Full of Holes
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.
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.
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.
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.
The powerful bourguignonne lent a little muscle and spice to the mignonettes of center-cut filet that, like all filet cuts, had sacrificed flavor for delicacy. It did right by the sirloin, too: bite-sized chunks, tender as anything, that arrived raw, gleaming with oil and sprinkled with crushed (and sometimes not crushed) garlic cloves. We also tried the chicken, but no matter what you do to it fondue-wise, when it's done, it's still going to be boiled chicken. Not La Fondue's fault -- pure kitchen physics. An order of lobster brought two meaty tails, very fresh, with the flesh already cut from the carapace, sectioned into stabbable portions, then returned to the shell for presentation. While the delicate meat turned brown and murky and muddled in the bourguignonne, it worked well with the clarified vegetable broth of the bouillon. So did a dozen shelled shrimp, nicely chilled and very fresh, which emerged from their dip in the bouillon relatively unadulterated.
Each of the dinner entrees includes a pair of house-determined dipping sauces, just in case all the stabbing, boiling and fishing around in the pot doesn't satisfy your need to fuss. The marinated sirloin comes with teriyaki and barbecue; the shrimp with red-pepper aioli and cocktail sauce. During my couple of visits to La Fondue, I've sampled every sauce the restaurant offers -- and every single one of them (with the obvious exception of drawn butter for the lobster) was awful. Some of them were simply nasty, others criminally indecent. The red-pepper aioli was bitter -- not hot, not spicy, but bitter and burnt-tasting. The dill sauce was like swallowing a bottle of the dried herb, then chasing it with a shot of warm buttermilk. And the horseradish cream sauce was the kind of thing that could get you killed back East, where people take their beef-and-horseradish sandwiches very seriously.
Dessert at a fondue place is pretty idiot-proof -- we're talking melted chocolate and melted caramel, with things to dip into them -- but here La Fondue returned to the merely mediocre. The chocolates -- white, dark and milk, or any combination of them -- are Swiss and of good quality, so they melted smoothly over a double boiler. And while the dippable offerings were dull, it's tough to disappoint a guy with a sweet tooth like mine when you put a vat of molten chocolate in front of him. Hell, they could've brought out a plate of Styrofoam packing peanuts and gravel and I would have been happy. Instead, minimal-effort offerings -- including a piece of banana cheesecake, some sliced bananas, whole campfire-sized marshmallows (but no graham crackers), chopped-up bits of a Snickers bar, cubes of pound cake and strawberries -- had been arranged on a greasy doily on a black plate, dusted heavily with confectioners' sugar (which is a great trick for hiding scratches on the servingware and fingerprints on the food, but always, always looks cheap), then brought to the table along with the chocolate. There were a dozen ways dessert could have been done better, but La Fondue again chose to stop short of excellent and be content with good enough.
If you like playing with your food or just have a hankering for gobs and gobs of melted cheese, La Fondue is worth a visit. The service is personable, the staff well-educated and adept at the somewhat esoteric art of tableside fondue preparation; the portions are generous; the prices are reasonable; the wine list is comprehensive and slanted toward drunken romance. But La Fondue could be so much more -- and until it recognizes those missed opportunities and wasted potential, I won't be back.
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