I love good food and I love uncomplicated, cozy meals, so the idea that a GaultMillau 17/20 chef in the middle of Geneva might think this is what his restaurant should serve was bound to appeal to me. Armel Bedouet has 17 points for the gastronomy restaurant l’Aparté, which has a mere 15 seats, and he is the promoted chef of the year for GaultMillau. Can the knowledge, craftsmanship and sense of art this requires be applied to a larger, bustling bistro where generous servings and a more relaxed atmosphere are the rule?
I showed up late for the press conference and lunch at the Hotel Royal on the Rue de Lausanne because my dear old iPhone had just given up the ghost and I had to make an emergency repair or buy a replacement. It was a stressful morning that started with a 05:30 departure from the mountains in Valais to arrive when Apple in Geneva opened at 09:00, followed by two maddening hours of decisions about repairs or a new one, then transferring masses of data to the new one before racing back to Gare Cornavin.
I walked into the bistro (one tram stop from the station), which faces onto the street – you might never know it shares the kitchen with this hotel’s top international restaurant. I was confronted just inside the door by several journalists wearing long brown chef aprons, trying to make madeleines, those elongated cupcakes so near and dear to the childhood of people who grew up speaking French. I was handed an apron, given a cloth pastry bag filled with madeleine mix and told to squeeze. I love to bake, but this was new to me and, sad but true, my madeleines were an undisciplined mess. I wasn’t alone, so once we had done our trial ones, the pastry chef whipped out dozens more in no time, all of them very tidy to see, and the pans went off to the oven. A special and intriguing touch: a sprinkling of fleur de sel and . Hmmm, salty cupcakes, new to me, but why not, mused this fan of chocolate with fleur de sel. See the recipe below.
It seemed an odd start to a lunch designed to show us the redone Bistro restaurant and its new approach, but I quickly understood why. Chef Bedouet and the hotel have set out to remind us of home-cooked meals, our childhoods, the simplicity, generosity and comfort of a less stressful life, associating this with a less fussy restaurant style, fresh produce and artisanal products. Bedouet comes from Brittany, a part of France I associate with an appreciation of the unfussy married with very good. He worked from 2001 to 2008 under Dominique Gauthier at Geneva’s Chat Botté before moving to the Hotel Royale and building his reputation. The underlying principle here, and he is well equipped to build on it, is traditional French bistro, but 21st century. It works.
Changing style to match shifting eating habits
The hotel brings in visitors to Geneva, and the restaurant is known for its business lunches, but the bistro is keen to attract a local crowd whose eating habits are changing. Lighter meals, more vegetarian dishes, meals eaten more quickly than in the past, for prices that don’t consume a monthly salary and yet with good quality local products used – sharing dishes, having just a glass of wine: this is the new, young consumer. “We’re known today for our business lunches. We’d like to attract a new clientele to Bistro by making it more popular with workers, more accessible,” says Brice Lavedrine, Hotel Royal director.
Switzerland is a land of gastronomy, with the highest per capita number of Michelin starred restaurants in the world, but it remains to be seen if these will all stay in business as eating and drinking habits change. I recently spoke to two top chefs, one in a small town and the other in Lausanne, who say their business definitely has been affected by tougher laws on alcohol consumption and driving. Bistro seems determined to find a new way forward for fine cuisine.
Our meal was just plain fun, although the food itself was anything but plain in terms of quality. We started, of course, with wine and cheese and dried meat. This is Switzerland, after all. Chasselas or Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, all local wines. I watched as the café area next to us filled with the lunch hour crowd, cheerful and chatty under blackboards that advertised the wines of the week, in this case two from Christophe Abbett in Martigny, Valais, a very fine winery.
And then the starters arrived in the middle of our table and we were asked to share them.
There was plenty of food for those who don’t worry about waistlines and you could see the look of relief on the faces of young women wearing snug dresses. Passing the plate also makes for a more convivial meal. First and main courses: we ordered from the menu and I chose mackerel, which was excellent, followed by chuck roast, which I remember well from my own childhood. My mother, bless her kitchen soul, never cooked carrots and peas this delicious.
By the time the dessert menu arrived I was struggling between wanting to try all of them and thinking I shouldn’t have any of them. Bingo, the solution is easy: you share and everyone takes as much or as little as they want. I had to try the Vacherin because I had always understood this to be the name of a cheese, and was unfamiliar with the French parfait version (highly recommended! if tricky to slice). And then, wisdom to the wind, I had to cut a tiny slice (more or less) of the chocolate fondant, with much laughter as we each tried to cut the melting chocolate tidily.
Jean-Nicolas Trens, director of sales & marketing, told me that the “new” Bistro is still seeing what customers want, but the restaurant is trying to offer flexibility. If a table decides to order dishes and simply share them, that’s not a problem. There is also a long table d’hôte that sits between the more informal café-bistro area and the larger restaurant tables; a single diner or traveler can sit down there and avoid eating alone. As a longtime and regular solo traveler, I love that option.
Accent on Geneva and Swiss wines
Sommelier Gaëtan Dubret is a real asset for this bistro. He has a wine list of 160 wines, the majority of them Geneva and Swiss wines, he knows his wineries well and he’s easy to talk to about pairing a wine with your food. He comes from the French Jura near Neuchatel, trained in Beaune and was tutored by Antoine Pétrus, one of France’s most famous sommeliers. Before working at the Hotel Royal he was head sommelier at La Cigogne in Geneva.
Menus are available online. Expect to pay CHF12-26 for starters, CHF24-27 for sandwiches, CHF21-46 for fish/meat or pasta/rice dishes. Note, if you want to try L’Aparté at some point, it offers a 3-course lunch menu for CHF49; from the menu expect to pay CHF59-149 (Michelin 2 stars). Bogie’s Bar is the third spot for food here.
Bistro restaurant, Rue de Lausanne 41-43, Geneva. Tram 15, Môle stop or 5 minute walk from the main station. Open for lunch and dinner 7 days a week. Tel: +41 22 906 14 14
Madeleine recipe, compliments of the Bistro kitchen
A final word: the madeleines were delicious. We each took a few home and the next day, like a child, I had one and then another and …Combava, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a kaffir lime, grated with the fleur de sel here for an exquisite pinch of salty sharpness over the sweet little cake. Mmmm.