Hot Chocolate 

The Melting Pot gets steamy.

But you just can't help feeling the love in here.

The Melting Pot is one of many throughout the country that offer a complete menu of fondues prepared tableside. One of the best deals is the "The Big Night Out" ($76 per couple plus 10 percent off any bottle of wine under $100) for a four-course meal. Begin with your choice of cheese fondues including a cheddar and beer mixture, a Mexican fiesta cheese blend, a blue cheese-infused Wisconsin mix or the classic Swiss fondue with GruyÅ re, Emmenthaler and cherry (kirschwasser) liqueur. Served with an array of vegetables and bread cubes, it's nearly a meal in itself. A la carte as well as three-course dinners are also offered.

A selection of salads, including a nice, freshly sliced mushroom salad and an average chef salad — heavy on the iceberg lettuce — arrives next. Entrée fondue selections include your choice of cooking styles and uncooked meats and seafood for dipping. A Coq au vin-style broth is infused with Burgundy wine while a Mojo fondue is accented with garlic and citrus. A Bourguignonne is basically a vat of canola oil, served with an array of batters for dipping and frying, that seems to scream "accident."

All fondues are prepared at your table by heavily trained and knowledgeable servers wearing headsets complete with earpieces and minimicrophones. They look very Secret Service. I couldn't discern the purpose of the headsets, other than to offer a live feed to some master controller: "Patron at table ten has double-dipped. Repeat. Double-dipping in progress. Request immediate backup."

But herein lies the fun. Once your broth is hot and ready, uncooked shrimp, filet mignon, chicken and lobster are brought alongside parcooked potatoes and vegetables. An all-seafood option is also available. Then it's up to you to cook. Seafood is the easiest and leaves little room for error, while the uncooked chicken cubes and filet mignon can be a little trickier. An extensive array of sauces completes this course, including an excellent basil pesto, teriyaki glaze, horseradish, curry and drawn butter. Get ready for spillage and dripping as you navigate skewering, cooking, dipping and eating. And for God's sake, don't wear white.

The dessert fondues take center stage with gooey milk-chocolatey goodness. It's impossible to go wrong with names like Amaretto Meltdown, Cookies n' Cream, Marshmallow Dream and Flaming Turtle (made with chocolate, caramel and pecans). A Chocolate S'mores fondue is flambéed tableside to toast the marshmallows while crushed graham crackers are sprinkled about. All dessert fondues are served with cubes of pound cake, brownies, cheesecake and fresh fruit for dipping. An extensive list of dessert wines, coffees and after-dinner concoctions can round out your evening.

The Melting Pot will celebrate its 10th anniversary next January and has garnered numerous awards, including Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence, Virginia Wine Restaurant of the Year and Franchise of the Year. Wines here are not to be ignored, and a great evening can simply be found at the bar enjoying a glass of Pouilly Fuisse, some cheese fondue and a private lesson on the wines of the Loire Valley. Take your learning a bit further and attend the Thursday evening wine tastings or Tuesday evening spirits tastings, both beginning at 6:30 p.m.

The Melting Pot bills itself as a great place to gather with friends or business associates, and it is, especially with its newly renovated banquet and meeting rooms. But all work aside, this is the place to bring your mate. Smooching is encouraged, there's lots of chocolate, and the soft lighting makes everybody look good. What better way to share the love? S

The Melting Pot ($$$)
9704 Gayton Road
Dinner: Monday - Thursday 5 p.m. - 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. - 12 p.m., Sunday 4 p.m. - 10 p.m.

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