The village of Vals in Graubünden is not one of Switzerland’s most obvious alpine destinations. Using the country’s unrivalled public transport system, you reach it via Zurich and Chur, followed by a short hop on the red Rhätische Bahn to Ilanz, alongside the ice-green waters of the fledgling Rhine, flanked by massive rock outcrops. Finally, you clamber aboard the perfectly synchronized post bus, and 30 minutes later you’re in Vals.
There are few cute wooden chalets up here, no networked pistes and barely a Bulgari boutique in sight. Until recently, the chief draw has been the thermal baths, housed since 1996 in a sober, quartzite building by Pritzker prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor. I’m a reluctant skier and I find spas surprisingly stressful (all that myopic wandering about in search of the entrance, or my locker). But once I got wind of Sven Wassmer’s cooking at Restaurant Silver in the revamped 7132 Hotel, wild horses had their work cut out keeping me away [an invitation helped: full disclosure, #iwascomped].
Wassmer, originally from the Fricktal near Basel, came up here in 2014 via London (where he worked with Nuno Mendes), the Park Hotel Vitznau and Andreas Caminada (Schloss Schauenstein). His Somerset-born sommelier wife Amanda (who doubles as maitre d’) joined him in 2015, having traced her own impressive route through the dining rooms of many top Swiss gastro-spots (Schloss Schauenstein and Vitznau included), as well as a spell working for Decanter magazine in London with tastings director Christelle Guibert. Hot on their heels came countless awards and recognitions: first one, then a second Michelin star, and 18 out of 20 Gault Millau points for the chef; and for his wife this year’s Sommelier of the Year award from Bilanz, Switzerland’s business magazine.
The restaurant, done up in dramatic reds, blacks and whites, has just nine generously spaced tables and is open evenings only (Wednesday through Sunday). It offers a single fixed-price menu (CHF225 for 9 courses, or CHF275 for 12) and when booking, you specify any dislikes, allergies or intolerances; beyond that, you’re in the chef’s hands (some might say, at his mercy).
A mystery menu is not to everyone’s taste – the chef needs to be sure of his ground and the diners willing to give him their blind trust. I love it. I relish not knowing what’s in store (except in spas) and I like being startled, whether by unfamiliar raw materials, unexpected combinations or sheer technical skill.
Surprises came straight out of the starting blocks with the appetite-teasers: ‘pralines’ made of poularde and resembling two fresh-laid eggs in a nesting box; coin-sized pieces of celeriac crowned with mountain cheese complete with the citrus-flavoured crunch of fried (or maybe dried?) ants; sweet cream cheese blended with army-green hemp (“no untoward side effects”, guaranteed Bulgin), and Jerusalem artichokes topped with feathery flakes of the chef’s air-dried beef.
“Follow that”, I thought…
And he did, with the arrival of a fist-sized, warm-baked sourdough bread resembling a jacket potato, perched on the roasted skins. Ever vowed to lay off the bread at the beginning of a meal so as not to compromise your appetite? This is neither the time nor the place: the loaf, thoughtfully carved in wedges and reassembled, was irresistible with home-churned butter speckled with Maldon sea salt (a bow to Wassmer’s time in London).
On the fishy front there was a tiny edible box (made from waffle batter) in whose compartments lurked not just oysters but also caviar, which we were instructed to treat as finger food. Later came warm-smoked Arctic char from the glacial waters of nearby Cumbel served with an intense pine-infused emulsion (terrible colour, terrific flavour), while a lone langoustine (not exactly local but in season in its native Denmark, explained the chef) was startlingly handsome on its white plate with a scattering of orange berries (mountain sea buckthorn, foraged by the chef from the slopes above Vals on his days off) and a perfectly formed quenelle of some sunset-coloured, pureed vegetable (carrot? pumpkin? butternut?).
Carnivorous excitements included a pinkly-roasted piece of dry-aged meat from a 17 year-old retired Hereford dairy cow from a farmer down in the valley – an explosion of meaty flavour and just the right amount of chewy resistance (plus breaded salsify, yum). What appeared on first acquaintance to be a nugget of crisp, gelatinous belly pork turned out to be an unaccountably delicious piece of the animal’s tail, topped with a ‘crackling’ of dried scallops and a sweet-sour, Asian-accented sauce.
And anyone who can transform “Marcel’s vegetables of the day” (featuring fennel, radishes, beets, carrots, parsnip & Co.) into a plate of outrageous deliciousness combining intense flavours, colours and textures, clearly knows his onions – and gives vegetables the respect they deserve.
Only the two desserts – a grapefruit sorbet with barrel-aged Negroni and a twist of orange peel, and a meringue dusted with beet crumbs – were unremarkable.
Bulgin, who is now studying for her Master of Wine, has put together a gem of a list, which she expands upon with infectious passion (for an extra CHF125 you can take the wine pairing option – go for it). There’s Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy aplenty but it seems pointless (to me, at least) to come up here and drink what you already know. Stick with the surprise element. Allow Bulgin to steer you through the section entitled Swiss Treasures, with five full pages devoted to the Bündner Herrschaft vineyards down in the valley, long acknowledged as the home of some of Switzerland’s finest wines, and a select handful from other Swiss regions.
Gantenbein’s legendary Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are here, for sure, as well as wines from several favourites like Martin Donatsch and Peter Wegelin. For our pairings, Bulgin’s choice of von Tscharner’s field-blend of Pinot Blanc/Chardonnay from Maienfeld was inspired, I loved the quirky, slightly oxidative Completer from Giani Boner’s pre-phylloxera vines in Malans (reminiscent of the Jura), and was reminded how much I admire Tom Litwan’s Chardonnay, grown in the unlikely recesses of Canton Aargau. Reds included a fragrant Pinot Noir from Georg Fromm in Malans and an explosively perfumed Merlot from Markus Stäger in Maienfield. She even slipped in a local cider (a homage to her native Somerset).
As an exercise in surprise, using mostly humble, mainly local raw materials with great skill, the menu was hard to fault. I loved the weird, often foraged ingredients and garnishes, the bold flavours, the unlikely combos and the techy stuff (and not a foam in sight). This is great cooking at its confident best, with clever wine pairings, elevated to alpine heights. Forget skiing or spas. Save yourself for Silver.
Restaurant Silver, 7132 Vals, Switzerland, Tel. +41 58 7132 000
A short version of this review appeared on How To Spend It online, https://howtospendit.ft.com/food-drink/202324-extraordinary-culinary-heights-in-the-swiss-alps