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Watching the Sun Set Over Lake Geneva at the Hotel du Parc des Eaux Vives


They say close to 50% of Geneva's population is comprised of foreigners and their families, people who work for the more than  200 international organizations, banks and corporations that have chosen to locate here -- probably for some very practical reasons. But the evening we dined in the Parc des Eaux-Vives, the only reason we could think of had nothing to do with practicality. Simply put, it seemed the most beautiful spot in the world.
We were seated at the edge of a large terrace on the upper floor of a two-story hotel. Somewhere in the forested green behind us, a band was playing; we could faintly hear the music and the response of a lively crowd. The pristine lawn of a well-used public park below us rolled down the hillside to the eastern shore of 45-mile-long Lake Geneva not far from where the Rhone River would continue flowing into France and down to the Mediterranean. On the far side of the lake, the sun was center stage, just about to begin its descent behind the imposing Jura Mountains. To call the sight before us theatrical would be an understatement yet the metaphor of a proscenium arch seemed appropriate with tall firs on either side of the lawn framing the view: stage left and stage right. Or one could just as easily invoke a carefully balanced painting with the eye drawn to the center of the canvas: the sun above and a single sailboat directly below. But metaphors belabor the point. We had landed in paradise.

Or, to be more specific, in the "Restaurant of the Hôtel du Parc des Eaux Vives." The smallest hotel in Switzerland, with only five guest rooms and two suites, the yellow stone building with gray-blue shutters, multiple chimneys and  bell-shaped eaves on each of the roof's four corners, was built in the 18th century as a private dwelling. It was turned into a hotel and restaurant in the early 1900s and in 1913 bequeathed to the municipality of Eaux Vives which became part of Great Geneva in 1930. Surrounded by woodlands, meadows, promenades and gardens of the Parc des Eaux Vives (water of life) and the adjacent Parc de la Grange (whose famed La Roseraie contains 100 varieties of roses), the hotel is a stunning centerpiece.  

Despite its modest size, the Hôtel du Parc des Eaux Vives has two restaurants: a sizeable ground floor brasserie that expands into a large outdoor space which is glass-enclosed after the summer season, and a first floor fine-dining establishment with a plush interior room that houses 11 tables and a terrace accommodating an additional 13. On an evening such as this, we wasted no time deciding where to sit.

"You have arrived at the most perfect time of day," Mâitre d' François Lacour said to us. "The sun is between the trees so it is not shining too brightly on your table. Little by little you will see it drop until it sets behind the Juras. But as it is only half past 20 (8:30); there is plenty of daylight left."        

Youthful-looking and possessed of a serene and pleasing quality, François is half French, half Canadian and therefore happily at home in the international milieu of Geneva. But he was born in La Rochelle not far from Brittany where so many of the great French chefs come from, among them Hôtel du Parc des Eaux Vives' Olivier Sanson. Both men were working at the same restaurant in Lausanne when head hunters lured them to Geneva. Together they form a formidable presence. "Those of us from the western part of France have an inbred confidence," François told us. "We have the knack of knowing what we want, of when to say yes and when to say no.

"I appreciate how Olivier works," he continued. "His focus is on the product. He uses Swiss meat which is excellent, crayfish from the lake. But the lobster, scampi, crabs, John Dory, he gets from Brittany or Normandy. Every day, his suppliers bring him the same products that go to the best places in Paris. He insists on seasonal catches. Now is the time for scampi from a particular region in Brittany. Once the season is over, the quality is not as good, and he doesn't want them any more.

"This restaurant is Brittany-French cuisine," François added. "We serve a lot of Americans, and often they will ask for a green salad. That's no problem for me, but the chef doesn't like to prepare salads. So I tell them, 'We have very nice green asparagus from the south of France -- the best asparagus you can get. It's a very light preparation and ten times better than a salad.' They'll say, 'Okay we'll try it.'

"Asparagus is one of Olivier's specialties. He steams them, slits the top, adds cream of tartar diluted with a little bit of comfit lemon, a small red berry, and Osetra caviar.  After they try it, 95% of the time, the Americans will  tell me 'You were absolutely  right!'"

Mâitre d' François Lacour - click to enlarge
Mâitre d' François Lacour

Chef Olivier Sanson - click to enlarge
Chef Olivier Sanson

Forewarned by the anecdote, any notion we might have had of ordering a green salad was quickly dispelled. Instead we asked François if he could prevail upon the chef to create a menu for us based on his inspiration of the moment, in consideration of our preference for fruits de la mer.  And so, as the sun slowly sank behind the Jura Mountains, and the sky deepened from shades of blue to violet to indigo while a hint of rose fragrance wafted in the slight evening breeze, we were treated to the products of Chef Olivier's culinary skills married to his imagination. Each dish was presented on pure white, unadorned Limoges china, as artfully composed as a painting, and graced with a lovely -- and edible -- blossom.

Beginning with a canapé of eggplant and goat cheese, we selected from among an array of breads baked that morning by the pastry chef and laid out in their entirety on a huge trolley with cutting board: olive, corn, cheese, tomato, farmer, cereal and French baguette. Then began a parade of dishes in perfectly timed succession with service so fluid it was nearly invisible: a square slice of smoked salmon in an emulsion of melon, carpaccio wrapped in strips of cold roast beef, and a little crayfish from the lake accompanied by watermelon balls the size of green peas; Brittany coast blue lobster out of the shell adorned with beads of tapioca that looked like miniature pearls, partly wrapped in paper-thin slices of avocado in a vinaigrette made with the juice of passion-fruit; sea crab accompanied by zucchini (!) ice cream and an emulsion of zucchini; grilled shrimp with watermelon and chutney; small filets of grilled John Dory folded like a long dumpling and stuffed with a mixture of zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, black olives, and tiny calamari accompanied by zucchini spaghetti.

For dessert, the chef created a whimsical fantasia of rose-colored delicacies: an air-light strawberry mousse, chocolate and raspberry mousse, miniature citrus flavored-biscuits with slices of dried strawberries and fresh raspberries and coconut biscuits with vanilla cream, raspberry lollipops filled with sorbet, marshmallows topped with raspberry jelly.

The varied parts that add up to the two-star Michelin rating this establishment maintains were evident: quality products prepared with a combination of passion and know-how, unpredictable pairings that delighted the palate such as fruits with fish and pasta made from a vegetable, beautiful presentations, impeccable service. And yet the whole, as often is said, was more than the sum of its parts. "In his cooking, Oliver aims to keep the flavor of the main element," François had said. "When you eat scampi prepared by Olivier, you taste scampi first of all. What comes with it will be a marriage, not an overpowering element."

There was also the wine, selected by the expert sommelier Arnaud Philippi -- a blend of Sauvignon Blanc with the aromatic Kerner, a grape we heard of for the first time, from a vineyard in nearby Peissy. A perfect accompaniment to our dinner, it was not too dry with just a bit of roundness. "There are excellent wines in Switzerland," Arnaud told us, "but they are a small production which is why they're not so well known. Only one percent is exported."

A native of Alsace, Arnaud had been sommelier of  a two-star Michelin dining room in Lyon before coming to Geneva several years ago. He joins the mâitre d' and chef in representing the Gallic element of the restaurant -- a plausible component given the proximity of France to Geneva and the type of cuisine one would expect from such a kitchen. But meeting the hotel's director of operations after dinner came as a surprise. "My parents were born in Japan," says Shigeyasu Saito, "I, however, am a native Swiss. My father was both a Japanese and French chef -- so I was raised in the business. There are many Japanese in Switzerland, especially Geneva."

The good-humored Shigeyasu works for the management company hired by the City of Geneva to operate the Hôtel du Parc des Eaux Vives as well as the nearby Hôtel Metropole which was built in 1854. That both properties are publicly owned is not unexpected in a city with an astonishing 800 acres of public parkland, much of it bequeathed to Geneva on the condition they always remain parks. Such is the spirit of public philanthropy which defines a city that is home to the European Headquarters of the United Nations, the International Red Cross, the World Health Organization, the Committee for Refugees, the Rothschild Foundation, and many other organizations devoted to humane causes.

Known as a place of refuge since John Calvin brought the Protestant Reformation here nearly half a millennium ago, Geneva became a sanctuary for free-thinkers as the influx of refugees seeking religious freedom birthed a  tradition of open-mindedness. The Old Town, not too far from Eaux Vives, gives one a sense of the unique place Geneva holds in the assemblage of nations; its hilly streets lined with solid structures that embody the ages with their medieval foundations beneath Renaissance upper stories, the Hôtel de Ville, even the old cathedral evoke a sense of tranquility and groundedness. It was in this city where the idea of an international community which would attempt peaceful resolution of conflicts through negotiation was born, where the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions were signed.

Somehow, in the confusion of time and dates that accompanies international travel, it was not until we were ready to leave the Hôtel du Parc des Eaux that we recalled that this day was July 4th. Usually we would be at home celebrating  America's independence. Yet somehow it seemed appropriate to be in Geneva at this time, a place where similar sentiments are lived and cherished. Saying goodbye to François, Olivier, Arnaud and Shigeyasu, we paused for a final  look at the place so aptly described by François as "very beautiful, very calm." 

Night had fallen; the moon had risen. Back home the sky would be lit with fireworks, but here the star-studded navy expanse was holding a light show all its own.

Restaurant Hotel du Parc des Eaux-Vives    
82 Quai Gustave-Ador
Genève  6, Switzerland

Phone: 41 22 849 75 75

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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