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Au Petit Chalet (Geneva, Switzerland)

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Address: 17 Rue de Berne / Geneva / Switzerland

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      11.05.2010 07:58
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      Somewhere in central Geneva to try traditional Swiss food

      It would have been wrong to come away from three days in Geneva without having eaten something traditionally Swiss (chocolate not withstanding) and we plumped for fondue. There are plenty of places serving fondue which is really a speciality of Francophone Switzerland and some of these also serve various kinds of rosti, although, strictly speaking, that is a delicacy of the eastern, German speaking part of the country, in particular the mountain areas. Not only am I already a fan of fondue, it's a great dish for warming you up and although we visited at the end of March, the evenings were quite chilly.

      For the uninitiated, fondue is melted cheese, which is kept in its melted state by sitting the pot (a fondue) on top of a flame, into which diners dip pieces of bread. A clear spirit, often kirsch, is added to add flavour, help the cheese melt and to keep it melted; they also add white wine and garlic. The trick with fondue is to gradually adjust the flame as you get nearer the bottom of the pot so that the mixture does not burn and harden on the sides and bottom of the pot. If you get the temperature right, you do get a very thin layer on the bottom which is then lifted out and eaten - I have no idea what this is like as I invariably burn the bottom of the dish. Incidentally, that burnt layer is known as "la religieuse" - the nun - and I have never found out why.

      There are now all kinds of variation on fondue (this restaurant offers variations with mushrooms, boletus mushrooms or lardons, for example) and as well as the ubiquitous Swiss cheese fondue you'll also see "Chinese fondue" advertised though this consists of pieces of meat being dipped in a bubbling broth. While fondue may sound just like bread and cheese, it's much more interesting and exciting than that, and it has the added advantage of being a very sociable thing to eat because everyone dips into the same pot. However, there are some important rules. Once you've taken your forked bread out of the pot you can't return it. If a man loses his bread he must buy a bottle of wine for his fellow diners, and if a woman does that she must kiss the man of her left (fortunately for the South African I am an expert!)

      The name "fondue" comes from the French verb "fondre" - to melt; the pot is also cometimes known colloquially as a fondue. The most commonly used cheeses are Gruyere, Emmental and Raclette but there are many variations depending on the types of cheese used and the amounts of each used.

      Au Petit Chalet is, from first appearances, not as rustic and quaint as you might expect. Situated in the centre of Geneva, two minute from the main train station, it's easy to find and well located for transport if you are staying elsewhere in Geneva. There are two entrances, one on Rue Chaponniere and the other on Rue de Berne which runs parallel. The doorway doesn't give much away but as soon as you step inside you are transported to a rustic Swiss chalet somewhere in the Alps. There's a small, narrow dining area on the top level by the Rue Chaponniere door, but the main dining area is on the lower section where the Rue de Berne entrance is.

      When we went in by way of Rue Chaponniere there were no staff visible and we could see that the lower section seemed very busy so we took a table on the upper section. Within a minute a staff member appeared to say that section was reserved for a large group and we were found a table downstairs. This was fine but the tables are very close together and when another party squeezed past to sit alongside us, it did feel almost that we were sharing one big table. Fortunately the people who came to sit beside us, A South African family now living in California, were very pleasant and we chatted a little about our impressions of Geneva.

      Sitting beside the pizza oven we were a bit warm but once the food arrived we forgot all about that. As it was mid-evening and dark outside, the interior had been lit to make it feel quite cosy with clusters of wall lights and small chandeliers. However, it's also highly likely that the dim lighting also hid, not a multitude, but a small number of sins in that it made the place just a little too dark to see that it was slightly shabby here and there. I suppose some might say that this interior was naff, some might be more generous and say kitsch. There was a mock-tiled roof above the bar and when our waiter saw me looking at the knick-knacks around the place, he came over and whispered to me that there was a fox on the roof - which there was - not live (of course) or stuffed, but a small, scruffy toy fox. The walls were decorated with all kinds of clutter including cuckoo clocks, cow bells and some colourful landscapes in rustic frames.

      The waiter who had asked us to move apologised for having been a bit brusque earlier when he came over with the menus. He was then very attentive and friendly for the rest of our visit. Although the place was very busy (surprisingly so, I thought, for a Sunday night) we didn't have to wait long for our food and we didn't have any trouble at all in getting anyone's attention to get more drinks.

      As well as fondue, there are salads, pizzas and pasta dishes. The portion sizes for all these dishes looked very generous and the food looked tasty and nicely presented. However, we had come for fondue and we could not be distracted by the other choices on the menu. We chose chilli fondue and ordered it for two. We didn't bother with starters, knowing how filling fondue usually is.

      A few minutes before the food arrived our waiter brought over the little burner and trivet and lit the flame. Then came the fondue itself, in a red-orange cast iron pot which is known as a 'caquelon'. The cheese mixture seemed more orange than I'm used to but whether that was because of the flakes of chilli in it, or the specific mixture of cheeses used, I can't be sure. A very generous basket of bite-size pieces of bread was served with the fondue; they use bread that's at least a day old so that it doesn't disintegrate in the pot.

      The fondue was much hotter than I'd expected with a fierce chilli bite that didn't fade for a while. If you don't like chilli heat, then this isn't the dish for you. The cheese mixture was really tasty and had just the right balance of strong and mild cheeses. Sometimes when you order fondue it may seem like there isn't going to be enough but here we had bread leftover and even left a tiny amount in the bottom of the pot.

      Now, according to the Swiss you are meant to have a shot of kirsch or other fire water halfway through your fondue to prevent the cheese forming into a great solid lump in your stomach. We didn't do that but felt later like we probably should have! Instead we drank Swiss beer which came in at roughly the same price you'd pay in any average bar or restaurant in Geneva.

      The fondue cost 27 CHF per person (approximately £16 in April 2010) which may seem a lot for cheese and bread but this is a good price for central Geneva and you could easily pay a lot more.

      You'll probably only have one fondue (unless you are a real fondue fan) during your trip and this is a fun place to try it. A little kitsch but the food is good and the price OK for Geneva.

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