Zurich’s skyline, punctuated by clock towers and steeples, is best gleaned from dizzying heights, even if that requires clambering up Grossmünster Church’s 187 vertiginous steps to peruse sweeping views of Limmat river and the old town. For those more in pursuit of culinary adventures, there’s a wealth of discreet establishments to discover – tucked away in quiet corners, on rooftops, inside industrial buildings and historic enclaves, all revealing how the city’s pantry can entice gourmands well beyond the usual array of cheeses and sausages.
The city has long been serving discerning palates with its clutch of restaurants serving traditional cuisine. However, there is a growing taste for far-flung, exotic flavours, and what better opportunity to celebrate food in all its diversity than during the annual Food Zurich festival? The first edition held in 2016 brought together over 200 restauranteurs, producers, retailers and 62,000 visitors, and last year was also a huge success, comprising over 100 events incorporating cooking workshops. Kitchens all around town were buzzing with tempting delights ranging from slow food and street grub to gourmet tastings and fine dining feasts that marry tradition with innovation.
My first foray into Food Zurich began in earnest with cocktails at the ‘ooo Rooftop Restaurant’ six floors above the Modissa fashion house on Bahnhofstrasse. Amid a relaxed ambience, trendy tribes gathered around the open terrace for intimate views of rooftops, period buildings and the street activity below. Perfectly timed with the warm glow of sunset, quirky cocktails came flowing: Porn Star-Tini (Ketel One Vodka, sake, passion fruit liqueur, vanilla-sandalwood and Champagne) and refreshing Heino (Champagne, green apple, yuzu, sode and fresh fruits), paired with irresistible padron peppers.
Around the corner, the festival’s opening night kick-started at Jelmoli’s basement food market, a treasure trove of local and international delicacies. Here, the crème de la crème of Zurich’s culinary universe converged for special tastings, dominated by rich meat dishes prepared by top caterers and chefs from the Dolder Grand, Baur au Lac, Park Hyatt, Hotel Storchen and Widder Hotel. At the other end of the packed hall, vegetarians and vegans savoured Fooby’s purple potato salad garnished with traditional meatballs (Häcktäschli) and blue potato chips, while others queued for a chance to create their own personal pesto sauce. And copious desserts couldn’t be served quick enough. It was nothing short of food heaven.
The next day’s walking tour led me to Zurich West, once an industrial hub for shipbuilding. Regeneration has seen an influx of art, design, cultural and commercial initiatives, and setting an example is cult label Freitag’s flagship store, made from stacks of freight containers. The area’s entertainment hotspot is Schiffbau, a converted factory with a theatre, bar, jazz club and fine dining restaurant, LaSalle. While the restaurant resides in a purpose-built glass building inside the sprawling factory space, the setting is elegant – chandeliers, white linen, and a menu inspired by French and Italian classics.
A few blocks away, Les Halles typifies the district’s free-spirited character with its higgledy-piggledy collection of bric-a-brac, bicycles suspended from the ceiling, kitsch posters, and a Bugs Bunny pinball machine, among other eccentricities. The bar serves tapas, but the mussels and frites are specialities here.
Food Zurich’s most popular event had to be the Street Food Festival, with pop-up stalls cooking up myriad mouth-watering treats. The Tibetan dumplings or ‘momos’ from Tenz Momo restaurant were in demand, and irresistible cheesecake and vanilla crème strudels from Poushe Strudel House were the real deal. Bunting and fairy lights criss-crossed above a sea of diners chilling out and enjoying the party atmosphere, as music played well into the night.
There’s nothing like the aroma of fresh-baked bread, and John Baker bakery at Stadelhofen in the town centre was worth an early wake-up call. This is serious baking for eco warriors and health fanatics. The family-run enterprise uses electric bikes to transport goods and uses only organic flour milled in Switzerland to make bread and pastries. Endless batches of dough were kneaded for all to witness the fresh, wholesome goodness that goes into every loaf and bloomer.
After dark, the Langestrasse district running parallel to the tracks of Zurich Hauptbahnhof railway station comes alive. Once a promiscuous hotspot, it is undergoing transformation to become a hip joint with multi-cultural restaurants, cafés, bars and hotels, while still retaining its edgy side. The 25hours Hotel Langestrasse is frequented by young punters for its funky bar scene, matched by its eclectic resident restaurant, Neni, which serves exciting Oriental and Eastern Mediterranean dishes, and Elior’s Pulled Beef Burger – the best I’ve tasted so far.
It was time for a change of scene though, and a slow tram ride up the hills to The Dolder Grand was rewarded with panoramic city views and world-class dining. The five-star hotel’s Saltz Restaurant has changed since I last visited in 2014. Artist Rolf Sachs spiced up the décor with bold red and blue, but I missed the original sophisticated style. Still, the excellent menu retains its gourmet credentials in line with its sister, The Restaurant, which notched 18 GaultMillau points and two Michelin stars, thanks to Chef Heiko Nieder, whose string of accolades includes the ‘Chef of the year 2017’ award. This is a veritable retreat, and the spa is one of the best in the world.
After a few nights of carnivorous helpings, Haus Hiltl was a breath of fresh air. In fact, it was the biggest surprise of all for holding the Guinness record for ‘The World’s first vegetarian restaurant’. Hiltl was founded in 1898, and to this very day remains a family business set in Sihlstrasse, its original location. But can a vegetarian restaurant ever be upmarket? Hiltl is indeed, thanks to its maverick fourth-generation owner, Rolf Hiltl, who turned the business around into a sleek, healthy hotspot that attracts the fashionable set with its bar-lounge, club, cooking studio and shop. The vegan and vegetarian buffet is inspired and innovative, and that goes for the interior design and open kitchens.
My foodie trip to Zurich wouldn’t have been complete without tasting exquisite morsels from Max Chocolatier, where each delicate piece is hand-made using only 100 percent natural ingredients. A tasting session at the shop was a chance to savour seasonal and limited edition flavours. They only source cocoa from an exclusive single origin plantation with proven sustainability and fair trade credentials. The dark chocolate range were clear winners.
Zurich is certainly on the right track to become one of Europe’s gourmet destinations. I will definitely be back to discover more restaurants and return to old favourites. For first-timers, the Food Zurich festival is a fantastic introduction to the city’s diverse tastes, and this year’s event, scheduled for 24th May to 3rd June, will get appetites soaring. Bon appétit.
Zurich Black Book
Food Zurich | www.foodzurich.com
Jelmoli | www.jelmoli.ch
LaSalle | www.lasalle-restaurant.ch
John Baker | www.johnbaker.ch
25hours Hotel Langestrasse | www.25hours-hotels.com
ooo Rooftop Restaurant | www.ooo-zh.ch
The Dolder Grand | www.thedoldergrand.com
Haus Hiltl | www.hiltl.ch
Max Chocolatier | www.maxchocolatier.com