Restaurant Reviews

Stick a Fork in It

Fondue's popularity peaked, more or less, in the '70s, which explains why nearly everyone I told about my long-forked foray at The Melting Pot snickered and said something about disco and Saturday Night Fever. I've since learned that fondue was the meal du jour of bourgeois sophisticates during the Me Decade, not of nightclub crawlers. Of course, I was crawling around in diapers during those days, so what do I know?

A lot more than before, as it turns out, thanks to a little research and a few visits to The Melting Pot. I'm now the resident fondue expert in my circle of friends, which makes for livelier conversation than, say, taxes. Fondue, a French term that means "melted," originated centuries ago as a way to use dry cheese and stale bread during harsh Swiss winters.

Functionality eventually morphed into fun in 1956, when chef Konrad Egli of New York's Chalet Swiss Restaurant introduced the fondue method of cooking meat cubes in hot oil. Chocolate fondue debuted in 1964, and the cooking-and-slathering technique has been on and off the fashionable-foods radar ever since. It's currently trendy enough to power healthy sales of fondue equipment and to support The Melting Pot chain, which boasts more than 50 restaurants nationwide, including the Houston location nestled in (where else?) an upper-Westheimer strip center within sight of the swanky Palm restaurant.

It takes patience to get through a fondue dinner, but it's worth it, as three pals and I recently discovered. We had reservations at seven forty-five on a Friday night, with plans to be done in time for an art opening that ended at eleven. At eleven-fifteen, we just waddled out to the parking lot -- stuffed, content and not nearly as concerned with art as we had been earlier. My next visit, with a date, clocked in at just under two and a half hours.

Part of the reason for the prolonged dining experience is the menu itself, which should have come with its own Cliffs Notes version.

There is, after all, more to ordering fondue than randomly dipping everything in cheese. The typical Melting Pot feast spans four courses: cheese fondue appetizer, salad, main course and dessert, with decisions at each juncture. Combo platters start at $46 and include everything but dessert.

On that first visit, we opted for the Lobster Indulgence ($67 per couple), which featured a platter of equal parts Maine lobster, tiger shrimp, chicken breast, filet mignon and teriyaki sirloin, plus the above-mentioned choice of appetizer, salad and dessert. The meal also included a "veggie kit" of white mushrooms, squash, broccoli, cauliflower and potatoes.

We picked the Swiss Cheese Fondue ($10 when purchased à la carte) as our appetizer. Our chatty waiter prepared the eloquent blend of Gruyère and Emmentaler Swiss cheeses, white wine, ground black pepper and nutmeg at the fondue pot at center table. Once the concoction was ready, we plunged our forks into a basket of pumpernickel, white and rye bread cubes and into the cheese blend and soon found out that fondue can be funny. We each had casualties: lost bits of bread that gave us the giggles, as did the occasional fondue fork fight. Getting all eight forks in the pot simultaneously can be a challenge, and somebody's bound to lose.

Once we'd practiced dipping the bread, we moved on to dousing the Granny Smith apple slices, carrots, celery and cauliflower. The sweetness and tartness of the apples added an extra zing to the creamy cheese. The raw vegetables boosted the crunch factor, but I still opted for the breads as my preferred vehicle for dipping sauce.

On my second visit, we tried the Fiesta Cheese Fondue ($10), which was more distinct than the Swiss version, for all the wrong reasons: The beer base overpowered the Tex-Mex blend of cheddar, jalapeños and salsa. Next time I'll stick with the smooth Swiss.

The salads ($4.50 each) were average, with the exception of the mushroom version, which provided about a week's worth of sliced fungus with a bit of arugula, romaine and sprouts thrown in for balance. The house black raspberry walnut vinaigrette that accompanied the walnut-studded California salad came highly recommended but was too tart for my taste.

Between courses, our waiter gave us valuable pointers on preparing the main course -- a good thing, since there was definitely a trick to it. We opted to cook our entrées in the Court Bouillon broth, a seasoned vegetable blend of carrots, celery and onions. The Coq au Vin broth tasted worthy as well, with its aromatic combination of herbs, spices, mushrooms and garlic in a burgundy wine. I just couldn't bring myself to cook the main course in the other choice, canola oil, for fear the oil would overpower the meats.

We had more fork fights as we speared chunks of meat or veggies, maneuvered around each other's utensils and plunged the food into boiling broth. Yet once things got cooking, we were able to identify our picks and pans pretty quickly. The plump tiger shrimp and lobster were the standouts, not too rubbery or mushy. A personal favorite was the half-dozen ravioli stuffed with a mild blend of Gorgonzola and spinach.

Unfortunately the pasta packets were part of the vegetarian platter, which at $15 was a steep price to pay for nearly the same assortment of vegetables that accompanied each meal.

The chicken breast didn't go over well with any of us; we agreed it was just boiled chicken, in desperate need of a marinade, a fact that none of the many dipping sauces could hide. We also conceded that there was a trick to cooking the beef; it's easy to overcook or undercook it, and saucing doesn't always compensate for human error.

It was amusing to experiment with the assorted dipping condiments, though some of them could have packed more punch; the garlic butter needed more garlic; the cocktail sauce was timid rather than tangy. The green goddess, with a slight sour cream and chive kick, and the mild curry were winners, while the ginger plum and teriyaki glazes were mere placeholders.

Dessert was a breeze compared to the laborious main course. There was not nearly as much to think about: Simply pick a warm chocolate blend ($10 for small, $20 for "regular") into which you can dip bits of brownie, pound cake, cheesecake, pecan-topped marshmallows, bananas, strawberries or pineapple. For pure aesthetic appeal, the Yin and Yang, a pleasing mixture of dark and white chocolate shaped like the Chinese symbol, was tops.

We found the Chocolate S'mores was another novel way to end a meal (particularly since one of us is a self-professed pyro who loves flambéed anything). Though the marshmallow cream flamed for mere seconds, it was still festive to watch. Less enticing were the graham crackers mixed into the milk chocolate blend, changing it from satiny to gritty. It would have been better to top the mixture with the crackers than stir them in. Regardless, the fruits and cakes dipped into chocolate provided an appealing contrast of texture and flavor, grit or no. I can only hope that as summer nears, The Melting Pot will add kiwis, raspberries, papayas and mangoes to the dessert assortment for even more verve and variety.

The Melting Pot, 6100 Westheimer, (713)532-5011.

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Brenda Tavakoli