By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Luckily, my sweet wife and I were getting along fine. We managed to negotiate the tricky geometry of the table, wedging ourselves in shoulder-to-shoulder, and we anticipated a full, multi-course fondue spread.
But those barbed fondue forks should have clued us in to what would follow. A fork may seem like a little thing, but a fondue restaurant chef should have the time to focus on stuff that's of tertiary concern in other kitchens, where cooking is everyone's top priority. Besides, the fork is the centerpiece of the fondue experience, the tool most identifiable with the style of cooking, the one without which you'd just be eating soup.
Technically speaking, any diner at a fondue restaurant could get by with a pointy stick: Jab it into a hunk of meat, dunk the meat in the pot, wait a minute, then extricate the meat, now cooked, and gnaw it right off the stick like a caveman. And that may be just how this formalized style of dining began, back at the dawn of time, with a bunch of proto-Switzerlanders crouching in a cave up in the Alps, dropping speared chunks of mastodon steak into a clay pot of broth on the fire and watching the meat cook while they figured out how to invent watches, cheese with holes in it and Ricola cough drops.
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
We've come a long way since then, though, and a lot of itinerant housewares designers are out there now, trying hard to come up with miraculous new forking technologies. So La Fondue's owners might want to sit down and, I don't know, flip through a catalogue? Then they could choose an implement more interesting, more professional, more impressive than a bunch of flimsy, riveted aluminum pokers with partly melted black plastic handles.
But thus armed, we began our meal. When Wisconsinites die, I figure their heaven must look an awful lot like an endless first course at a fondue restaurant. In fact, La Fondue has an offering for them, the Wisconsin Times Three, with Monterey Jack, fontina and Gorgonzola in a white-wine base with cracked black pepper. This is a mild choice, fairly straightforward and non-threatening to even the greenest fondue rookie, but better still was the Original Swiss Cheese fondue, which, despite its name, included no Swiss cheese. Instead, our server brought a tray laden with shredded Gruyère and Emmentaler cheeses, decanters of wine, a giant pepper mill and little bowls of this and that. She let a good, long pour of very dry chablis cook off in the bowl of the fondue pot, added garlic, a little nutmeg, more garlic, a grind of fresh black pepper, and she stirred in the cheese, whisking it in with a fork until the fondue took on a perfect, smooth, gooey consistency. She then added just a few drops of kirschwasser -- a very potent cherry brandy -- for a wonderful, sharp top note, then stood back, as pleased with her creation as we were.
Unfortunately, the accompaniments to the cheese course that issued forth from the kitchen were uninspired: chunks of apple, whose simple sweetness matched well with the complex, earthy flavors of the fondue; a variety of cubed breads, all reasonably fresh, none memorable; a small tin bowl filled with a haphazard assortment of veggies (fresh and seasonal, inasmuch as carrots, celery and cauliflower have a season). This represented precisely the minimum effort that could have been expended. Any less, and the server might as well have dropped off a dirty, unpeeled carrot and a loaf of day-old Albertson's French bread. This was a peanut-butter-and-celery-stalks effort from the kitchen. With all the fresh produce and artisan breads begging to be dunked in good cheese, offering up carrot sticks and apple chunks borders on an insult.
The salads were utterly adequate -- and no more. The Caesar featured romaine that looked less chopped than rudely hacked to death, a decent dressing and store-bought croutons buried under a deep fall of parmesan cheese. The ensalada especial (a name ridiculous for so many reasons that I won't even bother making fun of it) wasn't special or Spanish, just a mound of bagged mesclun mix drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette, sprinkled with Gorgonzola, studded with walnuts and surrounded by mushy slices of pear.
The garde mangers at Thomas Keller's French Laundry assemble their salads a leaf at a time. They choose the leaves, wash them, pat them dry, then stack them carefully one by one until some inner muse (or Keller) tells them that the plate is perfect. And they do this every night, for every dish, in one of the best, busiest, most popular restaurants in the known universe. That's something for the guys at La Fondue to think about. You know, if they have the time.
Our dinner improved considerably with the main course and another round of tableside cooking. La Fondue offers entree fondues ranging from straight-up vegetarian to meat and seafood, surf-and-turf and even a batch of "Oriental" selections -- presumably for those diners who thought that "Fondue" was a country somewhere east of Laos on the map. For cooking methods, you can go with a dark, powerful shallot, red wine and mushroom bourguignonne; a simmering court bouillon; or a somewhat non-traditional -- and possibly lethal -- boiling-canola-oil and tempura-batter combo that has lawsuit written all over it.