November 22, 2006

The Melting Pot (Larkspur)

We've been to La Fondue in Saratoga a couple of times. Once early in our relationship -- an experience with dining companions that we still ponder 11 years later. There's a huge difference between commenting that the chocolate course demands licking the bowl and actually picking it up and using one's beard as a brillo pad. I will never forget the look on our waiter's face.

We've also journeyed to the much lower key Fondue Fred -- with the aforementioned dining companion and a pack of his Star Trek loving friends. We enjoyed the cheese and the chocolate, and ignored the freaks speaking in Klingon.

So when a summertime visit to friends in Marin left us with an open evening and a recently opened Melting Pot in Larkspur, we were eager to check it out. Even with the caveat that it would cost us $30-40 each. Frankly, we figured that was a bargain in Marin County.

We chose the Pacific Rim three course fondue dinner -- traditional Swiss cheese fondue, a salad course, and Asian-inspired dippers like teriyaki sirloin, duck breast, chicken breast, shrimp and the somewhat strange potstickers, cooked tableside in a bouillon broth.

Despite the Emeril-sized dollop of garlic our waitress enthusiastically added to the pot, the cheese course was delightful -- buttery, creamy, slightly sweet, utterly decadent.

I selected the seasonal strawberry salad and was quite pleased. For the product of a chain restaurant whose specialty is NOT fresh produce it was excellent. John went with the mushroom salad and was far less enthralled with the button mushrooms tossed with iceburg lettuce in a standard Italian vinaigrette. But we didn't come for the salad.

The main course was little more than adequate. The dipping selections were plentiful -- but not terribly interesting. The dipping SAUCES -- specifically a green goddess dressing that was recommended paired with the veggies -- were the highlight of this course.

None of the chocolate courses on the menu spoke to us -- we're generally of the less-is-more and premium-is-ideal school of chocolates so "Chocolate S'mores" and "Cookies & Cream - Marshmallow Dream" sounded like a bit of overkill. In the end we opted for a simple dark chocolate with a shot of Grand Marnier for a hint of orange flavor. They went a little nuts with the dippers here - the fresh fruit was lovely, but marshmallows? They're clearly aiming at a family audience, providing something for every palate.

One final commemnt -- given that this is a chain establishement aiming at a mainstream middle-American family demographic, the menu is a little -- schizophrenic. We've done the fondue thing before and we found the menu confusing -- we'd have been completely lost as beginners. Fortunately, the waitstaff is friendly and well-versed in how it all fits together. But a newbie diner with a newbie waiter might find the experience a bit overwhelming.

In the end, if you're in the bay area looking for a romantic fondue experience, plan ahead and make a reservation for two at La Fondue in Saratoga. If you're in a larger group and looking for a budget cheese-and-chocolate experience, take BART to Fondue Fred. Save Melting Pot (additional establishements opening soon in Pleasanton, San Mateo & Walnut Creek) for smaller groups looking to explore traditional and non-traditional fondue in a relaxed, family-style atmosphere.

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