Favorite

THE CHEESE CELLAR 

Food fads come and go, and one that I miss is fondue. Fondue bubbled up in the 1960s and hung on through the '70s. Once it was pitched as the height of European sophistication and bonhomie, yet also suited the new informality of socializing. Purveyors clustered in amiable groups about the shared pot -- the antithesis of American individualized dining traditions.

Fondue was such an amusing excuse for social interaction that there were cute rules intended to speed up the fun: Make a figure-8 swirl with your bread; if you drop your bread, you must kiss your neighbor; and the cheese crust left in the bottom of the pot is considered a delicacy and is reserved for he who has not dropped his bread during the dinner. Goofy rules, plus melted cheese -- even Chuck E. Cheese doesn't have this much fun.

I hadn't fondued in two decades, and when I learned that the Cheese Cellar offered it, I knew it would be my next meal. The Cheese Cellar's menu mostly offers sandwiches and grill items, but I vowed to make a meal of the three fondues the restaurant offers, and ordered both appetizer fondues to start.

The Sam Adams beer and cheddar fondue ($6.95) was placed center table in a wire holder and kept warm by a votive candle underneath. (I didn't think much of that small flame initially, but it proved quite capable, quickly causing the merely warm cheese to bubble.) I grabbed my long, skinny two-pronged fondue fork and speared a piece of semi-soft French bread. I dunked, forgetting to swirl. As the fork moved towards my mouth, three large drops of cheese plopped onto the table. Oops. The cheese/beer mixture, an odd orange color, coated the bread cube well; it was sweet, a little gooey, and of course, plenty cheesy.

Next the apple slice: a crisp variety, like a Fuji. The sharper sweetness of the cheese dip was a nice foil to the sour-sweetness of the apple. I alternated between bread and apple, even trying bread and apple -- not so successfully. This was too much material for such a small fork, and once dipped in hot cheese, I had a real mess, cheese dripping from everywhere. The French bread was OK, but a rustic sourdough with a nice crackly crust would have really complemented the cheddar.

The other cheese fondue appetizer ($6.95) was a generous hunk of herbed goat cheese slowly melting in a bowl of spicy tomato marinara sauce, served with strips of roasted garlic crostini (it seemed to be the same bread but dressed in garlic and toasted). For this fondue, one merely dipped the long, crunchier bread strips -- no fork required. Warmed goat cheese is a delight, its subtle, slightly salty flavors enhanced by the gentle heat. With the marinara and the garlic bread, it brought to mind an exotic breadstick/tomato sauce dip. I tried to angle mostly goat cheese, but the cheese proved elusive, slipping away into the marinara and the warmth.

While either fondue would have been an ample appetizer for four, we had supplemented our meal with some "regular" food. I had a small Caesar salad ($3.95), which sported lots of fresh Parmesan cheese and was drenched in lots of sharp garlicky dressing. My companion had a hamburger with Emmenthal cheese -- a particularly gooey, stringy Swiss cheese that hung in spectacular melted stalactites from his burger. The wheat bun was too small to hold the meat patty, the heaping of grilled mushrooms and all that wayward cheese, but good burgers will misbehave like that.

The dessert menu warned that the chocolate fondue "serves four," but we vowed to double our efforts. A large bowl of warm semi-sweet chocolate arrived, with a platter of treats to dip: marshmallows, apples, a whole sliced banana, sugared pound cake cubes, fresh pineapple and strawberries. Fresh forks were presented and I began to spear and swirl. Chocolate-covered apple was the least successful (in that anything tastes worse with chocolate on it); the apple had been a better combination with the savory cheese. Cake and chocolate -- super sweet. Chocolate-covered strawberries -- a classic. Bananas and marshmallows also enjoy a long companionable relationship with chocolate. The surprise for me was discovering how delicious the fresh pineapple was when covered in warm dark chocolate -- a curious but intriguing combination of sweet, juicy, sour offset by the slight bitterness of the chocolate. Then again, I couldn't be sure if that was the best combination, and returned to the pot to sample all the other offerings again. And then again.

In the end, the tabletop was a real mess of split and splats, drips of cheese and chocolate, and breadcrumbs. I remain unconvinced that dining by hand and tiny spear signaled any newfound sophistication on my part, but it had certainly been entertaining. And really, how can you go wrong with melted cheese and chocolate? * *

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