Chains Addiction

Melting Pot, Mercado del Lago Plaza, 8320 North Hayden, Scottsdale, 607-1799. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight.

"Man is born free," observed Jean-Jacques Rousseau, more than 200 years ago. "And everywhere he is in chains."

Especially in Scottsdale.
The town's roaring growth and sensational demographics haven't escaped the notice of savvy corporate restaurant executives. In particular, higher-end chain restaurants eye affluent northeast Valley households the same way Phelps Dodge looks at copper deposits: as natural resources to be mined and exploited.

Although Scottsdale's disposable-income population makes an attractive target, it's not a particularly easy target for upscale chains to hit. To find the bull's eye, they need to give folks in this competitive restaurant market a reason to make a first visit. One promising tactic is to offer unusual fare. But when dinner for two can cost $50 and up, the kitchen had better make sure the food's good enough to generate repeat business, too.

Following this strategy, two flourishing restaurant chains have recently forged Scottsdale links. The Melting Pot, based in Florida, already has more than 40 outlets, mostly in the Southeast. Earls has swept down from Canada, where it does business from some 60 branches.

If you want to get in the mood for a Melting Pot dinner, I suggest you pop a cartridge of KC and the Sunshine Band into the eight-track, pin up your Farrah Fawcett poster, press your leisure suit and read Gerald Ford's memoirs. That's because even though the calendar says 1997, at the Melting Pot, the clock stopped in 1975.

The restaurant's name is the only clue most diners will need. The Melting Pot deals in fondue, in all its varieties and forms. Most of my friends have been trying to unload their fondue paraphernalia at garage sales since the first Reagan administration. But the Melting Pot's franchisees read the market differently. They're betting the rest of us are eager to go back to the future.

Maybe we are. The Scottsdale operation is a cozy dining spot, romantically divided into several charming dining alcoves and nooks. (If you're seated in the back, you'll need a guide to find your way out the front door.) Couples will enjoy languidly swirling their fondue forks in melted cheese and gazing into each other's eyes. Goodness knows there's not much else to look at, except some innocuous paintings.

Although dishes can be ordered a la carte, it makes the most gastronomic (and financial) sense to choose the combination fondue for two, which furnishes a taste of almost everything on the menu except dessert. Come hungry (there's enough food for three) and with no other evening plans--you'll be swishing for two hours.

Meals begin with salad, and the two here are each much better than they have to be. The chef's salad features greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, ham, hard-boiled egg and Emmenthal cheese, coated with a first-rate creamy house dressing. The mushroom salad, meanwhile, brings lots of fungus and alfalfa sprouts.

Dinner starts in earnest with the cheese fondue. You're best off opting for the traditional version. The server brings over a fondue pot and sets it on the table's built-in heating element. The white wine goes in first. When it's hot, she adds garlic and a squeeze of lemon. Then comes shredded Gruyere and Emmenthal, a splash of kirschwasser (cherry brandy) and a touch of nutmeg. Then the ingredients are stirred until properly thickened.

Use your color-coded fondue forks (so no one grabs another's utensil by mistake) and stab cubes of pumpernickel, rye or French bread to dip in. Veggies and sliced apples are also provided for the same purpose.

Risk-takers may prefer the fiesta fondue. Instead of wine, it's got a beer base. The dominant cheese is Cheddar, and it's flavored with salsa and jalapenos. If the Swiss made nachos, they'd coat their chips with something like this.

The entree platter is staggering, a jaw-dropping assortment of raw ingredients: chicken, fish, filet mignon, shrimp, teriyaki steak, mushroom, potato, broccoli, squash and carrot. (And starting next week, the Melting Pot is scheduled to roll out an expanded menu with new entree options.)

You can cook them one of two ways. The more old-fashioned (and tastier) method is to dip them into bubbling oil. However, so many diners these days are so insanely health-obsessed that they'd rather jump waist-deep into a vat of boiling oil than have a drop of it pass through their lips. For these crackpots, the Melting Pot wisely provides fondue court-bouillon, a seasoned broth in which the ingredients are oh-so-slowly cooked. However, after they've waited three minutes for just one small morsel of chicken to cook thoroughly, I suspect even the most die-hard calorie counters will appreciate the charms of quick frying.

A medley of sauces offers pleasant dipping accompaniment. Pair the curried yogurt with the chicken, the green goddess with the veggies, the creamy horseradish with the salmon and the ginger-plum with just about anything.

Dessert brings more melting and dipping. Look for several variants of chocolate fondue. The flaming turtle, for instance, is a mix of chocolate, pecans and caramel. It's flamed tableside with rum, and teamed with strawberries, pineapple, bananas, marshmallows, pound cake and cheesecake. Yin and yang is another sweet success, featuring side-by-side pools of white and dark chocolate.

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