Last week, my friend Lyle invited me down to the Peninsula to have a big fondue dinner with him and our friend Jack at The Melting Pot. Why? What else can one do when one's girlfriend is out of town except eat an enormous meal of melted cheese, bread, and hot oil-cooked meat? I took the Caltrain down to San Mateo, empty stomached and ready to be amused. The Melting Pot sounded quaint to me, like some homey, Americanized little Alpine restaurant. I had absolutely no idea it was a 33 year-old national franchise born in Maitland, Florida (just outside of Orlando, not surprisingly) with 130 restaurants in its partnership. Of course, I have absolutely no idea about a lot of things.
As we approached the restaurant, I worried about its size-- a two-story fondue restaurant with outdoor seating? On a cold winter night, I wasn't surprised to see no one dining al fresco. Then I wondered, who eats fondue outside? Give me an old pine table by a roaring fire, not an aluminum one under a portable heat lamp. I knew my hope for quaintness was about to be dashed to pieces upon the hardwood-veneered walls and Corian tabletops inside, so I checked that hope at the door with my coat.
When we entered, the first thing I noticed was The Melting Pot logo etched onto glass, sheeted with a constant stream of water immediately behind the host stand. I shuddered a little. I hoped that, should a grease fire occur at my table, no one would come to douse it with a cooling waterfall. The host standing in front of the image was very friendly and passed us to a server who gave us a table upstairs.
The decor upstairs was evocative of a suburban steak house-- leather banquets, pendant lamps that hang too close to the eyes- forcing one to look down at the table and not at one's dining comanions without sunglasses, and odd bits of painting hanging on the wall. My favorite is shown above. I suppose an endless glass of red wine and a woman who can bend herself any which way is a great night out for some.
Our server was the same woman who showed us to our booth. Over the course of the meal, I would come to decide that she was possibly the best server I'd had in quite some time (much better than the server we had the last time the three of us got together for dinner)-- funny, warm, always showing up when we might need something, and very knowledgeable about the menu. When I asked for the silliest cocktail available, she suggested the Tipsy Turtle, a beverage of various rums and juices. Knowing full well that this was not to be a traditional fondue experience, I accepted, it was refreshing, though I was too stubborn to remove the half of a pineapple wedged into the glass, so it kept hitting me in the nose and I dribbled a little.
Opening the menu, I was immediately depressed by the pull-out image of Marlo Thomas with two cute, smiling yet mortally ill children. I won't argue that St. Jude's Children's Hospital is a worthy charity, I just don't like being accosted for change as I'm settling into dinner, whether it be some man rapping on a window asking me for beer money in the Haight or That Girl. Perhaps most disturbing was the amount of airbrushing done to the photo. I flipped the advertisement over so I no longer had to look at it. That accomplished, I read the large, laminated menu.
Filled with photos, the menu told me what I could expect from The Melting Pot and "How [my] Melting Pot Experience Works". I was relieved to know, with the guidance of image number two shown above, that I was to simply select my salad and presumably eat it without dipping it in anything hotter than ranch dressing.
A four course dinner at the Melting Pot is called a Big Night Out. Mediterranean Cheese Fondue, a choice of salad, a choice of "featured entrée selections", and then a choice of chocolate fondue for dessert.
The Mediterranean Cheese Fondue was a concoction of Swiss Gruyère, a touch of shallot, garlic, white truffle oil, and-- perhaps for Mediterranean-ness-- chopped dates. To my knowledge, the peoples of the Mediterranean have no deep history of fondue. But, I thought, this is the Melting Pot. Cultures will mingle, blend smoothly, just like in this big, big country of ours, God Bless it. I gave it a go. It wasn't bad. I rather liked the dates. What I liked even more was the fact that our server mixed up the whole mess tableside. For one brief moment, it was Benihana with cheese.
The main course selection was rather disappointing. We selected the Fondue Feast platter at $84 per couple, because none of us could see the logic of ordering the Lobster Indulgence at $95 per couple. Who wants lobster fondue? Oh. You do. I'm sorry. I was rather put off by the fact that the price of the platters was listed by the "couple". I might have chosen to write "for two" rather than point a sharp stick in the eye of couple-less souls like myself. Besides, there were three of us. I might have been more impressed had the menu given a break to "throuples".
The platter was a collision of items: filet mignon medallions, citrus pork tenderloin, White Shrimp (?), garlic and herb chicken, vegetables, and balsamic-marinated sirloin which, as a result of sitting in so much blackish vinegar, looked more like liver than sirloin. Also on the platter was pasta. To fry? Jack experimented with one of the black and yellow striped ravioli, lost it in the hot canola oil and asked Lyle and me to help him "find Nemo" because he thought they looked like little clown fish. None of us saw any benefit to frying ravioli, but we ate compulsively.
After we had finished our main course, a gentleman came over to the table to remove the boiling oil from our sight with a fascinating little contraption, the name of which escaped me after a cocktail and a few glasses of wine. I thought back to the Canadian PSA that Mrs. Lucianovic had reported on a few weeks back. A very, very good idea.
Dessert was, to my mind, a bit much, but not out of place, considering where we were. I decided to just embrace this too-muchness and dive in. I selected the Flaming Turtle Fondue-- milk chocolate, caramel, and chopped pecans, flambéed tableside with Amaretto-- as a sort of gilded, lead-filled bookend to my Tipsy Turtle at the beginning of the meal.
A platter of brownies, strawberries, banana, cheesecake, pound cake and various marshmallows sat on our table.
For all my big city, I'm-a-bloody-food-snob posturing, I ate everything. Okay, the Oreo cookie crumb-dusted marshmallows were not palatable, but you can pretty much dip anything in chocolate.
It's little wonder Americans are so fat. A Big Night Out? Well, I felt so much bigger as the result of our dinner. When I returned to Lyle's house, I got on the scale and nearly cried as only a gay man or teen-aged girl can in such situations. I looked at my Melting Pot-belly and thought ahead to my New Year's resolutions.
I think the next time I opt for fondue, I shall do it at home. And simply. Cheese, wine, bread, apples. The warmth of a fire and a friend or two. Perhaps in my own couple. Of course, the only heat source in my apartment is the tiny radiator in my living room, so I may need to rethink the romance of it all. If you've got a fireplace, give me a call.
To visit a Melting Pot near you, visit their (rather bizarre) website. Take special note of the front page and click on a fondue pot or two. Please let me know if you decide to join their Club Fondue.
The Melting Pot in San Mateo is located at:
2 North B Street
San Mateo, CA 94401
For directions, view the map.
Hours of Operation:
Mon through Wed: 5pm - 10pm
Thu and Fri: 4:30pm - 11pm
Sat: 3pm - 11pm
Sun: 3pm - 10pm