A Special Evening with the Swiss Ambassador
by Bill Babash, Vice Chargé de Presse
It was a special night on April 9, 2019 as the Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States, Chevalier d’Honneur Martin Dahinden, and his wife, Dame de la Chaîne Anita Dahinden, hosted the Bailliage of Greater Washington for cocktails and dinner at their residence. After serving for four years in Washington, the Dahindens are preparing to return to Switzerland in August, and they warmly welcomed their confrères in the Bailliage of Greater Washington to the Swiss Residence for a dinner inspired by the legendary Delmonico family of Swiss restaurateurs.
The Swiss Residence, adjacent to the embassy, was a wonderful venue for the event on one of the first warm evenings of spring. Built in 2006, the residence is notable for its sleek, modern style designed by the renowned American and Swiss firms of Stephen Holl Architects and Rüsli Architekten AG. The 14,000 square foot home is built in the shape of the cross on the Swiss flag, with expansive public areas on the main floor. The façade is a mix of charcoal-colored concrete trimmed in local slate and sandblasted glass – finishes and colors that evoke the snow‑covered Alps of Switzerland. The interior’s warm earth tones reflect the best of Swiss and American design, and historic and modern art from Switzerland and the U.S. are featured throughout.
Set on one of the highest points in Washington’s Woodley Park neighborhood, the home’s terrace commands a stunning view south to the National Mall. With spring’s new leaves on the trees and the sun setting on the Washington Monument in the distance, the vista was nothing short of spectacular. The Ambassador Dahinden noted that George Washington considered the site for the Capitol and also joked that being situated higher on the hill, the Swiss Residence has better views across Washington than the Vice President’s residence at the Naval Observatory.
Beyond his service as a distinguished diplomat, the ambassador is a culinary historian. He is the author of two books on Swiss contributions to gastronomy — Schweizer Küchengeheimnisse (Swiss Kitchen Secrets) and Beyond Muesli and Fondue: The Swiss Contribution to Culinary History. The bailliage first met the Dahindens at an event at Stable, the only authentic Swiss restaurant in Washington, where the ambassador spoke about the regional nature of Swiss cuisine. Soon after that dinner, the Dahindens joined the Chaîne, and were inducted at a special ceremony at Plume restaurant; Mrs. Dahinden became a Dame de la Chaîne and the Ambassador became a Chevalier d’Honneur, one of the highest ranks for non-professional members.
As the evening began, the Ambassador and Mrs. Dahinden greeted members and guests of the bailliage, welcoming each with a choice of red or white Swiss wine or an imaginative Swiss cocktail: The Delmonico – cognac, gin, dry vermouth, vermouth rosso, and Angostura bitters; The Ritz Fizz – Amaretto, blue Curaçao, lemon juice topped with Champagne; or The Tell’s Shot – apple, grapefruit, and lemon juices with grenadine and almond syrups. Tempting passed hors d’oeuvres whetted appetites: Spicy tuna tartare with crispy shallots; light and cheesy gougères; and an irresistible caramelized onion, tasso, and raclette cheese quiche.
The assembly then took its seats in the airy and sophisticated dining room for a dinner entitled “Delmonico’s and Haute Cuisine in the New World.” A booklet at each place included a history of the Delmonico family’s profound influence on American restaurants and gastronomy, as well as the recipes for each of the dishes to be served. Between courses, the Ambassador shared some of the Delmonico’s story:
Giovanni Del Monico was from the village of Marengo in the Swiss canton (province) of Tecino, on the Italian border. He traveled extensively before first arriving in Manhattan in 1824 and in 1827 Giovanni and his brother opened a café, and soon after, a restaurant. Up to that time, restaurants in the U.S. served just one set meal. The Delmonicos introduced the French concepts of menus with several dishes from which to choose as well as a separate wine list. Moreover, the Delmonicos elevated the level of service and quality of food, importing much of it from France and later buying a farm in Brooklyn to cultivate otherwise unavailable vegetables. “Quality is more important than price” was their motto.
Over the decades, the business thrived, with four restaurants operating simultaneously at times as New York City grew to the north. Swiss chef Alessandro Filippini was hired to become Chef de Cuisine in 1849, a position he held for forty years. He was joined in 1862 by noted Alsatian chef Charles Ranhofer, who spent his entire career at Delmonico’s until he retired in 1896.
The 1860s and 70s were the golden age of Delmonico’s, and the restaurants became the meeting place of the rich and famous. Successive generations and numerous members of the Delmonico family sustained the business until World War I (along with family disputes) caused it to struggle. In 1919 it went bankrupt. It was sold to another restaurateur just as Prohibition came into effect, and the restaurants closed for good in 1923. Fortunately for us, Chefs Filippini and Ranhofer documented the innovative cuisine of Delmonico’s in their cookbooks – references that belong in every culinary library today.
Nearly one hundred years after the demise of Delmonico’s restaurants, their culinary tradition is alive and well in the talented hands of Chef Joao Marcos Barboza, the chef at the Swiss Residence. Transforming the 19th century recipes for modern ingredients and kitchens, Chef Barboza delighted the bailliage with refined classics made famous by the Delmonicos.
Dinner opened with lobster Newberg – sweet and tender morsels of lobster baked in a luxurious sherry cream sauce, made even richer with the addition of butter and eggs. Petite Arvine AOC 2014, from the canton of Valais in the southwest of Switzerland featured structure and depth along with a brilliant golden color and aromas of Alpine flora, making it a perfect complement to the decadent Newberg. The petite Arvine grape has been grown in Valais since the early 1600s and today it is recognized as producing the best white wine in Valais.
Ambassador Dahinden shared a wonderful anecdote about lobster Newberg. Originally, the dish was called “lobster Wenberg,” after Ben Wenberg, a trader who introduced the dish to the Delmonicos in 1876. Following a dispute between Wenberg and Charles Delmonico, it was removed from the restaurant’s menu. Customers, however, demanded its return. Still not on good terms with Wenberg, the Delmoicos rearranged the letters in his name and reintroduced this favorite dish as lobster Newberg, as it is known to this day.
A beautifully presented endive, watercress, and apple salad with a tangy honey mustard vinaigrette followed. Garnished with an edible flower, the salad was delightful and refreshing.
Chef Barboza then presented the main course – a classic preparation of Delmonico steak. Tender pan‑roasted strip loin was cooked medium rare and served with an herb compound butter. Twice‑baked potato, garden-fresh asparagus, and turned carrots and turnips completed this most satisfying composition. Compleo Cuvée Noir 2014 from the Canton of Zürich in northeastern Switzerland was an excellent pairing. The well-rounded blend of 60% pinot noir, 20% cornalin, and 20% gamaret was a deep ruby red, with notes of dark fruit and a velvety texture that was outstanding with the beef.
Dinner culminated with Baked Alaska, a dessert made famous at Delmonico’s.. Originally known in France as omelette norvégienne (Norwegian), the complex preparation includes vanilla ice cream and sponge cake enrobed in meringue that is browned in a hot oven. Chef Barboza presented his contemporary version finished with a garnish of fresh berries and blueberry sauce.
Ambassador Dahinden shared the anecdote of how this dessert came to be known as Baked Alaska: In 1868, Secretary of State William Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia. The purchase of a remote, cold region was controversial and became known as “Seward’s Folly.” When he went before Congress, some accused Seward of presenting the purchase as ice wrapped in sugar. Chef Charles Ranhofer at Delmonico’s saw the marketing opportunity inherent in the controversy and renamed the dessert Baked Alaska.
As dinner concluded, Bailli Judy Mazza and Vice Conseiller Gastronomique Michael McHenry expressed the bailliage’s profound appreciation to Ambassador and Mrs. Dahinden for hosting such a wonderful dinner and presented then with a plaque inscribed as follows:
To Chevalier d’Honneur Ambassador Martin Dahinden
Dame de la Chaîne Anita Dahinden
who shared with us the many contributions of Swiss cuisine to the United States of America
With gratitude and ongoing friendship
from your confrères in
La Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs
Le Bailliage de Greater Washington, D.C.
Vice Conseiller Culinaire François Dionot then congratulated Chef Barboza on an outstanding meal, noting that the chef had honored the traditions of the Delmonicos while demonstrating his own talent and creativity. Dionot presented the chef with a Chaîne wine coaster from the Bailliage to commemorate the event. The two were then pleasantly surprised to discover that they were both graduates of the École Hôtelière de Lausanne, Switzerland, regarded as the best hospitality school in the world.
To conclude the evening, Ambassador and Mrs. Dahinden invited the bailliage into the residence’s salon for coffee, liqueurs and, of course, Swiss chocolate.
It was a quintessentially Chaîne evening – international comradery, gracious hospitality, and outstanding food and wine. It has been an honor and pleasure for members of the bailliage to get to know the Dahindens. We look forward to seeing them during their remaining time in Washington and wish them all the best as they return home to Switzerland this summer, where they will continue to be active in the Chaîne in the Bailliage of Bern‑Oberland.