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Fondue for You 

The Melting Pot is making an effort to bring fondue back into style.

Our evening at the Melting Pot did not get off to a good start. But by the end of it, we were, happy, full and satisfied. And that's what counts.

Tucson was introduced to this chain of about 70 restaurants three months or so ago, when it opened in the Foothills Mall. And the place is doing well. Because of this, I have one bit of advice: Make reservations, especially if you plan on going there on a weekend evening.

I made the mistake of heading to The Melting Pot on a recent weekend evening without reservations. This was a dumb move on my part, I admit.

I walked in with Garrett, my significant other, and waited for the person working the host/hostess station to acknowledge my presence. The person was there, head down, writing--for at least a minute (which is a long time to stand there, being virtually ignored). Just as I was about to say something, the person looked up and asked me if I had a reservation. I said no; the person seemed agitated by this fact. After checking with someone, the person took my name and cell phone number, and informed me there would be a wait of an hour to an hour and a half, and that we'd have to sit in the bar area in any case. I said that was fine, and we wandered over to Barnes & Noble to pass the time. It was there we met the other members of our dining party, Hugh Dougherty and his friend, Rachid.

That was the last time all night I would feel less than happy with The Melting Pot. It ended up being a fantastic evening, and all was forgiven.

About 55 minutes later, I got a call, with the voice on the other end cheerfully letting me know our table was ready. We walked over, and after being pleasantly greeted, we were seated in the bar area at an elevated table.

It was time to fondue, baby.

The Melting Pot is a brilliant idea. From a business standpoint, it's genius: Aside from some food prep and sauce-making, there's very little to be done in the kitchen. They give their customers the food, and the customers cook it themselves. Throw in a nice, hip décor, an expansive wine list and competent, friendly servers, and BAM!--a formula for success.

All the locations of The Melting Pot have slightly different menus, with different prices. With muted lighting, polished-granite table tops, a waterfall over glass behind the greeting station and jazzy music playing overhead, you're made to feel as if this a special night out.

One other feature stands out: The fondue cookers in the middle of each table. Some of the bar tables only have one, while most of the rest of the tables have two. This means that if you're going in a group, it's best to go with like-minded souls, because you all have to cook your food in those same cookers.

For appetizers, you can choose between one of four cheese fondues ($14 for 1-2 people; $7 for each additional person) or one of the salads ($5 ala carte). Then, you can go one of three ways: Order a "Signature Entrée" ($16 for just veggies to $36 for two lobster tails); order one of the "Fondue for Two" selections ($44-$62 for two; includes cheese fondue and salads); or go nuts and get the "Big Night Out," which includes the spinach and artichoke cheese fondue, salads, a variety of entrées (lobster tail, tiger shrimp, teriyaki sirloin, garlic-and-wine-marinated tenderloin and vegetables) and a chocolate fondue for dessert (which separately costs $12-$24). The cost for the "Big Night Out" is $70, or $35 per person, along with a 10 percent discount on a bottle of wine.

Then, for your entrées, you have one more choice: the cooking style. There are four to choose from: coq au vin (fresh herbs, mushrooms, garlic, spices and Burgundy; $5 per pot); mojo fondue (a Caribbean-seasoned bouillon with a garlic/citrus taste; $5 per pot); fondue court bouillon (a seasoned vegetable broth that's low in salt and cholesterol-free); and fondue bourguignonne (described as "the European style of cooking in cholesterol-free canola oil served with ... signature fondue batters").

Garrett and I decided to go nuts and get the "Big Night Out," and Hugh and Rachid went for the "Signature Selection" fondue for two ($44, comes with tenderloin, shrimp, teriyaki-marinated sirloin, chicken and salmon). Seeing as there was only one pot at our table, we all had to have the same cheese fondue (we went with the spinach and artichoke) and cooking style (we chose the coq au vin). We also took advantage of the 10 percent discount on a bottle of wine and ordered the Columbia Crest 2000 merlot ($30). The only variation we could have was in the salads; I chose the California salad (with mixed baby greens, roma tomatoes, walnuts and buttermilk bleu cheese along with a raspberry black walnut vinaigrette) while everyone else got the mushroom salad (sliced mushrooms atop greens with Parmesan Italian dressing).

The salads were all delicious; the greens were nice and fresh. My vinaigrette dressing was sweet and fruity, with just a touch of tartness. The only disappointment was that there was only one type of mushroom in the mushroom salads.

The cheese appetizer was delectable. Our server mixed all the ingredients at our table as we watched: a Swiss-cheese blend, garlic, spinach, artichoke hearts, Parmesan cheese and an oil broth all melted together to form a delicious dish. The Swiss cheese and the artichoke dominated the taste, and it was amazing. Using the Granny Smith apples, vegetables and breads (French, rye and pumpernickel) to dip, it was quickly eaten.

Then came time for the entrées. We each had a set of two fondue forks (each set had different-colored handles to avoid confusion), and our server told us to cook everything from 90 seconds to two minutes. We were also given a "search and rescue" spoon so we could retrieve the goodies that fell off our forks. Finally, he brought the platters with our raw meats and seafood, along with a dish of assorted vegetables.

And then we started cooking. The coq au vin mix is supposed to evoke images of the French countryside. I don't know about that; what I do know is that all the food we cooked in it came out delicious. The cooking broth added the garlic and wine tastes to everything, without overshadowing the flavors of the meats and seafood. Mix that with the nine different types of sauce that dotted our table (including cocktail, ginger plum, teriyaki, barbecue, buttermilk bleu cheese and basil pesto), and the possible taste combinations were in abundance.

We cooked; we talked; we ate. It was wonderful. It was a blast--a delicious blast, thanks to the fresh ingredients, the wonderful broth and masterful cooks--i.e. the four of us.

That left only the dessert. There are seven options, all permutations of chocolate fondue, or you can mix your own choice of chocolates and liqueur. Being a huge fan of Bailey's Irish Cream, I talked everyone into getting the mixture of that and milk chocolate. To be honest, nobody could taste the Bailey's (we knew it was there, because we saw our server pour it in). But that didn't matter; it was creamy, sweet and wonderful. We each got a platter of dipping goodies, including strawberries, banana slices, pineapple, nut-coated marshmallows, a piece of cheesecake and small squares of pound cake and brownies. It was simply divine.

It was a wonderful evening. Aside from the problem at the start, and the fact that we were all so full, we left The Melting Pot with no complaints, and delighted at the experience. Good food, good company and good service--what more can you ask for?

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