The restaurant industry is notorious for its fickle nature. A place closing in under a year isn’t all that surprising. A restaurant that survives longer than five years is. Still, Houston has its fair share of long-lived eateries. One such staple is The Melting Pot.
When The Melting Pot first opened in Houston, it helped revive the old 1960s fondue craze. Back then, many households had their own fondue pot and fork set, often in trendy colors of “burnt orange,” “avocado green” and “harvest yellow” (to match the equally gaudy refrigerator in the same color, of course).
Regarded without the baggage of in-again, out-again trendiness, fondue is a simple, fun treat that acquires an air of sophistication from the serving method. Cut up and prepare a bunch of bite-size treats, warm up a clingy sauce or broth, and then everyone can dip or cook to his heart’s delight. Who doesn’t enjoy sinking a big cube of pumpernickel into a vat of warm melted cheese, pulling it upward and watching the excess molten goodness drizzle in strings back into the pot? Why wouldn’t someone enjoy freshly cut-up chunks of green apple or whole berries dipped in chocolate?
The funny thing about The Melting Pot, though, is that it hasn’t changed since it opened. The cocktail menu still features the same terrible, sweet martini variants (Pomegranate Cosmopolitan, Caramel Apple Martini, etc.). The wine list still relies on name-brand recognition with Stag’s Leap, Cakebread and the like.
It’s the same with the food menu. The “Four-Course Experience” ranges from $38.95 to $46.95 per person and starts diners with a salad before proceeding through a succession of cheese, savory and dessert fondues.
The California Salad of mixed greens, tomatoes, candied pecans and Gorgonzola cheese with raspberry walnut vinaigrette is still the better pick for the first course. The citrusy broth for cooking the “Pacific Rim” meat selection of teriyaki-marinated sirloin, honey orange duck breast, Pacific white shrimp and chicken is still a decent entrée choice, even if the meats all seem a little flavorless. For dessert, the dark chocolate fondue is sufficiently rich, even if every accompaniment that isn’t fruit, such as the marshmallows and the graham crackers, clearly came out of a bag or a box.
Here, “housemade” and “local” ingredients have never caught on. Other than the occasional “twist,” like now being able to have Karbach Hopadillo mixed into the beer cheese fondue, nothing has changed.
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Here’s the kicker: Even though dining at The Melting Pot is similar to eating inside a time capsule, with the right expectations (or lack of them), it can be a marvelous time. Admittedly, the secluded booths lined up along a dark, labyrinthine pathway of many more are rather cozy and — dare we say it? — romantic.
The Melting Pot sells a packaged product — a fondue dinner — the way that Disney World sells a packaged experience. Despite that, if food quality, chef-driven cooking and excitement aren’t priorities, all that dipping and dripping is still fun. The chain has grown to more than 142 locations (and is always looking for more franchisees), so the formula clearly still works.
Graduating from a place like this — or almost any chain restaurant — to quality-driven, independently owned restaurants is like acknowledging a preference for tea over soda or bourbon over vodka. We all grow older, and our knowledge and our culinary sense evolve along with us.
That said, it's okay to reserve the right to enjoy the occasional soda.