Le Petit Lac: where even stunning views can’t distract you from the bland food

It was a glorious Sunday afternoon, sun blazing above us in a dark blue sky, a soft warm breeze in the air….  what an incredible relief after all the rain we’ve had dumped on us this year! Euphoria! And after a week of eating at home to save some cash, the inevitable finally happened: we deserved a reward!  And we wanted filets de perches du lac! What a feel good way to end a feel good day, right?

With such short notice, we got concerned about getting a reservation. On a Sunday evening. On a sunny terrace. In June. In Geneva. To have good perches du lac. Surely it would be a challenge. We acted fast, scanning through the handful of restaurants that are known to have all of the above qualities, and snagged a table overlooking the lake at Le Petit Lac in Corsier-Port. We breathed a sigh of relief knowing our cravings would soon be satisfied.

But they weren’t. The restaurant may be in a beautiful (really, stunning!) location, with a fantastic (really, breathtaking!) view… but they know that’s the main attraction. With a view like that, why bother making an effort on the food? The proof is in the plate: what comes out of their kitchen is slow, bland, and overpriced.  150chf+ for two starters, two mains, a dessert, and 3 glasses of wine. Granted, for Geneva, maybe not so shocking, but for that poor quality?  I’d rather pic-nic by the Jet d’Eau (But the location is gorgeous!)

See? Just goooorgeous!

First, a little background.

For those of you who have not been around Geneva very long, “filets de perches du lac” may mean nothing to you. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that I was told by a foreign friend of mine that where they come from, perch is a fish only served to cats! See if HE ever gets invited to dinner again!  Because here in Geneva, the perches du Lac is the canton’s darling dish.

Let’s remove the veil of ignorance though, shall we? In reality, filets de perche du lac is of the simplest dishes you can find: small perch, lightly battered, pan fried, and – traditionally at least – served under a sauce meuniere (that’s butter, lemon and parsley to you francophobes). Oh, and lest we forget, the dish comes accompanied by a plate of ABSOLUTELY DELICIOUS GENEVA FRENCH FRIES!

They say the simplest of pleasures are the best, but any really good chef knows that it is the simplest of dishes that is also the easiest to screw up. If one thing goes wrong, there is no place to hide. And if you thought all filets de perches were made equal, well, think again my friends. To a discerning diner like myself, there is much to take into consideration.

1. The perches

The most important matter of debate, for any well-versed Genevan, is the origin of the perche.  Heaven forbid they come from any other lake but our very own Lac Léman. In fact, locals are so fussy about it, that restaurants have gone so far as to lie about where the fish is from. Hate to break it to you folks, but if you see a sign for filets de perche “du lac”, it probably is from a lake – just not this particular lake. Most likely, they are from Estonia. And let’s be honest: that is probably not the end of the world. (The difference? Foreign fishy is smaller, local fishy is bigger.)

Still, when I got my swiss passport, I vowed always to ask before ordering, and so I did. In fact, the waiter was so kind as to fess up immediately: the protected season for perche from our lake was extended this year because of the weather, and so they are only serving the perches from Estonia. Fine. Good man for being upfront. But were they frozen? No, he assured us, all products are fresh. Ok. Bring it!

....

….

2. The sauce

It may seem like just butter, but it’s not. A good filet de perche comes in a lightly fragrant sauce that lifts up the delicate flavor of the fish. Butter, yes, lemon, yes, parsley, yes, but all combined in perfect harmony, with the right consistency… I’m not sure what the secrets are, but it is somehow pretty easy for cooks to screw it up.  So in addition to the traditional sauce meunière, restaurants also usually offer their own twists on the sauce, adding a touch of cream, maybe a squeeze of orange, a white wine base, or other ingredients.

3. The FRENCH FRIES!

Yes yes, the fish, the sauce, fine, but what we really came for, and what we will really judge a restaurant for, is the quality of their french fries!  THAT is the main criteria from differentiating between one restaurant and the other.

See? They even LOOK stale, bland and boring

See? They even LOOK stale, bland and boring

Putting it all together

I ultimately ordered the filets de perche du lac (d’Estonie). Le Petit Lac offered a variety of sauces, as expected, but I went for the classic, always intent on judging a restaurant by its core, not by its bells and whistles. The dish that came out was a disappointment on sight. The perches were very small, and battered in a mix that was obviously to heavy on the flour, leaving the texture of the fish cardboard dry. The sauce meunière was tasteless, as though it had been watered down, or if they somehow skipped the butter.  And the fries had that exaggerated yellow, square look. Come to think of it, they might even have been machine cut and frozen, they were so tasteless. But I was hungry, so I added a bunch of salt to everything and down the hatch it all went.

Last chance dessert

Struggling to overcome my disappointment, I gathered my forces and asked about another Geneva classic that warms my heart: a Coupe Danemark. They had it on their menu, but the key to a good coupe Danemark is in the chocolate sauce. It must be bittersweet chocolate, melted on the spot, served very warm, and have just the right amount of fats in it so that it doesn’t congeal upon contact with the ice cream. (I know: i’m a discerning b*tch). I asked, as always, if the sauce was made fresh, or if it was out of a squeezy bottle. The waiter looked at me a little offended: But of COURSE it’s freshly melted. Fine, I’ll have one of those then.

Note, the sauce was served in the cup already. A telling sign that it wasn't made fresh. (It's usually served on the side)

Note, the sauce was served in the cup already. A telling sign that it wasn’t made fresh. (It’s usually served on the side)

It was unsurprisingly far from what I expect from a good Coupe. The chocolate sauce was cold and way too runny – like the butter sauce, as though it has been watered down. To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. Bon.

Yes, it makes a difference.

Especially when dishes have such a simple design, the quality of products and balance of ingredients makes a huge difference. So if you want good perches, try to stick to the Geneva lake ones, if for no other reason then because they will be fresher. Added bonus that they would not have been shipped, reducing your carbon footprint for the meal. As for restaurants, go to Rolle, to the Café du Port. They are on the same lake as us believe it or not, it’s a lovely trip there, and you will eat perches and fries like you’ve never done before.

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