Maybe moms really do know best. In the '80s, my family would purchase one of those fat square Entertainment Books year after year, though I don't recall ever using more than maybe a handful of coupons. We never went out to eat, only occasionally hitting McDonald's or Taco Time (never Bell), unlike today's kids who are practically brought up on Babbo.
I used to wistfully thumb through the advertising tomb longing for something exciting. Sure pizza and hamburgers were fine, but fondue, now that was exotic. I'm sure I asked or begged to go to The Melting Pot, which seemed like the height of sophistication. But my mom wasn't having any of it, there was no wearing her down. I don't think it was anywhere near our home and I'm certain it was out of the child-friendly price range.
Well, it took about 23 years, but now that I manage my own life I made the magic happen. While hitting the Trader Joe's in Westwood, NJ a few weeks ago, I was shocked and awed to see that The Melting Pot chain was alive and thriving. I vowed to pay a visit on our next TJ's run, which we did. Who knew that their "dip into something different" slogan would prove so accurate.
Things did not start off well when we casually popped in on an early Saturday night. Funny, how in Manhattan all but the most exclusive restaurants are fine with walk-ins, yet a cheesey (ha) chain in New Jersey acts like you're trying to jump a velvet rope. Yes, it takes a lot of nerve. Our flagrant disregard for their rules seemed to miff the blonde Meadow Soprano hostesses. Initial bubbliness turned to haughty dismissal when we said we didn't have reservations.
We were begrudgingly quoted a 25 minute wait, which we naively agreed to not realizing it would be more like an hour nursing a watered down gin & tonic at the bar. And ultimately we were seated mere feet from where we had been sitting in the bar and were told at about the half hour mark whose table we were waiting for. That's probably not the wisest move for quelling antsy diners wanting to eat. We couldn't help but stare at couple occupying our future table, mentally commanding them to move it along faster.
The Big Night Out, a three-fondue-course, $78 per couple barrage that they eagerly push on you, says it all. This is a place catered towards parties and celebrations. So, we ultimately did the Big Night Out, primarily because the menu is bizarrely overwrought and confusing (I refused to believe we were the only ones in the place too dumb to understand the many fondue permutations and combo meals) and about half way through
I was wishing we'd gone a la carte. As the meal dragged on I began feeling punished, and most definitely violated, and no, it wasn't sexy in the least. It was like we'd entered an alternate universe where time didn't play by normal rules. I still can't figure out how we managed to arrive at 5:30pm and barely make it out by 9:00pm.
The swiss cheese artichoke heart fondue was actually pretty tasty, kind of like an Olive Garden appetizer, and came with a pantry's worth of dipping items: French and rye bread, tortilla chips (weird), green apple chunks, baby carrots, celery and cauliflower. Their shtick involves a built-in adjustable heated square in the middle of the table where each fondue course is prepared in front of your eyes. Personally, I'd be just fine with the fully finished version. I was scared the whole time that Oscar, our waiter, was going to drop or break something.
There was fanfare surrounding his additions of garlic, artichoke hearts, spinach and swiss cheese to the broth (no traditional use of gruyere, emmenthaler, wine or kirsch). And then there was the lone bottle of Tabasco sauce that he never added and seemed to have orphaned on our table. About half way through our gooey dish, we asked, "what's the Tabasco for?" to which he dully replied, "I was supposed to put it in the fondue" and then walked away with the condiment in hand. Uh, ok, so why didn't he just put it in? I was so baffled by the customer service at this point that it seemed futile to even ask for a few shakes of sauce. And outrageously, the Westwood specific website is currently featuring that they were awarded top marks by some mystery dining association. Amusing, because the whole time I was thinking about how I would've written this place up if I were a mystery diner (not food critic, mind you–that's a beast unto itself). And the words Top Performer didn't exactly come to mind.
We then got salads (mine California, which meant blue cheese, walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette. James's chef's, which I'm sure you can imagine) that came with a shaker of an oddball garlic and wine powder. Why would you think to make a seasoning from dried up wine and garlic? I figured that my fruity dressing was quite enough and avoided the additional flavoring altogether.
Then came the coq au vin broth, also prepared before our eyes, the final touch a hammy, "here's a little wine" while pouring a dash into the pot, then "here's a little more wine" followed by "and here's a little more" polishing off the half carafe, which was presumably intended to elicit squeals and/or exclamations from the two of us who remained stone faced. All that was missing was a "bam!" We opted for the cheapest (though not cheap) of the three entre fondue mix-ins, which included a hodgepodge of chicken, sirloin, shrimp, kielbasa, potatoes, broccoli, squash, mushrooms, potstickers and pirogies. It's a good thing I like peculiarly colored food because everything came out of the pot crimson-stained.
We weren't asked if we wanted to sit in the bar, and this would've been a huge issue for many since smoking is still allowed in New Jersey. I am a light smoker, but wouldn't feel right puffing away with diners inches from me. Of course, this courtesy doesn't go both ways. Part way through our tortuous meal, numerous loud birthday parties and a DJ took over the bar area. The teddy bear of a guy began playing an amplified acoustic guitar directly behind my chair. Clichd yet authentic accents, evil eyes, menthol smoke, and tan, wrinkled, cosmo-sipping, office managers gone wild (they probably wear those long hideous sweater coats) became the pervasive theme. I was so mad because my camera went dead before I could capture visual evidence that my words can't convey. Usually, I'm not one for photos in a restaurant, but since we were in the party room and all…
There was a group of 40-ish looking ladies who were celebrating a chunky friend in a plastic tiara's birthday. I know I'm warped with ages (I'm always shocked to discover that almost everyone in the universe is younger than me despite looking liney and haggard) so I jokingly suggested the woman was probably only 31. Nope, it was the big three-oh.
By this point, I'd had enough, and absolutely no stomach for a dessert course. But we'd agreed to the whole painful shebang, and I'm too cheap to not get my money's worth, so we trudged through a vessel of chocolate turtle (for the overly cultured, that means caramel swirled not reptilian) fondue with strawberries, pineapple, marshmallows, brownie chunks and cheesecake. I wanted to hurl all over the built in burner, or on Oscar, or maybe on top of one of the many frosted heads of horsey hair. I'm not even sure that my nausea was food induced. It felt more like my soul had been poisoned.
I'm no Brooklyn booster, but no matter how much borough haters claim that if you're going to move to Brooklyn you might as well live in New Jersey, they're way off base. The Melting Pot, at least in this permutation, wouldn't work in Brooklyn. The bulk of busted to middling pockets would consider it too expensive, the gentrified swaths wouldn't stand for the pretension, Emeril theatrics, cigarettes or live Simon & Garfunkel covers. The whole next day James and I were like "what happened?" We felt dirty and victimized. For $125 you can get real food or even good food, that's what I've never understood about these poor value chain restaurants. I'll admit to loving novelty more than any human should, but it certainly can come at a price.
The Melting Pot * 250 Center Avenue, Westwood, NJ