Nov 28, 2014 03:00PM
● By Cate Reynolds
2348 Solomons Island Road, Annapolis
By Rita Calvert // Photography by Tony Lewis, Jr.
After looking into the French, Swiss, and American origins of fondue as rich, indulgent communal cooking, I was interested to see how The Melting Pot restaurant in Annapolis has year-after-year continued to popularize this interactive cooking experience. The background has been set: a burner-tabletop, pots of cheese and glasses of wine, long skewer forkettes, and dunkers—stale bread in the Old World days, now fresh bread cubes and surrounded by abundant vegetables and meats.
The Melting Pot began their fondue concept 40 years ago in Florida with simply Swiss cheese fondue, beef, and chocolate fondue. As the restaurant expanded its popularity and locations, the menu also increased dramatically. Today, with 135 locations across North America and more than 25 locations in development internationally, energetic entrepreneurs fill the seat of franchisers. Cleverly marketed as “the fondue experience,” The Melting Pot has become the food place when celebrating.
While being escorted to our table, I noticed that we walked through many separate rooms with rather private booths in each room division. This ensures an atmosphere of privacy for the experience as well as romance if that is the occasion.
Since I had not dined in our local Melting Pot, I asked for the full overview from our waitperson, Danny, which he enthusiastically reeled off. We each decided on the four-course experience to get the well-rounded flavors. Under the various categories of five cheese fondues, salad, entree fondue, and dessert fondue, the table needs to agree on the shared fondue courses as each of these courses is made on the single tabletop burner. The salads and entrees are the individual diner’s choice. Here are the directions written on the menu for the four-course selection:
• Select one cheese fondue per cooktop
• Choose your individual salad
• Choose your combo entree
• Select one chocolate per cooktop.
We ordered our beverages for the meal, once we understood the dining procedure. We started with a large vessel of the very popular Blackberry Sage Lemonade ($3.95) with the shot of Bacardi rum on the side ($8.50 with the shot), allowing non-drinkers to sample. Enlivened with a fresh herb leaf to enhance, the sweet drink was tamed with the rum. Since the signature mixed drinks are highlighted in red on the menu, the YinYang Martini ($9.95) jumped out...it is literally a dessert with white chocolate liqueur, Stoli Vanil Vodka, and ice cream—actually a sophisticated milkshake. Romance set the pace with another highlight, the Love Martini ($7.95), a mixed libation of Malibu Rum, peach schnapps, cranberry juice, and fresh strawberries. The drink selections were numerous as we noted while sipping our herb lemonade. Sparkling wines, white, blush, and red are offered by five or eight ounce glasses, or the full bottle. As a unique offering, the Four-Course Flight ($16) paired a glass of wine coordinated with each of the cheese, salad, entrée, and dessert fondue. Many beers are also offered. After digesting the overview of the meal and many drink selections, we proceeded to agree on the communal fondue courses while choosing individually for salad and entree.
For the starter fondue we chose the classic Alpine Cheese ($8.50 per person) which was one of five different cheese combinations offered. The cheese fondues take a global range from Feng Shui with mirin, horseradish and sake to a bacon, bourbon and cheddar, representing the U.S. Our traditional fondue ingredients were whisked in by Danny, and soon a variety of items covered the tabletop. The pot of water atop the table burner was fired to a light boil. Into the double boiler pot went white wine and garlic. Gradually the Gruyère, Raclette, and fontina cheeses, along with a bit of cornstarch, were whisked into the bubbling liquid. Soon a heavenly aroma enticed us to skewer our dark and white bread cubes and dip in. Crudite, in the way of cauliflowerettes, cucumber, and celery chunks were also supplied for dipping as we mopped up the last bits of fragrant cheese.
As the cheese fondue course was cleared, salads were delivered. The unique Strawberry Caprese was a new treatment for the classic Italian tomato, basil, and fresh mozzarella salad with fresh sweet strawberries gracing the combo. California Salad ($5.50) was composed of mixed baby greens, tomato, candied pecans, and gorgonzola cheese bathed in a Raspberry Black Walnut Vinaigrette. By the way, the vinaigrette is also sold bottled as are their other dressings, teriyaki glaze, and Garlic-Wine dry seasoning blend. These items can be purchased at the entrance of the restaurant or from their website.
For our main course fondue we decided on Coq au Vin ($5.95 per pot), a Burgundy wine-infused broth with fresh herbs, spices, and sliced mushrooms. Danny wisely advised that the Bourguignonne, or hot oil fondue, is best left for proficient “fondue cooks.” It is absolutely not advised for parties with children. If you are having trouble deciding, do ask your waitperson for advice and for them to suggest options other diners have enjoyed.
As the Coq au Vin broth was set to boiling, now came the time when we would participate in the cooking of our chosen entrees. Our first choice of Fondue Fusion ($44.50 as a four course selection) arrived attractively yielding a four-ounce cold water lobster tail, teriyaki-marinated sirloin, a Memphis-style BBQ pork medallion, honey orange duck breast, and wild mushroom sacchetti or “little sack.” The sachetti, being a tiny dough-wrapped pillow filled with a mix of mushrooms suggested an Italian inspiration. The French Quarter ($35.95 as a four course selection) entree selection was, you guessed it, a spicy, quite salty Cajun spice mixture coating the petite filet mignon, breast of chicken, shrimp, and Andouille sausage. When our lively broth began bubbling we speared chunks of offerings and cooked each morsel to our liking. Above all, the lobster tail and duck were the winning proteins. Six separate sauces accompanied our entrees: green goddess, teriyaki glaze, gorgonzola port, curry, ginger plum, and spicy cocktail sauce. With all efforts excellently orchestrated, individual plates arrived with a well for sampling each sauce on the broth-cooked meats, sachetti, and seafood. While we ordered combination entree platters, single item entrees are also an option with the same entree fondue choices for cooking.Given the juncture for our cooking and conversation, we leisurely polished off our entree platters with enough elapsed time to take a “breather” and get ready for the tempting chocolate fondue dessert. After a brief break while the broth pot and platters were cleared, we relaxed, sat back, and contemplated the offerings for our choice of dessert.
Whatever the selection of chocolate fondues, the dippers are always fresh strawberries, bananas, pineapple, tiny squares of Rice Krispies, blondie and dark brownies, pound cake, and marshmallows. There are five selections of chocolate fondue combinations (two of which are flambéed tableside) and a designer choice, meaning: “create your own.” Flaming Turtle ($7.95 per person) caught our fancy with milk chocolate, caramel, and candied pecans. We exchanged the lighter milk chocolate for the dark variety without a problem or extra charge. With our dessert spread arriving on a large tray, Danny set to work adjusting the burner temperature for heating the 151 proof rum for flaming. Quite a show was given as the flames licked up over the top of the pot. The flickering died down and the chocolate pieces were added for melting. At the finish, the caramel and pecans joined the chocolate mixture. Some of the other chocolate fondues do not contain the alcohol, but it is needed to make a flambé. For just the two of us, there was an abundant amount of dippers, which we couldn’t even begin to finish.
A full dinner celebration can take up to two hours or longer for a larger group. Plan accordingly and check the restaurant’s website for ideas on special occasions or even becoming a Club Fondue member. Suggested events with set dates are the Woman and Whiskey Girls’ Night Out and The Evolution Beer Dinner. Happy Hour in the bar at The Melting Pot is not to be overlooked; consisting of half-priced cheese and chocolate fondue, $2 off glasses of wine, cocktails, and select beers. The wait staff at Melting Pot go through a rigorous training: first to explain the program to each guest, advise, and coordinate all of the cooking. Make sure to use their knowledge base to help you make delicious decisions.