by Francisca Kellett ,The Telegraph, January 4, 2018
There is a small, square window, hidden down a Verbier side street, known locally as the “secret”. Come here late at night, around 3am, and a hand will poke out clutching a freshly baked ham and cheese sandwich. It’s yours for CHF4.50 (£3.60); the perfect late-night snack following a night on the tiles.
The window belongs to La Poste, the local bakery – a Verbier institution, just like the Farm Club down the road, the raucous nightclub that provides most of the secret window’s late-night custom. This is exactly the kind of detail that Pierre-Charles Cros loves. Local, insidery, below-the-radar. A little bit hidden.
The co-founder of The Experimental Cocktail Club wanted to create “the best cocktail bar in the world” when he opened his first speakeasy in Paris in 2007 with his two childhood best friends, Romée de Goriainoff and Olivier Bon. Their hidden-away bar – it had no signage, way before everyone else had no signage – offered sophisticated drinks and a louche, laid-back vibe. It was an overnight sensation.
The three friends were just 23 and self-taught, reading every book they could get their hands on about cocktails and testing them on their friends. “We were bon vivants,” says the now 35-year-old Pierre-Charles when we meet in Verbier.
There followed openings in London’s Chinatown, Manhattan’s Lower East Side and a beach club in Ibiza. Then they branched into hotels: two in Paris, and the Henrietta Hotel, which opened in Covent Garden in 2017 – all small, stylish and relaxed, with great bars. And now their latest, the Experimental Chalet in Verbier, which has just opened its doors. Their properties are safely on the radar now (they even have signs), but that laid-back, clubby style remains the same.
“We only open in places we love,” Pierre tells me over a cocktail (obviously) in the Experimental Chalet’s new bar. Verbier is an obvious fit, and the Hôtel Nevaï, with the renowned Farm Club downstairs, was the obvious property to take over. Verbier is exclusive and attractive, but with none of the high-octane bling of resorts like Courchevel or St Moritz. It’s undeniably expensive, but there are no Chanel boutiques or Louis Vuitton shops, no scary women in floor-length furs. Visitors are wealthy, they are bon vivants, but “there is no champagne spraying, no caviar or flashy cars. They’re here for the skiing and don’t want to be flash.”
Pierre-Charles isn’t flash, either. Instead he is low-key but stylish (jeans, nice shirt, brogues), in that very French way, and so are his staff. There’s a chatty, convivial air as they bustle around in bespoke retro Fusalp uniforms of navy trousers and jackets. Everyone is young and charming, like Anatole, the head bartender, who makes me his signature hot punch: two types of rum, lemon juice, ginger and maple syrup. It has an instant, warming kick, and I sink happily into the midnight-blue velvet sofa by the fire. It’s a very sink-into-a-sofa sort of place. The design is tactile; lots of soft velvets, smooth wood and natural cottons. The room itself, previously rather boxy, has been softened with clever coving, wood panelling and mouldings the colour of clotted cream.
The whole place does that clever trick of being cosy but not chocolate-box. They brought in Italian designer Fabrizio Casiraghi to soften a fairly functional Fifties building. Bright and inviting on the outside, with whitewashed walls, big, dark timbers, Swiss-flag-red shutters. The entrance takes you bang into the restaurant, warm and stylish with pistachio panelling on the walls, bright, bespoke Portuguese tiles and putty-coloured carpets; sounds weird, but it works. It is retro but not pastiche, with a sort of comfy Soho House feel.
“Tourists don’t want to be around other tourists,” says Pierre-Charles, explaining the layout, which is designed to draw in locals, he explains. “When I travel to New York or London or Venice, I don’t want to be surrounded by French people. I want to be around locals.”
They’re big on local. The executive chef, Greg Marchand, a Jamie Oliver protégé who is behind the Frenchie restaurant in Covent Garden, had numerous sourcing trips before finalising the menu, finding the best suppliers in the area. They now have their local cheese “fixer” and the best meat guy, the finest pinot noirs and fendants from the valley, the apricot farmer who makes the purée for the cocktails. “We have a lot of local friends,” Pierre-Charles says.
The results are good, just the kind of comfort food you want after a day on the slopes: saucisson cooked in brioche (a posh toad-in-the-hole), roasted venison, rib-eye on the bone. Top tip if you’re staying here: to the left of the restaurant, by the reception, is a secret door – the back entrance to the Farm Club, where well-informed guests can sneak past the queues.
Anatole has mixed more drinks. Another signature, he says with a grin: “The Chalet”. Peach liqueur, lemon juice, vodka, bitters and a splash of champagne. Delicious.
“Naming new cocktails is becoming a bit challenging,” Pierre-Charles says. How many have they created over the years, I ask. They tot them up – 10 per bar, six of which change seasonally: “That’s 40 per property…” Hundreds? “No, thousands!” he laughs.
That clubby vibe continues in the bedrooms, although that makes them sound sexy when they are cosy. The décor is comforting: custom-made bedheads with little mountain goats carved on to the tops; vintage oil paintings on the walls; rounded bedside tables; thick velvet curtains; retro-tiled bathrooms. It’s thoughtful, and so is the minibar, where there are little glass bottles of pre-mixed cocktails, and – nice touch – a
steel hip flask that guests can take up on to the slopes.
Where next? Venice, opening in a palazzo in May, followed by a beachside hotel in Menorca later next year. But expansion is happening organically, Pierre-Charles insists. They will only go where they “have friends”.
First they need to redesign the small spa here, and are planning to add a cryotherapy chamber. “Good for after skiing,” Pierre-Charles says, “and also good for hangovers.” Just the thing for bon vivants.
Doubles from £463, including breakfast. Access possible for guests using wheelchairs.
Read the full hotel review: The Experimental Chalet Verbier