There are approximately ten days a year when a Houstonian's thoughts turn to the comforts of cold-weather food -- solid, caloric, somehow reassuring in the face of a chilly universe. On such rare occasions, I find myself pining for the conservative verities of the Swiss Inn: a primal plate of earthy, melted raclette cheese; a glass of good cabernet; a wienerschnitzel of such refinement that it would pass muster among the picky haute bourgeois clientele of Figlmuller's in Vienna.
An almost comically proper Spring Branch neighborhood spot -- not to be confused with the clubby Galleria-area dinosaur, the Swiss Chalet -- the Swiss Inn is not about culinary thrills. It's about quiet food that, if it fails to make your blood race, warms it and makes the world seem a more comfortable, orderly place. Certainly the restaurant itself is as orderly and crisp as a Swiss watch, with its red and white linens, blond wood, and Swiss banners all in a row. Even the clientele is of that prosperous, besuited suburban stripe that conjures up balanced checkbooks and sound investments. And the menu is such an old-school document, rife with cream sauces and medallions of this or that, that to spy sun-dried tomatoes in the description of one dish seems shocking. Fashionable mahi mahi may show up as a special, but rest assured that it will wear an unfashionable bearnaise coat.
Fortunately the Swiss Inn has pleasant enough food that its resolutely old-fashioned quality can be savored as a novelty. Snails in an herbal garlic butter have such a brisk, briny edge that they remind you of the crucial distinction between an old chestnut and a classic; and they are hot and steamy enough to mitigate any winter night. So is the soothing Alpine raclette, nutty-tasting and satisfyingly ropy, its faintly farmy aroma announcing it as Serious Cheese. The raclette comes melted on rye toast as an appetizer, or in more elemental and uncompromising form: by the molten plateful, to be consumed with satiny-sweet boiled red potatoes and sharp little French cornichon pickles.
All the raclette wants to make a suitable winter supper for two is a couple of big, authoritatively dressed salads. Alas, the Swiss Inn offers ditsy little chopped-lettuce dinner salads adorned with a tart, curried cream. Not bad, but too tearoomish to stand up to the gutsy raclette. Remedial greens work is in order.
Chicken fried steak nuts (and I use that noun advisedly) should avail themselves of the Swiss Inn's veal wienerschitzel, which lops over the edge of the plate like any good CFS should. There the resemblance of these cousins ends: wafer-thin, beautifully browned in the crispest shell of fine-textured crumbs, this wienerschnitzel is to chicken-fried steak as Princess Di is to Fergie. Gravy? No way. The traditional squeeze of fresh lemon is enough to put this baby over the top.
Equally well-mannered was one night's special of pork medallions with oyster mushrooms in the gentlest cognac cream, an unassuming but likable dish. With strangely characterless fettucine (excellent texture, scant flavor) it made for one of those pale, white plates endemic to Germanic climes.
Of course, you can always go for an all-brown palette, a predilection Texans share with Germanic types. As in kalbsbratwurst, a slightly too-salty veal sausage in an oniony, mahogany-hued wine sauce, accessorized with browned roesti potatoes that are almost terrific. Almost, because although this traditional grated potato cake is deliciously shot through with bacon and onion (an addition that will cost you 85 cents extra, if you please), the potatoes can seem insufficiently cooked in the center. Remedial browning is in order.
Any museum of American pop cuisine would have to feature beef fondue, that Swiss import by way of France (nee fondue bourguignonne) that was the ultimate party dish of the l960s, when ambitious housewives and new brides acquired enough fondue pots to jam untold landfills. The world of the Swiss Inn is one in which beef fondue never went away, although a sample makes you wonder why. It's a silly dish, really, in which diners plunge perfectly good hunks of steak into a pot of boiling oil. Inevitably the meat winds up with a gratuitously oily taste and texture, compounded by the fatty sauces that accompany it.
The Swiss Inn version squelched whatever lingering nostalgia I harbored for my mom's fondue. Hers was freshly, generously cut and cosmetically rosy; this was pre-cut, unphotogenically darkened, and rendered into small pieces that exacerbated the boiled-in-oil effect. Uninspired sauces didn't help matters. Like bell bottoms, beef fondue is a phenomenon that should be allowed to rest in peace.
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(Cheese fondue, which the restaurant also offers, makes more culinary sense; those who long for the communal and undeniably festive fondue experience should go this route instead.)
Speaking of festive, the Swiss Inn's dairy-crazed desserts have a way of making me feel like a pampered child at a really swell birthday party. The coupe Danemark is a cloud-light confection of vanilla ice cream, feathery whipped cream and the thinnest bitter-Swiss-chocolate syrup to be administered from a tiny pitcher. Tart raspberries in a frothy vanilla sauce are run under the broiler to make a gratin, then centered with a globe of vanilla ice cream.
Shun the stodgily-crusted strudel, with its oddly desiccated apple slices, in favor of the restaurant's unusual apple beignets: slightly puffy, flattened tussocks of tartly juicy apples fried in a beer batter and embellished with vanilla sauce and cream. Ice cream, however pleasurable, won't take the chill off; these beignets will.
During the course of an evening here, you are likely to see the handsome young chef, Alois Dober, making the rounds of his stalwart regulars. They do not crowd the two dining rooms; indeed, you can walk in without a reservation even on a weekend night, which gives the place a certain value in the context of modern Houston life. So does the fact that you can actually conduct a conversation in these serenely un-with-it surroundings -- perhaps the most compelling argument of all for unfashionability.