Until last month, it seemed the fondue pot, that lava lamp of the food world, had been relegated to its proper place: collecting dust in the kitchen cupboards of newlyweds. Maybe we're jaded, but Bite Club has always thought of fondue as fake food for fake grownups, a kind of congealing, Swiss-born, cheese-and-chocolate mess that budding dinner partiers present as a fun, interactive food experience.
But when we taste-tested the renaissance signaled by the return of The Melting Pot and the opening of Urban Fondue, two new Portland restaurants that cranked up their burners just in the past 30 days, we had to swallow our words. Even Bite Club is susceptible to the universal hunter-gatherer appeal of stabbing defenseless hunks of bread, protein or fruit and plunging them into a molten bath.
Now, downtown's Melting Pot ain't no Higgins--or Rheinlander, for that matter. Its cauldrons bubble, old-school style, underneath the Congress Center in a massive, meandering space once occupied by Harrington's. But this local franchise scores high marks for its subdued, elegant decor and its sweet staff.
This is the IKEA of meltable food, where delighted suburbanites ooh and aah as servers sprinkle bleu cheese and sherry into a melange of fontina and Butterkäse tableside ($14 for a two-person pot), or business associates cross fondue forks over the last piece of lobster to be dunked in a boiling vat of garlicky Burgundy wine ($45 per person). The Pot might be a bit spendy and staid--it's got a lame chain pedigree, after all--but even the Bite Club could enjoy a holiday family gathering if it included dunking strawberries into a sinfully rich pot of caramel-spiked dark chocolate Turtle fondue ($14).
In contrast, Northwest 21st Avenue's Urban Fondue, owned by Bartini and Voodoo Lounge kingpins Mark and Carla Byrum, aims to bring a seductive new 'tude to fondue dining. This is supercharged, sexed-up style dippin'--an exotic Gisele Bündchen to the Melting Pot's Twiggy. From its crimson-colored ultrasuede booths and slick rust walls to a private dining area cordoned off by flame-colored curtains, every inch of Urban's hip space looks as if it's smoldering.
And the fondue is equally hot. Chef Kevin Kennedy urges diners to dip hunks of Zenner sausage and sautéed button mushrooms in Tillamook white cheddar sprigged with caraway seeds. Asiatic hot pots featuring ginger and sweet chilies vie for table space with tomato-fennel broth to bathe a niblet of raw Carlton pork. And bizarre mixes, like cheesecake, Heath Bar and chocolate butterscotch fondue, sweeten the dessert menu.
Still, the real question is just why has the fondue scene started bubbling up again now, anyway? We got the simplest answer from a guy who melts down 100 pounds of Swiss cheese, white wine and garlic every night, Der Rheinlander's executive chef, Steven L. Young.
"Fondue is comfort food," Young says.
The Bite Club can stick our fondue fork in that theory. But what blast from the past will be up next on the comfort-food slab--Jell-O mold?
2114 NW Glisan St., 242-1400.
The Melting Pot 1001 SW 5th Ave., 517-8960.
The Rheinlander 5035 NE Sandy Blvd., 288-5503.
The original suburban Melting Pot out on Beaverton Hillsdale Highway closed in 1999.