By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Here's some advice for all the aspiring chefs in the crowd. Want a cinch gig in the kitchen? Go to Switzerland, the home of fondue-style cooking. If there's an easier path to cash for a chef than setting up a fondue joint, I haven't heard of it.
That's because no real cooking goes on in the kitchen of a fondue restaurant. Sure, you gotta know your product so that you can pick good beef, immaculate seafood, interesting cheeses, fine chocolates and such. No doubt there's a fair amount of butchering to be done, and some prep, too, but no more than in your average kitchen -- chopping parsley, carving garnishes, a lot of marinating. Your saucier will probably work himself into a lather making aiolis, emulsions and bouillons, but all of the actual cooking is done in the dining room by the floor staff or the customers themselves. Imagine the peace, the wondrous calm, of a galley where the ovens are cold at 7:00 on a Saturday night. The broad stretch of an enamel stovetop never kissed by flame; heating lamps still factory shrink-wrapped and never plugged in; fryers used as giant chrome planters, filled with dirt and wildflowers instead of 400-degree oil and leaky jalapeño poppers.
Fine food, a naked presentation, no heat, no fire, no pressure. Sounds idyllic, doesn't it? Like a line-cook day spa. Freed from the demands of actually cooking, a chef could give close attention to every plate, every ingredient, every element of the dining experience. He could make his own herbed croutons or organize beautiful dessert platters or tinker with the salads until everything was just perfect. He could do those things that are so often overlooked -- by all but the most obsessive, meticulous chefs and managers -- in the scrum of a full-on dinner rush.
Cheese fondue: $9
Sirloin fondue: $16
Seafood fondue: $17
Filet mignon fondue: $18/$22
Surf and turf fondue: $17
Entrees for two (includes cheese course, salad course, vegetables and dessert): $40-$68
He could do all those things that La Fondue does not.
When Laura and I first walked into the three-year-old downtown restaurant (there's a second La Fondue in the Denver Tech Center), I was charmed by the classy long-bar, the racked bottles of wine, the dim lights and crisp, folded white napkins on the stone-topped tables. I loved the smell of the place: red wine and shallots, garlic, chocolate and simmering brandy. Because the cooking happens on the floor at La Fondue -- in little fondue pots set atop electric burners built into the far end of every table -- you can smell everything everyone else is having for dinner. You can hear the sizzle when a waitress pours a splash of cold white wine into a hot cauldron across the room, smell the rich, dark court bouillon as it boils over (as ours did three times) and spatters against the polished heating element. In other restaurants, smart chefs work the same sensory trick by venting the baker's ovens into the dining room to get the steamy smell of fresh bread into everyone's nose or by keeping a pan of caramelizing onions and garlic going on the burner closest to the door. (I used to rig a fan to hang off the corner of the ventilator hood, aimed out toward the dining room.) But at La Fondue, the wonderful smells are already there, teasing out of every fondue pot and filling the air.
I liked La Fondue's unabashedly romantic heart. Its seating and menu are organized with a heavy partiality to couples, and most courses and combinations are built for two. Playing the Krofts, Syd and Marty, me and the wife requested one of the booths in the back, and we were led to a U-shaped fortress of stone and muted upholstery. It looked wonderful -- cozy and intimate and exactly what we were after. But there was a serious mathematical flaw to its design, one not apparent until we tried to sit. The booth was shaped like a horseshoe, but the table was square. This necessitated that it be shoved in close, so that diners could reach the fondue pot set permanently in the far end of the table -- but it also made squeezing in around the sharp corners a very unsexy endeavor. If you are a person of considerable (or even marginal) girth, forget it. And once you've wedged yourself in, if you overindulge a bit at dinner, you're doomed. You're stuck for life; you may as well start filling out change-of-address forms. Laura and I are not large people by any yardstick, and we showed decent restraint while dining -- but when we were done, there was a moment when I thought I would either have to crawl out from beneath the table (which wouldn't have been a first for me but is something I don't generally have to do sober) or start yelling for the jaws of life.
This setup suggests another problem. La Fondue is romantic, yes. Made for couples, for snuggling up close to your significant other. But this is not the place to come if there's even a chance of any relationship issues arising during dinner. Do not pick La Fondue as the spot to dump your girlfriend (or boyfriend). Do not come here to break the news to your wife (or husband) that you've been nailing your secretary and want a divorce. For that matter, don't even come here if you forgot to clean out the garage like you promised. The quarters are simply too close; quick escape is an impossibility, and once the courses start arriving, the table is too dangerously arrayed with potential weapons. Getting a barbed fondue fork in the ribs or having a pot of bubbling Emmentaler dumped in your lap can really ruin a fella's night, not to mention the line of his trousers.