By Molly Gore
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For a while, I thought Clement was the best restaurant street in San Francisco, but now I'm pretty sure it's either Mission (it would take months to eat your way from Boulevard to Daly City) or Geary (which isn't so impressive downtown but acquires an incomparable Asian flair once you hit the avenues). Valencia and Fillmore would tie for the trendiest food streets, Haight has the fast-food, and Broadway seems the most erratic. Van Ness is where frigid winds and perpetually roaring traffic mark the city's most eccentric food corridor. Here, the hofbrau/cocktail lounge known as Tommy's Joynt is just as organic to the scene as it was 50 years ago, while Venture Frogs' New Economy theme already seems out of date. The Hard Rock Cafe somehow belongson Van Ness, as do old-school relics like Harris' steakhouse and House of Prime Rib. Meanwhile, Fina Estampa serves Spanish-Peruvian fare amid a tri-period décor (Baroque, Space Age, Stone Age; grab the "cave table") that simply wouldn't work elsewhere in the city.
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 Spectatorawards 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.
2323 Van Ness
San Francisco, CA 94109
Pork loin carpaccio -- $7.50
Cheese fondues for two people -- $28
Fondue Bourguignonne for two people -- $40
Züri gschnätzeltes -- $18.25
Chocolate fondue for two -- $14
Swiss coffee -- $6.50
Open Tuesday through Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m., till 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; last orders taken 30 minutes before closing.
Parking: difficult. Muni: 42, 47, 49, 76
Noise level: low to moderate
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.