Stick a Fork in It

Grip it and dip it: Ian puts Simply Fondue to the test.

Simply Fondue

1629 Locust Street, 314-335-7377. Hours: 4:30-10 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 4:30-midnight Fri.-Sat.

Dinner for two:
Cheese fondue
Entrée fondue
Chocolate fondue...$40

Not much is simple about a meal at Simply Fondue, which opened in June in the loft district as the first St. Louis outpost of a small, Dallas-based chain. Choose the restaurant's signature $40, four-course dinner for two — salads, a cheese-fondue appetizer, an entrée fondue and a chocolate-fondue dessert — and you must select which of five cheese blends you prefer, which six of eighteen meats, whether to cook those meats in oil or one of three broths, and then which of thirteen chocolate blends you want.

Thankfully, there are only four salad choices. As far as I know, none of them need to be boiled in oil.

Contrary to what you might believe, fondue wasn't created by your parents in 1973. In fact, cheese fondue comes to us from the Swiss, which either contradicts or reinforces Orson Welles' famous ad-lib from The Third Man: "In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

As far as I can tell, credit for meat-in-hot-oil fondue belongs to the French, where the dish is called fondue bourguignonne — though receiving credit for a "dish" that consists of you cooking raw meat in hot oil strikes me as questionable, at the very least.

At any rate, fondue is a fine excuse for a grad-school party and a clever conceit for a restaurant. You pay as much for your dinner as you would at many of the city's better restaurants, but you do most of the hard work.

You and your server, that is. A large part of your experience at Simply Fondue will depend on the quality of your service. On both my visits, the servers did a good job of explaining and preparing the meal. But because the servers have so much to do, a busy night can lead to some delays. During a Saturday-night dinner, for example, I waited more than half an hour for a glass of wine.

Fondue might seem an odd choice for the trendy, young-skewing loft district, but I suppose everything old really does get to be new again. And Simply Fondue certainly looks the loft-district part: The large, sleek space features high ceilings, cushy, high-backed booths and a glassed-in wine room that accommodates a single table for four. Taken as a whole, the layout struck me as generic, but the booths offer an intimate, if not romantic, setting.

Good thing those booths are comfortable: A full meal can last anywhere from two to three hours. You might not remember the salad course by the end of dinner. Which is fine. The salads are unremarkable and too generously portioned considering how much food is headed your way.

Your server prepares your cheese fondue at your table, blending the ingredients and then stirring the mixture as it thickens. On my first visit, I had the "Traditional Swiss Chalet," Gruyère and Emmenthaler with Chablis, kirsch, garlic and spices; on a later visit I tried the "Mediterranean" blend of cheddar, beer and garlic studded with sun-dried tomatoes. The Swiss blend tasted a tad too strongly of the wine and brandy, but the Mediterranean blend had a wonderfully rich garlic flavor. Cheese fondue comes with bread, apple slices and raw vegetables. The bread was on the dry side (I suppose so the hot cheese wouldn't turn it mushy). With both cheese blends, I preferred the apple slices.

The meat course is problematic, both to order and to eat. As I mentioned, you must pick which meats you want to cook, whether you want to cook them in oil or broth and, should you choose broth, which one. The oil is neutral canola oil, so pretty much any of the meats will pair well with it. The broths — "Mediterranean Sangria," "Shiner Bock Bayou Cajun" and "Thai Coconut" — can present conflicts. Some are obvious. Would you want to cook jerk chicken in the Thai broth? Probably not. Others you might not realize. As I was choosing meats for the Cajun broth, our server did an excellent job of pointing out potential problems: coconut-battered shrimp, for example, wouldn't fry up crisp.

Cooking isn't hard. With the exception of chicken, meat and seafood need three minutes, give or take. But because you're responsible for your own meal, you might find yourself erring on the side of anal-retentiveness, checking the meat every half-minute or so. This can become tedious — but it's preferable to overcooking, especially when you're frying beef or salmon.

The neutral oil leaves you at the mercy of each meat. Herb-encrusted pork tenderloin and pecan-encrusted mahi mahi were flavorful, but shrimp and beef tenderloin were bland. The Cajun broth — a peppery blend of Shiner Bock beer, Cajun spices and beef sausage — was spicy but didn't overpower the seasoned meats. If anything, it enhanced the heat of the five-pepper beef. On the other hand, it clashed with the jerk chicken, creating a bitter spice bomb. I preferred the plain shrimp and the chicken breast, which allowed me to concentrate on the flavor of the broth.

(You might ask, "Are any of these meats best served by cooking this way?" Probably not. Certainly not the bacon-wrapped tenderloin, which cooks the bacon without granting any of its crisp charm. If you object to fondue on principle, Simply Fondue won't change your mind.)

Further complicating your meal, five dipping sauces are included with the meat course. Only a mild yogurt-curry blend was particularly distinctive. The ginger-teriyaki and Thai sweet-sour sauces made no impression at all; the horseradish and honey mustard-tarragon sauces were too blunt.

In addition to the meats, you receive raw vegetables, which can be cooked and eaten or used to flavor the broth, or both. There are also large ravioli stuffed with cheese. These were bland and didn't take well to frying, but mushroom caps stuffed with cream cheese, battered and fried (which came with the oil but not the Cajun broth, for the same reason as the coconut shrimp) were a guilty pleasure.

I should also mention that you don't have to order the meal for two. The menu features a number of "à la carte" selections with the meats chosen for you, and if you want to have only cheese or chocolate fondue, you can.

Most dessert selections feature milk or white chocolate blended with various ingredients, such as pieces of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Heath Bars. I went for simple blends: milk chocolate with caramel and pecan on one visit, and with Grand Marnier on another. The Grand Marnier didn't contribute much flavor to the chocolate, but the caramel and pecans were an excellent addition.

With the chocolate you get marshmallows to toast, a slice of cheesecake, fruit, cinnamon-sugar balls and pieces of Rice Krispies treats and angel food cake. There's nothing subtle about these desserts, and after salad, cheese and meat it's too much food, but for sheer decadent indulgence, it's pretty good.

Also indulgent, considering how much food the dinner for two brings, is the option to add two lobster tails and a bottle of house red wine to your meal for $18. The meat is removed from the shell for you and served with a butter sauce. Considering the investment, you'll want to check that lobster every fifteen seconds or so as you cook.

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