16 MAY 1992, Page 41

Park Hotel, Vitznau

OF COURSE it is right and proper that food should be the restaurant critic's chief concern. But it would be foolish to insist that it alone accounted for a restaurant's appeal. It's not just that most of us know of the sort of places, usually local, we go to often and fondly, but which nonetheless we might think twice about before boastfully inviting a visiting French food snob to come along too: that, after all, is usually explained by habit, laziness or gratitude for a warm welcome. But sometimes satisfacto- ry food is enough to make a restaurant exceptional.

That is to say, if a lush Swiss landscape leaves you cold, if you are unmoved by the sight of a flat blue lake set amongst the mountains, by the prospect of drawing your chair up at a table in this picture, then do not bother to go to the Park Hotel in Vitz- nau. No, the food is not bad, but the beauty of the place is the point. Vitznau is one of those minuscule 19th-century resorts (com- plete with mountain railway) that one might quite reasonably presume to be self- consciously suffused with that quaint and soulless Swiss charm, but which turns out to possess a certain rakish elegance. And the lake and alp-studded drive is stunning. I'm rather bad at geography, so the most pre- cise I can be about where Vitznau is situat- ed is to say that it's about an hour and a quarter's drive from Zurich and 20 min- utes' from Lucerne. If you're in or passing through either of those places, The Park Hotel most certainly vaut le detour — or lohnt sich der Umweg, this being German- speaking Switzerland.

The hotel has two restaurants, but only the fancier of the two, the Quatre Cantons, was open during my stay. This is kitted out with the stock frou-finery one finds in the same sort of place over here, with its peach napery and pastel-hued paint-effect. But it is not completely done-over in luxy style: a certain well-scrubbed Swissness, a brisk- ness of outlook and demeanour dominates. Menus are explained in French and Ger- man, which serves further to deflate pre- tension. I don't share the English taste for ridiculing the German language, but some-

how seeing Supreme de Canard translated into the straightforward and wholesome German form of Entenbrust is a wonderful way of undercutting the curlicues.

The a la carte menu changes according to season, but if you bowl up while they're still serving their Friblings-Spezialitaten, you should without doubt start with the gnocchi. These are flavoured with lemon and parmesan, cooked till springy-soft, then lightly fried in butter, until they gleam like Chinese dumplings, before being coat- ed in a peppery rocket sauce. The duck breast, or Entenbrust, which came next was a perfect specimen: the meat dense but not fibrous, the honeyed sauce a deep glossy amber, the whole not sweet, despite the accompaniment of raisin-studded, bis- cuit-sized pancakes, but exuding a warm, mellow tartness. The pudding trolley dragged the standard down: the chocolate mousse was like whipped-up Aero.

The menu gastronomique, at SwFr89, is a good bet. Slices of rabbit, just cooked to tender rosiness, served a degree or so above room temperature and arranged on a plate with a mound of fleshy golden cepes, came first; it would be difficult for further courses not to disappoint after such a beginning. The parsley soup which fol- lowed was a slightly pallid affair, and the tortellini which floated — or rather sank — in it were bland and stodgy. Medallions of veal came next, in a sauce deepened with duck livers and surrounded with spiky asparagus tips. This upped the stakes con- siderably again. Next, a round of ivory- white goat cheese blistered under a grill and served with a neatly fanned poached pear; I could have done without the poached pear. Once again, the pudding was a let-down. This time, puff pastry — so dry it splintered — was blanketed with vanilla- sugary whipped cream, of the sort one wouldn't be surprised to find coming out of an aerosol, and a few damp strawberries.

I discovered in myself rather a taste for Swiss wine. We started with a Château d'Auvernier, an expansively fruity white with a slight spritz, and went on to a half bottle of the Yvorne, a soft and squashy red. Dinner for two came to SwFr210, which I reckon is about £80. The meat was so, straightforwardly good that I should think the ordinary restaurant, which seems to be a kind of a grill room with knobs on, would be well worth going to. And in sum- mer you can sit outside, eating on the ter- race at the edge of the lake.

Park Hotel, 6354 Vitznau, Switzerland; tel 010 41 41 83 01 00

Nigella Lawson