Date Night - “Stick it in and Watch it Sizzle”

I should have known I would grow up to be a big homo when, as a kid in the 1970s, I spent hours going through Dolgin’s catalogs (remember them?) and picked out all the home appliances I wanted to have some day.
Our parents had unusual rules in my house while my sister and I were growing up. My sister and I were required to go to our rooms at 7 p.m. We could stay up as late as we could or wanted, but we had to stay in our rooms. We were free to read, listen to the radio, play games—but no TV. My parents, both teachers, argued that there wasn’t much value in primetime television and our time could be better spent. That means we never got to see Three’s Company in its original broadcast run!
Anyway, I did spend many a night flipping through that catalog selecting pots and pans, serving dishes, and time-saving appliances—most in stunning avocado or harvest gold finishes that were destined never to go out of style…or so I thought. One item that always seemed to make my list—my parents were really training me for a successful run on “The Price Is Right”—was a shiny fondue pot.
People weren’t eating fondue in my hometown at the time, I’m pretty certain. In a town of 3,000 in the middle of farming country, mothers were really living on the edge when they sprinkled a little red paprika on anything other than deviled eggs. Still literally decades away was the 24-hour Wal-Mart with its choice of exotic vegetables, fruits, and cheeses. Regardless, I knew I needed that fondue pot for my swinging bachelor pad. If I only knew then what I know now!
I never did buy that fondue pot, but on a recent date I did finally get to experience the ultimate fondue. The Melting Pot is a national chain of fondue restaurants that has burst on the scene in recent years; the local restaurant is at the Country Club Plaza. My beau and I (yes, there is a boy in the picture again) decided it was time to break out of the culinary rut we’d been digging for a few weeks, so we checked the place out with another couple who absolutely raved about the experiences they had enjoyed there.
Before we get too far, a word of caution—a trip to The Melting Pot is NOT recommended for a first date. Danger Will Robinson! While the experience is very impressive, the meal will take anywhere from two to two-and-a-half hours until the last mushroom is cooked. If the conversation and chemistry are faltering…. there’s NO WAY OUT! Oh, and it’s not exactly a cheap date, either. But back to the story:
It’s almost impossible to miss the electric heating element in the center of the table. As soon as we were seated, our server got the “fire” going and warned us repeatedly to avoid the surface. Our friends had been there before, but they hadn’t warned us about the sticker shock we felt on examining the menu (isn’t that what the World Wide Web is for?).
There is no kitchen on the premises, just lots of knives to cut up the meats and vegetables, so diners must choose their fondue ingredients either from a couple of recommended “combinations” or a la carte. For about $70 per couple, there is the “Big Night Out,” a four-course meal including cheese fondue, salad, dinner fondue, and a dessert fondue. For $50, there is a three-course meal, sans dessert.
After once again warning us about the danger of getting burned on the cooking element, our very attractive server “Dan” (names are always changed to protect the innocent … or not so innocent) proceeded mixing up our cheese. My beau and I selected the “Wisconsin Trio” fondue, which teased us with just a hint of salty bleu cheese, while our friends stuck with the “Traditional,” Swiss cheeses with white wine and a sprinkle of nutmeg. I think we were melting also as we watched Dan mix each pot’s ingredients into a bubbly goo. Everyone cracked up as one of our friends actually voiced his interest in dipping our server (well, one of his parts) into the cheese and licking it off! Unfortunately, tonight we would have to settle for cubes of pumpernickel bread, baby carrots, and cauliflower.
After the salads, we jumped into the main course. Dan gave us another safety reminder (the corporate lawyers can rest easier) and then we started cooking pieces of beef tenderloin, seasoned pork, chicken, and shrimp in the pots of broth and oil. We had selected a vegetable stock as the base for our fondue while the other guys opted to cook theirs in canola oil--the main difference being they could dip their meats and vegetables in two types of tempura batters and fry them up.
Cooking in the broth is fairly straightforward because everything takes approximately two minutes to cook. The oil is a different story. Despite their previous experience at the restaurant, our companions still had trouble finding the right cooking times and sometimes settled for less than appetizing results.
My beau and I were stuffed nearly two hours later as we cooked up the last pieces of chicken and pork. But our friends were celebrating and had ordered up dessert. After so much food, Melting Pot’s basic dessert tray actually was perfect for four, even though they recommend it for two. Dan prepared our pot of sweet chocolate with just a hint of peanut butter. By this point, I was finally thinking about dipping him in the chocolate! A few chocolate-covered strawberries, marshmallows, and a bite-sized piece of cheesecake later, our server was the last thing on my mind. We were all on the verge of food comas!
The entire experience has inspired me to throw a fondue party at my loft soon. Dolgin’s is long gone but I bet I can find a cute little fondue pot somewhere. Some cheese, some veggies, and lots of good wine and conversation will be the ingredients. Now, I wonder if I can hire Dan to melt it down….that’s my kind of party.

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