I once asked a roomful of kids what their favorite restaurant was. There were about as many answers as kids, mostly selected from a familiar lineup of fast food, quick service and family-friendly chains. Then I asked them, of all the restaurants they had heard about, where they would most like to try. The answer was the Melting Pot.
The Melting Pot, the romantic place with the fondue? Yup, fondue.
I couldn't quite fathom the appeal, so for this issue of Taste, I took three young eaters to a Tampa Melting Pot. I knew them to be fledgling foodies, or at least enthusiasts willing to try new things: seventh-grader Leila Shafiq, 12, and sixth-grader Abbey Radeka, 11, both at Liberty Middle School, Tampa, and Hunter Davis, 11, a fifth-grader at Lawton Chiles Elementary in Tampa.
We traipsed into the restaurant, eyes adjusting to the dim (too dark, noted Hunter), and were ushered to a long table inset with two fondue-pot burners. Abbey and Leila said thumbs-up on the room's layout: Numerous booth alcoves mean most patrons dine in romantic seclusion (Hunter: eye roll).
Our server came over and gave an impressive rundown on just how this fondue party was going to roll (nice but too perky, said Abbey, and I tend to agree, although she knew her stuff). Soon a busser came over with what he called the Romulators (shades of Star Trek, extra points from all three kids), special devices that safely transport pots of bubbling oil and broth.
Melting Pot first-timers all, we took to it instantly. Part mad scientist, part Iron Chef, it's about as interactive as dinner gets. For those under 12, $20 buys a four-course dinner. We began with two styles of cheese fondue: the original Swiss swirled with nutmeg and kirschwasser, and the cheddar version buoyed by beer and a shot of Worcestershire. Bowls of cauliflower, celery and carrots for dunking were snubbed entirely (well, I ate some), in favor of bread cubes. We learned things: Fondue forks are color-coded (and double as swords); the cheese at the bottom of the pot is blistering hot; and it's better to use the long forks just for dunking, then your regular fork for eating (thus, no double-dipping).
We followed this with a salad course: a very respectable Caesar; Abbey took issue with the mound of Gorgonzola on the California salad. A lighter touch, please.
Then came the main attraction. All right, I'll be honest. The main attraction was dessert. But the entree — plates of raw shrimp, teriyaki marinated beef, salmon cubes, chicken and filet mignon; raw mushrooms, broccoli and potato wedges; bowls of sauces; bowls of tempura batter; bubbling oil and a coq au vin broth with garlic, mushrooms and red wine — left us nearly apoplectic with the possibilities.
We got to work tempura-battering shrimp, seeing what happens if you deep-fry a potato wedge (very nice), then doing the same with chicken pieces sans batter (weird). We dunked things in curry sauce, in teriyaki sauce. We double-battered. Hunter was alarmed to learn that a French custom dictates that a gentleman who loses his fondue dunkable must buy the table a drink; a lady, on the other hand, owes a nearby gent a kiss. He was having none of it, although both our pots bobbed with runaways.
In the end, our table looked more war zone than test kitchen. Apt, because when the classic chocolate fondue arrived, a fierce battle ensued, long forks glinting in the gloom. I mostly stayed out of it, strawberries and Rice Krispies treats not worth a maiming.
On the way home, I got the debrief. Hunter (his favorite restaurant is Crazy Buffet): "Melting Pot was cool." Abbey (her favorite restaurant, Ciccio and Tony's): "The servers were very helpful in making our choices for dinner." And Leila (favorite restaurant, Bonsai Sushi): "I thought it was a great idea and we had a lot of fun frying the foods ourselves and then dipping items in various dips."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.