Dinner at the Melting Pot
by Bix Engels
The new Melting Pot on Main Street may be the quintessential winter restaurant, a gemütlich gathering place that taps into the primal urge to draw together around a fire when snow falls. There will be no loners here hunkering down in the corner with a newspaper or novel; this is definitely more-the-merrier territory.
The long, narrow space resembles a cave, its grottoesque feeling bolstered by granite on the tables, slate on the floor, and deep booths off to the sides. The rear is illuminated by lighted wine racks behind a glass wall, and by small hanging lamps whose colored-glass globes streak the walls eerily, like the northern lights. Built-in electric induction cookers (which heat the pot rather than the cooktop) add a campfire element.
The plastic-sheet menu includes a decent wine line. It's clear the people who run the Melting Pot chain have taken care with their wine selection-in addition to well-chosen bottles, they offer many quaffable wines by the glass. They've taken care, too, with educating their servers, who, to judge by our visits, know the menu from cover to cover.
As in a Japanese steakhouse, there's showmanship here-but at the Melting Pot, the guests are part of the theater. The server brings the fondue ingredients, mixing them in a stainless steel pot. The traditional cheese fondue starts with a splash of white wine and a dose of raw chopped garlic, followed by grated Gruyère and Emmentaler, which is carefully stirred as it melts (fondue is French for "melted"). The mix is finished with a squeeze of lemon juice for tanginess, grated nutmeg, and, finally, a hint of Kirschwasser swirled around the edge of the bowl. Then the diners take over, grabbing one of the small spears, stabbing a piece of bread, dunking it in the melted cheese, swirling, twisting, removing, and devouring. It is their duty to keep stirring the cheese-ideally, with each dip-because it needs that regular motion to stay supple. The setup encourages tiny spear
fights and minibattles for the best position in the pot.
So much for the entertainment. For taste, the cheeses are good though not fabulous. They are produced by Wisconsin-based Roth Käse, a serious, traditional cheesemaker that has won awards for some of its varieties. But the Gruyère, for example, is relatively young, aged six to twelve months; its youth confers more moisture and better meltability but not as much flavor. Nor did the server manage to blend it into the smooth creamy swirl of a great fondue in which every element is seamlessly incorporated. Still, I could have happily overlooked the fromage factor if the Melting Pot had had better bread to dip in it. Crusty bread is essential for good fondue, but this was simply cubes of softy sort-of baguettes from a commercial bakery in Chicago. (I was tempted to smuggle in one of the first-rate loaves from Cafe Japon around the corner on Liberty.) Also provided for dipping are cubed apples and inch lengths of celery. The veggies and even the bread were better than the round supermarket-style corn chips served with the artichoke-spinach Butterkäse-Fontina fondue I had on my next visit. It felt like the office Christmas party, circa 1985.
We followed the fondue with salads. Of the two I tried, a Caesar and a California, both had good crisp greens, interesting garnishes, and awful dressings-the Caesar's a watery-fishy mix, and the California's a sugary raspberry vinaigrette.
The Melting Pot encourages multicoursing with combinations of cheese-fondue starters and meat-fondue mains. If I had it to do over again, I'd stick with one or the other-it's a more uniform taste experience, and for me, the multicourse meals seemed like too much food for too much money. But aiming for the full-on Melting Pot experience on our exploratory visits, we tried various combinations.
On our first trip, after our party of just two started with cheese, the "surf and turf" was more food than we could manage. On our second visit, with three of us, we chose another combination for two-the "Pacific Rim." Again, it was more volume than we could polish off. On both occasions, our servers steered us to the "Mojo" broth for the meat course: vegetable stock with orange juice, lime juice, and cilantro. On the first night it was too acidic and worked better for the lobster tail than for the beef (boiled filet mignon-what a waste!). On the second try we liked it, particularly for cooking the duck breast and the minced-chicken-stuffed pot stickers. The dipping sauces-a soy-based teriyaki-style; curry-cream; and a ginger-plum-are generically pleasant but not quite forceful enough. I should note that, while it didn't bother me, it may be disconcerting to some to have a plate of raw pork and poultry delivered to the table. Servers lay down a few commonsense rules when they bring the meat.
Such concerns dissolve at dessert, when chocolate is melting in the pot, waiting to supply an outer shellacking to cubed brownies, pound cake, cheesecake, marshmallows, and sliced fruit. Our choice among the nine possible chocolate dishes, the "flaming turtle," was a mix of milk chocolate, caramel, and pecans, flambéed with Bacardi 151 rum before coming to rest on the burner. It was very good, but then it's hard to go wrong with warm chocolate on fresh strawberries. My only disappointment was that the place had run out of decaf that night.
On both visits, some things arrived very promptly, and others took too long to get to us. I'd cut the staff some slack on this one-beyond the restaurant's having been open just a few weeks, timing is tricky with a meal designed to be drawn out and unhurried. Aside from pacing issues, the service was delightful, and it graciously complemented the natural conviviality of fondue dining. It's a good show in an enjoyably social setting.
The Melting Pot
309 South Main 622-0055
Mon.-Thurs. 4-10 p.m., Fri. 4-11 p.m., Sat. noon-11 p.m., Sun. noon-10 p.m.
Cheese fondue $14 (serves one or two people), salads $5, entrees $16-$40, three- and four-course combination dinners about $27-$44 per person, desserts $14 (serves one or two)
Fully disability friendly
[Originally published in February, 2009.]