Swiss House: Oi tries Swiss cuisine in Saigon

Watches, chocolate, cheese, beautiful mountains, Roger Federer ― the tiny country of Switzerland is known for having the best of the best.

However, not many people would think to include cuisine on that list. “Unlike French food, Swiss food isn’t big on presentation, but it’s value for money,” says Jack Legler, chef/owner of Swiss House Saigon. “It’s a lot of meat and potatoes and cheese, similar to the cuisines of [neighboring] Germany and Austria.”

The only Swiss restaurant left standing in Saigon, Legler’s Swiss House (54 Le Thanh Ton, D1) has served up authentic Swiss food for just about a year.

Swiss House Saigon 415

Legler brings with him a lifetime of hospitality experience, growing up in a small family-run butcher shop cum hotel outside of Zurich before attending Swiss Hotel Management School and apprenticing as a cook in one of Switzerland’s top hotels. In Saigon, he’s had leading roles in various luxe hotels and restaurants as well as owned an Italian and a German restaurant. For Legler and his Vietnamese wife, Swiss House represents a coming home of sorts. “It’s the closest to my heart,” he says. “With our other restaurants, we didn’t want to destroy what we took over but this time we started from scratch.”

Chef Jack Legler Swiss House Saigon 415

The décor of the small two-story restaurant can best be described as chalet chic, with exposed brick and beams, heavy wood furniture and the requisite pictures of mountain goats. The straightforward menu is also decidedly Swiss with raclette and fondue being the featured dishes. Traditionally a big wheel of semi-firm cheese that’s heated in front of a fire or a special machine, the melted raclette is then scraped onto a plate to be eaten with small potatoes, pickles and cold cuts. The Swiss House fondue is a bubbling pot of cheesy goodness, loaded with Swiss Gruyere and two other types of cheese (the exact types and proportions of which Chef Legler keeps a family secret) as well as white wine and garlic. While normally both raclette and fondue are meant to be shared in groups, here, they’re available in single portions (VND420,000 and VND400,000 respectively), but are certainly generous enough for two, the fondue accompanied by a large basket of cubed bread for dipping.

Cheese fondue 415

A bourgeois experience

With four official languages and 26 cantons (similar to states), Switzerland has surprising diversity given it is just about the size of greater Shanghai. Swiss House’s menu aims to take diners along a culinary tour starting with raclette and fondue which claim their beginnings in the French- speaking alpine region where villagers found a use for leftover bread and cheese during colder months when fresh produce was scarce. The wonderfully hearty Barley soup (VND100,000) loaded with root vegetables, flavored with air-dried beef and thickened with cream hails from Grisons, home to famed St. Moritz.

Barley soup Swiss House 415

It’s not difficult to picture this surprisingly light soup as a warming après-ski meal, nicely sopped up with Swiss House’s assortment of baguette, Northlander and rye breads. Also from Grisons is the Swiss chard wrapped dumplings (VND150,000), a simple spätzle- like dough made from eggs, flour, salt with a bit of milk, flavored with salami and landjäger sausage and a dash of nutmeg. The dumplings are mealy but helped along by a creamy cheese sauce.

Swiss chard wrapped dumplings

We also tapped St. Gallen in eastern Switzerland for our Veal sausage in onion sauce (VND275,000). Traditionally the recipe only calls for the finest veal, a little bacon and fresh milk. The Swiss House’s version is made right here in Saigon, by a Swiss butcher, and is served with steamed vegetables and a crispy rösti, a coarsely grated then fried potato cake. The slow roasted onions lend a tantalizing sweetness to the dish tempered by a dash of white wine.\

Veal sausage Swiss House 415

Completely sated, we finished with a chilled Dark chocolate mousse (VND90,000) that signaled a creamy end to a filling meal.

Dark chocolate mousse 415

Swiss food on the whole is a bourgeois experience. Where it lacks the wow factor of Japanese or the fine presentation of French, it makes up for in being simply good food, well- prepared using the best ingredients. The dishes themselves are time-consuming to make and are meant to be time-consuming to eat, enjoyed with friends between sips of wine to cut through the heaviness of the cheese and potatoes.

“Swiss food is simply different from other cuisines. You can train someone to charbroil a steak in a short amount of time, but to make real Swiss food, you have to be Swiss. We’re really a niche, especially with the cheeses we use, most of which are imported from Switzerland. It’s definitely high quality.” From a country that is known for being the finest in everything, I would expect nothing less.

* Images by Ngoc Tran

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