The Melting Pot

$$$$ ($25-$34)

Editorial Review

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, February 23, 2003

Halfway through dinner at the Melting Pot, I lost sight of my friends sitting across from me in the same booth.

Innocent curls of steam rising from the fondue pot before us had suddenly become thick clouds as the liquid in the vessel roiled, sending its perfume into the air -- and masking our faces. We weren't the only ones swatting the air as if we were in a sauna. All around us, people were huddled around granite-topped tables, in groups small and large, going in and out of view as they moved from cheese fondue to salad course to entree fondue and still more fondue for dessert.

The Melting Pot is a Florida-based chain with a 28-year history and local representation in Rockville, Reston, Arlington, Annapolis, Towson and -- since mid-December -- the District, where branch No. 63 unfolds in a large underground dining room near Dupont Circle. What was once the Southern-themed Savoy now plays host to more skewers and cheese than a reception by the Wisconsin state dairy board. This newcomer doesn't look like a corporate enterprise. An arty waterfall graces the entrance at the bottom of a flight of stairs; soft lighting and modern paintings add appealing touches to the sprawl beyond. As big as it is, the place feels cozy, with half-walls that create zones of privacy throughout the expanse. Bunches of balloons here and there (and the occasional stretch limo parked outside) remind you that cooking your own food with the help of friends is fun.

The drill begins with a tour of the menu led by an enthusiastic server. The big-ticket items appear on the opening page: There's the Big Night Out ($76 for two), which includes four courses and fat lobster tails, morsels of marinated tenderloin, chicken-plumped ravioli and shrimp for dipping; and the Center Cut Combo ($70 for two), a carnivore's fantasy of filet mignon, sirloin, chicken and more. If you skip past the wine list, which immediately follows those headliners, you'll find some less extravagant choices. A simple cheese fondue, which could be an entree for two people, goes for $14, for instance. More elaborate themed fondues include the Surf & Turf; the French Quarter (with New Orleans-style andouille sausage, of course); and a satisfying Vegetarian, which ranges beyond the predictable to include artichoke hearts and spinach-Gorgonzola ravioli. Each diner gets a different set of colored prongs to minimize confusion over whose morsels are whose in the pot.

The hitch, if you land at a table with just one burner, is that you and your tablemates have to agree on a single cheese fondue for an appetizer and a single liquid for cooking the main course. Would you prefer Swiss cheese melted with lemon, white wine, garlic and nutmeg (my favorite)? Cheddar cheese rounded out with beer? A "fiesta" of cheddar cheese sparked with jalapeno peppers and served with nachos as well as the standard cubes of French, pumpernickel and rye bread? Only a trip to Baskin-Robbins involves more decisions than a dinner at the Melting Pot. And that's just for openers. Next you're asked to choose one of three salads (head for the California, sprinkled with walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette) and a broth in which your whole table will cook its entree picks. Should you go for red wine, vegetable broth or canola oil? Or a bold and citrusy Caribbean bouillon? The waiter will direct you to the most suitable stock for your main course choice.

Even then, you're not done. The Melting Pot provides an array of sauces for adding to the cooked food. I particularly like the delicate curry and the herbed green goddess, both good with the vegetables. Other condiments need tweaking. A super-sweet teriyaki glaze and a dreadful Thai peanut sauce, partners to the Pacific Rim fondue, do a disservice to the plate's appealing marinated sirloin, peppery pork tenderloin, duck breast and pot stickers. (But pay attention: Nice as they are, those dumplings fall apart in a matter of moments if you leave them too long in the pot.)

The genial waiters inevitably spend so much time explaining the menu, stir-cooking your appetizer, doling out sauces, suggesting proper cooking times for each ingredient and dispensing caution ("Don't put the hot fork directly in your mouth") that you might be tempted to invite them to take a seat. Not since I sat in a highchair have I been fussed over so much. Some servers are better than others here, but each of them makes sure things run smoothly.

After all that has come before, dessert seems impossible. That is, until you watch a neighboring group of diners break into smiles as they plunge their forks -- speared with fresh fruit, pieces of pound cake or nut-crusted marshmallows -- into pools of velvety chocolate. Here, too, there are plenty of liquid options: milk chocolate, white chocolate with amaretto, dark chocolate sweetened with marshmallow cream and crushed Oreos, plus combinations of those bases. A purist, I prefer milk chocolate simply swirled with caramel and chopped pecans, billed as the Flaming Turtle; true to its name, the confection is flambeed at the table for a minute or so of small drama.

Fondue is probably not something you want to do every night. Having to attend to your own meal or work with a team can be a bit of a chore after an intense day at the office. But with friends in tow and good ingredients on hand, the Melting Pot is a stirring way to spend a few hours.