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Friday, January 11, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

One of these fondue spots leads to a Melting Pot of gold

Special to The Seattle Times

The Melting Pot


14 Mercer St., Seattle, 206-378-1208.

Fondue

$$$

**

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5-10:30 p.m. Fridays, 4-10:30 p.m. Saturdays, 4-10 p.m. Sundays.

Prices: cheese fondues $11 (serves two), la carte fondue entrees $17-$26, three-course fondue meal for two $52-$57 (more for lobster tail).

Sound level: Every booth is like a private dining room.

All major credit cards / full bar / no smoking / no obstacles to access.

The Boiling Point


Woodcreek Center, 13110 N.E. 177th Place, Woodinville, 425-487-6271.

Fondue

$$

No stars (not recommended)

Hours: 5-9 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays-Thursdays, 5-9:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.

Prices: Fondues $13.95-$15.95, three-course fondue meal for two $39.99.

Sound level: Noisy

Major credit cards / beer and wine / no smoking / no obstacles to access.

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Hard on the heels of Capri pants and bell-bottoms, fondue is making a comeback.

Winter is fondue season, and this lively, interactive dining experience will charm many. But think twice if you are squeamish about communal cooking pots or having raw meat and fish on the dinner table, however prettily arranged.

And if you think the whole purpose of dining out is not to have to cook, fondue is not for you either. After all, if the lobster is overcooked and the broccoli burnt to a crisp, there's no one to blame but you.

There are two restaurants in the area that specialize in fondue: the highly polished Melting Pot on lower Queen Anne, and Woodinville's less satisfying Boiling Point.

The Melting Pot

The 3-year-old Melting Pot is one of a chain nationwide. If you sit in the fire-lighted front room, either at the bar or in an intimate booth, you may not realize that most of the restaurant lies beyond the front desk in a vast two-level maze that's a series of rooms within rooms. Almost every table is like its own private dining room.

Your table may have one, two or three burners built into its slate top because, while the kitchen does all the prep work, you do the cooking here, coached by a well-trained server who expertly whisks ingredients into the pot and presents bowls and platters of glistening fresh, gorgeously arranged raw food for dipping.

While you can order à la carte, the "three-course fondue experience" designed for two ($52-$78) is a good value for hearty appetites.

It starts with cheese fondue ($11 à la carte). The traditional version blends white wine, Emmenthaler Swiss, Gruyere, garlic, lemon, nutmeg and kirsch into a smooth and fragrant sauce. Spear a cube of white or pumpernickel bread, a piece of carrot, celery, cauliflower or tart apple on a long fork, then dip and swirl it in the fondue. Etiquette (and common sense) demands you not bring the hot morsel directly to your mouth but let it cool for a few seconds on the small metal plate in front of you.

A trio of refreshing salads ($6 à la carte) precedes the main course: a sumptuous platter for two that, depending on how much you're willing to splurge, can contain filet mignon, twin lobster tails and portobello mushrooms ($78 market price); teriyaki-marinated sirloin, peppered pork tenderloin, shrimp, chicken and duck ($57); or beef tenderloin, sirloin, shrimp, chicken and salmon ($52). All of it is raw and cut for fast cooking in the medium you prefer: a bland vegetable broth; aromatic red-wine sauce flavored with garlic, fresh mushroom and herbs; or hot canola oil for deep-frying beer-battered bites.

New potatoes, broccoli and squash accompany the meat, along with myriad dipping sauces, from ordinary cocktail and barbecue sauces to more ambitious flavor combinations such as gorgonzola port, sherried au poivre, Thai peanut and ginger plum.

After a brief lesson in safe food handling (always bring raw ingredients from platter to pot and only put cooked food on your plate) and cooking times (from a minute and a half for shrimp to upward of two minutes for meat) you get to play chef.

Dessert brings more fondue: a pot of molten chocolate, flambéed just long enough to toast a couple of marshmallows, and a platter of fresh strawberries, pineapple, banana, cheesecake and pound cake ($10).

The Boiling Point

The Boiling Point in Woodinville serves fondue the way Denny's serves breakfast — fast, with few frills. And it may have been at Denny's that our waitress learned the neat trick of carrying a bottle in her front apron pocket while balancing a full tray in her hands — only there it would have been ketchup, not wine.

The three-course fondue combo menu for two ($39.99) begins with a nondescript cheese fondue, no help for dry cubes of brown and white bread that are a day away from throwing to the ducks. But even the ducks would ignore the salad of brown-edged iceberg lettuce oddly garnished with sunflower seeds.

The raw ingredients for the entree — top sirloin, chicken, salmon, shrimp and assorted vegetables — come to the table as they might come to your stove at home, heaped in small white bowls. Of the handful of routine dipping sauces, which include beer batter for the hot oil, honey mustard, teriyaki, cocktail and tartar, only one is truly dreadful: a lemon dill sauce that tastes like undiluted lemonade concentrate.

Replenishing the bubbling chicken broth in our pot from a Pyrex measuring cup, our waitress is coy about divulging "secret ingredients," but I'm guessing the chicken, beef and vegetable broths come straight from a can and get a shake or two of garlic powder on the way to the table. It's certain the cheesecake and ladyfingers came straight from the freezer; they were still frozen.

As for ambiance, once the Christmas decorations are put away, The Boiling Point will be left with the smell of cooking oil and the screech of the Beach Boys on what sounds like a transistor radio blaring from the next room.

Help me, Rhonda, indeed.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com.

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