Millefeuille in the Mountains of Zermatt
I still remember meeting Markus Mennig back in 2003 in New York City. He was one in a group of friends who went to the École Hôtelière de Lausanne, and I was simply fascinated when he told me he was from Zermatt. Little did I know then that not only would I be living in Switzerland myself one day, but I’d be eating at his family’s restaurant too. More importantly, after 8 years of hearing about it, I finally tasted their famous millefeuille…
It was a peaceful morning spent on the car-free streets of Zermatt, save a mini electric car or two, making a delivery to a bakery or escorting guests to and from one of the many posh hotels. The excitement of turning a corner and spotting the Matterhorn, its peak often hiding behind the fog, never waned. (Nor does the excitement of discovering a new chocolate shop.) Yet we left the village – and its countless dark wood chalets, flower boxes and alphorn players – behind, and hopped on a cable car up to Furi.
Zermatt has been called “the mountain restaurant capital of the Alps” and even of the world. With almost 40 restaurants at altitudes normally reserved for ski poles rather than forks and knives, it makes for a whole new culinary experience. Don’t be confused though when one of the most well-known is named Zum See, “See” meaning lake in German. Some say the area used to be a swamp with a lake; others say it was a rest stop for people on their way to the Schwarzsee (Black Lake). Whether that’s fact or fiction, it still is a perfect break for those on the many hiking and ski trails in the area.
Almost like its own quaint mini Swiss village, Zum See is a cluster of chalets built over 350 years ago that sit in a hamlet above Zermatt. Markus fills his tractor (above right) with fresh ingredients and rides up to the restaurant every morning during the summer season. Just before the summer is over, he’ll lug up two tons of potatoes to fill the cellar, lasting only until the end of February, when the daily mode of transportation becomes a snowmobile. Most of those potatoes become his father’s crisp Rösti (which I had for lunch, served with chanterelle mushrooms, below). At a mountain restaurant, accessible by either skis or hiking boots, I wasn’t surprised to see Rösti, air-dried beef and veal. But octopus carpaccio ? Divine. As was the lamb filet with a Provençale crust. All served with Valais rye bread from Bäckerei Biner, which as Marion says, “is the best rye bread in town.”
Max Mennig, Markus’ father, works in what could be one of the smallest professional kitchens ever, turning out what he calls “honest cuisine with the freshest ingredients,” his Mediterranean-inspired cuisine with traditional Swiss roots earning him 14 Gault Millau points (prestigious French restaurant guide). He and his wife Greti have been running the restaurant for 27 years, and in 2005, Markus and his wife Marion (whom you met here) joined the team. You’ll probably spot Markus in a baseball cap, running from table to table, making sure everyone is seated, served, happy and full. It’s not rare that the pace of Zum See at lunchtime resembles what Markus and Marion must have experienced during their days in restaurants and catering (Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse) in New York City.
Aside from seeing friends, the breathtaking views, the picture perfect chalet atmosphere and the gourmet cuisine… I would still rave about this restaurant for the desserts alone. Within minutes of exchanging hellos and triple air kisses with the Mennigs, I had my eye on the dessert spread, conveniently located right next to our table on the outdoor terrace. A perfectly spherical, mysteriously tempting dome turned out to be rhubarb meringue pie. Rhubarb meringue pie ! I watched slices disappear out of the corner of my eye, nervous there would be none left by the time we finished our appetizers.
“Don’t worry, there’s another two whole ones,” Max reassured me. Relief set in, but I continued to eye plates and plates of that tall rhubarb meringue pie with homemade cinnamon ice cream go off to tables scattered among the grounds of Zum See, along with apple strudel and Valais apricot tart. Not to mention countless plates of millefeuille that kept flying out of the kitchen.
Last but certainly not least, the millefeuille. Napoleon, cream slice, Crèmeschnitte… However you call it, it’s Zum See’s most popular dessert all year round, on the menu for 25 years. When people call ahead to make reservations, some even try to reserve a piece. We had the summer version, made to order with two large squares of thick yet delicate puff pastry, sandwiched with a light diplomat cream (pastry cream + whipped cream) and fresh berries.
But I’m still waiting to taste the original, classic version — an oversize, flat, rectangular pastry whose 15 slices go fast. It’s not uncommon for them to go through 90 pieces a day during their busy season, and that number has even gone up to 115. Markus has clearly shared his words of wisdom with his clients, “Everything in moderation including moderation.” I’m ready for my next visit to Zum See, perhaps that time showing up with ski poles, red cheeks and an appetite. än güatä !
Restaurant Zum See
Max & Greti Mennig
summer season: end of June to beginning of October
winter season: mid-December to mid-April
noon to 5:00pm