If, like me, you were married in 1974, you likely received at least one fondue set as a wedding gift (mine was bright orange enameled steel). You might have used it once or twice, only to find the melted cheese congealing into a rubbery blob in the bottom of the scalding dish. Then, like me, you might have laboriously washed it and put it away for the next 20 years.
Vaguely, fondue means "melted," from the French fondre. Traditional cheese fondue allegedly originated in the mountains of Switzerland, with cow herders sent out with cheese, bread, wine and a ceramic cooking pot called a "caquelon." Melted cheese, flavored and thinned with wine and dipped into with hunks of bread, spread to aristocratic Swiss kitchens, then to neighboring Austria and France. In France, gourmets added the cooking technique fondue bourgignonne, cooking cubes of meat in seasoned oil. Americans discovered fondue in Europe post-World War II and brought it home to a select few New York restaurants. The technique and popularity of fondue spread until it reached its heyday in the '70s when every bourgeois American kitchen boasted a fondue pot of its own.
Thirty years later, rumor has it that fondue pots and their long-handled, color-coded skewering forks are once again in vogue as wedding gifts. But given my experience with fondue, I'd rather opt for a gift certificate to a fondue restaurant for the happy couple. A new restaurant in town, The Melting Pot, has got fondue down to a science.
Started in 1975 in Maitland, Fla., as a single restaurant with three simple menu items, The Melting Pot chain now boasts 70 restaurants across the country. In Colorado Springs, the franchise is owned by bubbly, enthusiastic Tracy Carlson, who saw the enormous success of Denver's Melting Pot and decided to try it at the foot of Pikes Peak.
Located smack in the heart of downtown in a spacious subterranean grotto (a basement, that is), The Melting Pot is beautifully designed with pink granite features and earth tones throughout. The seating is laid out to ensure the highest degree of privacy for any size party. The staff is meticulously trained to offer assistance in tabletop cooking while scooting out of the way swiftly and efficiently.
I was lucky enough to try The Melting Pot with a large party and got to sample a large number of menu items at once.
We started with a cheese course of bread cubes and fresh veggies served with Traditional Swiss Cheese Fondue -- Swiss, gruyere and Emmenthaler cheeses with white wine, garlic, nutmeg, lemon and Kirschwasser liquer; Cheddar Cheese Fondue -- sharp cheddar and Emmenthaler cheeses with lager beer, seasoned with garlic, Worcestershire sauce and dry mustard; Wisconsin Trio Cheese Fondue -- white wine, buttermilk blue and fontina cheeses with scallions and a touch of sherry; and Fiesta Cheese Fondue: cheddar cheese with jalapenos and salsa, served with chips. Most popular among our tables was another Swiss variation with spinach and artichoke hearts, but to my taste, the Traditional Swiss was the creamiest and richest.
Our main course offered portobello mushrooms, chicken, beef tenderloin, marinated pork, black tiger shrimp and teriyaki sirloin to be cooked tabletop in a variety of liquids: plain court bouillon, a vegetable broth low in salt and cholesterol free; Mojo, a Caribbean spiced bouillon with orange, lime, cilantro and garlic; fondue bourguignon or hot oil for cooking battered pieces; and coq au vin, a vegetable broth seasoned with red wine, herbs, mushrooms, garlic and spices. Our servers told us how long to cook each item and we hurriedly threw our forks into the pots.
An overwhelming number of dipping sauces came with the entrees: spicy cocktail sauce, Thai peanut sauce, barbecue sauce, basil pesto, garlic Dijon spread, gorgonzola port and au poivre sherry sauces, teriyaki glaze, mustard curry, ginger plum and horseradish. All were fresh and delicious, but at the end of the day, I found perfection in a simple piece of beef tenderloin, cooked barely a minute in the coq au vin, then dipped in au poivre sherry sauce.
With barely room left to breathe, we attacked dessert: cubes of cake and cheesecake, strawberries, bananas, pineapple and nutty marshmallows served with four warm melted chocolates. The Yin & Yang -- half dark and half white chocolate swirled together in the pot -- was beautiful, but pure melted dark chocolate ruled the day.
For the quality of ingredients and the elegant setting, the prices at The Melting Pot are more than reasonable. Try the menu item The Big Night Out to introduce yourself -- a four-course dinner for two that includes spinach and artichoke cheese fondue, choice of salad, one of two entrees that each include six meat and/or seafood items, and your choice of dessert fondue. The price is right at $76 per couple or $38 per person. The wine list is long and impressive, with numerous choices by the glass.
Plan to linger. Fondue is a participatory, communal experience. Sit back and enjoy and remember: You don't have to wash out the pot.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
The Melting Pot
30-A E. Pikes Peak Ave. (downstairs)
Open Sunday through Thursday, 5-10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5-11:30 p.m.