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.

The Melting Pot has the fondue ritual down to a science. Fondue fans will find it a good place to do lab work.

Earls, 15784 North Pima Road, Scottsdale, 607-1941. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.

Is there any difference between the 60 Earls restaurants in Canada and the first American outlet in north Scottsdale? "We have to make the portions much bigger here," the manager confided. So much for folks who claim they can't get into their jeans because of their genes.

Although it's been around these parts only a few months, Earls is already a neighborhood success. On a recent weekend visit, we waited 40 minutes for a table. (Earls doesn't take reservations.)

What's the attraction? About a half-hour into our wait, a manager came over to our group apologizing for the back-up. He was bearing a freebie plate of ribs and four complimentary glasses of wine. It's astonishing how polite attention and a kind gesture can soften a hungry, impatient heart. By the time we were seated, I was ready to give Earls the benefit of every doubt.

Happily, I didn't need to. It's a smart-looking place, casual with a touch of class: lots of dark wood, oilcloth-covered tables, an open kitchen, colorful artwork, jars of preserved produce and sun-dried tomatoes hanging from the walls. The one design drawback? It's the noise. If you can't handle Concorde-level decibels, you need to consider wearing earmuffs.

Unlike the Melting Pot, which attracts customers by sticking to one basic idea, Earls lures diners with a menu offering an around-the-globe taste of everything.

Most of it is worth tasting. You'll need to order appetizers--Earls is the only restaurant I know of that doesn't put out a breadbasket. For 95 cents, however, you can tamp down hunger pangs with herb-tinged flatbread. More expensive appetite suppressants include intriguing California rolls, eight little morsels stuffed with crispy shrimp and rice; corn-flecked crab and shrimp cakes, accompanied by a spicy remoulade; and a mound of tender calamari, served with a yogurt dip.

Consider starting your entree culinary tour in Indonesia. That's where Earls' nasi goreng takes its cues. Curried fried rice is mixed with red peppers, onions, pineapple, mango chutney, apples, currants and yogurt. The fruit-curry pairing is very effective, and it's enhanced if you spring for a couple of bucks and have the kitchen toss on a mound of shrimp.

China is represented by chicken Hunan. Chicken breast is combined with a few veggies and peanuts and served over noodles, all doused in a vaguely Oriental sauce. Chinatown? Hardly. But it should please the one member of your group who wants a nonthreatening, light-on-the-calories Asian dish.

Pizza is a highlight. Earls has a brick oven, and it makes a difference. So do the toppings. The marinara model is heaped with roasted red peppers, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and artichokes. It's a good dish to share, if you're not feeling too selfish.

Tandoori chicken is less successful. Real tandoori chicken, cooked in a tandoori oven, comes seared crispy on the outside and is unbelievably moist on the inside. Earls' version is simply too dry, despite the efforts of the accompanying mango chutney. Terrific sides of roasted potato and Southwestern succotash--corn, black beans, squash and peppers--are the real stars of this platter.

The American fare is somewhat hit-and-miss. Ribs are great, meaty, no fat, tender, smoky and nicely charred. Cajun-blackened chicken gets passing marks, aided by a coating of garlic butter. The eight-ounce New York steak, however, is a disappointment. It's simply not a very appealing slab of meat, unless you're partial to tough and gristly beef. And at $16, it's no bargain, either.

Desserts aren't quite as interesting as the other courses. Best is the big wedge of mocha Kahlœa ice cream pie--you can actually taste the Kahlœa in the warm sauce drizzled over the ice cream. The apple cobbler has enough apples in it to keep the doctor away for about a decade. More cobbler and less apple, please. The chocolate mousse fudge cake, meanwhile, is highly resistible, done in by a waxy texture.

Earls may be a chain operation, but its kitchen doesn't insult your culinary intelligence. If I lived in this restaurant-starved part of the Valley, I'd cheerfully join this chain gang.

Melting Pot:
Combination fondue for two:
$37.95
Yin and yang chocolate fondue (small)
8.95

California shrimp rolls
$5.99
Ribs (full rack)
14.95
Mocha Kahlua ice cream pie
4.99

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