Not so fondly

The Melting Pot

814 15th St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 443-2347

Richard Hansen, proprietor of The Book Collector, deserves many kudos for storing this 1976 Saturday Night Live skit in the nether-reaches of his brain: In the sketch “Fondue Sets for Namibia,” Garrett Morris played an African leader who implored Americans to send their fondue pots to his homeland. “Send us your fondue sets. Please. Just reach up into your top shelves and dust them off,” he pleaded.

That should have been the end of fondue, a merciless ribbing on Saturday Night Live to punctuate its demise. But, alas, fondue is back.

Before you ask, “Why?” followed by “Why now?” followed by “Again, why?” I’d like to pose a more substantive question: What is fondue giving us today that it didn’t give our ancestors in the 1970s or the Swiss innovators of the technique?

Once upon a time, fondue was born out of a desire to make old cheeses softer and bread less detectably stale. The technique improved the edibility of these foods. In the lava-lamp era, fondue was seen as a dinner-party gimmick that stimulated “fun” and social interaction.

The Melting Pot chain of restaurants has continued this culinary technique and social tradition since 1975, giving rise to no less than 66 offspring strewn about the country—most of them outside California. Supposedly, another 27 are in development. All are individually owned and operated as franchise businesses. In Sacramento, a Melting Pot has opened up at 15th and H streets, providing a warm and spacious interior to welcome all to the joys of fondue.

A lavish tone permeates the dining rooms, occupied mostly by 30-somethings, couples and the rare family with kids. This is not surprising, because The Melting Pot specializes in “special occasions.” When making a reservation, a Melting Pot representative asks you if you are celebrating anything special. If you answer, “Yes,” he or she gives you a choice of three special-occasion packages: a rose package, a balloon package weighted by something chocolate at one end, or a digital picture.

If you decline these articles, there’s another opportunity: ordering the Big Night Out. At $82 per couple, you get four courses, consisting of: (1) bourbon, bacon, cheddar-cheese fondue; (2) a choice of three salads; (3) a quartet of lobster tails, tenderloin, sirloin and shrimp—all to be fondued in the style of your choosing; and (4) the dessert chocolate fondue. If you’re not prepared for such a Big Night Out, the “fondue for two” or any of the other entrees provide ample food for the hungry.

The Melting Pot is marked by several distinctions. For starters, the steam coming off the pots is enough to uncurl your hair. The second is the staff’s constant warnings about hot objects. Don’t touch them. They mean it. The third is the heavy use of alcohol in the alcohol-laced liquids. Sherry and wine were poured heavily for the cheese fondue and the coq au vin.

Our “Wisconsin Cheese x3” fondue course came with apples, bread cubes and vegetables. The presentation was plain, the bread a bit staler than expected (although this is how they did it in the Swiss villages), and the vegetables (cauliflower, carrots and celery) less exotic than desired. We saw our server place fine ingredients into our cheese fondue—three kinds of cheeses, scallions and shallots—but the sherry overwhelmed the glorious cheeses and made them bitter.

In comparison, the salad courses were refreshing, with generous portions of lively greens and other mixed vegetables. The tangy dressings were in good proportion.

For the entrée, we chose surf, turf and accompanying vegetables to be fondued in the style of coq au vin. Other options for the fondue liquid were Caribbean-style, vegetable broth and canola oil. We may have done better with a plainer liquid because the dark burgundy color of the coq au vin left the lobster tail, potatoes and broccoli a muted magenta. We found that the flavors did not enhance the food. Everything was dominated by the large quantity of burgundy wine that did not mellow in the time allowed. Though we tried to abide by the recommended cooking times, the broccoli and potatoes took longer than expected, and we left the lobster pieces in a little too long. The filet mignon cubes came out fine but seemed lackluster in the boiling. Only the mushrooms were perfect and tasty.

For many, fondue in this era is a novel, enjoyable experience. But novelty may not be enough. An upscale restaurant with courteous staff and quality raw food is a good start, but where was the chef? Where was the grilling, the sautéing, the finishing with butter? Where was the last-minute addition of herbs and spices? The addition of salt that brings out the flavors while cooking? Alas, these are not fondue. Without a real chef to guide the journey from the raw to the cooked, the meal lacked the finish that upscale dining is really about.

As we watched the steam from the pots evaporate above our heads, my dining companion reflected, “Fondue, fondue. … I’d have to say fon-don’t.”