LOBSTER FONDUE: Don’t overcook the protein, which can be dipped in six sauces.
Back when George W. Bush was smart enough to get a Harvard MBA, he began — as do all first-year students — with Production and Operations Management (POM), the basic barrier course. The class uses the case method, and the fun lesson in those days was that of Benihana, a chain of Japanese-style steak houses where waiter-chefs grill your food in front of you. In terms of POM, Benihana streamlines production by merging the roles of cook and waiter, and operates more efficiently by seating people with strangers at circular tables. The Melting Pot will soon have twice as many locations as Benihana, in part by doing the same trick with waiters as chefs. But by applying it to fondue — broadly defined here to include variations of the Mongolian hot pot — they’re able to charge mass-steak-house prices for less protein. Bring your marketing-class notebook, because part of the formula is for the menu to convince people that a fondue dinner consists of four courses, and to make the 16-page menu so confusing that most people buy a prix-fixe combination.
|The Melting Pot | 617.357.7007 | 76 Arlington Street (Park Plaza Hotel), Boston | Open Mon–Thurs, 4–11 pm; Fri, 4 pm–midnight; Sat, 3 pm–midnight; and Sun, 3 pm–midnight | AE, DC, DI, MC, VI | Full bar | Valet parking at hotel entrance, $16 | Sidewalk-level access|
You can eat pretty well at the Melting Pot, but you need some focus and discipline. The urge to try everything makes for a diminished experience here, as it does at a wedding buffet. (Remember Nadeau’s Law of Buffets: look it over first, then take no more than three or four things you like.)
The menu says you should start with cheese fondue ($16/one or two; $8/each additional person). They offer six kinds, but four of you can usually have only one, since there’s a single heating element per table. (Tables for six have two heating elements.) If you’re not going for a package, give a nod to fondue history with the “Traditional Swiss Cheese Fondue.” The waiter heats up your pot and makes a production number out of mixing six ingredients in several batches. This is fondue as it was made by young couples with wedding-gift fondue sets in the 1970s. The wine never fully cooks off, so it’s sort of heady melted cheese, rolled up like spaghetti on cubes of bread (not stale enough our night) at the end of long fondue forks. You also have cauliflower florets, celery, and cubes of Granny Smith apple. You’ll run out of cheese before you run out of dipping food, so stick with bread and apples.
The Melting Pot experience is supposed to include a choice of five salads ($7 à la carte). But I wasn’t impressed, in part because they’re small, and mostly because of their old-fashioned ingredients like freight-car tomatoes and iceberg lettuce. The house salad has tomatoes, cucumbers, and a sliced egg. And the “featured” Southwestern Cobb salad isn’t very Southwestern-tasting. So the Caesar salad is the winner since it doesn’t have tomatoes, and does have pretty good cheese-fondue bread croutons, plus pine nuts.
Next, you choose a “cooking style,” the hot medium into which you will put food. The defaults are canola oil (the traditional fondue bourguignonne) and vegetable broth. But for another $6, there are coq-au-vin and mojo styles. We had the latter, which is supposed to be Caribbean garlic-citrus, but is mostly hot pepper.
Entrées are confusingly priced, since everything tends to be in a combination. Individual entrées ($19–$36, including salad) can be as simple as marinated breast of chicken ($20) and twin lobster tails ($36). We tried “The French Quarter” ($23), which was Cajun-seasoned shrimp, slices of sirloin and tenderloin steak, chicken breast, and Andouille sausage. They have devised some method for the Cajun seasoning to stick to the food in the broth, but the double dose of hot spice wasn’t so much fun.
There are also entrées for two ($66–$76), which include a cheese fondue and a salad. But what they really want you to have is the “Big Night Out” ($43–$48; $86–$96 per couple), consisting of the featured cheese fondue, a featured salad, a featured dessert fondue, plus a choice from three assortments of protein. We had the “Fondue Fusion” ($92 per couple), with a lobster tail (don’t over-cook it), filet mignon (a winner in a simple broth), sirloin steak (better with the strong flavors), cedar-plank salmon (the best thing on the menu; unfortunately, it’s not available à la carte), raw shrimp (maybe okay with the oil), marinated chicken (nah), ravioli of indeterminate stuffing (they do mostly stay on the fondue forks), and some vegetables (potatoes are slow to cook; mushrooms work pretty well). Servers spend some time setting this all up, telling you how long to cook things, and describing which of the many sauces goes well with what. You’ll forget all of it.