Eating out in Basel is all too often a dispiriting experience: over-priced, uninspired (there must be more to life than lamb’s lettuce/Nüsslisalat with chopped hard-boiled egg and/or bacon) and at times downright frosty (‘Hä’nd Sie reserviert?‘, barked at you by way of a welcome, when the place is half empty…). So when people ask me “where do you like to eat in town”, I have a job thinking of anywhere I really, really like (or even half-like).
Okay, I admit right away to a weakness for tibits: cool, all-veggie Indian/Mediterranean salads and tasty-original hot dishes (just keep me away from those jalapeños leaking a pool of melted cheese). There are branches in Zurich, Winterthur, Bern and one in London on Heddon Street – and their great little cookbook, tibits at Home, is now out in English. I love Vapiano for its wafer-thin pizzas (rucola, shrimp and creamy pesto is a fave) and decent wines by the glass – but be sure to go off-peak, otherwise the self-serve/DIY system can’t cope and collapses in disarray. The only two auténtico Mexico places that I used to haunt (Café Tacuba and La Piratita) have now shut up shop (WHY??).
How about Stucki? Classy Swiss-Asian cuisine from Tanja Grandits, gorgeous for a special treat (and the decor in another league/register from the old, frumpy, antimacassarish days), sensibly priced lunch menu but boy do they make up lost ground with their wine prices. The Cheval Blanc at Les Trois Rois? I’ve been twice, both times as a guest and was thankful not to have been footing the bill: grand food, gracious dining room with the Rhine sliding past the window, a bit sober and stiff. Eoipso in the Gundeli? Post-industrial, not-so-chic plus frosty service. The (British) chef at Gundeldingerhof behind the station does a nice job. And what of Bon Vivant, just around the corner? Only one menu, I’ve only been once and was underwhelmed. Acqua, in the old waterworks, by the zoo? Uncomfortable, noisy, great for drinks but not for food. So where to eat in Basel? Hmmm.
Oliv on Viaduktstrasse, just by the Zoo-Bachletten tram stop, could just be the answer. When I phoned to book, they asked if we’d choose a single menu. I demurred – no thanks, we’d rather decide on the day (too many different tastes/appetites, too much responsibility for me…). No problem, they said – and chalked up their first good mark right away.
Then the place: light, bright, beautiful, huge windows on both sides of the resto, lots of white and dove grey – but not that cool, clinical, Swiss white/grey, just restful and classy. Next the welcome: cheerful, smiley and quite unfazed at the fact we were 8 rather than the anticipated – and laid for – 10 (“Can I join you then, make up the numbers?” joked the waiter. A JOKE?? In a Swiss restaurant. Whatever next.)
And then the food: there’s no specific lunch menu, though each day brings specials at pretty decent prices. There’s always a soup (green/white parsley/parsnip last week) and a brace of pastas and risottos. And you can order a companionable round or two of mezze (spicy hummous, tzatziki, aubergines, guacamole & Co.) for the whole table as an appetizer (and a bottle of Prosecco to help things along).
I fell hard for some wicked sweetbreads with home-made ribbon noodles reclining on a glossy, intensely tasty jus; others enjoyed a toothsome risotto with roast veggies. Scallops neatly lined up on a rectangular plate with beets and some kind of puree were declared humungous (photo above). For dessert there was a seriously naughty crème brulée duo (plain and dark chocolate) topped with a fragile caramel roof at which you had to tap-tap to gain admittance (the waiter brought spare spoons for liberal samplings), and a warm berry gratin.
The wine list is nicely eclectic (Switzerland, Baden, Spain, Italy, Argentina etc.) with quite a few offered by the glass, and wine advice was complicitous, not pushy or showy-offy. And the service, rarely the strong suit in Swiss restaurants? Friendly, competent, humorous and accommodating. Am I going back? Try and stop me.
Restaurant Oliv, Bachlettenstrasse1, Basel, 061 283 03 03