Stewart Lee Allen packs his 2002 book In the Devil's Garden: A Sinful History of Forbidden Food with chapter after chapter of decadent meals. The more memorable include thumb-sized birds drowned in liqueurs, milk-fed snails and the Trojan Pig—a piñata-like hog stuffed with sausages that fall out when the chef chops off its legs. But nothing topped the dish Allen discovered in the bawdy first-century Roman classic The Satyricon: a cow stuffed with a lamb stuffed with a pig stuffed with a rooster stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a thrush. According to Allen, Roman emperors banned the dish (and many others), fearing "it would turn their army into a bunch of spineless, rat-eating gluttons."
"All these laws were in vain," Allen added, "for what is civilization if not an eternal quest for a new sensation?"
Orange County boasts many gut-busting restaurants. All-you-can-eat barbecues at Brazilian churrascarias. Terrifying portions at Claim Jumper. Carl's Jr.'s Six-Dollar Burger. The dense beauty of a Philly cheesesteak. But the closest we come to those ancient Roman banquets is at La Fondue in San Juan Capistrano. This is where fondue, the art of dunking various foodstuffs in a pot boiling with flavorful goo, will leave your senses overwhelmed, your insides bloated and your life on hold for a couple of postprandial hours.
This empire of the senses isn't limited to the food. La Fondue lies on Camino Capistrano, between the Mission and El Adobe de Capistrano, but in this mansion there are many rooms. Warholesque reprints of the same beautiful woman's face adorn the walls. Chandeliers dangle all around. Some rooms are decorated in cheetah prints; in others, fountains burble. Mix in a young wait staff and a pulsing electronic soundtrack, and La Fondue is one of the county's sleeker, sexier restaurants.
La Fondue offers 50 individual fondues of chocolate, cheese or wines, but I recommend the restaurant's four-course specials, which include salad, a cheese fondue, a cornucopia of meats and dessert. That's what my girlfriend and I chose on a recent Friday evening. We started with a salad that, while large, did little more than take up stomach space that would prove essential for the coming onslaught. Much better was the cheese fondue. La Fondue stocks nine types, from the plain (Cheddar) to the intriguing (pesto with Swiss and cognac); we asked for the blue cheese mixed with beer and sun-dried tomatoes, with a dash of Cheddar added to mitigate the sharp flavors.
Our waitress placed a pot on the center of our table and furiously stirred the ingredients. Once the cheese boiled, we dunked veggies and bread bits inside the pot. Each dunk revealed different charms. Cheese-on-tomato was salty and hearty. Combine cheese with red grapes, and the juicy sweetness is tempered by the sharp tang of blue cheese; it could become a Frito-Lay best-seller.
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The cheese fondue filled us for the night—and then the meats arrived, six from a list of 18. La Fondue offers one of Orange County's larger game menus, with ostrich, buffalo, wild boar and even alligator, but we (rather, she) settled on the relatively tame shrimp, filet mignon, ahi tuna, spiced fish, chicken and calamari steak. We cooked the meats on a grill (instead of ordering another fondue pot) and dipped the meats into La Fondue's sextet of dipping sauces. Mixing flavors is a sophisticated kids' game, like finger painting with food: the calamari went well with a sharp sour cream, the filet mignon excelled when slathered in their barbecue sauce, and everything was made better with mango chutney. We grilled and dunked and bit and laughed, refueling ourselves with one of their many fine pinot noirs.
Cheese-covered veggies and sauced meats will stick in your innards for weeks, but our work was not yet done. Out came the chocolate fondue, a bubbling cauldron of milk chocolate spiked with Amaretto and Frangelico. Accompanying the chocolate fondue were trays of every sweet treat possible—I remember fruits, malt balls, sliced Snickers, fried cheese balls and marshmallows.
We cleaned out the chocolate fondue quickly and then waddled to our car. Never mind the distance: we should have walked. La Fondue's decadence came with a price—not just financial, but the loginess that gripped us for days. It was a true food coma—and well worth it: I can't wait until our next La Fondue visit. That'll be in about a year, when we've built up sufficient strength to handle that sweet, sweet goo.
LA FONDUE, 31761 CAMINO CAPISTRANO, SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, (949) 240-0300; WWW.LAFONDUE.COM. OPEN MON.-THURS., 5-9:30 P.M.; FRI., 5-10:30 P.M.; SAT., 4-10:30 P.M.; SUN., 4-9:30 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $60-$120, EXCLUDING DRINKS. FULL BAR.