drink (on our night that was ‘juice of spinach, celery, pineapple, parsley and mandarin’), Potages, Plats Principaux, and Desserts. There is also a choice of Japanese and Far-Eastern inspired dishes every night, which ranged from ‘vegetable, glass noodles and egg soup’ to Talay Phad Takai (‘stir-fried mixed sea-food with lemon grass and hot and sweet basil’). I liked the look of Zanetti’s twist on classic Coquilles Saint Jacques, serving pan-fried scallops with cauliflower, Granny Smith Apple and ‘tete de veau’- which was translated as ‘calf’s head’ and produced a slightly anxious look on my wife’s face. She opted for the foie gras. I was also tempted by the ‘Surf and Turf, Suvretta House with cucumber, apple and yuzu’ – one of the hotel’s signature dishes.
But in the end I did go off-piste and ordered the Crème aux topinambours et truffle noir, which was a deliciously light and creamy Jerusalem artichoke soup with black truffles. I also enjoyed a decent slice of my wife’s house foie gras – a standard test for any classical French restaurant. It was as good as any I have ever tasted in Paris and was served with pineapple chutney and ‘brioche a l’anis etoile’ rolls baked in the Suvretta’s own bakery. For my starter I chose for the lobster salad served with a deliciously subtle combination of grapefruit, sweet potatoes and Sarawak pepper.
This helped clear the palate for the coup de foudre that was to follow: saddle of venison Suvretta House style which is served for two people only (at CHF 138). Actually it would have served a family of six. We had two full servings. Even the head of my neighbouring property mogul Rich Lister swiveled when the selle de chevreuil a la facon arrived on a huge silver salver, decorated with delicate pears, roasted potatoes and local vegetables and a drizzle of cranberry jus. The saddle was expertly carved by Marco right in front of us on a trolley – whilst issuing orders to his tea of Italian waiters like a conductor at La Scala. It was sublime.
This was the perfect combination of Swiss mountain produce with classic French cooking techniques nodding more towards haute cuisine rich bourgeois Gascon tradition rather than the – much less formal and complicated – nouvelle cuisine rebellion of the 1960s and 1970s which was famously promoted and written up by French food writers Henri Gault and Christian Millau (formerly a political journalist on Le Monde). In 1962, they launched their first Paris restaurant guide. Then they founded Le Nouveau Guide – with Andre Gayot –and in 1972 they went on to publish their famous rival to the Michelin guide, the upstart Le Premier Gault & Millau guide which included comments on décor, ambience, chef’s personalities – you could call it ‘cuisine with personality’. In awarding points, a preferred emphasis was on chefs who pioneered lighter cooking with more beautiful and ‘artistic’ presentation.
This was the guide that first started ranking and rating chefs – individually – rather than just awarding rosettes and stars to restaurants, which was revolutionary at the time and very much in the style of the Spear’s rankings for bankers, wealth managers, lawyers and family offices which Spear’s has pioneered since our first pilot edition – launched with Annabel’s magazine – in December 2005. The Gault Millau guide promoted such nouvelle chefs as Alain Senderens, Joël Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Marc Veyrat, Pierre Gagnaire, and Michel Rostang (the first chef to be awarded 20 points at both his restaurants, to the dismay of some food snobs who say that culinary ‘perfection’ is impossible).
The Gault Millau guide is the Scrutiny (the famously critical severe Cambridge based magazine of literary criticism founded by F.R. Leavis in the 1932) of international food guides. Fifteen points is an exceptional rating for a hotel that has 280 staff in the winter season. Restaurants rated under ten don’t usually get a mention and one chef killed himself after his learning that his Gault Millau rating was being downgraded.
It was from this exacting Gault Millau tradition of innovative writing and reviewing that Fabrizio Zanetti has earnt his 15 Gault Millau points as chef de cuisine at Le Grand. And this is why my friends like Spear’s columnist Elizabeth Hurley like to go to Le Grand when they are in St Moritz: simply for the food. This is the opposite of many hotels where guests tend to leave the hotel in the evening to explore the culinary opportunities elsewhere – say, for example, the new IGNIV contemporary Swiss cooking by Andreas Caminada at Badrutt’s Palace (my review to follow shortly) or Dal Mulin.
Our venison wasn’t served in any fancy nouvelle cuisine or contemporary molecular style; one felt it was the combined effort of a truly professional and traditional kitchen brigade led by chef de bande Zanetti, but also helped by a sous chef de cuisine, chef de partie, various cuisiniers, demi-chefs, plongeurs and probably more than one commis – an apprentice. Not many restaurant kitchens have such traditional teams still in place with strict hierarchy.
We were sat at the next door table to a British property mogul who has been coming to the hotel for decades. I could tell he was English by the cut of his grey worsted wool suit. Like many Suvretta clients he takes a number of rooms and enjoys an annual skiing holiday with his multi-generational family. He has every reason to enjoy returning every year: I heard that he met his wife whilst staying at the hotel.
Now we are getting to the heart of the Suvretta hotel philosophy and what makes it different from other grandes dames counterparts in Switzerland – even the Baur au Lac in Zurich where novelist John Le Carre stays in Zurich and which features in the Night Manager. Whilst some HNW holiday makers come to St Moritz to be seen, photographed and to rub mink shoulders with their own Loro Piana and Bvlgari wearing fellow tribal members, others prefer to be two kilometres away in the private Suvretta estate. It’s the difference between owning a Bentley or a Rolls. The Suvretta guest would usually prefer a Bentley.
As one rich and sophisticated Spear’s reading acquaintance of mine said to me over a drink: ‘Do you know anybody who drives a Rolls these days?’. Actually, no. But I know plenty who have Bentleys; just as I knew several people staying in the Suvretta. After bumping into a titled Belgian private equity mogul pal and his glamorous wife in the Hall – never the vulgar sounding ‘lobby’ – we joined him for drinks in Anton’s Bar after dinner –with his eighty year old mother. ‘My brother has an empty flat in St Moritz,’ he said over a glass of champagne. ‘But I prefer to stay at the Suvretta. After all, my family has been coming here for 40 years’.
What also makes the Suvretta different from other luxury Winter Palace hotels is that it hasn’t been as badly affected by the change over the last 20 years in client travel habits. Nowadays, most hotels are crammed to their five star attics (usually converted former ‘chauffeur’ or maid rooms) at Christmas, New Year and half term, but can be something of a desert during the school term, especially in January. The age of ‘Season’ guests languishing for two months in a suite are mostly gone. At the Suvretta, however, something of this leisure winter class tradition survives. There are always plenty of HNWs around to fill the dining rooms and bars, spa and private skating rink.
Thus the two ‘ice-men’ the Suvretta employ to get up at dawn every day to repair the surface of the ice rink – described as ‘the most beautiful ice field in the world ‘ so that by 10am it gleams like a mirror – never feel their efforts are in vain. One long term ‘returner’ guest pal told me: ‘My favourite moment of the day is getting up early for a walk and seeing the ice rink being hand polished with various tools. They have changed the size of the rink but the old tradition of preparing the ice remains’.
Whilst Hans Badrutt named his famous hotel The Palace, Anton Bon chose the more understated Suvretta House. And, apart from being St Moritz’s only ‘ski-in’ and ‘ski-out’ hotel, that is what makes the distinctive difference of choice (and, yes, I agree this falls into the subject of ‘rarified problems’ to have) between these two great St Moritz hotels: the Suvretta really does feel like a private club or grand private castle retreat – with celestial views over the mountains and lakes of the Upper Engadine – whereas the Palace is more like a grand hotel in the European luxury tourist tradition. Another thing: I didn’t see as many Russians or Middle Eastern guests at the Suvretta. Some 20 per cent are returning British; the rest looked to be mainly Swiss, American, German, Austrian, Dutch, French, Italian, Belgian, Spanish, South American, Japanese or ‘other’ European.
For the Suvretta House itself, VIP guests are chauffeured from the train station in its own Edwardian looking dark green shooting break taxi vehicle. The sort of car that looks like it could have been driven to St Moritz from Downton Abbey. The hotel also have a modern dark green Land Rover Defender in Suvretta crested livery for driving guests to such activities as clay skeet shooting – in the summer – which is one of the new classic English sporting activities that Peter Egli has introduced in the summer – along with fly fishing – courtesy of the Wurftaubenclub of St Moritz on the edge of the forest next to Lej Marsch Lake.
Take your pick but the British sporting influence and Victorian Scottish palace-castle – plenty of tartan checks and cushions – meets German hunting lodge ‘taste’ is more prevalent at the Suvretta where re-modelling has been taking place. It’s no coincidence that the interior designer, Sue Freeman, appointed by the Eglis and the hotel’s family owner, to refurbish the hotel is British. What is clear is that the Suvretta is not just a hotel, or an exclusive baronial-style Engadine mountain resort: it is more like a club for international HNWs looking for exclusivity and old world ‘class’ amongst their own. Much of its charm comes from the fact that it is not in the middle of St Moritz but rather in its own private sylvan and forest-edged enclave on the Chasellas plateau.
How many hotels, for example, can offer guests their own private ski lift and a natural curling rink overlooking the the Engadine mountains; or a talk by Swiss banker Eric Sarasin on ‘Initial Approaches to a contemporary family office’; or fly over the head chef of the Hong Kong Jockey Club to be a guest chef for a week?
Which brings me back to the Suvretta food and the grand finale of our dinner at Le Grand. Since it was Shrove Tuesday, and I was giving up puddings for Lent, there was only one feasible choice on the dessert menu: flambé Crepe Suzette prepared ‘a la table’. This was to prove to be the ultimate piece of gastronomic theatre as Marco started mixing the crepes over a copper pan over a Bunsen burner whilst also pouring Grand Marnier over the dish – along with liberal lashings of Grand Napoleon d’Orange. Certainly a good final pudding and in true Suvretta style.
William Cash is editor-at-large at Spear’s