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Fantasy Island

[whitespace] La Fondue
Christopher Gardner

Nights in Shining Armor: At La Fondue, the playful decor is as much fun as the hands-on dining experience.

Culinary role-playing with a hands-on spin can be found at the delightfully redecorated La Fondue

By Christina Waters

IN THE MIDDLE OF PARIS, on the Ile St. Louis, sits a wildly popular restaurant devoted to medieval theme dining called Nos Ancêtres les Galois. You go and order from a meat-driven menu, waiters bring huge baskets of vegetables from which you prepare your own salad, you help yourself to wine from huge barrels and your steaks are grilled on an open fire in the restaurant. Tourists--who line up around the block--can't get enough of this place where the prix fixe includes raucous interaction with waiters.

Well, Saratoga has its own version of this hearth of Gallic gastronomy in La Fondue. Specifically, the newly decorated La Fondue, whose fantasy dining chambers simulate castles, sorcerers' lairs and other highly imaginative environments. With individual fondue tables as the centerpiece of each dining island, it's like Dungeons and Dragons for those with $100 to spend on dinner for two.

I felt like Alice in Wonderland sitting on my padded throne gazing at my companion framed by red walls dusted with stars. Boldly colored tenting billows from the ceiling of the Castle Room, where crenellated room dividers are topped with huge metallic orbs--La Fondue, decorated with true daring, is a theme eatery for adults raised on Disney. Pewter plates were already in place when our waiter brought our wines: an excellent Montevina Zinfandel Amador ($5) and a complex Kenwood Pinot Noir ($8). He was a pleasure throughout the dinner. Here, your waiter had better be a pleasure, because he'll need to follow your progress closely. Fondue is a highly interactive concept that requires supervision.

Like most of our fellow diners, we opted for the prix fixe, multicourse option. And while there is an all-vegetable dinner, carnivores should take note: La Fondue is your kind of place.

After a choice of gooey melted-cheese appetizer--the classic fondue creation--plus salads the size of Oz--the main courses arrived. Our dinner-for-two choice was Fondue Feast ($66), which allowed us free run of six entrees, in addition to appetizers and a chocolate fondue dessert. Options abound at La Fondue. You can choose what you wish to eat and dip, and you can also choose how you want to cook these foods. We opted to grill, but one might want to boil things in spiced red wine, white wine, bouillon, or even oil. Think of it as designer Benihana without the whirling chefs.

Salads, almost absurd in terms of sheer size, were crisp and fresh, loaded with fresh spinach or romaine, lots of shredded carrots, sunflower seeds, feta cheese, mushrooms and, in my case, a tangy lemon tarragon dressing. Our gently bubbling fondue pot of white wine and mixed Gruyere and Emmenthaler cheese, with a hint of nutmeg, was delicious. Our "dippers" included bread cubes, very mealy potatoes, crisp baby carrots, broccoli and bits of fruit like apple cubes and flame grapes.

We were practically full by the time our table's grilling surface was at full sizzle. Onto a large square pan we placed big cubes of filet mignon and venison, rectangles of ahi and calamari, slabs of chicken and teriyaki turkey. When sizzled to our point of perfection, they were dipped into one of half a dozen sauces--our favorite combos were the rare filet in mustard/horseradish, and ahi drenched in a wonderful wasabi dressing.

Only the overly loud music--ranging from jazz to highland flings to reggae--marred the sensuous mood of our finale. From a long list of chocolate and liqueur combinations, we'd chosen to dip our strawberries, bananas and bits of cake into a molten froth of bittersweet chocolate spiked with Grand Marnier. Wow--no wonder some folks come by late just for the romantically playful desserts.

La Fondue--it's not like any other restaurant you've been to.

La Fondue
Address: 14510 Big Basin Way, Saratoga
Phone: 408/867-3332
Web: www.lafondue.com
Cuisine: table-top custom cooking; fondue specialties
Hours: Open Mon.-Thu. 5-9:30pm, Fri. 5-11pm, Sat 4-11pm, Sun 4-9:30pm. Two seatings nightly, 28 tables; reservations recommended.

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From the March 25-31, 1999 issue of Metro.

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