Cafe Society

Melt Down

Raise your hand if your mama told you never to make promises you can't keep.
The owners of the eltinMg Pot should be hearing from their mothers any day now. Despite its grandiose claims, the Melting Pot's Littleton outpost delivers nothing more than a lick and a promise.

Although I usually avoid chains like the plague, I'd decided to make an exception for the Melting Pot, a franchise operation based in Tampa, Florida, whose Littleton location has been getting very good word of mouth. It certainly doesn't look like a member of your average chain gang. This Melting Pot occupies the majestic old Carnegie Library, which was built in 1916 and still sports the words "Public Library" carved into the frieze above the elaborate front door. The interior's wood fixtures and bookish accents have been augmented with such appealing touches as wine bottles serving as chandeliers, and the fireplace downstairs is surrounded by invitingly cozy little tables.

The meltdown started the moment we arrived. When we'd called Monday night to make reservations for dinner the next evening, we were told that two of our time choices were already booked. And when we got there in time for our third seating selection, 7:30 p.m., the obviously distraught young ladies at the hostess station informed us they were running "about ten minutes behind on reservations." Forty minutes later, with no apologies, we were taken to a table--one that had been waiting about twenty minutes to be cleared of previous-diner debris.

When our waitress arrived, we told her we were feeling a little cranky but said we wouldn't take it out on her if the restaurant made good on the promise outlined on its menu: "The Melting Pot is famous for leisurely romantic dining. But when you want great food, yet you need to eat on the fly, just let your server know. You can be in and out in just about an hour. Just say 'Great Fondue Fast.'"

We said it, all right--little suspecting that over two hours later we would still be haggling over a screwup on our check while a worried relative visiting from out of town tried to break into our empty house. But when we had asked for the "fast deal," our waitress had told us it would be no problem. She then took our drink order--which turned out to be the first of many problems. I requested water, a cup of coffee and a glass of port. "What's port?" she asked. I told her that it's a fortified wine normally served after a meal but that I wanted it now. The waitress returned with a tiny glass of white wine. "That's not port," I said. "There are white ports, but you don't offer them on the menu." To this, she replied, "Well, I couldn't find anything that said 'port' on it, so I got you this instead." What I didn't get was any cream for my coffee, and when she returned with some, my coffee was cold. She went back to the kitchen and got my water but forgot a replacement coffee. She finally did manage to bring me a cup of hot java, but never the water refills we'd repeatedly requested.

The beverage bungles should have been our cue to leave--quick. Instead, we foolishly ordered the combination fondue for two ($36.90), which promised our choice of cheese fondue, a salad each and an entree platter featuring a variety of meats and vegetables. Shortly thereafter, a fondue facilitator appeared at our table--all of the commodious booths feature built-in burners so the fondues can be created or reheated right there--and, with the nasal monotone of a Disney guide, kept us apprised of every move he was making. "Okay, this is the pot I'm going to cook the fondue in. This is the Gruyere. This is the Emmenthaler. This is the white wine. This is the kirschwasser. This is the lemon juice. This is the minced garlic."

This is my fondue fork about to commit violence.
Once we let the kirschwasser--a German brandy distilled from cherry juice and pits--mellow slightly (a wise move if you want to avoid breathing in alcoholy fumes, but one the fondue master neglected to mention), the fondue was fine, although certainly nothing special when compared with the densely flavored fondues I'd tried in Switzerland. When our waitress brought a basket of bread cubes (French, rye, pumpernickel), a small bowl of green-apple chunks and a medley of raw celery, carrots and cauliflower to dunk into the melted cheese, she also presented us with our salads, since, she said, she knew we were in a hurry. One salad was "chef's" style, with lettuce, ham, cheese and sliced hard-boiled eggs all drenched in a cloyingly sweet honey-mustard concoction. The other had been listed as a "mushroom" salad on the menu, and it wasn't kidding: The iceberg lettuce was nearly hidden by a mountain of sliced mushrooms coated with a passable creamy Italian dressing.

We didn't see our waitress for another twenty minutes. When she did drop by again, we mentioned that our "Great Fondue Fast" seemed to be running quite a bit behind schedule. After she left to check on the entree, I hit the ladies' room. I returned to find a platter of raw meats and fish, a pot of cold court bouillon, several ramekins of sauces and my husband, looking miserable. "She wouldn't start this up without you here, even though I told her to go ahead," he said. The waitress finally reappeared ten minutes later to deliver a dramatic reading of the components of this pseudo-fondue. (The word "fondue" comes from the French for "melted," and many Swiss consider anything but the cheese mixture an aberration, including the French fondue bourguignonne, which cooks raw beef in oil, and the particularly sneered-at chocolate fondue.) After fiddling with the burner control, the waitress told us to start cooking the salmon, shrimp, filet, chicken and teriyaki-marinated sirloin as soon as the bouillon began to boil; after that, she added, the food would cook in two minutes.

Ten minutes later the bouillon still wasn't boiling--but we were, and the waitress was nowhere in sight. So we took matters into our own hands, adjusting the heat until the brew finally did boil, and then threw everything on the platter into the pot. That's when our waitress decided to return. "Oh, no," she said, looking at us as if we'd ruined everything. "You're supposed to do it one piece at a time." Well, by my calculations (and using her two-minute cooking-time estimate), those twenty pieces of meat would have taken at least forty minutes to cook, and you had to throw in some time for chewing. Fast fondue, indeed. I told the waitress to pack up our dessert fondue and get the check, now.

Twenty minutes later she was still coming up with a way to package dessert while we futzed around with mistakes on our tab. The Melting Pot menu advises you to say "Fondue me" to your server when you want a cheese fondue or some such nonsense. At this point, I found the phrase very useful to express other feelings.

We left the Melting Pot still hungry for great fondue--fast or otherwise. And we found it close by, at Chez Walter. This smallish cafe is squeezed into a Littleton shopping plaza much the way Switzerland is squeezed onto a map of Europe. But the travel posters that line the walls reflect the pride Walter and Jacqueline Schmuki feel for Walter's former homeland, a regard that's as authentic as the excellent fondue that's been coming out of Chez Walter's kitchen since 1982. The fondue deal, which runs $14.50 per person, is only on the menu at dinner, but you can call ahead to request it for lunch, which is what we did. When I asked Jacqueline if Chez Walter served "real fondue," she gasped. "But, of course," she replied. "I'm warning you, though, that it's going to be strong and maybe not what you're used to."

Also strong was Walter's thick, pungent mushroom soup, which came with the fondue, along with a typical French salad of mixed greens with a few simple garnishes. The order also included a plate of rssti, the Swiss potato dish that Walter makes by grating raw spuds and frying them with onions in canola oil until the center of the rssti is soft and the exterior crisp and chewy. Then came the main event: an enamel pot filled with cheese, already cooked down into a bubbling mass. The fondue's flavor was deep and complex, with no one element standing out--not even the alcohol, which had been expertly blended into the mix. We used our entire supply of French bread cubes and apple wedges to soak up this goodness, and we were about to resort to fingers when the last course arrived.

Dessert, too, was included in the fondue deal, and it was the least impressive part of the meal. The chocolate mousse was a dreary take on that old standby, and the chocolate cream pie tasted as if it had been made with chocolate pudding. But the fondue alone was enough to make us hunger for a return trip to Chez Walter, when we could try out more of the kitchen's European-style dishes.

The Melting Pot is a real Swiss miss. But Chez Walter lives up to its promise.