Chou and The Marcel: two new cafes in Geneva

Both these cafes are on rue des Eaux-Vives, but there the resemblance stops.

The Marcel is a French chain which opened up its (first) Geneva branch on Friday. As you can see from their menu, the prices in Geneva are more expensive. Not a lot more, but given Paris’s reputation for expensiveness, I’m curious to know if this was necessary.

The Marcel is dark and very noisy. Even though, along with everybody else there today we shouted, I could scarcely hear my companions. Chou is light and quiet.

The Marcel seems to be making an attempt at an Anglo-Saxon cafe, both in style and menu. For us this didn’t work. The coffee doesn’t stand up to the better places in Geneva and we found the food disappointing. One of us had The Full English Breakfast at 19CHF. It was crowded onto a plate too small for the food, but at the same time we could see it was substantially smaller than such a dish would have been in Australia. Notably it came without toast, though toast was listed as an ingredient. I might add that the cafe latte was approximately half a glass of coffee, with about an equal amount of froth.

The biggest disappointment was the cinnamon roll, which had almost no cinnamon taste and was heavy going. One of my companions who declined to taste it said it looked industrial which made me wonder what its pedigree was. Certainly at 7CHF, I would much rather have had two of Paradiso’s light cinnamon rolls. A bagel with cream cheese and avocado was okay, not special, but safe. I am undecided on whether a few pomegranate seeds scattered through worked.

No doubt The Marcel will cope with these comments. It was packed and presumably is going to thrive.

Chou has all the grace and delicacy that The Marcel lacks. Everything on its (small) food menu is refined in looks and taste. Coffee from a barista whose pedigree includes Paradiso and Boreal is at the best end for Geneva. Tea is good quality with a better range than in most cafes which focus on coffee – and therefore think that they don’t have to cater to tea drinkers – and your pot is refilled, for which I am most appreciative. The decor is light and for anybody looking for a lovely place to read a book whilst taking some refreshment, this is the place for you.

No doubt there is room for both these places. I hope I was never young enough to think that having to shout through a meal is acceptable, but maybe I’ve just got a bad memory. For me, it’s Chou every time….I leave you with their exquisite apricot and matcha tea sweet temptation:

Apricot matcha tea chou

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How can you mess up duck?

Mary and I were in Montreux recently and stopped to have lunch on the water at Cafe Bellagio. The setting was worth the entire price of the fixed price lunch. The food wasn’t dire, but Mary ordered the duck and they really messed it up. It was breast, extremely rare with skin on. The thing is, the skin had been cooked all of about 10 seconds. It’s one thing for the meat to be almost bloody rare, but the skin needs to be crisp – isn’t that the point of duck? – and the process of doing that melts away that thick layer of fat that otherwise you have also served up, raw, to the diner. What she got served was impossible to cut and would have been disgusting to eat.

Just to make sure I was on firm ground here, since I haven’t cooked duck for a few years, I bought a duck breast and cooked it for lunch today. I put it skin down in a non-stick pan at medium-high heat and kept an eye on it while making a salad. Turned it over now and again, cut it in half at some point and stood the middle, quite raw parts so they sat down in the pan to sear them, then back on the skin side. The fat melts into the pan, the skin becomes crisp and it is up to you to decide how well done you want the meat. The skin will be happy with about any amount of cooking. I ended up with something the common side of rare, which was just what I wanted.

As well as the salad, I’d mixed together a bowl of fig chutney, sweet chilli sauce, a teasp of honey and some old but nonetheless extremely sharp Spanish sherry vinegar. When the duck was done, I added this concoction to the pan, mixed it into the duck fat (latest advice is that it’s good for you) and then served it as a sauce next to the duck pieces. Precise quantities to taste. This was a random collection of ingredients, just what came out of the cupboard when I put my hand in, but it was good. Sweet, hot and sour – a bit of all these and you can’t go wrong.

So, let me reword that question. I can see from this restaurant experience how you can mess up duck. But why would you mess up duck? That is a mystery to me.

Le Grand Quai – restaurant review

I’ve more or less given up on eating out in Geneva, you have to pay so much to get food that isn’t awful, by which I mean you can get something inedible for 40CHF (about $45US). I’ve spoken about this more than once, so I shall leave it there. Nonetheless, we were tempted by a buyclub.ch offer for Le Grand Quai. It entitled us to 2 entrees, 2 mains and 2 side dishes for 89CHF. We were required to pay at least 5CHF each extra for drinks. That was not hard to do, since even water was more than that.

In practice we were tempted by the cocktails, which although plain in presentation, were excellent quality and on the lethal side. Indeed, I found myself several times during the next hour or two trying to cut through things with my knife upside down. I’d say I’m a cheap drunk, but my cocktail cost 21CHF….so not that cheap. But not unreasonable for Geneva, I should hasten to add. Indeed, we would consider their bar as a place to go, but for the fact that it comes with a big screen and I for one decline to go to restaurants and bars that display them. I would have thought a 5 star hotel above that, and the bar itself is beautifully laid out belying the basic fact that the screen turns it into a sports bar. Uggh.

Scallops at Le Grand Quai
picture from the restaurant site

I understand the chef, Adriano Venturini is passionate about the quality of his ingredients, which is so very important, as he appreciates, given the simplicity of the dishes. Between us we tried:

saint-jacques, chou romanesco, vinaigrette à la truffe noire 25
foie gras, fruits de saison, éclats d’amandes 27
thon rouge mi-cuit au poivre de sichuan, réduction de campari 45
loup de mer, purée de pommes de terre à l’huile d’olive, girolles en persillade 49

It was a pleasure to eat seafood that had not been overcooked – maybe a first for me in Europe. Accompaniments were light, a compliment to, rather than a distraction from, the sea tastes. The side dishes ordered were sauted spinach and steamed vegetables – nothing special about them and I don’t think they added to the dishes. They would have been more appropriate with the meat on the menu. Still, having said that, we’d paid for them anyway and I always feel like God’s given me a bit of a tick when I eat spinach.

Bread was good quality with truly excellent butter on the side and the meal started with a complimentary crab salad, pretty and tasty.

You can feel rather unwelcome presenting a discount voucher at some restaurants. This was far from the case at Le Grand Quai. The staff were friendly and attentive, almost as if they realised what the issue was. They speak excellent English should you need it.

For my money the only thing they did wrong was in their timing. I would have thought it was obvious that food shouldn’t be served until after cocktails have been drunk. Or is that just me?

All in all, an excellent European dining experience and good value even at full price, if you are around this neck of the woods.