Successful Suisse Sushi Soiree: Lusso meets Nobu
It all seemed so easy. After landing, this is how it looked on my itinerary:
11.13am: Zurich Airport to Zurich HB (Platform 3)
11.37am: Zurich HB to Chur (Platform 7)
12.58: Chur to St Moritz (Platform 10)
Arrive St Moritz 14.55pm*
*(A hotel transfer will be waiting for you)
However, in the effort to get from my house to Gatwick to Zurich, I’d had to get up at 3.30am, mainly due to an overzealous minicab firm. Has anyone else ever got to an airport two hours early for a 7am flight? No? I win. Pyrrhically. Thus, by the time I board the Albula/Bernina Express at Chur, my mental faculties have begun to fade. This was a shame, since I was alert for the dull standard train out of Zurich. The Albula is a totally different kettle of rail porn. Part of Switzerland’s Rhaetian Railway network, this serpentine narrow gauge single line snakes through some of the most spectacular vistas anywhere in the world.
The route climbs over 1000 metres in less than 70 km, over impossible achievements of engineering, such as the breathtaking Landwasser Viaduct, near Filisur, an arc of dark limestone, 65 metres high. Then there are the 54 other bridges and some 39 tunnels, including a near 6km penetration through the Albula Pass. I slump in the Panoramic carriage, mouth agape – half out of exhaustion and half out of drooling wonder. The fact that this is such a precious sight – UNESCO has listed the entire Albula valley as a World Heritage site – alongside that this was all accomplished at the very end of the 19th century soon forces me to focus tired eyes.
Luckily, that asterii is approaching. As we ascend through snowy cantons, each more picturesque than the last, the Swiss promise of a journey run like clockwork bears fruit.
I arrive dead on time and stagger out of St Moritz’s chocolate box station. Here is the *. Waiting for me is a gleaming extended wheelbase Rolls-Royce Phantom accompanied by a chauffeur in peaked cap and red, gold and navy great coat. Snazzy doesn’t cover it. I sink into cream leather for the long journey of about 500 metres to my destination. It was still worth it. That said, so’s the destination.
Badrutt’s Palace effectively is St. Moritz. Before the grand opening in 1896, the sleepy village by the lake was remembered as the site where an epiphanal Roman centurion of Egyptian origin was martyred in the third century. Things only really changed in September 1864, when a local hotelier, Johannes Badrutt, made a wager with four British summer guests: that if they returned in winter and preferred it, he would reimburse their travel costs. They did and they did and he did and winter tourism was conclusively born. The first European Ice-Skating Championships came in 1882, the first bobsleigh run and race in 1890. Newer events, like ice polo and Olympic events give way in summer to altitude training for distance athletes, particularly cyclists, runners, and race walkers.
The town maintains an air of graceful high-end insouciance that no doubt comes from having its cultural and commercial foundations rooted in the grand hotel tradition. Badrutt’s dominates, partially by reputation, and partially by location – nestled as it is, slap-bang on the shore of the elliptical Lake St Moritz, equidistant between its two ends. Its distinctive mountain-shaped central tower that serves as the town’s emblem dominates the built skyline, mirroring the real star of the vista, Piz Rosatsch, all 10,000 feet of her. The Badrutt experience is therefore about both what happens in the exceedingly fresh air and also under its carved wooden architraves and panels. The hotel boasts seven restaurants, including the bustling earthly pleasures of Chesa Veglia, the town’s oldest farmhouse, dating back to 1658, which houses a fabulous pizzeria, a grill and two bars. Spas, service and housekeeping are all of an elevated level that one only hopes to find, but rarely does.
However, it’s the hotel’s newest eatery that has necessitated this visit. Nobuyuki Matsuhisa – better known to you and I simply as Nobu – is arriving by private jet from Italy at the nearby Engadin Airport. As his gunmetal bird streaks across the lake for landing, I’m whisked in Badrutt’s other Roller to meet him. This beauty – a perfect specimen 1969 Phantom VI limo – lives safely underground and is available for guests to get pootled anywhere in the local environs. Abusing Switzerland’s lax attitude to smoking laws, I puff a Hoya de Monterrey Corona in the back. Thus the press who are assembled to meet Chef Nobu swarm my car, thinking I’m very much someone. When availed of that notion, they trudge off in genuine disappointment. I feel a pang of hurt.
His new venture here will be one of only six ‘Matsuhisa’ restaurants in the world with Nobu himself present in the kitchen for the first few days of service. Luckily, over a few samples, we get a brief window to chat in his rather reassuringly expensive-looking new dining room, designed by, of course, Martin Brudnizki. The maestro of warm, welcoming lounge-type elegant eateries has created an open space for 108 guests that borrows from the best of the 1930s, 1940s and 1960s. A sushi bar showcases the kitchen behind it and over to the side a cocktail bar that evokes the Ivy or Dean St Townhouse.
I first ask the master of ‘kokoro’, or ‘feeling with heart’ what the main difference is between the Nobu chain and Matsuhisa. ‘Simple,’ he shoots back. ‘No De Niro!’. In fact, Matsuhisa was his first solo venture in LA, opened in 1987. Robert De Niro was the regular customer and fan who chased him down for years, with the canny sense of opportunity he’s brought to his other business ventures. They have collaborated on the Nobu brand since 1993. He talks in an English still charmingly faltering after all those years working in America (and appearing in Scorcese’s Casino and Austin Powers), but warmth and openness will break through any language barrier.
Raised by his mother – his father having died when he was eight – Nobu first trained at a Tokyo sushi parlour, Matsuei. In a familiar echo of later events, an enthusiastic and entrepreneurial regular encouraged him, and at 24 he moved to Peru, where a large immigrant Japanese community needed the taste of home. How did he find Lima? ‘Eye opening!’ he recalls. ‘A brand-new experience. And fish was never in short supply – back then, anyway.’ But with few Japanese ingredients available, he had to improvise using Spanish-infused Mediterranean ingredients. ‘Of course, I don’t call it “fusion”‘. Oh? What do you call it? ‘Nobu-style, of course!’.
He recalls how he developed this style by utilising empathy, listening to the demands of customers and pleasing them. He developed his ‘new-style sashimi’ when he cooked some raw sushi for a nervous American lady, in increasingly hot olive oil, to her eventual great delight. This reveals that sense of care and love of pleasing that marks Nobu’s own kokoro. However, that good heart has been tested. Before Los Angeles, he broke out on his own to another growth market, Alaska. In 1970, oil pipelines were creating a burgeoning economy. Just as it was due to open on Thanksgiving Day, and still uninsured, his new Anchorage restaurant burnt to the ground.
‘How did that affect you?’ I ask innocently. ‘I almost killed myself,’ he grimly recalls, nervously taking mints from a small tin. ‘I couldn’t eat, drink, or even talk and I was on the edge…’
He positions the tin on the edge of the table and insinuates it teetering. ‘But you didn’t…’ I start to ask. ‘The babies. Eight months old, and 18 months, were playing around me, happy to actually see their dad, because I’d been working so hard, they hadn’t seen me much. And I heard a voice from God in the laughter of my daughters. My family saved my life.’ I ask how he balances family life with an international empire of more than 30 venues that take him away for 10 months of the year. ‘I’m still married after 42 years because I’m away 10 months a year!’ he half-jokes. ‘But in my chefs, I have family all over the world. They are all Matsuhisas.’
He shows this sense of warmth at the sake ceremony that night that marks the opening of the venue, mingling, cooking, shaking hands – even indulging my De Niro impression and then pulling his own version of the famous grimace. It’s better than mine, but then he does know the man. The marriage of Matsuhisa’s clean, elegant food and Badrutt’s old world elegance will no doubt be considered a winning fusion … sorry, a Nobu-style success. And well worth taking planes, trains and overzealous mini cabs to get to.
Matsuhisa@Badrutt’s Palace is open from 19th December 2014 to 14th March 2015. During the summer the location can be booked for events (price on request). For more information visit www.badruttspalace.com or call +41 (0) 81 837 2661.
All-inclusive return fares with SWISS international airlines start at £124 from Birmingham, £115 from London City, £133 London Heathrow and £140 Manchester. www.swiss.com.
For the ultimate Swiss rail specialist call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30 or visit www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk.