Frank Sabatini Jr. | Downtown News
The Melting Pot
901 Fifth Ave. (Gaslamp District)
Prices: $7.95 to $46.95
Swiss shepherds from two centuries ago were on to something when they’d trudge inside from the cold and dip stale bread into cauldrons of melted cheese spiked with wine. Little did they know that this survival tactic would turn into an elaborate modern-day production involving the additions of meat, seafood and assorted sauces.
Sitting down to fondue means forgetting about time. The clock ticks slowly as everyone soaks up the bubbling cheese with single cubes of bread before submerging raw proteins into a different pot filled with hot oil or broth.
Compared to Europeans, the average American doesn’t own a fondue set, and those who do have likely relegated them to a remote closet shelf.
Leave it to The Melting Pot for rekindling the ritual to the highest form possible. The two-level restaurant, housed in the historic Watts Building in Downtown, features granite tabletops rigged with built-in heater plates.
Through every course, with the exception of salad, customers spear foodstuffs onto long color-coded forks (so you know whose is whose) before dropping them into heated liquids, which includes melted chocolate at the finishing line.
When opting for the complete four-course dinner, the meal starts with cheese fondue constructed tableside. There are several to choose from, ranging from spinach-artichoke to zesty cheddar-based “fiesta” that resembles queso to classic Swiss-style involving a 50-50 blend of Emmenthaler and Gruyere cheeses.
Visiting as a twosome, we agreed on the latter, whereby a server gently melts the curds into a puddle of Chablis while adding minced garlic, lemon and nutmeg along the way. The creamy concoction is finished off with a jigger of Kirschwasser, an obligatory German brandy made from cherries.
Tangy and nutty, it is this exact recipe that has always stirred something of a feeding frenzy when I’ve made it at home for guests. Parked alongside are bowls of chopped bread, apples and veggies for dipping.
Progressing onto a couple of standard salads – a Caesar and the house medley with eggs and peppercorn Ranch — we were faced with numerous meat and seafood choices for our main course. Before doing so, you must decide on what type of cooking liquid goes into the pot, such as vegetable bouillon, canola oil or Burgundy-infused broth.
The chosen liquid is brought to a boil in the kitchen and transported safely to the table in a strange metal contraption that looks like a medieval torture device. It’s called “a romulator,” our waitress told us.
For an unconventional twist, we chose the “mojo,” a thin broth foaming with mild Caribbean spices that paired particularly well to my companion’s raw meat platter called “The French Quarter.” On it was bite-size pieces of filet mignon, chicken breast and shrimp, all dusted in Cajun seasoning. Also included were a few coins of Andouille sausage, which came unadulterated given that the meat is inherently spiced.
My entrée, “land and sea,” was similar except for the sausage and pre-seasoning on the meats. Furnished with two fondue forks each, we were pretty much able to keep something cooking in the broth while eating what we had recently fished out. And in the brief periods when all skewers were engaged, we spooned out of the pot flavorful potatoes and mushrooms that were contained within.
The joy of meat fondue is swiping your cooked bites through the various sauces that come alongside. Here, we mixed and matched our proteins to house-made green goddess, teriyaki glaze, ginger-plum sauce and a wildly rich paste of Gorgonzola and Port cheeses that sang to the steak. Think tapas, but in smaller, more kaleidoscopic mouthfuls.
Dessert fondue also offers myriad choices, allowing you to choose between melted chocolates that can be enhanced by liqueurs such as Grand Marnier and Cointreau.
The dippers, which constitute as a complete dessert tray, include cheesecake, brownies, marshmallows, strawberries and cubed red velvet-style pound cake. We chose dark chocolate over white or milk, and with a shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream thrown in for good measure.
The cheese, meat and dessert fondues are also available ala carte. In addition, various off-menu choices rotate regularly, and you can bet on seeing a clever new cheese concoction or two emerge on April 11, when consumers who pay attention to odd food “holidays” come out for National Cheese Fondue Day.
Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of Secret San Diego (ECW Press), and began writing about food two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. He has since covered the culinary scene extensively for NBC; Pacific San Diego Magazine; San Diego Uptown News; Gay San Diego; Living in Style Magazine and The Gay & Lesbian Times. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.