The Melting Pot
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Darrell Sapp, Post-GazetteAfter working at a Melting Pot fondue restaurant in South Carolina, Pittsburgher John Shutey decided to return to his hometown and open one of his own at Station Square.
125 W. Station Square Drive
Hours: Dinner, 4-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 4-11 p.m. Fridays; 3-11 p.m. Saturdays; 3-9 p.m. Sundays.
Basics: Appetizers, $14 for two people; entrees, $16-$20; desserts, $14 for two people. Wines by the glass: $5-$11. Pittsburgh's only fondue restaurant, this is a tasteful setting providing a unique dining experience. Quiet, comfortable and entertaining. Nice choice for vegetarians. Smoking in bar and at four smoking dining tables. Wheelchair accessible. Parking in Station Square lot or garage. For valet parking, drive to portico of Grand Concourse. All major credit cards accepted. Reservations recommended.
Pittsburgh is by any measure a melting pot. The latest morsel to be tossed in is a group of Somalis, resettled from that war-torn country to find a new life. On that basis when I spotted a new restaurant, The Melting Pot, in Station Square I figured it might be a place serving ethnic foods from Pittsburgh's various immigrant populations. I never suspected that it is in fact a fondue restaurant with roots that are purely American. First born in Maitland, Fla., in 1975, The Melting Pot is a privately owned franchise with 82 restaurants operating in 40 states.
John Shutey is a fourth-generation Pittsburgher who left home to attend the University of South Carolina. While earning degrees in finance and marketing, he worked in the Columbus, S.C., Melting Pot. By the time his student days were over, Shutey had decided to return to Pittsburgh to open his own Melting Pot restaurant. With his father, who was in the steel processing business, he bought the license for Pittsburgh and began doing market surveys to determine the best location for his first outlet. He says Station Square offered numerous appealing features, not the least of which is Bessemer Court with its huge pot, a perfect companion piece for a restaurant named Melting Pot. To further strengthen the steel connection -- with Pittsburgh and his family -- Shutey hung black-and-white photographs of local mills in operation on the walls.
The restaurant can be entered directly from Station Square Drive or from the Freight House Shops. We were warmly welcomed by an attractive hostess and asked to wait briefly in the bar until our table was ready. Since the bar is a smoking environment, I declined and was escorted directly to the table instead. Seating is entirely in booths with granite tables that have inlaid electric burners for the fondue pots in the center. The banquettes are designed with an "S" curved back, making them both comfortable and ergonomically correct.
In its early days, The Melting Pot concept offered three fondues: Swiss cheese, beef and chocolate. Over years, the concept has broadened, and it now offers numerous variations on the three themes. Today's menu lists complete four-course dinners as well as a la carte selections. With many possibilities of ingredients and with a choice of four cooking liquids, it is impossible not to find something to please everyone. The low-carb crowd will discover nirvana.
On our first visit we did what I call the "grand tour." The Melting Pot has named it "The Big Night Out" ($78 for two people). This is the four-course dinner extravaganza. It begins with a cheese fondue of your choice: cheddar, Swiss, Wisconsin Trio or Fiesta (this is cheddar with jalapeno peppers and salsa, served with crisp tortilla chips). The fondue pot is brought to the table empty, and the ingredients are added and cooked at the table. With all but the Fiesta fondue, there will be a basket of cubed French-style bread to be dipped. The bread served at Station Square is sadly lacking in texture and flavor. I would love to see an upgrade to a top-quality bread for the cheese course.
Every diner is provided two fondue forks with different color handles so that each can identify his own utensil. We ordered the Traditional Swiss Cheese Fondue. It is made from the classic mixture of Gruyere and Emmenthaler cheeses, white wine and Kirsch and brought back memories of many ski dinners in mountain chalets.
The second course is salad. There are three choices, all good, but I especially loved the mushroom salad. A generous pile of pristinely fresh and thinly sliced mushrooms top a bowl of garden greens dressed with parmesan Italian dressing. If mushrooms are not your thing, the California salad offers equally fine baby salad greens, tomatoes and walnuts with Gorgonzola cheese, dressed with raspberry black walnut vinaigrette dressing.
The third course is the meat course, and it requires choosing a liquid for the cooking process. The possibilities are: a wine-seasoned broth with fresh herbs, mushrooms and garlic; a vegetable broth low in salt and cholesterol free; Caribbean spiced bouillon seasoned with garlic and citrus; or cholesterol-free canola oil. Your fondue pot will arrive at the table with your choice of broth and a platter with your choice of meat, fish or shellfish or, for vegetarians, an array of seasonal vegetables, tofu, mushrooms and ravioli. Our own feast came with a surf and turf platter containing two lobster tails, tenderloin, sirloin and four Black Tiger shrimp plus raw red bliss potatoes, mushrooms, yellow squash and broccoli. This course also comes with a wide array of dipping sauces, from Gorgonzola Port to Ginger Plum. Spear a veggie or a piece of meat or fish and submerge it in the boiling liquid for about one minute to cook. Many forks can share the pot at the same time. The pro-active process of cooking one's dinner becomes a sort of private floor show. The process is fun; it is different, and it is entertaining.
The fourth course is dessert fondue, which, of course, is chocolate. It is difficult to choose from the seductive offerings, but believe me, you could throw a dart and not go wrong. The platter that comes with chocolate fondue contains fresh strawberries and bananas and pineapple plus cheesecake, pound cake, brownies and marshmallows.
You can also have the Melting Pot experience in the a la carte version. A pot of cheese fondue for two is $14. Each additional person is $7. Salads are $5. Meat, fish and vegetable fondue platters range from $16 to $20 and include salad and fresh vegetables. Chocolate fondue is $14 for two.
The Melting Pot wait staff is trained by the franchise to exacting standards, and I found them to be competent, friendly and knowledgeable. Although they do not hover, they are never too far away to give a helpful hint on how to obtain the tastiest results from a pot of bubbling broth. The owner and the manager also stopped by each table to inquire about their patrons' enjoyment. The upholstered banquettes absorb most of the sound, making the noise level minimal.
The wine selection at the Pittsburgh Melting Pot is truly impressive. The wines offered by the glass transcend the usual. The top-notch California white blend from Caymus Vineyards, Conundrum, is available for $11. All glasses are a generous 6 ounces. Greg Norman Estates Shiraz is $8. There are some nicely priced bottles on the 180-label list. A credible 2003 Fume Blanc from Ferrari-Carano Vineyard is $25 a bottle and a fine accompaniment for Swiss cheese fondue. A 2001 Pedroncelli zinfandel is $31. The eye-opener bottle on the list is Chateau Lafite Rothschild, 1996, for $640. I didn't see many potential customers for this bottle during my visits. There seemed to be more enthusiasm for the shared giant cocktail glasses containing margaritas or pina coladas and spouting two or three straws.
This might not have been the kind of "melting pot," I expected, but dinner at the Melting Pot is thoroughly delightful. I recommend it as a unique dining experience.
First Published September 24, 2004 12:00 am