There was a 40-minute wait for a table at Simply Fondue the Saturday before last; I'm still trying to figure out why. It wasn't because the food at this preciously named Briargrove restaurant was good enough to fuel a revival of the early '60s fondue craze. Quite the contrary: the all-fondue lineup here illustrated all too well why so many sterno-driven fondue pots have migrated to so many American thrift stores and city dumps over the years.
Perhaps it's sheer novelty that lures them into the restaurant's high-walled booths, whose ramrod-straight backs are discomfortingly medieval. "I feel like I'm being punished," complained my squirming companion, deprived by the booth's sheer cliffs of his chief pleasure in dining out -- the chance to observe his fellow patrons.
Desperate to spy on the fiftysomething Zsa Zsa clone and her business-suited swain he'd spotted in the bar, he rose to his feet and peered into the adjoining booths, to no avail.
There was more punishment to come. Coached by a frighteningly exuberant waiter whose carnival-barker spiel included admonitions to "Twirl 'em, dunk 'em, dip 'em, twist 'em, but above all, have fun," we plunged cubes of stale, dreary bread into our tabletop pot where Gruyere and Emmenthaler cheese had been melted together with a big splash of white wine. Elderly bread and all, this proved to be the high point of our three-course fondue marathon.
Our salad interlude entailed watery iceberg and an alleged raspberry vinaigrette with all the charm of bottled French, housed in a totally charmless black plastic bowl. Next came a combo of raw beef, chicken, shrimp, scallops and whole mushrooms to be dipped into a pot of the boiling peanut oil that gives Simply Fondue its distinctive hot-fat aroma -- not to mention its disconcerting babbling-brook sound effects. Alas, the steak cubes turned tough in their hot bath, even when extracted quickly. And a pair of earthbound batters, one sesame-spiked and the other in a purported tempura style, managed to turn the remaining ingredients into stodgy, McNugget-like blobs. The least objectionable course of action was to cook a hunk of chicken sans batter, then consume it with horseradish cream, the most interesting of the restaurant's four very average sauces.
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A dessert fondue of melted chocolate and orange liqueur was grainy stuff, presented with a sparse and scarifying array of marshmallows, maraschino cherries (remember them?), green-apple slices and bits of angel food cake that disintegrated upon being dunked into the brew. Check, please! Not a moment too soon, we exited through the restaurant's surprisingly pleasant wine bar, hot on the romantic heels of Zsa Zsa Jr. and her quarry du jour.
-- Alison Cook
Simply Fondue, 6100 Westheimer, 974-7717.
three-course combination dinner, $19.95