Tuesday, March 2, 2010

When We Dipped...

This past Saturday the staff of the bakery/cafe where I worked until November belatedly celebrated Christmas by going out for food that we didn't prepare. The boss treated us to dinner at The Melting Pot, a much-talked-about, (almost) all fondue restaurant that is a new addition to our regional restaurant scene. Although I'm no sage reviewer, I'll audaciously share my experience anyway.

In case there isn't a Melting Pot in your area or if you (like me) missed out on the alleged fondue craze that might have induced such an imaginative leap, here's the idea: an entire meal eaten (mostly) from a fondue pot. It's served in four courses--appetizer, salad, entree, and dessert, almost all of which are prepared in and/or eaten from fondue pots on smooth-surface heating elements set into the table (or even the bar, I noticed on the way out). I'll give you three guesses to figure out which course wasn't en fondue--and the first two don't count. (Psst...salad. Yes. Thank you.)

This concept obviously works well for groups. Other than the non-fondue salads, which are ordered individually, the other courses are meant for sharing. Our group of seven selected two flavors of cheese fondue (Alp and Dell and Spinach-Artichoke) for our appetizer course, two flavors of broth (vegetable and Carribbean-inspired Mojo) to use for the entree course, and two variations on chocolate fondue (S'mores and Flaming Turtle) for the dessert course. The cheese fondue comes with bread cubes, veggies, and green apple chunks for dipping. The entree lets you cook your own (Hey! Wait a minute...) chunks of seafood, meat, pasta, or even tofu in the hot broth (oil is also available), accompanied by at least half a dozen sauces. The chocolate fondue enrobes chunks of
(Deep breath here) cheesecake, brownie, marshmallows, pound cake, strawberries, banana slices, and crisped rice squares.

In case this sounds like a lot of food, it is.
The bowls and plates that were purported to be holding dunkables in the appropriate amount for our group or for pairs of us were in reality covered with enough food for one and a half to two times that--the typical out-of-control American portion size, unfortunately. I would advise you to come Bubba hungry, pace yourself carefully (leaving plenty behind along the way), or disappoint your waiter by ordering half of their menu recommendations.

Maybe the latter suggestion would help with another big thing at The Melting Pot--the price. I try not to complain about menu cost, especially at any place where I know they actually make the food because I've been a food service provider. It's hard work with a narrow profit margin, people. I don't begrudge paying what good food is worth, and I have no doubt that they are charging what they need to in order to make a profit. I'm just saying that you won't get out of there for less than about $40.00 per person for all four courses--and you did some of the cooking! Their pricing is not outrageous, but if I want to have a $100.00 dinner for two I would prefer a non-chain, gourmet establishment. If you like concept and theme, then you'll be happy.

The last thing you need to arrive with a lot of is time--at least on a busy weekend night. We couldn't get a reservation until 8:15, still didn't have food at 9:00, and closed the place down in order to get all our courses brought and eaten. The preparations at table and the waiting for your protein chunks to cook are bound to extend the usual time required to do dinner, but during our visit this unavoidable extension was compounded by service that I considered to be slow. I'm not one to rush dinner (Do not bring me my entree if I'm still eating my salad.), but when the conversation stalls and you have time to wonder where the food is on more than one occasion, service is lagging. Then again, I usually have patience with those lapses, too, having been there and struggled through that. Perhaps being up way past my bedtime with an hour and a half drive home to survive made delays more noticeable. The thing to remember is that this style of dining will take longer. Plan accordingly in order to enjoy it.

My last little quibble with The Melting Pot is lighting. As at many other restaurants, the light level is great for mood but not for reading the menu. I would prefer to have both ambiance and adequate ambient light.

All of the above probably makes it sound as if I disliked The Melting Pot. That's not true. My experience was pleasing enough but left a neutral aftertaste. I didn't leave thinking that I simply had to come back and bring my husband, but neither did I decry it as a monumental waste of time and money. The Melting Pot is good at what it is--a theme-and-concept chain restaurant. The decor is darkly luxurious; the glass-walled wine cellar that one must pass to get to almost any table is generous and apparently a point of pride; we liked the taste of most everything, especially the chocolate endings we chose, which were lusty good (Our group fell on them as if we hadn't seen food all evening.); and the (almost) all fondue idea was novel fun to try, especially for a lively group like ours. I just happen to prefer my food experiences sans hook. I'm kind of plain that way. In fact, a friend once told me while clothes shopping that she'd like to see me in something that was a print. There's your grain of coarse salt to accompany any opinion of mine.

To sum up, I'm grateful to my former boss (and still friend) for the chance to see what all the buzz was about and try something new while enjoying the good company of people I miss seeing. As for the rest of you, if you have a good bank balance and about three hours available, and if you like cute ideas for variety, you'll like The Melting Pot. Should you run across one of their restaurants, take a little dip of your own and see what you think.

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