Switzerland imposes only a few lingering sensations upon the mnemonic taste bud, but they're powerful ones. There's Swiss chocolate, a Willie Wonka destination for children who've never heard of Belgium. There's Swiss cheese with holes, a visual icon for generations of Tom & Jerry aficionados, and fondue, as visceral as an early '70s time capsule filled with turtlenecks and pukka shells. Toss in veal cordon bleu, air-dried cold cuts, and some fragile, effervescent wines and you've just about covered it. You wouldn't think much gustatory pleasure could be assembled out of these random elements, but the Matterhorn on Van Ness serves up a lengthy menu of splendid Swiss dishes. So I had certain expectations when we arrived at Luzern's storefront location. What I got instead, for the most part, was food as neutral as the country itself.
When you walk in, you'll see a small bar area decorated with colorful postcards of the old country; beyond that is the restaurant proper, which in mood and décor is not unlike a nice motel dining room in Anaheim. Fake-wood paneling, acoustic-tile ceilings, and an erratically framed selection of Luzern-centric artwork create a sterile yet reassuring ambience. The best things about the place are the professional yet uncommon characters who staff it: a prickly hostess here, an attentive busboy there, a waiter with the delivery of a seasoned stand-up comedian, and a waitress filled with under-the-breath wisecracks and motherly warnings against eating too much or not enough. The overall effect is unpretentious, an ideal setting for the sort of forgettable home cooking your mother used to make.
Switzerland's neighbors have strong cultural egos, a situation that has made it culinarily eclectic as well as wary of outsiders. In addition to its 25 regional cantons and a linguistic melting pot that includes German, French, Italian, Romansch, and a variation on German called Schwyzerdütsch, there is Zurich and its breweries to the north, Lugano and its pasta to the south, and Gruyères and its pots de crème to the west. (Liechtenstein, it seems, has made no determinable gustatory impact.) Although Luzern the city is situated in the middle of the country, Luzern the restaurant bears an unmistakable French accent. Pâté, escargots, steak au poivre, canard à l'orange, and crème caramel are among the menu's specialties (as is Wiener schnitzel, a culinary nod to Austria's eastern presence). We began with the pâté maison, which as it turned out was one of the best things on the menu: dense and silky like a slab of creamy velvet, with bits of truffle adding earthy texture. The tender escargots were also impressive, served in the traditional manner with tools for easy shell-disposal and a butter sauce thick with garlic.
Another appetizer, the buendner teller, comes out of Switzerland's great cured-meat tradition. Beef is spiced, brined, and dried in the mountain air of the Graubünden canton near Austria; the thinly sliced result is wine-red, delicately chewy, and possessed of a mildly pungent, essentially beefy flavor. At Luzern, it was served with an amazingly taste-free prosciutto that in no way detracted from the beef. The shrimp cocktail was equally forgettable: cafeteria-level bay shrimp that were so translucent one of our party was afraid to sample them. (It came with good horseradishy cocktail sauce, though.) Soup and salad preceded each entree, and the latter was terrific: soft butter lettuce dressed simply with a spiky, lemony vinaigrette. But the potato-leek soup, while creamy and piping hot, had an institutional quality and no distinct flavor.
There are two fondues on the menu, one beef and one cheese; we opted for the latter. The dish originated as a means to use up stale bread and dried-out cheese, and in that sense Luzern's version was absolutely traditional. Aside from a healthy dollop of white wine, the fondue tasted like nothing in particular; it had no trace of garlic or kirschwasser or that sharp, pungent oomph that makes Gruyère and Emmentaler so globally desirable. The veal cordon bleu was a poor representative of Switzerland's succulent native dish: Stuffed with ham and cheese, breaded and fried, the house interpretation featured a soggy coating, dried-out beef, and a uniformity of taste and texture that made meat and filling hard to differentiate. After all this indistinction, the poached salmon fillet was a pleasure -- moist and flaky, it was sauced with a quasi-Newburg studded with tiny shrimp.
The desserts were mostly forgettable. There was a chocolate mousse that was sweet and light and not particularly chocolaty -- a real letdown in a Swiss restaurant. The crème caramel was eggy and bland, no better or worse than any other crème caramel you've ever encountered. The meringue glacé required the services of a steak knife, although the ice cream and whipped cream and drizzle of chocolate and the maraschino cherry on top were very nice. The house-made cheesecake, on the other hand, featured a tart top layer, a moist and tasty graham cracker crust, and plenty of fromage flavor in between. We accompanied our desserts with an overly sweetened Swiss herbal tea, Folgers coffee, and something called Swiss coffee, which appeared to be Folgers coffee with Swiss Miss stirred in.
Many of Switzerland's best wines are too delicate to travel beyond its borders. Our 1997 Dôle Chevaliers was certainly youthful, but not in a good way -- it was light, like a slightly boozy soda pop, with an insipid aftertaste. It's the only Swiss red on an uninspiring 24-item list that also includes two Swiss whites and a few German, French, and California vintages. (Seven are available by the glass.) I was also disappointed by the absence of Swiss beers. Not only is Switzerland the site of Europe's oldest brewery, but it also makes the strongest bottom-fermenting beer in the world (Samichlaus, at 13.7 percent alcohol). According to local custom, several of its beers are brewed only by the light of the full moon. Give me a couple of those and a fondue with some body to it and some of that rich, creamy chocolate, and I'll show you a Swiss restaurant worthy of the name.