What is the one food experience that you have to try in Switzerland? No not Toblerone, the other one…Fondue. Of course you can also go for raclette which is similar to fondue just with a huge wedge of cheese being melted under a hot grill and scraped onto your plate. We opted for the traditional Swiss fondue experience at a popular restaurant in Basel, Elsbethenstuebli.
The location of the restaurant is pretty much perfect, right outside a tram stop on line 2. The stop at Kirschgarten, a couple of stops from the Kunstmuseum, drops you almost right outside the door.
We had pencilled in a lunchtime visit after a trip to Basel Zoo. The restaurant opens from 10am but doesn’t begin serving food until around 11.30. As we walked in at around 11.45 we were hit in the face by the stench of Swiss cheese – I really love Gruyere but this was like being in the very factory that they make it in.
The kind gentleman offered us menus and we ordered a couple of still waters while we browsed the options. Things took an unexpected turn as it stated on the menu that the fondue wasn’t available until 1pm. We asked the gentleman if it would be possible to have it any earlier but he replied that it was made fresh and it wouldn’t be ready until then.
With a heavy heart, we had to re-book for the evening and pay the 7 CHF (£5.19) for the water and return at 6pm. It really would be worth a restaurant famed for fondue to give notice through their online menu that a signature dish is only available from a certain time.
Fast forward to the evening and headed down line 2 on the tram to Kirschgarten once again. We had gone for the earlier booking due to the reputation of the restaurant’s popularity and small size. The same gentleman welcomed us back and seated us beside the window.
Now we had time to check out the place properly. It’s a small bistro with a Germanic feel to it, only 10-12 tables and just a couple of staff members around. For around 10-15 minutes we were the only people in there with a few more joining towards the end of the meal.
As is customary in Switzerland, the menu is very expensive. The fondue alone came to 27.50 CHF (£20.41) EACH. That’s over £40 just for a bowl of native cheese and cubes of bread – then you have the beer. Each beer came in at 7.50 CHF (£5.56) in this case a beer called Feldschlossen. A very decent beer as it turned out.
Other menu items, if fondue isn’t your thing, include breaded veal escalopes, calves liver and also peppered steak. A mix of French and German influences in the Swiss style. Many dishes went for over 30 CHF (£22.25).
Our bubbling bowl of molten cheese landed on the table along with a bread basket. Two fondue forks and two small plates are all that’s needed to complete the set. There’s no set way, or at least we weren’t told there was, to eat fondue. Although I found running the bread through the cheese in a figure of eight worked nicely for even coverage.
I’m sure many newbies to the fondue experience have eaten their cheese-covered bread fresh out of the pot. This happened to me on my first go and I got a burned mouth for my troubles – lesson learned, let it cool a bit first.
Originally, fondue was a way to use up old pieces of cheese and stale bread. This then became a social event with everyone gathered around the pot taking turns to dip, twist and then eat. Between two of us, this was a mammoth amount of cheese to get through.
We did our best and got down to the crispy layer at the bottom, at which point the gentleman returned to add the heat deflector at the bottom to calm the flame. We soldiered on but couldn’t defeat the bread basket, we were done.
The gentleman attempted an offer of coffee or dessert but it was all in vain. Cheese now filling our arteries, we asked for the bill. The final total rolled in at 70 CHF (£51.71) which is fair for Switzerland but very pricey for the English and pretty much the rest of Europe.
We left the restaurant with mixed feelings. The service couldn’t be faulted. English speaking, friendly and informative, you will be well looked after. The place itself? A little soulless, not quite the ‘social’ experience that we had anticipated with every table tucking into fondue – maybe it was just the wrong night.
The fondue itself was tasty but after a while it’s quite a one dimensional experience. Cheese fills you up quick and add large cubes of crusty bread into the mix and you can see why we didn’t make the finish line. It’s definitely something to try when in Switzerland but i’m not sure that we’ll be returning for more.
Opening times: Monday – Friday 1000-1400, 1700 – 0000
Nearest tram: Kirschgarten (Line 2)