L'Ermitage at Vufflens-le-Chateau

Guests are first seated in the antique-filled salon on the ground floor, offered an aperitif (12 Sfr. for a glass of Chasselas made especially for M. Ravet - 20 Sfr. for a flute of champagne) and presented with the menu. One of several formally dressed young waiters are available for menu consultation and one of them, or Mme. Ravet, takes your order.

After a few minutes your party is invited upstairs to the dining room. We went via the operating-room-clean kitchen where approximately a dozen men in white chef's gear with red toques furiously chopped, kneaded, blended, sliced and sautéed under the watchful eye of M. Ravet himself, who nodded and smiled as we passed through; the only person in the kitchen who had the time to acknowledge our presence. Though all were working flat-out, barely under control, the scene was perfectly ordered, unmarred by dirty dishes, utensils or spilled puddles of sauce or stray ingredients.

There were perhaps 30 diners at large tables, well-spaced over two high-ceilinged rooms adjoined by a wide pass-through. The entire process from aperitif to final bonbon took over three hours. There is one sitting and we didn't finish until after 11:30 p.m.

As you may already have surmised, L'Ermitage is expensive. The restaurant more so than the hotel. Only a serious "foodie," or someone not worried about the cost of things, will be comfortable spending the money it takes to dine at the Ravet table.

The "A" menu, La Saga Des Gourmandises, is seven courses, not including a selection of candies at the end and the delectable little warm-up plate of "kisses from the kitchen" that is brought for nibbling while perusing the menu, and costs a cool 170 Sfr. ($150) per person. Our choice was one step down, Le Panier de Saint-Fortunat, another multi-course adventure again, including the starting and finishing delicacies for 115 Sfr. ($102); that is unless one chooses foie gras or caviar as a first course. In that case the numbers are 135 Sfr. ($119) and 150 Sfr. ($133) respectively.

We were so busy enjoying the food, our own conversation, and the wonderful mood and aura of the room that we lost count of the courses. The menu says five but there seemed to be more. Perhaps most memorable among them were small rounds of duck and goose liver pate, so smooth, so subtle and so absolutely delicious they beggar description - at least by this writer. The duck, particularly, which had a slightly smoky flavor, was off the chart. We were somewhat surprised when M. Martray, the sommelier, suggested sauterne - traditionally a dessert wine - with this course, but it was an inspired pairing.

There was a small piece of char, a white lake fish, bathed in a warm broth flavored with chervil, and surrounded by tiny bits of morel mushroom, tomato and wispy asparagus tips. Next came a marinated, spit-roasted duckling from Bresse and after that the magnificent cheese cart, offering perhaps 25 or 30 choices from France and Switzerland. Just when it seemed we could do no more, revival came in the form of fruity and refreshing house-made sorbets, the opening round in a series of sweet dishes. Now, two weeks after the meal, these desserts are just a blur of remembered tastes: fresh strawberries and rhubarb, flaky pastry, thick cream, honey, mocca, caramel and, of course, chocolate. The ingredients sound ordinary, but in the hands of the brilliant Ravet team they are shaped into things celestial.

The service was, in a word, perfect. Each course arrived at just the right time and, after we had had a bite or two, someone arrived to explain it. Everyone, including both Ravets, the sommelier, the waiters, were unfailingly polite and helpful, without a trace of condescension.

Was it the best meal we've ever had? Taken as a whole, it was probably our finest dining experience ever. As for the food on the plate, let's put it in our top five with the likes of Auberge de l'Ill in Illhaeusern (France), La Grappe d'Or in Lausanne and Les Sources des Alpes in Leukerbad.

Michelin gives L'Ermitage two stars. Fifteen minutes down the road in Crissier, the famed Girardet is Switzerland's only three-star restaurant. But not everyone agrees with Michelin. Gemütlichkeit's not so scientific survey of gourmands - three Swiss and one American ex-patriot - turned up a slight, but unanimous, preference for L'Ermitage. Each gave same reason: atmosphere. Girardet's ambiance, they say, suffers from the fact that by referring to it as the world's best restaurant, many food and restaurant writers, perhaps putting down the real or perceived arrogance of some of France's great three-star establishments, have turned Girardet into a tourist attraction. Whatever. L'Ermitage is very special.

• Address: Hôtel-Restaurant de L'Ermitage, CH-1134, Vufflens-le-Château
Phone: 021/802 2191
Fax: 021/802 2240
Location: Tiny village in the vineyards
Guestrooms: Nine total, seven doubles and two larger "suites"
Proprietor: Bernard & Ruth Ravet
Prices: All rooms 250 to 400 Sfr. ($221 to $354)
Facilities: Restaurant, terrace, garden
Credit Cards: All
Disabled: Difficult
Closed: 24 December to 12 January. Restaurant closed Sunday and Monday. Breakfast served to hotel guests every day.
Parking: Free
Hotel Rating: Excellent 17/20 G
Restaurant Rating: Excellent 19/20 G

April 1995