If stars were given for fun, the Melting Pot would be a four star restaurant. But for the food, not so many.
Still, give the place credit for making people not only willing, but also eager, to pay to cook their own dinner. The Melting Pot specializes in fondue, that throwback to the early '70s. But the restaurant's popularity has nothing to do with retro appeal. Most of its customers probably weren't even born when the fondue craze hit.
Those who remember fondue's origins know it's the only food that has a kissing tradition -- if you lose a piece of bread in the pot of melted cheese you're supposed to kiss someone. Perhaps with that in mind, the designers have created a romantic dining room, just the place for a first date. The lights are low and there are intimate spaces, with cozy nooks for two and booths that can be quite private. But this is also the kind of restaurant meal that keeps kids entertained. Families can -- and do -- enjoy themselves there, so the place has something of a split personality.
The appeal is the same as an hibachi restaurant's. Familiar foods are presented in an exotic way, and you don't have to wait for a dish sitting under a warming lamp until the server gets to it. Each table at the Melting Pot has a heating element at its center (tables for six have two), which holds the fondue pot. Places are set with long-handled fondue forks. You use them to spear a bit of food and dip it in the pot.
To avoid having its customers keel over with food poisoning, the restaurant puts out a handy chart of cooking times for different items (shrimp, 1 1 / 2 minutes, for instance); and your server will watch you like a hawk to make sure you don't put the cooked meat back on a plate that might have uncooked meat juices on it. The staff is probably a lot more careful than you are in your own kitchen, and this is about the only excitement involved with your meal.
If you decide on cheese fondue, either as a first or main course, the waiter mixes the ingredients in front of you. My favorite is the traditional Swiss version (Gruyere and Swiss cheeses flavored with kirsch); and the Melting Pot does it very well -- if you can restrain the waiter when he starts to add the minced garlic. Unfortunately, you're given soft, flavorless bread cubes for dipping into this rich, tangy, molten concoction.
With only one heating element per table, everyone has to agree on one cooking style for their meat, seafood, and vegetables. The cooking choices have expanded since the Melting Pot first opened five years ago. It's now either oil (the traditional European method) or a choice of three different flavors of broth, including a new one our waiter was anxious for us to try, the "coq au vin." To the basic simmering vegetable broth he added mushrooms, burgundy, garlic and herbs. (Note that this cooking style is the only one that involves an additional $6 charge, just in case your waiter doesn't mention it.)
Of course, if you order the coq au vin cooking style, the shrimp taste like coq au vin, and the teriyaki marinated sirloin tastes like coq au vin, and even the ravioli taste like coq au vin. On the other hand, it does help solve one problem when for health or weight reasons you decide to cook your dinner in broth instead of oil: The beef doesn't taste so much like boiled beef.
If you haven't been to the Melting Pot recently, you'll find that the menu has been expanded, with items like marinated breast of duck, pot stickers and spinach Gorgonzola ravioli as well as the traditional steak and seafood. (Note to the Melting Pot: Has anyone on staff tried to cook large cheese ravioli on the end of a two-pronged fondue fork? Good luck.)
If you have trouble with the choices, the Melting Pot offers elaborate dinners like the Big Night Out (four courses for two) and other prix fixe dinners. Or you can just get one of the fondues, which comes with a salad, vegetables to cook in the simmering broth or oil, and various dipping sauces, from gorgonzola port to spicy cocktail to green goddess. The menu is up front about the fact that the meat is choice, not prime; but often you'll have so many flavors going on with the marinade, cooking broth and dipping sauces, you'll hardly notice what you're actually cooking.
Not to belabor a tired joke -- oh, why not -- but you can have any dessert you want at the Melting Pot as long as it's fondue. The menu lists nine of them. They all start with a plate of items to be dipped (cheesecake, strawberries, bananas, pineapple chunks, marshmallows and poundcake pieces) and hot chocolate sauce. For the "Flaming Turtle," for instance, our waiter heated milk chocolate and caramel, added pecans and flambeed the whole thing with rum.
OK, I've had better meals than our dinner at the Melting Pot. And I've certainly had meals where I didn't have to work so hard. But I usually don't have as much fun when I go out to eat. As ice breakers go, the fondue pot is hard to beat.
RATINGS / / Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *
** 1 / 2
Address: 418-420 York Road, Towson
Hours: Open every night for dinner
Prices: Fondues, $12-$39; prix fixe dinners for two, $52-$78.