Friday’s dining, part two.

Toni's Ristorante in Biel/Bienne - a winner!

THREE HOURS IN ONE RESTAURANT WAS NOT ENOUGH – FRIDAY IN BIEL/BIENNE CONTINUED …..But back to the restaurant stuff. Three hours inside a restaurant was not enough for one Friday so at about 7 p.m., Dave and I walked two blocks to Toni’s Restaurant, which sits in a white-washed ancient building on the border of Biel/Bienne’s cobblestone-laid medieval town.  We have not always had the best luck with restaurants lately, so my expectations were set to “gag.”

When we entered, we found a cocktail party on the main floor in full bore. The staff had to search for someone with some English who explained that yes, the restaurant was open (the wine-tasting event downstairs made us suspect it was booked up for a party). They led us upstairs to an empty, but utterly charming restaurant made up of a warren of small rooms (although there was one large room that could accommodate a party of 20 or more).

Empty dining rooms make us nervous that the locals know something we do not, but we pressed on. The waitress showed us into a room where she indicated we take the table of our choice, which, by the way, is what we saw her do later when other patrons arrived. Is this a Swiss custom? I do not know, but it is a nice one. We took the table overlooking the empty outdoor cafe (it was cold outside) and some nasty new construction that is sure to ruin the ambience of the old town’s borders.

But never mind about that. The menu only comes in Italian, German and French, and with the waitress’ limited command of English and our even more paltry assortment of French words, we managed to steer Dave away from ordering horse steak for dinner. When he exclaimed no to the horse, the waitress said, “It’s okay, we have bunnies to eat, too.”

I have no objection to others eating horse or bunnies (ugh), but as a childhood vegetarian, it took me something to just come around to eating beef (pork and chicken came later, fish even later in my 30s after moving to Canada’s west coast, the Mecca of seafood).

We safely ordered beef tenderloin at 43 Swiss Francs a plate. That’s about 50 bucks Canadian. Ouch. The meal came with a savoury carrot soup delivered in a tiny demi-tasse bowl and sumptuous olive bread. When the steak arrived, we were surprised to see it sitting solo on a large plate, surrounded by sautéed arugula and topped with paper-slices of parmesan, but we dug in and  my-o-my, it was the best beef we’ve had here yet.

It was a little odd that it came without the usual potato or vegetable accoutrements, however, it was a generous portion and in fact, it felt good to just enjoy the beef. It is pan-fried, not grilled or broiled, and the seasoning was subtle.

We later enjoyed a 12.75 Franc dessert of mango sorbet and hot chocolate cake with chocolate-cream filling. Words cannot do justice to the mango sorbet. It was richly laced with what must have been fresh mango, because the weight of the fruit chunks gave no indication they had ever seen the inside of a freezer. The chocolate cake was delicious, too.

We ordered just the one dessert for the two of us to share, but it turns out we could have ordered two. The portion was small, but just right for topping off a substantial steak. The restaurant gets a five-star rating in my books. Fabulous food, wonderful wait-staff, top-notch relaxed atmosphere, great layout for quiet dining, and yes, by the time we left the restaurant, it was packed. It seems the Swiss dine at a later hour that we North Americans.

If you want to read more about this restaurant, or find its locale so you can test my appraisal of its merits, click here. 

Montreux

The wet walk between Chateau de Chillon and Montreux, along Lake Geneva.

Bus or boat will take visitors from Chateau Chillon to Montreux, but why bother when a world-famous “Swiss Riviera” promenade waits just outside the castle drawbridge?

Whether we actually voiced such a lucid question is a mystery even to us, as a cleaving wind and pelting rainfall drowned out our conversation. Despite the storm, we decided to walk. The word “decided” is loosely applied here.

A mansion overlooking Lake Geneva on the riviera promenade toward Montreux. Why do the Swiss call this is a "riviera" when it is on a lake?

Part of the problem lies in the “Well, we’re here, why not do it?” syndrome that besets Dave and I in all our ventures.  It eclipses all cognitive thought, which means that we rarely decide anything. Dave knows this, and he uses it to his advantage as was seen when he got me onto the Gondola-Ride-From-Hades up a mountainside. I put my foot down, declaring that said foot was staying within reach of the ground no matter what, but Dave slyly coaxed me into walking near the gondola, hence I ended up on it, because of the dreaded “Well, we’re here …” travel tic.  I wish there was a cure for this.

A sign outside the château claimed the walk to Montreux was 45 minutes, which might be correct, if you’re going at a good clip and not leaning into gale-force winds while keeping a watchful eye on Lake Geneva for signs of rogue waves that might sweep you away to the French side of this massive body of water, all while keeping your ear tuned to the tree branches above for the sound of cracking limbs that might break off and grind your body into the quaint promenade pavement where the Swiss might mistakenly leave you on the assumption that you are some form of modern art. The Swiss do love statues.

Even in the storm, the promenade is worth the walk – it starts out narrow with an uneven surface and rather ordinary hedging, but quickly opens up to a wide mall flanked with mansions on one side and a trim botanical garden on the water side. My guess is that this walk is packed on a sunny day, but with the storm in full voice, Dave and I found ourselves alone but for the occasional daring youth biking past and one very wealthy looking man walking his golden retriever, who gave us a friendly (by Swiss standards) hello, probably on the thinking he might see us at “the club” later, because who else would volunteer for this walk but a well-heeled and eccentric local?

Even the public bathrooms have a stately look in Montreux.

By the time we found ourselves alongside the wharf from which we had started our day’s journey, we had walked a total of 5.5 miles weighted down with rain-soaked clothing (the distance includes tramping through Chillon castle) and were ready for some real food. We stepped up to the restaurant La Metropole, also oddly signed “Caesars” by the wharf, where we had earlier seen a rather elite-looking crowd noshing away at tantalizing dishes. If the rich eat here, we thought, the food must be reasonably good.

As we folded our badly abused umbrellas, a very French-looking waiter rushed out from the restaurant and motioned us towards one of the outdoor cafe tables, even though the weather was still rather exciting. A glance through the windows told the story – the interior showed off elaborately set tables, sparkling wine glasses, perfectly starched tablecloths, while the reflection in the glass informed us of how poorly equipped we were for such surroundings, my hair whipped into a Medusa fright, Dave’s tanned face now bearing the weather-worn visage of a salty sea-captain. We humbly took our place outdoors, just like the dogs we appeared to be.

We counted out our children’s inheritance and figured there was just enough to pay off one’s law school debt and enjoy a steak lunch at this establishment, so we braved it. I am not exaggerating when I say “braved it.” We had an earlier unpleasant encounter with Swiss beef, an experience that surprised us both as the Swiss enjoy a cultural association to beef that is perhaps unparalleled worldwide, except in those countries where the cow is looked on as a deity. Consider the widely known Swiss cheese and Swiss chocolate, and the less-famous Swiss fighting cows (a true phenomenon according to guide books), and so forth.

The delicious "Steak de boueffe" grilled to "medium" at Montreux's "La Metropole" restaurant, which also has the sign "Caesar's" above it. We think the dual-name is a byproduct of multilingualism.

I passed up the $45 filet mignon, on the grounds that no one can grill a tenderloin better than my husband and it was unlikely the chefs would let him into the kitchen, and opted for the $35 steak lunch. Dave, still mindful of  our children’s inheritance, wisely ordered a sandwich. We then settled in with our lattes to wait the requisite four hours for the meal to show up. Imagine our surprise when our waiter swept up with our dishes before I had worked a quarter-way down the cup.

The waiter had taken matters in hand and ordered the steak doneness to medium, which meant that it still quivered on the plate, and chose as its companion, a Cafe de Paris sauce. There are waiters whose instincts are unfathomably correct. This man was one of them.

The meat was perfect, tender, and seasoned just so. The Cafe de Paris, which appeared in a dollop of green aspic in a gravy boat carried the steak’s seasoning from wonderful to beyond-heavenly. Our waiter waved away any notion the sauce was extraordinary. “Just parsley, garlic, butter and (indecipherable spice name),” he said. The grilled vegetables were cooked to perfection, lightly buttered, the red-leaf salad was crisp, and the roasted potatoes, which came in a separate bowl, were as good as potatoes can get, which is just to say that no one recognizes a truly great potato dish, yet one only makes note when it is done wrong. This was done right.

A pricy meal, but very enjoyable with excellent professional service overlooking Lake Geneva. It was a perfect end to our blustery walk, and restored our sensibilities and bravado so that we were able to march up Montreux’s steep slopes to enjoy its 16th-century quarter.

What do you think? Does our waiter look French? I think he does and he had a decidedly French accent.

The requisite pose with Freddie Mercury statue.