Anyone wondering about the historical accuracy of Fox's That '70s Show will get one piece of anecdotal reinforcement by reading the menu of the Melting Pot, the perfect name for a new addition to the ethnic kaleidoscope that is the University City Loop. By doing so, you'll learn that the new St. Louis location of this fondue restaurant is approximately the 50th across the country. The first was founded in Florida in 1975, right about the same time the fictional Red, Kitty, Bob and Midge held their own fondue to-do in the vicinity of Fond du Lac, Wis.
We weren't quite as klutzy as the characters in the sitcom representation, managing to avoid the oil-in-the-eye trick and other made-for-TV sight gags, but I have to admit that the roll-your-own aspect of the Melting Pot made it a little too labor-intensive for my taste. Those who don't mind going out to eat and doing a whole lot of the work themselves will probably be much better predisposed to this style of restaurant.
From an interior-design standpoint, the Melting Pot does a wonderful job of visually segregating virtually all dining parties from each other by creating a warren of booths, each with one or two heatingelements at the center of a quarry-tile-top table. Fairly bright colors alternate from wall to wall, with the vibrancy further enhanced by displays of liqueurlike colored liquids in bottles and a nonintrusive-but-upbeat jazz soundtrack but also toned down by dark-wood bead-board paneling.
Because fondue isn't exactly a staple of the local repertoire, the waiter serves as much as an instructor as he does an order-taker, explaining the cooking methodology and the "rules," or what Midge would unashamedly describe as "fon-dos and fon-don'ts." The main idea is to keep diners from stabbing, burning or otherwise injuring themselves.
Your first big choice is whether to go "traditional" or "court bouillon," the former involving canola oil as the cooking liquid and the latter a non-oily, lower-calorie broth. The issue here is that, in a party of up to four, you're all sharing the same burner, so you have to agree on one or the other choice. Larger tables have an additional burner, allowing parties of five or more to try both approaches.
Complicating things a bit further, you can also order cheese fondue as a main course, although this is also available in a smaller portion as a start to the meal ($8.95). This was the way we began, choosing the "traditional" style of Gruyere and Emmentaler cheeses melted in wine and flavored with the clear cherry eau de vie called kirschwasser. Other options for the cheese are "Swiss," which omits the cherry brandy; "cheddar," flavored with beer, and "fiesta," with more of a Mexican flavor.
The salad that came with our dinner entrees arrived about the same time the waiter placed a metal bowl of white wine in what looked a lot like a pewter soup terrine on the heating element at the center of the table. The wine warmed up as we nibbled our salads, and soon the waiter appeared with a shredded mixture of the two Swiss cheeses, first adding some minced garlic and lemon to the wine, then stirring in incremental clumps of the cheese, melting them slowly and then adding pinches of nutmeg and pepper before concluding with the contents of a snifter of the kirschwasser. We used our twin-pronged fondue forks to pierce and submerge pieces of Granny Smith apple, cubes of crusty bread and pieces of cauliflower, carrot and celery. The double-boiler approach to cooking left the cheese warm but certainly nowhere near scalding, and the fresh crunch of the fruits and vegetables yielded favorable results.
For the next course, the waiter cleared the first fondue assembly and brought another full of oil, this one encased in a safety/carrying screw-vise that looked like part of Peter Boyle's body in Young Frankenstein. When the oil was warmed up, we cooked orders of the Center Cut ($17.95), cubes of beef tenderloin and slices of portobello mushroom; and the seafood selection ($15.95), which on this night included five tiger shrimp and hunks of mahi-mahi and salmon, the final item having been substituted for scallops, which were unavailable.
The main element of each entree, along with a side bowl of potatoes and vegetables, is first dipped in a tempura or sesame batter, then essentially "shallow-fried" (the oil isn't quite hot enough to deep-fry). Each dish has its own special sauces for finishing -- for the beef, a green peppercorn, a Gorgonzola and a tarragon; for the fish, an herb butter, a lemon-pepper and a cocktail -- and the table as a whole gets additional sauces of creamy horseradish, curry and green goddess.
The evening then evolves into a sequence of dip, cook, plate, sauce and repeat, with fondue forks jousting for position in the oil and in the sauces. All the while, we heeded the "rule" not to put raw food into the sauces or on the eating plates. Batter amounts and cooking times were iterative trial-and-error processes, and we never did seem to come up with the optimal method for cooking the beef. The salmon was the most successful fish item, cooking very quickly and coming out perfectly moist, and in general each of the fish was easy to figure out, but you need to be fully in the mood to play with your food to really take full advantage of the process.
The torture device was then brought out again so that the waiter could remove the oil, and we finished with an "original" dessert fondue ($8.95) of milk chocolate and peanuts in which to dip marshmallows, strawberries, cheesecake, bananas and pineapples.
When my wife noted that it would be an interesting first-date restaurant, I countered with the theory that a trip to the Melting Pot should definitely wait for the second date, because it forces a level of dexterity and cooperation that might have doomed our own courtship right at the start. So if you're still new to each other, maybe you ought to consider a nice art film at the Tivoli, saving the Melting Pot for after you've gone to a Jean-Claude Van Damme flick and are still speaking to each other. Or maybe stay home some Sunday night and watch a rerun of That '70s Show for a glimpse into the past and present of the joys of fondue.
THE MELTING POT
Hours: 5-11 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 5 p.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat.