Monday, January 18, 2010

Fondue, Two Ways

The smell of wet dog hit me as soon as we walked in the door, so overwhelming that I wasn’t sure I would be able to bring myself to eat there, but the restaurant was packed and no one else looked pushed to the point of nausea by the smell. Plus, it seemed rude to leave just as we were about to be seated.

We were seated at a small table situated in very close proximity to other small tables. It was close quarters, but that’s just how things are in Paris. Every square inch of space gets used. The restaurant was warm and cozy, its ancient look probably only partly contrived. We were there for the fondue, which I soon found to be the source of the wet dog smell. Gruyere has a particular kind of smell, and when large quantities of it are heated, well, it smells like wet dog.
It does not, however, taste like wet dog. (I assume. I have not tasted an actual wet dog.) It has a distinctive taste, a bit shocking to my taste buds after a week of feasting on mildly tangy chevre and soft sweet brie. Still, once I started eating, the wet dog smell receded and my senses focused on the contents of the fondue pot.

It was a lovely meal, although not the best that I'd had in Paris. (That is a tie between a tomato and camembert baguette sandwich, purchased at a market and eaten on park bench one cold cloudy afternoon, and dinner at a Lebanese restaurant, where three different credit cards were rejected due to their broken machine, and they made me stay as “collateral” while my husband went to the ATM for cash to pay the bill. All of this negotiated, of course, in a mix of bad English and worse French, while a huge Lebanese family held a celebration a few tables over. There were no other customers.) Except for the wet dog smell, I’m not even sure it was a particularly memorable meal. In fact, I had nearly forgotten all about it until the other night, when I went to a social networking event at a restaurant called the Melting Pot.

The Melting Pot is a chain restaurant, sort of like a fondue version of Benihana. It’s supposed to be upscale and romantic, but instead it has a kind of lonely feel to it. It’s large, with granite tables that have built-in induction cooktops to heat the fondue, and the air smells ever so slightly of cooking oil. The bread is just a bit too obviously cut by a machine, rather than by hand, and the chocolate a bit too cloyingly sweet. It soon became clear that the Melting Pot is about spectacle and excess.

There is a restaurant here in town that offers homemade chocolate pistachio truffles on their dessert menu. Given the choice, most people will always choose the huge pot of steaming chocolate over a single, perfect, pistachio truffle. I oohed and ahhed over the pots of cheese and chocolate, the wide variety of dippers; it was a matter of being polite, wanting to fit in. I was there to make friends, after all. Despite the vast quantity of food - Four courses for 32.50! Decadent chocolate fondue desserts! - I left feeling unsatisfied.

After our fondue meal in Paris, it took days to get the wet dog smell out of our coats. When I came home from the Melting Pot, the faint odor of cooking oil clung to my clothes, an unpleasant reminder of being polite, yet feeling like I didn't quite fit in. What I really would have preferred was that single pistachio truffle, or a tomato and camembert baguette sandwich, eaten on a park bench in the cold winter wind.

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