Nothing in life is fun for the whole family, as the American philosopher Jerry Seinfeld said. But then he probably never went to The Melting Pot, which for Harrisburg could be Eatertainment Central.
Tucked into a commercial strip on Paxton Street across from the Harrisburg Mall, The Melting Pot is all reflecting silvery windows from the outside and small, quiet booths and dining rooms inside. (If you can get inside. Friday to Sunday, they’re booked two weeks ahead.)
With 11 in our party, we took over half a dining room and settled in for an explanation of the menu from our server, Megan.
At The Melting Pot, dinner has four courses: cheese, salad, entrée and dessert. Except for the salad, it’s all fondue.
“I haven’t had fondue since the late 60s,” David said. “My mother got a fondue pot and did it for all her dinner parties when it was trendy, and then I never saw it again. It’s fun.”
(Here’s a generation marker. “It’s my first experience with fondue,” Sara said. “I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never had any.” Sara’s almost 30.)
Those old fondue parties were typically one pot (caquelon) over a small burner (rechaud) with an anonymous glop of cheese inside.
Our feasty presentation began with four distinctive cheese hot pots: the Fiesta, Cheddar with jalapenoes, salsa, herbs and spices; a Swiss Cheese blend of Gruyere and Emmenthaler with white wine, garlic, nutmeg, lemon and Kirschwasser, a sour cherry brandy; the Spinach Artichoke fondue, featuring Fontina and Butterkase cheeses with garlic; and the featured cheese dish, Quattro Formaggio, with Fontina, Gruyere, Gran Queso and Mozzarella Perlini in a Pinot Grigio base with roasted garlic and basil pesto.
To dip we got bread chunks, celery, carrots, cauliflower, Granny Smith apple pieces and tortillas chips. The evening almost deteriorated into yet another Mode all-appetizer gobble-fest, but we held back. Okay, we held back by only ordering 2 servings for every pot and simply running out of stuff to drench in the delicious cheesiness.
“I love it and it’s a good ice-breaker too,” Mary said. “It makes everybody participate.”
About that: given the communal pot, fondue etiquette says you should spear the food with a dipping fork, put it in the cheese, bring it home and pop the food onto your plate, then use the regular fork to put it in your mouth. To recap: dipping fork does not go in mouth, please.
“The Bleu Cheese is my favorite,” someone said. “Apparently it’s everyone’s favorite,” Dee responded, “because it’s gone.”
So we were onto salads. They didn’t quite go with the cheesy dipping goodness, but they weren’t supposed to. The acid in the dressings cleared the mouth for the entrée course. Of the salads, the Caprese – salad in the style of the isle of Capri, with tomato, basil and mozzarella – was exceptionally pretty and tasty.
Pay attention now. Remember, we have four courses. Apart from picking the cheeses and the salads, we’ve done very little mental work so far. This next part, the cooking, is what looks intimidating when you pick up the menu.
Relax. You will be cooking protein by placing it in hot liquid. It’s just that simple. First you choose the liquid. Since we had a bunch of people, we took all four choices.
n Court Bouillon, a seasoned vegetable broth;
n Bourguignonne, basically canola oil (no cholesterol);
n Coq au vin, a Burgundy wine with herbs, spices, mushrooms and garlic;
n Mojo, bouillon with Caribbean seasonings
We got all the combinations. There was meat: Filet Mignon Florentine, Limoncello Balsamic Sirloin, Orange Fennel Pork Tenderloin, Sun-Dried Tomato Chicken. There was seafood: Lobster and Shrimp Diablo. There was veg: Porcinis and Portabellas and assorted side veggies.
Average cooking time is two minutes. Chances you will pay attention to the time or what color your fondue fork was, zero. Each hot pot comes with a search-and-rescue spoon because, well, stuff falls off the fork when there are a lot of forks in the pot.
The cool tricky part about cooking in hot oil is the batter. We got a dark, sesame seed batter for cooking chicken and doing stuffed mushroom caps. For seafood and veggies,
there was a tempura batter, somewhat lighter.
This is where our server, Megan the Magnificent, became Megan the Invaluable. Of a dozen people hovered over the pots, only one, Megan, knew what she was doing wit the batters.
But first she brought out the sauces.
There was a curry sauce, yogurt-based, for the veggies. Teriyaki glaze, a combination of ginger, garlic and onion, was for the steak. The ginger-plum, a mix of bell peppers, ginger and plum, was good on anything but the chicken and shrimp. The garlic-dijon butter, kept hot near the burner, was excellent with lobster.
Megan stuffed a mushroom cap with Green Goddess, a mix of sour cream, cream cheese, chives, onion and parsley, plunged it into the sesame-seed batter and then into the Bourgignonne pot. And we were off.
Holly and Christine dumped a bunch of veggies into the Coq au Vin, which quickly became the favored pot on both sides of the table. Beef was fantastic in it.
The Bourgignonne had simplicity on its side, but it called for a complexity of battering and saucing that seemed like, you know, work. Unless you just put food in and didn’t fuss. “I liked the shrimp and I really liked it in the Bourgignonne. It just popped. I’ve never had shrimp like it, it was so moist.”
The Court Bouillon was okay. The Mojo gave a lovely citrus aspect to the chicken and seafood. But everything we did in the pots came out fresh and moist, and it truly was hard to overcook unless you simple forgot where you were and that you were hungry.
Dessert was bananas, strawberries, pound cake, cheesecake and Rice Krispie treats to dip in chocolate. Hard to beat.
“This is a great way to eat dinner with friends,” Christine said. “It’s so interactive and spontaneous.”