Friday, November 30, 2007

Eating out. fondue.

I remember going to a fondue restaurant in Taipei in the 80's, but since everyone looks at me as if I had completely lost my mind I wonder if I imagined it all. I have a vague memory of bread dipped in cheese, a cozy atmosphere, but that was all some twenty years ago and it is possible that it never happened at all. The restaurant in my memory was called something like Swiss Chalet, or Chalet Suisse, something vaguely European but not quite. I suppose the food was vaguely European, but not quite, as well. That was my first experience of fondue. The next experience was at the age of 11, in some small Swiss town where we had stopped after dropping my grandfather off in Geneva (or perhaps it was Lucerne, I can't remember). We stumbled upon a small fondue restaurant with outdoor tables and had a dinner of steak fondue cooked in a pot of bubbling oil; it came with a round platter covered with small dishes of sauces and pickles and other savory little nibbles. (I don't think any fondue has tasted as good since; it belongs to that time and place and can never be duplicated.

People from my parents' generation were into fondue. Like crêpe pans and avocado-green kitchen appliances, fondue pots were one of those things people gave as wedding gifts in the 70's. Or so I have heard. (Some people were given bongs, but that is another story. I know my parents never received one. Perhaps they had the wrong friends). Now fondue is popular again; you can buy fondue sets made of sleek stainless steel or colorful enameled cast-iron that come with color-coordinated skewers and stands that hold the pot over a can of sterno. Or you can go to a restaurant that serves fondue. The Melting Pot is one of these, a chain of restaurants in practically every state coast-to-coast. I have always wanted to try it, and when my mother's friend E. calls me to invite me to dinner there, I leap at the chance.

We head out to the Melting Pot in lower Queen Anne, just south of the Seattle Center. Its proximity to the nearby theaters means that when we arrive at 7 the earlier diners are heading off to see the Nutcracker. (Later, as we are leaving, we see people leaving the ballet, little girls in velvet dresses with frills. I guess nothing has changed since I was eight). We choose the Big Night Out, which promises three kinds of fondue: cheese, to start with, meat and seafood, and - finally - chocolate. A stainless-steel pot sits on a burner in the middle of the table, and presently our server comes by and begins pouring things into the pot: White wine, a mix of gruyère and fontina, shallots, dates, and white truffle oil which is spritzed over the melting cheese with one of those spray cans that people who like to play with their food use for cooking oils or salad dressings. There are chunks of bread and fresh vegetables and crisp Granny Smith apples, perfect with the molten, wine-and-truffle-infused cheese. The main course arrives, a neatly arranged platter of lobster tail (dusted with paprika), chicken (marinated with garlic), pork (in some citrus marinade), and beef (marinated in balsamic). There are all sorts of sauces, creamy and spicy and buttery, and before I know it I have eaten everything on my plate. And it is time for dessert.

At last the chocolate fondue arrives, a raspberry purée swirled in. There are strawberries and banana slices and tiny brownie squares and rice krispy treats and marshmallows. The talk swirls around the table as we muse aloud over how the Swiss fondue is like the Chinese hot pot or Japanese Shabu-shabu. As always we eat our meal while talking about past meals, or dinners yet to come. And I think about perhaps I will come back here again.

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