Melting Pot offers fondue without all the bother

Heavenly cheese, when finally melted

entree problem gives way to a fine dessert

Restaurant profile

January 19, 2007|By Sheila Young | Sheila Young,special to the Sun

Fuss-free fondue is an appealing idea for all of us whose kitchen cabinets contain one or more fondue pots that go unused for various reasons.

To serve fondue at home, there's the need for lots of Sterno to keep the cooking medium hot, and hunting for such a seldom-purchased item slows down the weekly race through the grocery store. Then there's the melt-but-don't-burn pot of cheeses that have to be watched and timed precisely to be served at the same time as the just-right pot of hot oil for searing meat.

And yet the camaraderie of fondue - the warm sharing of cook pots - has great appeal, especially during the cold months. It's like cooking in a campfire, but without the bad weather. When I look at my unused fondue pots on the highest shelf in the kitchen, they remind me of good company. And that is what brought me out to The Melting Pot on a recent cool night.

Though the lobby is small, the restaurant seems intimate and inviting, with its large display of wine bottles. And in fact, the wine list is extensive and well-chosen, with many reasonable selections. The dining area glows with soft wood tables and recessed lights carefully placed to bestow privacy while allowing diners to see each other and the menu. Think sophisticated Swiss.

Each table has a built-in fondue "burner" - no Sterno - for cooking. The menu offers a wide selection of meat, fish and vegetable combinations for maximum fun, as well as options for the cooking medium (coq au vin, vegetable broth and the traditional cholesterol-free oil).

We started with the Traditional Swiss Cheese fondue - Gruyere, Emmenthaler, white wine, garlic, kirschwasser and nutmeg - prepared tableside by our friendly and energetic waiter. We waited eagerly for that first gooey taste of bread dipped in melted cheese. And waited and waited. Something was wrong with our fondue burner, and it took a while to get the waiter's attention to adjust it. That was a problem that occurred several times through the meal.

But when the cheese finally melted, I thought it was heavenly. My friend, Diane, didn't like it as much as I did, but that might be because this restaurant uses cheeses that keep their bite. Strong flavors come through, and that's not to everyone's taste. There are other cheese fondue selections to consider if that is an issue for you, including one that sounded a lot like nachos. Me? I adore a good Gruyere. Just be warned that the flavors in traditional Swiss fondue are not something you would ever find at a ballpark.

Our salads came next, and this was not a successful course. Diane ordered the mushroom salad, and it was quite literally a large bowl of brown-tinged mushroom slices. About three tiny pieces of colorless iceberg lettuce lay at the bottom, and that was it. My California salad was better, though the tomatoes in it didn't play well with the Gorgonzola and raspberry vinaigrette.

For our entrees, we were in an adventurous mood, so we chose a platter of assorted meats and seafood, and we decided to stick with tradition and cook in oil. Raw veggies for cooking accompany every entree, and there are numerous dipping sauces and coatings.

Our waiter speed-talked through the cooking times for each item and which sauces went with each food. After he left, neither of us could remember what he had said. But even if he had drawled his instructions, it would have been hard to keep it all straight. There's a lot to remember - I think a little card chart for each table would be an excellent enhancement. Dining out should not be a memory test.

Of the entree choices, the bits of tenderloin turned out the best, and the meat was of excellent quality. The hot oil seared the steak cubes but kept the inside medium-rare. I found the lobster bland with almost none of that sensuous, rich lobster flavor, but Diane liked it a lot.

The platter also included shrimp, sirloin, chicken and ravioli. If you've never had fried ravioli, this will become a new favorite. The slightly crisp pasta sauteed in cooking oil marries well with the melted filling.

Once again we had trouble with the fondue pot heating up. Even when the waiter adjusted it again, we had to keep refeeding foods into it, testing for doneness and then recooking. The raw vegetables that accompanied our entree never did heat through, let alone cook. The meal began to seem like work rather than a break from work.

Fortunately, dessert saved the mood. There are several types of chocolate dipping sauce to choose from, including those that have Amaretto, white chocolate, caramel and Bailey's Irish Cream. You can create your own concoction. It was like a chocolate bar - definitely our kind of place.

We decided that we couldn't resist the "Flaming Turtle," which is flambeed at the table. The dessert platter, prettily presented, offered strawberries, cheesecake, marshmallows, bananas and brownies. It was wonderful excess, and we reveled in it after our frustrations trying to cook the "real" food. Gooey chocolate brownies glossed with melted chocolate? They were worth a trip all by themselves.

The Melting Pot

Where -- Wilde Lake Village Center, 10451 Twin Rivers Road, Columbia

Call -- 410-740-9988

Hours -- Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Friday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday, 4 p.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m.-10 p.m.

Web site

Food -- ***

Ambience -- ****

Service -- **

[Rating system -- Outstanding ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *]

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