Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Et Tu, Fondue?

Fondue crept its way into my heart several years ago, upon a spur o' the moment thrift store acquisition. Melted cheese is always a good thing, in my book, and the fondue pot became a regular guest at my fall and winter table. Okay, maybe spring, too.

When I heard that national chain "The Melting Pot" was coming to Newport News, my interest was piqued. Fondue isn't exactly brain surgery, so I wondered what unique spin they had to draw folk in- and keep them coming back for more.

Shortly after it opened, I dined there with some friends. The meal was purely celebratory, and not a review meal. However, I must give credit where credit is due. The place was busy, waitrons bustling to and fro, while various pots bubbled steam from the surrounding tables.

That evening, we all elected to sample the "Big Night Out" option ($76). The price is per couple, and you can pick and choose between three different entrees, as well as the cooking style, salads and dessert. Our waiter was very patient in giving a detailed, thorough explanation to our many questions.

I had the mushroom salad, which really is the perfect way to begin such a heavy meal. The paper-thin mushrooms were bursting with flavor, accented by the piquant dressing. Meanwhile, our waiter began mixing up a little cheese and spice tableside, and soon we had the fondue. While that warmed, he returned with platters of cubed bread and bite-sized crudites. The fondue was wonderful, and the accompanying wine was the perfect thing to wash it down.

The fondue pots were switched out, and our entrees arrived. Raw, beautifully marbled pieces of beef lay artfully arranged next to raw shellfish and chicken; uncooked raviolis completed the line-up. We spent the next hour or so cooking and eating these quality selections, dipping them in a variety of tangy, potent sauces.

Unbelievably, there was still dessert ahead of us, which culminated in the chocolate fondue. A gentleman stopped by our table (management or owner, I wasn't sure), and inquired as to our experience. He seemed genuinely happy to see that things were going well, and, at our request, recommended a port to accompany the final fondue. I'd seen him do this throughout the evening. When we got the bill, it was expensive, to be sure, but we had truly experienced a fun, tasty and celebratory big night out.

After such a lovely evening, I was very much looking forward to the official review. Dave, my husband, and I returned in late October for another cheese-laden rendezvous. With just the two of us, we opted to split an entree for two ($48): that entailed fondue, a salad and entree.

We were led to a rear dining area that catered perfectly to the intimate couple experience. The genial hostess deposited our menus, promising our server would be along soon. While the night didn't seem that busy, it took almost fifteen minutes for him to arrive for our drink orders. Hey, it happens.

At any rate, our wine was soon in front of us, and the waiter was too, preparing our cheese fondue. He very amicably chatted while pouring and mixing, laughing at my question, "has anyone ever gotten hurt on the electric burners?". (Answer: no, but lets not jinx us!) After it was stirred just so, he went to get our bread and veggies.

That's when I had the first real sense of something going astray. The bread seemed rather stale and dry. The vegetables were withered and had that scaly, desiccated appearance. Now, fondue was traditionally a means of using up old bread, but stale bread should always be toasted. Withered veggies make for great soup stock, but for dipping purposes? Not so much. Luckily, the green Granny Smith apple was one of the best I've ever tasted, pleasantly tart and juicy. Our server, without prompting, refilled the small vessel containing this precious specimen three times.

The fondue itself was another problem. We had selected the classic Swiss cheese, but were surprised at the overwhelming bitter taste. It would seem our distracted server had been a touch heavy-handed with Kirschwasser.

The salad came, and I'd stuck with the previously-successful mushroom version. Sadly, it didn't stick with me: the mushrooms seemed downright anemic and chewy, while the dressing bordered on syrupy-sweetness. Dave had ordered the chef's salad. Again, it was rather paltry in size, anemic in flavor and freshness.

The final entree revealed the familiar line up of fish, fowl and meat. The cuts still seemed to be of decent quality, if rather smaller than the last visit. We also didn't receive the large variety of dipping sauces to go along with these, though I'm not certain if those only come with the "Big Night" combo.

All in all... I can see why The Melting Pot has managed to spin itself off into a successful franchise. The concept is simple but good. The wine list is impressive, larger than the menu itself. The dramatically-lit dining room, with its rich, deep colors and steam wafting up to the quiet vents, definitely plays into the experience.

However, like many places, there are good and bad nights. My problem here is that this is a destination restaurant. You don't pop in to have a cold one with the boys, or to catch up on family gossip with Mom. No, you come to not just witness a show, but experience it, become a part of it, become caught up in the table-side theatre.

Otherwise, you may leave as I did that last night: a little confused as to why on earth anyone would pay $48 per couple for bitter cheese fondue, stale bread, wizened veggies and, frankly, anti-climactic surf 'n' turf. This is simple food, and good food can be simple indeed.

My advice: go here for that festive occasion, but keep in mind that you're the one paying the bill. Politely speak up if things don't seem right, and by all means, enjoy your big night.

Additional photos may be found here; original posting is here.


Blogger Columbus Foodie said...

I used to love The Melting Pot, until they did away with the seasoned oil and used fresh every time. It just wasn't the same - now, on the rare occasions that we go, I get the broth with wine.

Their cheddar/beer fondue is excellent, though - hubby and I opt to double up on the amount of it for an extra $12.

11:47 AM  

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