My Virgin 3-Michelin Star Experience at Schloss Schauenstein
For someone who has amassed a significant number of foodie accolades under my belt, I must admit that the lack of a 3-Michelin star experience has always marred my record. And as much as I loathe the bewildered remarks from others every time I make that announcement, I abhor my personal loss in not having experienced that coveted affair in the flesh. Since I’m not about to settle on building castles in the air (double entendre, especially since Schloss Schauenstein is located in a historic castle), I sought to uncover the truths behind this so-called ‘exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey’ as deemed by the holy grail of food guides.
My journey takes me 142km out from Zurich to Fürstenau, the smallest town to hold city rights in the world, and it is here that I finally understand the allure of lengthy, fine dining experiences. Hell, if it took me two and a half hours to get there, I might as well throw in the towel and wallow in waves of euphoria and dyschronometria that an immersive 5-hour meal can bring me. The only thing at risk: my wallet took a beating from Noma a week before.
The Swiss are very much known for their watchmaking craftsmanship and milk chocolate, and the same can be said for their hospitality standards. The gracious reception begins via the first email exchange in January with the concierge. Dining slots are sparse and rare, as are the 9 guest rooms in the castle which struck me as a brilliant idea only after the long and languid afternoon of wining and dining. An hour out from lunch and a quick call to the reservations team guaranteed us a personalised pick up from Thusis train station. We rode in an Audi Quattro through rolling green pastures and monumental church towers till we reached the castle grounds. You know that moment when Anne Hathway rolls up into the driveway of the Genovian castle? Damm, I felt like royalty.
Schloss Schauenstein is a spacious, yet intimate and rather romantic room decked out in austere lacquered timber, pear green suede barrel chairs and isolated lighting. It’s oddly comfortable given the privacy created from table to table just by effective lighting and very nimble footwork by the staff alone. The bender begins with a spot of bubbly, Hansruedi Adank lubricating an afternoon of banter and bad decisions. The first one being, 3, 4, 5 or 6 courses with the option of prolonging the debacuhery with a surprise course. There’s no need for upselling here, the pilgrimage made the decision for me. You would think, 6 courses, that’s manageable. What you’re not privy to is the zealous attempts of Chef Andreas Caminada to fatten you up. Three, four, no six (I lost count) amuse-bouches later, you wonder when the actual first course will make its debut.
Memories are smudged, and that diet has fallen by the wayside as you nibble on duck liver almonds, lettuce cones stuffed with lettuce ice. Dishes all boost a sense of modern aesthetics but revolve around enriching the senses and jolting memory. There’s the radicchio sorbet with yogurt and smoked sunflower oil which rings in the bitter flavour stratum. Somewhere in a deep bowl of crimson red broth, you fish out a delicate beetroot ravioli stuffed with oxtail. The orgasmic soup is compelling enough, with tasteful reaches of the beetroot’s muddiness tying in with oleaginous ox jus.
Once each dish is finished, the staff appear triumphantly to clear them with machine-like reflexes, working in pairs like a harmonious duet of synchronised swimmers. Observing other tables might become an enthralling obsession of yours, as it did for me. The staff project an aura of warmth and hospitality whilst professionally maintaining a clinical emotional distance. You don’t feel watched, you feel looked after.
There was a langoustine broth which cried out to be cradled. Its spumescent surface and glorious richness suggest a not-so-easy undertaking. This is the soup you’ll imagine Heaven not to be short of. From the in-house bakery comes a crusty modest looking potato bread, it’s irresistible when pelted with tons of churned yogurt butter and sprinkled with fleur de sel. I’m happy but try to save room for the mains that still elude us.
Then it hits you like a freight train, course after course. First, the marinated char with Jerusalem artichokes and translucent slices of white grape. It is flourished with a youthful lemon verbena syrup that clears out your sinuses beautifully. There is a beautifully fried piece of pork neck enrobed in lardo, christened with lardo croutons and paired with dried pear cream. Bits of sour pearl onions and chili oil work to jazz up the luxurious pork broth jelly. Pushing on, the pike perch swims to you under a herbaceous foam, its mildly sweet flesh perfectly showcased under drifts of pickled pumpkin.
I knock back the very last bit of our Sprecher von Bernegg Completer 2016, a wine we singled out just based on its indigenous profile in Eastern Switzerland alone. In truth, I always find wine lists at fine dining establishments terrifying. Feign attempts at wading through long lists often result in major dilemmas, a traumatic experience I was not willing to put myself through on such a joyful occasion. Hence the obedient reaction to the sommelier’s spiels on the pairing to the last savoury course of Lamb belly and neck with black garlic and leeks. She had recommended the Donatsch Pinot Noir Passion 2016, another Swiss winery that was just a half hour drive from the castle. It tasted like dark berries consumed in the mysterious forests and smelled like sandalwood spritzed with vanilla. We had 6 glasses in total. We should have gotten a bottle.
The Cheese trolly is vivid, thrilling stuff. It draws moans and gasps as its wheeled to your table. Designed by Carlo Clopath, the three-tiered trolley exhibiting some 24 Swiss cheeses, performs an Optimus Prime move at the push of a button. It’s now panned out, and you can smell the bleuchâtel within arms reach. Hopefully, you’ll be able to brazen it out better than I did—6 slices of cheese were as far as I could request for fear of being tossed the evil eye. The moveable feast concludes with boiled potatoes from the Albula valley and dried meats from the local farmers. I dare say, as intoxicated or gorged you are at this point, you’ll fully appreciate the simplicity of this course. As Chef Andreas Caminda claims, ‘Regionality is beyond a trend. It’s normal now in haute cuisine’; and this ethos is best spotlighted in this working man’s feast of meats, cheeses and potatoes.
It wouldn’t be a true blown out 3-Michelin star meal if they didn’t top the extravaganza off with mignardises. The downside, you’ll have to waddle up to the second floor for that. But the change of scenery and suede lounge chairs facing open windows gazing out into the farmlands makes for a killer idea. Nurse a hot cup of coffee as you’re overwhelmed by droves of petit fours in all sorts pretty, sculpted shapes—salt caramel praline, cream puffs filled with tonka bean and apple, sea buckthorn jelly, vanilla sable with pear and caramel, and I’m lost. Regardless, I tuck in with no sense of urgency whatsoever, not because I’m hungry but because the level of art displayed compels you to.
A kind waitstaff ushers us downstairs where Chef Andreas Caminda graciously agrees to take a photo with us. I suck in my paunch and try to master a smile that presaged gratitude. Reviewing the photo, I looked like a million bucks. I attribute it to the Swiss cheese, the fresh air and maybe the fact that this far-flung journey had allowed me to eat extremely well, superbly in fact. Three stars and a daunting two and a half hour train ride back to Zurich, Michelin prevails in their judgement call. It is indeed worth a special trip.
Read more: What It’s Like to Dine at Noma