4

All Fired Up

Fondue brings out a person's true nature.

First there are the control freaks, the folks who begin coordinating the fondue forks the second the pots start heating up. "Okay, Sally, Jim and I will use the court bouillon for the first fifteen minutes while you guys cook in oil, and then we'll switch," the control freak says, and it's not up for discussion. These type-A types also tend to count the meats and divide them evenly among the group, cutting the last piece of chicken into sixths if necessary.

Info

La Fondue

1060 15th Street

303-534-0404

Hours: 5-11 p.m. daily

Then there are the overachieving scientists, the gadflies who pay close attention to the cooking times suggested for each variety of meat and then synchronize their watches the second the flesh hits the hot liquid. Displaying the anxious energy of first-time fathers in the delivery room, they bark orders to "Get it out! It's done!" when the allotted time's up, and they get very upset if you dip a tempura-battered item into a non-Asian sauce.

Compulsive checkers are the ones who pull their forks out every few seconds to see if the meat is done, and they're also the ones most likely to grab someone else's skewer -- which can cause problems with control freaks and anyone in the group still grappling with childhood issues of possession. The minute someone accidentally pulls at the wrong stick, they regress to "Hey, that's my G.I. Joe."

And finally, there are the laid-back diners who get so caught up in the wine and conversation that they forget they've had a potato slice in the pot for half an hour -- and when they discover it, they act as though they just found a twenty in the pocket of a jacket that had been in the closet for six months.

I saw all of these types -- and more -- when I checked out the town's newest fondue spot, La Fondue. It's déjà fondue all over again as the popular '70s party craze catches fire, only this time the pots aren't being stoked by highball-drinking hostesses in long velour skirts, but restaurants that have figured out the benefits of having their clientele do most of the cooking. And diners have figured out that with fondue, you not only get to play with your food, you get to play with fire, too. What could be more fun?

Bruce Rahmani, La Fondue's owner, has seen plenty of fads come and go during his twenty years in the restaurant business. One of the original proprietors of the European Cafe (see The Bite, next page), he's also tried his hand at a few upscale Italian eateries and owns several hotels in the Denver Tech Center. The three-month-old La Fondue replaces downtown's most recent version of the European Cafe, a restaurant much beloved in Denver ten years ago, but long past its prime by 1999. On the other hand, the time for fondue is riper than a year-old Gruyère at room temp.

"I looked around at all of the concepts that are working right now, and it was easy to see that Denver did not need another Italian restaurant or some other such overdone concept," Rahmani says. "Concepts that get people involved with the food and are interactive are doing well. People aren't cooking at home anymore, either, and so this gives them a chance to keep their hand in without having to clean up after themselves."

Although it's no picnic for the restaurant to clean up the mess, Rahmani's willing to live with it if the customers keep coming in. "It's not easy to set up fondue in the home with those flimsy kits. And tables with stoves in them are not just available at your average restaurant supply house," he explains. "We had to have those made special, along with the screw-top kettle carriers that the servers use to take those very hot pots back to the kitchen without burning themselves or spilling hot liquid everywhere."

Watching La Fondue's servers do just that is one of the joys of a meal here. But it's also entertaining to listen to their long, careful explanations of the cooking processes, inventory their play-by-play as they make the cheese sauce, and catch their looks of alarm when you take matters into your own hands and try to bring that bouillon to a boil a little faster. Rahmani has reworked the room to house all of those hard-to-find stove-top tables, and the space accommodates groups both large (an area in back can seat up to 24) and small (couples can cozy up in little booths off to the side). And while the low lighting can make checking the chicken for salmonella a little dicey, it also creates a warm, welcoming atmosphere.

The menu is divided between "entrees for two" (which include a cheese fondue course, a salad course and a vegetables-and-meat course to be chosen from three possibilities) and six single-person entrees that range from vegetarian to seafood to buffalo and include a salad and four dipping sauces -- but no cheese course. And no matter how you order it, you're going to want to take a dip in La Fondue's cheese fondue. In Switzerland, the incredible cheeses -- they must worship cows there -- melt and meld into a perfect marriage of sharp, tangy, rich and creamy; choosing the right cheeses and an appropriate thinning liquid inspires as much deliberation there as the issue of whether relish, mustard, onions and/or ketchup belong on hot dogs does here. Since the Swiss population includes a large percentage of people of German and French ancestry, Kirschwasser and wine are also hotly disputed -- Germans add Kirsch to aid in digestion, which, considering the amount of protein involved here, is probably not a bad idea -- and while most agree on Gruyère and Emmenthaler as the cheeses of choice, Vacherin Fribourgeois and Appenzeller are frequently added.

Since this is America, La Fondue offers not only an authentic Swiss version -- Gruyère and Emmenthaler, dry white wine, garlic, Kirsch and spices -- but also a cheddar variation, a "south of the border" take that includes jalapeños, and a "Wisconsin" mixture, which, inexplicably, contained Monterey Jack from California along with Fontina and Gorgonzola from Italy. We tried the original Swiss and the Wisconsin variation. Both held up well under the lengthy heating process, and the resulting goo was as cheesy and tangy as we could have hoped, perfect for coating the accompanying bread cubes, apple chunks and pieces of raw carrot and cauliflower.

The masterful mix of proportions is the work of Lupe Gonzalez, who's cooked for Rahmani since the first European Cafe opened in 1987 and is a partner in La Fondue. Gonzalez is responsible for all of the other items handled in the kitchen as well: the salad combinations and dressings, the court bouillon, the batters and the dipping sauces. The salads weren't very exciting, and they seemed unnecessary given the amount of food you still have coming after the cheese course. The fungi in the mushroom trio salad were soggy with a too-sweet soy-ginger vinaigrette; the Caesar's dressing was almost mayo-like. The best of the batch was the ensalada especial, a mix of greens, romas, walnuts, pears and Gorgonzola awash in a sweet balsamic vinaigrette.

With La Fondue's entrees, you choose between two cooking methods: You can either plunge naked meat and vegetables into a concentrated vegetable-based broth, or you can slap them with a sesame or tempura batter and then dunk them into a cholesterol-free canola oil. Since the latter method is far from a precise science -- the outcome's success can depend on how long the batters (which were both too thick and heavy, by the way) have been sitting around, how wet the ingredients start out and how hot the oil gets -- the bouillon was by far the better option. Besides, batter just gets in the way of the superb dipping sauces that come with the fondue.

The Supreme entree for two ($40), for example, paired filet mignon, Gulf shrimp, sirloin coated with roasted garlic, chicken breast and salmon (the catch of the day that day) with a horseradish-pungent cocktail sauce, a sweet, tangy barbecue sauce, a very sweet teriyaki and a standard honey-Dijon. The filet and lobster entree for two (market price, which was $54 during our visit) was paired with an exquisite tarragon cream sauce, a fine kalamata olive pesto and a reduction of balsamic vinegar and red wine -- which our waiter accurately described as a "grape jam for adults." We also sampled two single-person entrees: the vegetarian ($12), which brought an array of veggies with potato gnocchi and portabellos, and the buffalo tenderloin ($26). The gnocchi was pretty dense and chewy, but the portabellos were a slice of heaven. And the buffalo was a quick appetite appeaser: In order to get the meat at its rarest and most flavorful, we had to pull it out of the liquid almost instantly, which meant we could stuff our faces faster.

The fact that it takes some time to complete your meal could be the only real drawback to La Fondue -- if you consider lingering over a fine, entertaining dinner a drawback, that is. While it takes a little longer to get your entree than it would if someone were loading up your entire plate and sending it out from the kitchen, getting there is half the fun. You can also wind up eating an awful lot of food in the process, so you need to consciously save room for dessert -- and it's an obscene dunkfest no chocolate fanatic should miss. The Swiss consider dessert fondue an aberration, and La Fondue makes it clear that this is an American innovation -- but it's also an example of American ingenuity at its tastiest. By the time we'd dipped all the cheesecake, Snickers bits, pound cake, strawberries and bananas into the nut-flecked milk chocolate, it was clear what kind of fondue personality I possess.

Hey, that's my banana, Buster.

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