When I read "Swiss Bliss," Jeffrey Steingarten's exhaustive piece on fondue in the February issue of Vogue, I figured it was just the famously oppositional epicure getting around to experimenting — his way — with a much-maligned dish. His way means cooking up one or two different versions of the dish every single day for two months. (Or so he claims.) The contrarian in him calls Emmenthaler, one of the main cheeses alongside Gruyère most often used in a basic fondue, "not a pleasant thing to eat."
But then the front page of the January 23 Dining In, Dining Out section of The New York Times featured a classic shot of two speared cubes of French bread, dripping luscious-looking melted cheese over a cast-iron fondue pot. The article, "A Little Nostalgia, a Long Fork and Lots of Cheese," by Melissa Clark, made this salient point, along with four recipes and eight variations: "Few foods are as compelling as melted cheese."
My hunger ignited, I was already well into figuring out where to track down some local fondue when the February issue of Every Day with Rachael Ray featured a reader's tip for, yes, Super Bowl Sunday fare: "My party indulgence is a big bowl of cheese fondue. I love to experiment with different cheeses and mix-ins, like Cheddar and beer with crispy bacon stirred in." That sounds more like a Welsh rarebit to me, but fondue is definitely having a moment.
The go-to restaurant for fondue in San Francisco is the Matterhorn Swiss (2323 Van Ness, 885-6116), open for more than a decade, which I wrote about with affection in these pages a couple of years ago. There's a quickly expanding national chain called the Melting Pot that once announced plans to open on Powell, but so far has come no closer to S.F. than Larkspur. But research turned up several local alternatives, including one venerable place that has managed to survive since 1958.
Most sources cite the '70s as fondue's American heyday. Helen Gurley Brown first recommended it as a great party food in her 1962 and racy-for-the-time Sex and the Single Girl because of its supposed high alcohol content (it's made with dry white wine and kirsch, a cherry brandy), although, of course, the alcohol itself cooks off. (She also suggests a drinking game: If a guy loses his bread cube in the mix, you drain your glass. If a girl does, you all kiss. Or maybe it was the other way around.)
Fondue Fred, anchoring a small building with an interior patio on Telegraph in Berkeley, is the place that has served up melted cheese since 1958. Studying its Web site, I'm intrigued by an all-you-can-eat deal for a minimum party of six people, so I assemble three generations for an early dinner on a very chilly, rainy Sunday night, intending to sample six different fondues from the menu of 15 versions. (The reservationist thoughtfully tells me that the price has gone up a couple of bucks from what's listed on the site.) However, our very affable server, Saul, won't hear of that, pointing out that one of us, my 6-year-old nephew, won't be eating a lot.
Saul won't even let us order the five fondues I request ("too much"). We end up with a classical fondue, a blue cheese fondue, and the Mexican-spices-and-Cheddar Fiesta, as well as Coq au Fondu, a chicken dish described as a cheeseless fondue.
Included are starters of a pretty standard but pleasant iceberg lettuce salad with carrot shreds in a sharpish vinaigrette, and massive quantities of cubed French bread and plates of nicely cooked red potatoes, chunked and dusted with paprika. For an extra $4.99, we get a plate of chopped raw vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, green peppers, zucchini, and carrots. The fondues come to the table in cast-iron saucepans, plopped atop warmers with tiny Sterno cans, whose characteristic gassy scent perfumed the empty, wood-paneled room when we arrived. The Fiesta is accompanied by commercial tortilla chips. Everybody at the table has fun dipping, dunking, and eating, but I'm a little disappointed. The texture is wrong, grainy and thin instead of silky and pully; there's no danger of losing your bread. I don't catch a hint of kirsch.
Saul couldn't be nicer, but when we ask him what kind of blue cheese they use, he has no idea. "Swiss?" he finally says. The boneless chicken stew, not a fondue at all, tastes of acrid dried herbs. We wash down the food with excellent icy Red Hook beer. For dessert, we get a big slab of store-bought cheesecake, sprinkled with chocolate chips, and a thin chocolate fondue that tastes like Hershey's straight from the can, with marshmallows and cubes of fresh melon, pineapple, and strawberries.
Empty when we arrived, the place is now full of happy revelers, including a table of eight lively students going the all-you-can-eat-and-drink route. And Saul gives my nephew a whole bag of marshmallows as a sweet parting gift.
In the days that follow, I try two more fondues. There's the goat cheese fondue ($8.50) at Luna Park (694 Valencia, 553-8584), served with sliced green apples and chunks of buttered, grilled bread – an unusual and especially tasty touch. I realize while walking there that I've forgotten to bring reading material, so I stop in to snag a book at Community Thrift across the street, where I spy a metal fondue set complete with pot, stand, and five glass-bead-topped forks for $7.60. Luna Park's dish is nice enough, but it still strikes me as more of a sauce than a thick, satiny fondue. When I try the Cambozola cheese fondue ($10) at the small-plates place Andalu (3198 16th St., 621-2211), served with thin slices of green apple and Asian pear, and four slices of French bread toasted to Melba consistency (I prefer using the untoasted baguette served with butter on the side), I like the hint of blue cheese flavor, but the texture of the dish is much the same.
For my last foray into the world of fondue, I try Melt, which appears to be, from its somewhat breathless Web site, an all-things-to-all-people casual North Beach hangout: free Wi-Fi, projected movies, open-mike nights, trivia contests. When I arrive, in fact, it's movie time, and the unmistakable tones of Sterling Hayden ("precious bodily fluids") tell me it's Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The tiled floors, little wooden tables and chairs, sandwich names chalked on a blackboard, and refrigerated case containing chocolate cake, carrot cake, and chocolate mousse cake read standard cafe. But the special mulled wine hits the spot.
I'm happily surprised when the small fondue turns out to be the real deal: It's as heady, fragrant, thick, and characteristically elastic as the elusive fondue of my dreams. The side salad that comes with it is a heap of tender baby greens. We also get red and green apple wedges, green grapes, and good cubed French bread. I can't get over how delicious and satisfying — and unexpected — this fondue is. It encourages us to quaff a couple more glasses of the mulled wine — a precious fluid indeed. And as we exit onto the chilly street, my friend bemoans the fact that the day's showers have ended, because that would be a perfect meal for a rainy day. But I'm not saving Melt for a rainy day: if it's that good with the classic, I'm eager to try its Welsh rarebit variations.