Hours: Mon.-Thu. 4-10 p.m.; Fri. 4-11 p.m.; Sat. 3-11 p.m.; Sun. 3-9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $14 per couple; entrees $16-20
Fare: Strictly fondue
Atmosphere: Cozy and dim
Liquor: Full bar
Were we looking forward to fondue at The Melting Pot? Let's just say that where cheese is involved, no one has to twist our arms. Melt it, and we turn into Pavlov's dogs. Throw in melted chocolate for dessert, and it would take a lot more than long, pointy forks to keep us away.
Located in the Freight House Shops complex at Station Square, The Melting Pot is part of an extensive Florida-based chain, but spares us the aggressively kitschy shtick of some corporate-imagineered restaurants we could mention (there is not, for instance, a single flea-market find mounted to any surface). No one would ever mistake it for a local establishment -- despite the pointed inclusion of pierogies on the menu, there is nothing particularly Pittsburgh about it -- but it's low-lit, warm and comfortable, and the dining room is manned by a team of attentive servers whose friendliness doesn't feel canned.
Their expertise is necessary to guide you through what will be an unfamiliar process for most. Diners accustomed to making certain well-defined choices of, say, salad dressings or side dishes may find themselves confounded by the full-course fondue experience, which involves a mix-and-match menu of ingredients, cooking styles and sauces. Then there is the epic wine list. Here, too, service is paramount, as waiters practically force tasting glasses upon you.
The typical progression is a course of cheese fondue, served with morsels of bread, vegetables and apples for dipping; a salad; an entrée; and a dessert course of -- what else? -- chocolate fondue.
Cheese options include traditional Swiss, cheddar, Wisconsin trio and fiesta, a Mexican mélange served with tortilla chips for dipping. We selected the Wisconsin trio, consisting of a mix of soft cheeses -- fontina, butterkäse, and buttermilk bleu -- blended with white wine and sherry for depth of flavor. The effect was mild with well-balanced sweet, creamy and tangy notes; even urging our waiter not to hold back on the bleu cheese did not result in an overly pungent mix. Zingy minced shallots offered a welcome counterpoint to the rich dairy. But we found the selection of veggies for dipping odd: carrots, celery and cauliflower put us in mind of soup stock rather than ski slopes.
Cheese is an ingredient in the salads as well. Jason's chef's salad featured Emmenthaler, while Angelique's so-called California salad was sprinkled with more buttermilk bleu. Unfortunately, the salad dressings had the syrupy-sweet presence of dessert toppings, overwhelming the cheeses' nutty, earthy flavors.
The entrée course involves a selection of raw meats and/or vegetables and a pot of boiling broth or oil. A hot plate built into the table keeps the pot simmering while you submerge your food to cook it. All this is accompanied by small dishes of various sauces, such as basil pesto, ginger plum and yogurt curry, for dipping the cooked food. We shared a pot of the Caribbean-style mojo bouillon. Copious amounts of orange and lime juice (squeezed at the table), cilantro and garlic lent this hearty broth a fresh, light overtone. From a list of beef, chicken and seafood options, Jason chose the French Quarter, featuring andouille sausage, shrimp, beef tenderloin and chicken breast, all rolled in a Cajun spice blend. Once a few of his pieces had been cooked in the broth, their seasoning also infused its flavor, so that it developed a welcome piquancy. This, in turn, enlivened Angelique's vegetarian array. Angelique avoided the dipping sauces, finding them to be essentially heavy salad dressings which obscured rather than enhanced the delicate flavor of the mojo; Jason, on the other hand, thought that at least some of the sauces were seasoned with sophistication.
The chocolate-fondue dessert course brings its own set of luxurious choices: milk, white or dark? Mixed with nuts, caramel or liqueur? Fortunately, it is hard to go wrong with what is, essentially, chocolate soup. The Melting Pot serves it with sliced fresh fruit as well as cheesecake, brownie squares, pound cake and marshmallows topped with nuts. The pastries are undistinguished by themselves, but a bath of melted chocolate puts them on the path to decadence.
In the end, we found The Melting Pot's ingredients and preparations to be less novel than the concept of fondue itself, with mild, occasionally even bland flavors catering firmly to unadventurous tastes. Yet fondue is a welcome fresh addition to Pittsburgh's culinary repertoire, and The Melting Pot is one cheesy chain that offers a truly unique experience.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2.5 stars