It Aint Easy Being Cheesy

Photo by Jessica CalkinsThe last time I had hard cheese and stale bread, I threw them in the damn trash. What was I thinking? I should've prepared fondue.

That's what legend says Swiss mountain peasants did a couple of centuries ago, deep in lonely winters, taking aging foodstuffs and adding wine and flame, concocting the now much-celebrated agglutinative cuisine.

I bring this up for a couple of reasons.

First: since learning about the roots of fondue, I've become obsessed with saving and reusing all of my rotting groceries, to the point where I'm certain to develop salmonella, rickets or maybe SARS.

Second: my old expatriot chum Berlin Jim recently arrived in Southern California for his annual visit.

Berlin Jim's a manic linguist, insouciant jester and intemperate rucksack traveler who—owing to his current E.U. residency, multinational dating, Swiss mother and American father—probably possesses more passports than a terrorist sleeper cell.

When Berlin Jim arrives in our sunny environs, he wanders parks, visits sands, catches up on reading and generally soaks in the slower SoCal setting. Standard for expats, he boozes.

Over on-sale Asahi, Jim got serious, speaking about family.

Mine, I can trace back like 150 years, to Russia.

Berlin Jim, though, has roots like a redwood. His kin left the Netherlands for Switzerland in 1171. And that's where many of them remain, ensconced in Einsiedeln—where they were in publishing and built the abbot an abbey–and also in Pully, in the southwest, near Lausanne.

The latter burg is where Jim's favorite aunt resides on the family homestead: beautiful, vast turf that's since shrunk in sell-offs to realtors. Jim visits regularly, and on the most-special occasions, his aunt spends a small fortune on cheeses and wines so Jim can enjoy a time-honored feast.

You guessed it, Holmes: fondue.

I figured, as an otherwise-mediocre host for Berlin Jim, I oughta do the same. Or at least, pay someone to do it. So, I took him over to The Melting Pot in Irvine.

The Swiss-born word fondue, I've since learned, is adapted from the French fondre, “to melt.”

To the unfamiliar, fondue is as exotic as those wildly festooned Swiss Guards who protect the Vatican. Fondue conjures up visions of 1970s wife-swapping key parties; of freebasing cocaine from the same flame where the fondue pot simmers. Popular misconceptions aside, fondue isn't just cheese and chocolate, but any actively heated, melted sauce recommending itself for the dipping, thrusting and soaking of cubed bread, vegetables, meats, seafood or lord knows what else, prepared inside sturdy fondue-specific crockery called caquelon and transferred to burnt-if-you're-not-careful mouths via nine-inch-long tongs with different-colored tips.

At The Melting Pot it's hard to eat a full meal, with dessert and drinks, without leaving at least a C-note behind, which gives you some or all of the following:

• A bowl of cheese, with other optional ingredients. We chose the traditional Swiss cheese fondue, composed of Gruyère and Emmentaler, white wine, garlic, a shot of cherry brandy and two siftings of nutmeg, all whipped into a frenzy by a nametag-clad server, with little baskets of toss-to-ducks-size clumps of bread and bite-size carrots and celery.

• A side salad, like a ballroom dancer with scoliosis, not intended to be dipped.

• An entrée, such as twin lobster tails or an andouille sausage-based Cajun dish. We went with the Continental, a sampler plate containing uncooked sirloin, tenderloin, prawns, chicken and salmon, as well as another plate brimming with raw broccoli, potato, mushrooms and two trios of dipping sauces. The yogurt curry was our favorite, a tasty, if consciously bland, derivative of more exotic originals.

• An irresistible, if sophomoric, dessert option: that is, unless you're some kind of freak who doesn't enjoy strawberries, brownies, cheesecake, even marshmallows and graham crackers, dropped in thick chocolate and sometimes doused in Bacardi 151 and set aflame. All in all, a satisfying feast, if one served up amid incessant smooth jazz and bland décor.

By the time you read this, Berlin Jim will be home, checking to see if his cat survived, and scrounging up some new translator gigs.

He'll be back next year, I figure, and with him will come more Asahi, more family tales, and—far more exciting—more fondue.

The Melting Pot is located at 2646 Dupont Drive, Irvine, (949) 955-3242. Sun.-Thurs., 5-10 P.M.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 P.M. Reservations encouraged. All major cards.

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