Then there's Matterhorn, a Swiss restaurant that has cornered the city's fondue market beyond all possible doubt. The place looks exactly like an alpine chalet, and may be the cleanest restaurant in San Francisco: I'd eat off the floor if the reward were adequate. In fact, I could probably run a handkerchief over every inch of pale, imported, exquisitely crafted knotty pine, over the gorgeous, handblown light fixtures and quaint miniature cows, without picking up so much as a smudge. Matterhorn is where nice people go on dates, the place where young women can be overheard talking about Europe as they dip bread into giant pots of molten cheese. It's where you treat your parents to something different, but safe. The food has a classic, timeless feel to it, polished to such a fine hue after Matterhorn's seven years in business that I have yet to see a crumb that was anything less than perfect.
Perhaps such precision should be expected from the Swiss, a people known more for craftsmanship and a sober, Germanic attention to detail than for the never-ending culinary innovation of their French neighbors or the exuberance of the Italians to the south. Matterhorn owners Andrew and Brigitte Thorpe hail from the Zurich area (in the German part of Switzerland), and the menu shows a strong German slant with hints of French and Italian. Andrew, the chef, honed his craft in Swiss hotels before immigrating to the States; Brigitte runs the front of the house and oversees an extensive wine list that has earned Wine Spectator awards of excellence for the past four years. The list reads like a catalog: entire pages of half-bottles, California whites, French reds, specialty wines (Riesling, Gewürztraminer), and, of course, Swiss vintages. Though my friend Cynthia was dubious of the last category, we chose the Cayas syrah du Valais '97, a velvety-smooth ambrosia with strong notes of plum and a subtle, spicy finish -- one of the finest wines I've ever had in a restaurant for less than $40.
Before I go further, a warning: Vegans won't find much satisfaction in Matterhorn's meat- and cheese-centric menu. Another warning: On weeknights the restaurant won't take orders after 8:30, and if you think I'm kidding, we saw Brigitte turn two parties, one of which claimed to be Swiss, away after the deadline had passed. Beyond that, be prepared for a long meal, and be sure to hit the gym the next day.
We started with dense, house-baked white bread served with a flawlessly ruffled dab of chived butter, then began the meal proper with a Swiss farmhouse salad -- a lightly dressed blend of bitter endive, frisée, and baby spinach tossed with sautéed mushrooms and smoky lardons (blanched, fried bacon). I didn't know what to expect from our pork carpaccio (pork being a meat that should never be served raw, for health reasons), but when it arrived it made perfect sense: thin, oddly spongy slices of cooked, smoked loin drizzled with a delicate raspberry vinaigrette, topped with sliced almonds and flecks of Italian parsley.
Matterhorn offers 10 cheese fondues, all flavored with white wine, garlic, and (except for the Highlander, which is flavored with scotch) the pungent cherry brandy known as kirschwasser. You can choose the Smoky One (smoked cheeses), the Spicy One (cheese with peppers), the Healthy One (Swiss cheeses and organic herbs), or the Mature One (Gruyère). Did I mention that the names get cute in a German sort of way?
We selected two fondues -- the Original One (Emmentaler and Gruyère) and the Oh La La (French raclette and Camembert) -- which was far, far too much food for two people. Pots of cheese arrived with a basket of bread cubes, dipping forks, and side orders of plump new potatoes and tart green apples. Since fondues don't travel well, we did our best to eat everything. It's a leisurely ritual: Moving from one pot to the other, we discussed every possible subject we could think of over the course of the next hour as our twin pools of cheese gradually shrank. At first we preferred the Original for its sharp, firm bite, but we eventually decided in favor of the soft, creamy subtlety of the Oh La La.
If you don't like cheese, Matterhorn also offers 10 entrees -- veal sausage, veal cordon blue, liver in a Madeira sauce, pork tenderloin, lamb chops, pesto-crusted salmon (the only non-meat dish), or an excellent Züri gschnätzeltes, which translated as thin slices of veal sautéed in a creamy mushroom sauce and served with pea pods, baby carrots, and a side of good, crisp potatoes roesti (a sort of shredded potato pancake). A side of tender, buttery, homemade spaetzle is a must. If you really want to go to town, try one of the meat fondues: the Chinois (sliced beef cooked in vegetable broth), the Bacchus (sliced beef with red wine--vegetable broth), or the one I ended up going back for, the Fondue Bourguignonne.
This is where you live large -- a heap of cubed, raw beef that could feed a young lion, a pot of simmering corn oil, and small dishes of potatoes, pickled onions, cornichons, artichoke hearts, garlicky marinated mushrooms, black olives, kiwi, and pineapple. Throw in the dipping sauces -- creamy tartar, curry, horseradish, paprika, whole-grain mustard, a lingonberry sauce, and mango chutney -- and perhaps a side order of chicken, pork, scallops, or shrimp, and I can just about guarantee you'll gain a pound. Though some people may find it unnerving to have a pot of boiling oil in the middle of their table, Brigitte has assured me the pot never tips over. Cubes of meat hit the oil with a sizzle, then emerge perfectly browned about 20 seconds later, a sort of blank canvas on which you can create your own masterpieces -- curry/tartar sauce, lingonberry/mustard, paprika/chutney with an artichoke heart chaser, or whatever your heart desires.
To finish, peruse the extensive selection of ports, brandies, eaux de vie, and single malts, or indulge in the world-renowned Chateau d'Yquem sauternes. At $305 a bottle, that last was a bit out of my price range, so we chose a delightful Swiss coffee with cream and kirschwasser, plus a cordial of fiery, bracing grappa di nebola. A mousse duo -- one made with white chocolate, one with dark -- proved fluffy and rich and came drizzled with chocolate sauce and a light vanilla cream. If you're still in a dipping mood, try the chocolate fondue for two: a pot of bittersweet and milk chocolates painstakingly etched with white chocolate, served with an impressive array of dipping fruits (cantaloupe, kiwi, grapes, strawberries, pear, green apple, and, my favorite, banana). Like many of Matterhorn's offerings, the dessert isn't the most breathtakingly innovative we've seen, but when those long, cold summer nights descend on the city, I can't think of a finer place to be than huddled around a warm pot of chocolate in a faux Swiss chalet.