CRW Day 5: Diving into Melting Pot

Day 5:  The Melting Pot (Midtown)

I get it now.

I’ve heard for two decades from many friends and fans of The Melting Pot that it’s “just their favorite restaurant!” I’d had one dinner there in the way past, memorable more for the company than the meal. My dashing companion Bruce had eaten there a couple of times, but the timing was vague -- once in the 1980s, once in the 1990s. So I figured, let’s bring us into this century, shall we?

Apparently the 1970s U.S. fondue craze is having a rebirth, with fledgling Melting Pot franchises blooming across the country. It’s nothing new, really, as the first fondue reference popped up in Homer’s Iliad.  Later, the Swiss took up the practice as a way to survive hard Alpine winters.  They found that bread and cheese stored since summer had hardened up a bit by the time the snow flew. So they hacked up the bread with an ax, heated the cheese over flame and stirred it smooth with wine, gathered the family ’round the fire, soaked the bread bricks in the hot cheese, and voila! — middle America wound up with one of its favorite special occasion fares. How’s that for a segue?

In a week in which I’d booked us into local establishments for CRW, this was our one national chain selection. It also turned out to be our most family-centric venue. I’d venture that the majority of tables we passed, as we wended our way behind the hostess through the maze of intimate dining nooks, held at least one ankle-biter. Other guests varied from teens and twenty-somethings on date nights, giggling tables of middle-aged mamas escaping the casa for the evening, and a few mature (ahem) romantic couples such as ourselves.

The congenial and well-versed staff here ebulliently strives to make each table feel as if it’s celebrating a special occasion. Most importantly, the servers are expert at guiding diners of all levels through the potentially intimidating process of plotting their meal. The process involves a bit of reading, followed by choices for the cheese used in the starter course; salad; entrée combos; cooking style (i.e., liquid) for the main course; and chocolate selection for dessert . . . not to mention beverages. Once decision duty’s over with, however, the server’s doing all the heavy lifting from there on out.

The pacing here is leisurely, the interactive cooking experience lulling diners into a relaxed mood that encourages them to actually converse, as opposed to hunkering nose-down and wordless, sawing away at a hunk of meat on a plate.  No wonder folks like to bring their kids here; perhaps there really are complex answers to “What did you do today?”

For someone like me who’s quickly bored with a large portion of any one menu item, but wants an interesting selection of lots of things, this is one great way to go for dining. And the bite-size portions aren’t intimidating for even the smallest diners, a further clue to the child-attraction here. And, let’s admit, who doesn’t want to play with their food at the dinner table and get away with it?

For that purpose, everyone gets two color-coded fondue forks, so you’ll always know which chunk of goodness is yours while so many are nestled in the pot, and brief timing instructions so you manage to cook everything just to your liking.

We went traditional for our cheese course, choosing the piquant Swiss fondue, a mix of Gruyère and Emmenthaler cheeses spiked with lemon, garlic, white wine, nutmeg, and a splash of Kirschwasser (cherry brandy), concocted at the table by our excellent server, Angela. Our options for dunking were a crudité bowl of carrots, cauliflower, and celery; white, rye, and pumpernickel bread cubes; and crisp green apple chunks. We complemented the course with a glass each of Sokol Blosser Evolution, a meritage of nine grapes blended into one of the brightest and most versatile white wines you’ll ever sip.

We came in hungry and knocked out the first course accordingly. Those plates were cleared away, and our salads of spinach, mushroom, red onions, bacon and tomatoes arrived with a warm Burgundy shallot vinaigrette on the side.  

Salads eventually scarfed, Angela then delivered our cooking brew (a Caribbean-inspired “Mojo” flavor) to heat up on our in-table cooktop while we quizzed her on how many times she’d burned herself in eight years of employment here (at least twenty). Impressed, I sampled our red wine selection of Cain Cuvee and deemed it well worthy.

We each had a choice of three meat/seafood combos for our entrée course, but we kept it simple and both went with the Piedmont — filet mignon, blackened tenderloin, chicken, peppered shrimp, and a pleasant surprise of butternut squash ravioli. These were backed by a hefty vegetable selection including asparagus, broccoli, yellow squash, potatoes, and mushrooms.  

Already salivating over this spread, we had to make a little more room on the table for the exhaustive selection of sauces, among them a horseradish-heavy (read:  good) cocktail, spicy mango, blue cheese, teriyaki, yellow curry, sweet & sour, and house specialty Green Goddess, a thick concoction of cream cheese, sour cream, onion, and fresh herbs that goes beautifully stuffed inside a freshly cooked mushroom.

We didn’t manage to clear out every sauce ramekin, but there was nothing left to dip in them by the time we made our way through the meat/shrimp/pasta and veggie platters. The pacing and portions here are brilliantly geared to leave one feeling mentally satisfied (most important to the perception of a great meal) but not too gorged to go one more round.

I could’ve sat there awhile just reading and re-reading the chocolate fondue options, sugar-fueled fantasies swirling in my head, but Angela was ready for our final order. While dark, milk, and white options with myriad mix-ins like marshmallow cream, peanut butter, liqueurs, nuts, and cookies abound, I couldn’t resist the feature of the evening — a Bananas Foster fondue, prepared tableside with white chocolate, banana chunks, brown sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, a splash of flaming 151 rum, and cinnamon sprinkles that throw off sparks (who knew?) as they meet with the burning liquor.

For dipping into this dissipation, we received marshmallows (chocolate cookie- and graham cracker-encrusted, no less), pound cake, cheesecake, Rice Krispies treats, brownies, bananas, and strawberries.

We cleared the plate of sweets and fruit. We scraped the inside of the fondue pot clean. I’m embarrassed to say we spooned dollops of dripped fondue off the table, and not for the sake of neatness, either.

Oh my.

So I understand the attraction now.  We left full of good food and goodwill and had more fun than a barrel of monkeys . . . hopefully bearing more pots of that Bananas Foster fondue.

Bruce and Jill Hensley are partners in the firm Hensley/Fontana. They launched the first Charlotte Restaurant Week, which runs through July 18. They're dining out each night and will be blogging about their experiences for Charlottemagazine.com. Read past entries here.

Categories: The Buzz, Trade & Tryon