Fondues and Don'ts
What's at the End of Every Fork? A Mixed Bag
Conventional wisdom has it that two plus two makes four. At The Melting Pot (418-420 York Road, Towson,  821-6358), two plus two equals confusion. I suppose this romantically lit spot with tall booths is designed for dinners a deux. But on the evening C.C. and I were joined by a pair of friends, Byron and Roy, we had one hell of a time ordering to suit everyone's taste.
The underlying problem is that enjoying fonduethe restaurant's raison d'êtreis a group activity. It calls for decisions to be made en masse. Take the cheese fondue. The Melting Pot offers four varieties, but as our table contained only one heating unit, we were forced to reach a consensus and choose one type. Roy dismissed my first choice, the Fiesta, as too spicy. I knew C.C. was holding out for the cheddar, but Byron, our traditionalist, insisted on not just Swiss cheese, but Traditional Swiss. "Is there a difference?" you're probably asking. Well, yes. Unlike the regular Swiss, the Traditional features a hint of garlic, a spritz of lemon, and a splash of Kirschwasser. Your server prepares the fondue tableside, then delivers bread cubes, sliced apple, and cut veggies for dunking. Problem was, we ran out of fondue before we ran out of dippables.
The cheese fondue comes as an appetizer with your entrée fondueif you order an entrée fondue for two, in which case you also get a choice of one of three salads. If you order fondue for one, you get salad but not cheese fondue. You could still get cheese fondue, of course, by ordering it à la cartefor a rather hefty $8.75 for one to two people, $4.75 for each additional person. For that matter, you can get salad à la carte for $4.75but why would you, unless you were having only salad and cheese fondue? You can see where the confusion comes in; it took our party 20 minutes to figure all the menu permutations out.
The salads, it should be said, were generously sized and terrific. On the night we visited the restaurant was out of mushroom salad, so my companions all opted for the California, a blend of greens with roma tomatoes, walnuts, and gorgonzola cheese in a raspberry-walnut vinaigrette. My chef's salad was heartier still, containing cukes, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, ham, and emmenthaler cheese bathed in a sweet-and-sour house dressing.
On the fondue-for-two side, the fellas selected the Pacific Rim ($45.40), a mix of sirloin, shrimp, pork, duck, chicken, and dumplings. C.C. and I shared the Classic ($43.40), which included steak, chicken, and fresh fish. A surf-and-turf option is also available, at market price. We chose boiling oil over boiling broth for our fondue pot. Our server swung the vessel carefully onto the table, then brought us the raw ingredientsthe chunks of meat, fish, and fowlalong with fresh broccoli and mushrooms and parboiled new potatoes.
This is where the fun began. We were each given two long, skinny forks. Our challenge was to spear the raw tidbits without using our fingers or letting the raw tidbits touch the cooked ones. (Failing the challenge, C.C. assured us, would result in salmonella fondue.) Once speared, each bit of meat or vegetable had to be lowered gingerly into the boiling oil. Some invariably fell off, others were lost during the retrieval process.
That brings me to an important point. The Melting Pot is not the place for that awkward first date, or for couples who have been together so many years that they no longer have anything to say to each other. There simply isn't much to do while that sirloin is sizzling, sister, and eating one tidbit at a time is tedious. In fact, we got so tired of waiting for individual items to cook that we finally just threw everything into the pot. (Word to the wise: Do this only if you have thought to bring a ladle. Spearing chunks from the bottom of a pot of bubbling oil is harder than you might think.)
As for taste, the boiled items derived the bulk of their flavor from the vast array of dipping sauces provided, including teriyaki glaze, Thai peanut, spicy cocktail, basil pesto, mesquite barbecue, and ginger plum. I only liked a couple of the sauces. Some, like the Thai peanut, were mysteriously bitter-tasting.
Dessert is chocolate fonduemilk, dark, or white, with or without liqueur, nuts, or caramel. The menu offers nine selections ($11.45 for one or two people, $20.45 for three or four). Dippers include thin slices of cake, strawberries, pineapple, and marshmallows. For 20 bucks, though, I'd like a few whole strawberries, not one berry fanned into slices. We sampled Bailey's Irish Cream Dream and quickly ran out of dipping material. Byron and C.C. took it well, but Roy and I used spoons and, yes, fingers to extract every last melted morsel.
My suggestion: Go for the novelty. Have the cheese fondue, a salad, and a sinful chocolate finale. You might be confused and you'll definitely be poorer, but the experience will be at least interesting.
Open 5-10 P.M. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 P.M. Friday and Saturday, 4-9 P.M. Sunday