Restaurant Reviews

That '70s Meal

Fondue is dangerous. The special forks are long and sharp with rippled tips that function almost like fishhook barbs, though not as effectively. After piercing cubes of beef or chicken or shrimp, the forks are plunged into hot oil or boiling broth, the moisture from the food exploding in a torrent of roiling that bumps the surface of the hot fluid like a hyperactive Alka-Seltzer.

Then there are the splatters, tiny petards of searing spittle that bite like deep needle pricks and would no doubt blister hands and arms if the hot fluid was teased with more moisture. Adding to these hazards is the irresistible urge to slide the food from the long fork with your lips after it has had its time (usually two minutes) in the hot bath. Don't. Such a maneuver could brand your tongue with burns of such severity that your dining and amorous indulgences would be throttled for a good month or so.

The Melting Pot, a longtime fondue feeder in Addison, compounds these dangers by providing diners with slotted spoons in addition to forks. The spoons are used to capture morsels that get knocked off the forks or that cook better roiling in the boil freestyle--potato wedges and pot stickers for instance. The slotted spoons do little more than create opportunities for robust splashing as food darts around and slips off the utensil.

That public fondueing is a minefield of hazards is made clear at The Melting Pot. A red sticker on the metal plate that frames the heating elements imbedded in the ceramic tile tables warns you of the hot surfaces just in front of you. Servers constantly drill into your head that the handles on the metal fondue pots cradling the roiling fluids are hot. In fact, servers deliver the pots of fluid to tables in a medieval torture chamber-like contraption called a romulator. The romulator is like a giant clamp, with a cover that screws down and seals the mouth of the pot to prevent splashing (and no doubt lawsuits) while it is being transported to the table.

What human clan invented fondue, a form of grazing that scorched its way into mainstream American dining habits in the '60s and '70s, the same period that gave us "wet look" clothing and Bobby Sherman? And why is it coming back now?

Fondue was thrust upon the world by the Swiss, the same people who brought us ventilated cheese and anal-retentive banking and timekeeping. In fact, fondue is the national dish of Switzerland. The word itself comes from the French verb fondre, which means to melt (fondue means "melted"), and there are a couple of legends linked to the creation of the dish. One says that fondue began as a dish of necessity among the country's shepherds and cowherds during winter months when they were isolated in the snow-covered Alps. As provisions dwindled, the herders harnessed leftover pieces of cheese and melted them in wine or milk, scooping up the resultant mixture with crusts of stale bread. Another legend has it that fondue was invented in the midst of religious warfare during the Reformation when packs of warring Protestants and Catholics, who were fighting near Zurich, suspended their fighting fits to commingle cheese and milk to stretch their dwindling food supplies. The same French-speaking Swiss broadened the concept after World War II with the invention of fondue bourguignonne, the classic hot-oil treatment. Broth-based fondues were developed even later as an offshoot of the Asian hot pot while chocolate fondue was created in New York in the '60s.

Yet after bubbling up in the '60s and gaining status as an informal party cult dish in the '70s, fondue disappeared from the landscape. America's interest in the dish waned, no doubt falling victim to fat-conscious noshing as well as a realization that most '70s fondue pots were as ugly as leisure suits.

When the '90s were stricken with that horrible disease known as '70s nostalgia, fondue hobbled its way back onto the American landscape along with shoes that look like bulldozer parts. The '90s also brought us the Addison version of The Melting Pot, which opened in 1995. Emerging back in 1975, The Melting Pot to date has some 52 fondue restaurants franchised all over the United States.

Addison Melting Pot owner Michael Swartz took over the Addison restaurant in early 1998 and recently reopened it after subjecting it to extensive remodeling.

The retrofit makes The Melting Pot dusky with lots of dark paneling and a maze of a layout where booths are tucked into hidden pockets and seem to emerge from long, dark tunnels. Nooks are carved out of the walls into which magnum-sized clear bottles filled with colored water are installed. A large display case sits near the front entrance holding mostly California wines.

The Melting Pot menu is divided into courses: cheese fondue, salad, entrée fondue and dessert fondue. The cheese fondue course includes four variations: cheddar cheese, Swiss cheese, traditional Swiss cheese with lemon and kirschwasser (a cherry brandy), and fiesta cheese.

The fiesta cheese fondue is sort of a Tex-Mex queso fundido. But its foundations are imbedded in the cheddar cheese fondue, which starts with a half can of Bud Light into which a shredded mixture of 80 percent Wisconsin sharp cheddar and 20 percent Emmentaler Swiss are added. The cheese shreds are lightly dusted with flour to absorb the cheese fats and create a smoother melt. Once the cheese is melted, a little salsa is stirred in along with diced jalapeño peppers to taste. Though the menu says "crisp tortilla chips" are served with the fiesta, none were delivered to our table, so we sopped it up with cubes of fresh and moist pumpernickel, whole wheat and French breads. Cheese fondue also includes a bowl of cauliflower, carrot slices and celery slices, plus a bowl of Granny Smith apple wedges.

The cheese stays smooth and viscous almost to the bottom of the pot, although the sides get caked with hardened goo, as do those spots on your shirt where the stuff runs off the celery (the cheese has much better adhesion to the bread cubes).

Entrées can be ordered as individual collections of meats and vegetables or as "fondue for two"--cheese fondue with special entrée selections. The fondue comes in three different heat baths: vegetable broth; canola oil; and coq au vin style, a bath of hearty Burgundy with garlic and herbs.

The Pacific Rim fondue for two includes an eclectic mix of teriyaki sirloin speckled with sesame seeds, shrimp, peppered pork tenderloin, chicken, duck breast and pot stickers. All the meats were fresh (the duck was alluringly sweet and the sirloin was surprisingly rich), and cooking them in the coq au vin gave the meat cubes a subtle herbal breath. The only item that didn't seem to adapt well to a non-oil scorching was the pork-stuffed pot stickers, which flexed like silicone between the teeth after a couple of minutes in the Burgundy boil. Vegetables include mushrooms, potato wedges and yellow and faded broccoli florets. Dipping sauces include horseradish cream, curry and a stiff chunky green goddess that tasted great inside the celery stalk.

Though maybe not as healthful as broths, the hot oil does have its advantages. In hot oil, the shrimp, fish and scallops form a thin outer crust that seals in the juices and flavors. The hot-oil fondue version also includes a pair of batters (sesame and tempura) that we found completely pointless. These batters are so thick and pasty that it's difficult to create anything with them but a massive dough ball with a meat surprise inside. Better to let the oil kiss your meat directly.

Melting Pot desserts fester with a variety of liquid chocolates including the flaming turtle, chocolate and caramel set ablaze at your table; and yin and yang, a wavy swirl of half dark and half white chocolates. We gave the amaretto meltdown a try, a white chocolate amaretto mix that is also set on fire at your table. The flame flickers blue and then recedes before dying in a muted puff. Things to dip include marshmallows, strawberries, bananas and pineapple. The delivery also includes cheesecake, pound cake and brownies. But stick to dipping the fruits. They're far better than the baked goods when dipped into chocolate and are less likely to catch fire in the flambé.

Service is generally good with well-briefed servers heavily ladling out the "hot" cautions and don't dos. They even try to sell you jars of garlic and wine seasoning, though hawking a pair of heat-resistant gloves and a welder's visor might be more apropos.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz