Fondue, or Don't? Expensive, Unique Meals at Melting Pot

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The Melting Pot
1 Walden Galleria, Cheektowaga, NY 14225
Web: The Melting Pot
Phone: 716.685.6358
Rating:    [learn more]
Pros:

The WNY location of a national fondue restaurant chain, offering cheese, broth, oil, and chocolate fondues as a la carte or multi-course meal options, in addition to a wide selection of wines and drinks. Sophisticated ambience and generally good service; salads, cheese and chocolate dips are numerous in number and well-executed.


Cons:

Individual and multi-course meals are overpriced for what they deliver; entrees are particularly underwhelming, served with a number of uninspired sauces as compensation for weak initial flavors. Service isn't always good.


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"A meal at the Melting Pot is surely not for everyone: regardless of how much or how little you order, you'll probably be a little underwhelmed by what you get for the dollar."


If you think you understand fondue, Switzerland's centuries-old molten cheese dip, think again: it may have peaked in American popularity a few decades ago, but a chain called The Melting Pot - recently opened in Cheektowaga's Walden Galleria Mall - has kept the craze alive nationally for the past 34 years, transforming the once humble dish into the start of a premium dining experience. You begin with an appetizer-sized pot of cheese and end with a similarly communal dish of liquid chocolate, using special dipping forks to coat bite-sized snack items in goo. But between the specifics of those dishes and the details of the salads and entrees that come between them, there are actually a number of surprises worth sharing in this review: as we've discovered on two separate occasions at this restaurant, the results can - we emphasize can - be satisfying enough to nearly justify their considerable expense. Read on for the details.

With more choices of wines and drinks than foods, Melting Pot's menu is only intimidating if you focus on the numbers: it starts with complete four-course meals for two ($79-$89), pauses for its first wine list pitch, and before finishing with even more wines, moves on to a la carte options: six $14 appetizer-class Cheese Fondues for two, five $6 salads, entrees for one ($16-$25) or two ($52 and up), and then eight different Chocolate Fondues served small ($14) or regular ($28). As the pictures here illustrate, these are roughly Beverly Hills prices given the portion sizes - except, of course, that California's Melting Pot locations charge even more for the same items. We're not going to dwell much more on the point, but be aware up front: this will not be a cheap date.

It may, however, be a memorable one. Our photos here are from the full four-course experience, designed to give diners a chance to sample three different types of fondue in a row. By default, it starts with a Boston Lager Cheddar Cheese Fondue, continues with Cobb Salads, and ends with Cherries Jubilee Chocolate Fondue, surrounding your choice of three boiled entree platters: a $79 version offers filet mignon, salmon, pork tenderloin, shrimp, chicken, ravioli and vegetables, while a $84 version adds a lobster tail, and the $89 version has two lobster tails but no filet. As is allowed on the four-course menu - and tacitly endorsed by our server - we customized our appetizer, salad, and dessert choices; we also used a coupon on one visit to add a second dessert.

Though one of us - a semi-cheese-adverse sort - prepared to simply watch as the other enjoyed the appetizer, a Fiesta Cheese Fondue prepared with a cup of lager beer, 80% Cheddar cheese, 20% Emmenthaler Swiss cheese, and small chunks of Jalapeno, curiosity quickly intervened: aided by the beer, the cheese dip pleased both of us; we agreed that it added at least a little to the flavors and textures of the accompanying and generous bowl of chunked twin breads and tortilla chips that came out, alongside smaller cups of plain but fresh vegetables and Granny Smith apple chunks. The idea here is to sate you on the bread and chips - you can have refills if you want - while the other items are on the sparing side, and didn't interest us much. Note again that the a la carte price for this cheese fondue is $14 for two people; additional portions can be added for $7 each.

The salads were unexpectedly compelling. One of us ordered the Caesar, expecting nothing from the plate of classic romaine lettuce, croutons, grated Parmesan and creamy dressing; it wasn't anything amazing to look at. But a novel addition - Parmesan-encrusted pine nuts - made a sweet impression, the nuts dipped in corn syrup to make the cheese stick, adding dots of sugar and crunch to the otherwise soft, salty bites. We were impressed. A colorful Spinach Mushroom Salad, served with bits of red onion, chopped bacon, sliced tomatoes, and a red wine vinaigrette, was similarly well balanced and pleasantly sweet. These were simply very good salads, and a better a la carte value for the dollar than any of the fondues.

Opinions varied a little on our entree course, which arrived entirely raw, albeit with some items marinated. In order to get a good sampling of the choices offered in the a la carte entrees, we picked the "Fondue Fusion," receiving four to six bite-sized chunks each of salmon, honey dijon chicken, filet, and barbecue-flavored pork, four small shrimp, and a reasonably-sized lobster tail that had been subtly sliced into five pieces, then laid on its empty shell. Six small spinach artichoke ravioli and a bowl of sliced potatoes, broccoli, and mushrooms were included, as well. The entree portions didn't strike us as generous given the prices, but we didn't walk away starving, either.

Marination aside, the cooking and seasoning are entirely up to you. The server delivers your choice of a pot of canola oil or one of three broths: there's no charge for the default plain vegetable broth, and four-course diners get their pick of the lot, but a la carte orders will see a $6 upcharge for a modestly Caribbean seasoned bouillion, or the more popular Coq a Vin. We went with the latter, a burgundy wine, herb, garlic and mushroom-flavored broth that - as honestly represented by our server - was, like the others, not designed to add a lot of flavor to the vegetables and meats. That's the responsibility of an overwhelming array of sauces that were laid on the table: butter, lemon juice, and cocktail sauces for the seafood, a trio of teriyaki, mustard, and sweet and sour sauces for anything, apple butter for the chicken, sour cream and herbs for the mushrooms, another for the salmon, and so on - we lost count. The little cups, each with their own spoons, struck us as just too much, the preparation and flavoring so thoroughly deconstructed and handed off to the customer that the coordination of sauces and meats could have served as a game of Concentration.

The aforementioned variations in our opinions of the entrees were small, but worth noting. We were both impressed by the quality and tenderness of the meats and seafood, which each person cooks with two personal fondue spears for roughly two minutes a piece; they emerged from the Coq a Vin lightly flavored, tender in their centers, and easy to eat. But they were also bland: we agreed that if there hadn't been dipping sauces on the table, the items would have been consistently boring - what one might expect from boiled meat and plain vegetables. The potatoes were particularly non-compelling, reminiscent of the "why bother?" veggies included with the cheese fondue. One of us thought that the sauces were nearly enough to save the entree items, but still ranked them below the cheese course in appeal; the other found the sauces thoroughly unimpressive, and could have done entirely without the entrees.

Our desserts were more compelling, though not spectacular. Having ordered two due to our coupon - one too much, really - we each wound up with a plate of four lightly toasted, nut-covered marshmallows, four tiny banana chunks, eight strawberry halves, two small cubes of pound cake, two small brownie cubes, four small pieces of Rice Krispie treat, and a miniature slice of cheesecake with a chocolate-drizzled cherry on top. For dipping, one of us selected the Flaming Turtle, a creamy mix of milk chocolate, caramel and pecans that gets a brief, not especially important blue flambe for visual effect, and the other picked the Bananas Foster, white chocolate and bananas mixed with a similar flaming liqueur. After the rest of the meal, a normal dessert - with one pot of heated dipping sauce and a single plate - would be fine for most people.

While both of us preferred the Flaming Turtle, which in traditional chocolate fondue fashion coated the items with a layer of syrupy chocolate, the Bananas Foster dip was pretty good, too. As with the entrees, the underwhelming part here was the plated items: for $14, the portions were either way too small, or the items less decadent than they should have been; the overly soft, almost room temperature cheesecake was not very good, while the marshmallow and Krispie treats tasted fine, but seemed better suited to a campfire than an expensive restaurant. We dipped, ate, and enjoyed, but given the prices, we weren't impressed. To be clear, it wasn't that we didn't get enough to sate our needs, but that the items that arrived were all being marked up too much.

In fairness, we can't rate a Melting Pot meal exclusively on the quantity and quality of the food for the prices; diners clearly pay a premium for the nice, modern ambience, the legitimately eye-catching tableware - unique metal pots and sectioned dishes - and hopefully good service, which on our most recent visit was actually great: Molly was attentive, cheerful, and candid about popular, unpopular, and smart menu selections. While such service should be rewarded with a generous tip, which we did, it mightn't always be, so Melting Pot's pricing structure can attract and reward more solid performers than the average restaurant. It makes sense.

Sometimes. When one of us joined a group of friends for Melting Pot's "Ladies' Night" on an earlier visit, we were stuck with "Joe," an indifferent, rude server. This time, we found the portion sizes to be smaller, and walked away dissatisfied - not the sort of experience that inspires total confidence. But then, the pricing on Ladies' Night was far lower: rather than paying $39.50 per person for the lobster-less Fondue Feast, the charge was under $30. You can decide for yourself whether we got what we paid for on one visit, both, or neither; our impression is that the Melting Pot would be more compelling for the price with more traditional entrees surrounded by the cheese, salad, and chocolate dishes, or with the current options at 35% discounts relative to today's prices. You can actually accomplish this with Restaurant.com gift certificates, which bring meals here into the "more affordable" category, but Galleria visitors will do better with entrees at the mall's nearby Cheesecake Factory instead; we'd recommend The Melting Pot as a nice alternative for appetizers or desserts.

Ultimately, having sampled quite a bit of the menu across our visits, we'd sum up a meal at the Melting Pot as one that's surely not for everyone: regardless of how much or how little you order, you'll probably be somewhat underwhelmed by what you get for the dollar. That said, the novelty of fondue dining and the reasonably classy experience are standouts by Cheektowaga standards, so if you have the extra cash or a gift certificate in your pocket, who knows - you may well like your meal enough to come for another dip.

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