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Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

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Went to the Darien Melting Pot last night. I’ve been morbidly curious about this expensive and ostensibly romantic chain that “doesn’t feel like a chain” for a while. Its two-person “couples” booths are lauded as being intimate and romantic, as well they should be, when you’re sharing a simmering pot of each other’s festering plagues.

Reservations were easy enough to get; I called on Saturday around noon, and was told “you can have 4:00 or 8:30.”

Well, then. 8:30, I guess.

Upon arriving, we were a little early; it was impossible to wedge our way in to the front desk, because the lobby was full of a dozen teenage rich kids crowding the area without a reservation, apparently. After no small effort, we got the attention of the house, and were told we could grab some drinks at the bar.

The bartender was efficient and generous [enough] with pours, though the tonic water wasn’t mixed properly, and our gin and tonics were more like gin and sodas. Oh well. Tab transfer was far more obvious and unprofessional than it should have been, but it works out.

We were shown to our table after an awkward handoff from one host to the other hostess, and told our waiter would be with us soon.

We waited 5 minutes. Our waiter showed up, and I immediately knew we were fucked. He asked if it was our first time here (it was mine), and, well, it went something like this:

“I see you already have drinks, do you know what you’d like to order?”

“Actually, I’d like to order a bottle of wine.”

“Oh.”

So, yeah. Provided the bin number for the wine and god a blank stare from the guy, so I pointed to the line on the menu, repeated the bin number, got him to confirm that he could read, and we were off to the races!

Let me talk briefly about the wine menu at The Melting Pot. First off, prices are about 2.5x retail, at least. The markup is worse at the low end — there are a bunch of $20 bottles north of $65. Unless I’m losing my mind and I just picked unluckily in my sampling, that is. Secondly, vintages are not listed on the menu. Important information that distinguishes different classes of wine in the same maker or varietal was completely missing. I settled on “Red, Beringer, Alluvium, Knights Valley, California” since it at least uniquely identified one wine, so I knew roughly what I was getting into, beyond the vintage.

Our waiter disappeared for a good ten minutes. Maybe taking a dump? I don’t know.

He re-appeared and said “your wine will be right up.” He then looked around awkwardly and said “Actually, I’ll go get your wine.”

He disappeared for another 5 minutes.

He returned with a 2003 vintage covered in dust (that’s cool, beyond that it tells me it’s probably been at the restaurant for a while), a market value of $22 priced at $65. Not a standout year, but at least within its drinking window (I assume this is by accident). He presented the bottle, I nodded, he waited, I said “yes, that’s correct” and he went about to the magic of opening a bottle of wine.

The horror.

I have never before wanted to tackle a waiter, grab the bottle and corkscrew, and do the deed myself. He mauled the capsule for a good minute or two, finally managing to scrape off enough of the top of the capsule to get the screw in. He proceeded to auger out the top third of the cork before getting traction on it, drove the screw hard into the neck of the bottle, and finally yanked the cork out with much elbow grease and a satisfying (by which I mean what-the-fuck) pop that put a smile on his face. It’s a small miracle we weren’t wearing the bottle’s contents at this point. He poured an appropriate tasting sample in my glass, I tried it and nodded and said “that’s good” and he continued to look at me awkwardly. I made eye contact and said “yes, pour it” or something to that effect, and he proceeded to dump half a glass full in each glass. Dear god. I pounded the remainder of my gin and tonic.

Once he walked away, I proceeded to remove enough of the capsule that the wine wasn’t pouring through it and the cork remnants. We waited another five minutes, and he returned to take our order. We got our water glasses at this point as well, which was nice.

So, yes, ordering took place nearly half an hour after our reservation. We ordered “The Big Night Out” wanting to experience the cheese, broth, and dessert cooking options, and asked to substitute dark chocolate for the white chocolate at the end.

He assured us he’d be back shortly to start our cheese.

Maybe five minutes later he did return, in fact, with the cheese; he spooned all the stuff in the pot and mixed it up (by all the stuff, I mean he left a third of everything but the cheese itself on his platter; hopefully that’s by design), and gave it a quick stir or two. It looked sort of like cheesy chunky vomit at this stage. He handed us our plates (because he didn’t seem willing to reach and put them on the table for us, even though it was about six inches of effort); mine was basically a platter of dishwater water; I shook it out on the carpet.

We stirred our cheese some more once he left to actually make it into fondue. The bread was sort of stale and uninteresting on its own, but it worked well with the cheese. The apples were great, the vegetables weren’t blanched or anything, so were a bit crunchy (to my thinking, but that’s not to say this approach was wrong, just not my preference).

Salads showed up about halfway through working on our cheese course, which of course led to one of many awkward situations where he wasn’t comfortable shuffling things around on our table and we had to attempt to re-adjust all of our plates, flatware, bowls, and such ourselves. It was pretty awesome.

My salad was decent, beyond that it was completely missing olives. This wouldn’t seem so egregious beyond that it was a Niçoise salad. The mind, it explodes.

Finished up the cheese course and some other waiter ultimately cleared our table, beyond the salad seasoning, which ultimately stuck around behind the wine bottle till desert. Since I was the only person who ever bothered to pour our wine, even when wine glasses were empty, this isn’t surprising.

The meat course arrived; we were given a brief explanation, but none of the guidance our adjacent booth mates were about safe food handling. It was decent and novel, no real complaints about the quality of the food or experience for the middle course.

I went to take a piss and bang my head against the wall of the bathroom until it bled a bit, when I returned I was informed that the waiter had come by and asked if we wanted to consider dessert. Since that was included in our menu choice, it seemed a bit of a, well, stupid question. We reiterated our desire for the dark chocolate fondue, and he asked “what size?” It was all I could do to say with a straight face “Whatever size comes with our menu selection previously seems like a good idea.” “Oh, right.”

Oh, right.

The dessert menu was entertaining:

Dessert was fun and tasty; probably the best from a food perspective of the evening. We eventually managed to get a bill along with a pitch about the double dip program (a loyalty program), during which our waiter exchanged more words with us than the entire evening beforehand. He explained that if you spend $250 you get $25, $500 you get $50, $750 you get $75, and, wait for it, $1000 you get $100. My mind continued to boggle. We paid our bill slowly (the restaurant was empty at this point since it was nearly 11, so there’s no reason it should have taken another 15 minutes), and made to the coat check. At the front of the house one of the hostesses was sitting in a short skirt with her legs open, sanitizing menus. After some awkward standing around, she recognized that we were guests and we might want to grab our coats, so we did so. My hand with the $5 just dropped the bill back in my pocket, having lost all hope.

And, thus, we escaped back to the real world.

The music was loud and incongruous through the whole experience. The cheap wood veneer in the booths and shoddy fitting of the woodwork was not really consistent with a $50pp (before alcohol) dining experience. The plastic handles of the fondue forks were scratched and worn, and well, cheap plastic. Wine glasses were thick glass and small bowls; I can’t imagine dropping a quarter grand on an $80 bottle and drinking it from 99 cent bowl without enough room for it to really expand.

Water refills came only when I left my empty glass on the edge of the table, pointed, and asked for more water. A lot of our experience was our waiter’s fault; a good waiter could have made up for nearly all of the deficiencies of the experience otherwise; it sounded like many other booths were receiving more attention, and attention from somebody who knows how to do their job. Still, I will never return to this restaurant, or likely any of the restaurants in the chain, again. A good restaurant will not hire completely incompetent staff. Avoid at all costs.

Update: I left feedback through the restaurant’s automated feedback system; I was contacted by the management of the Darien restaurant on Monday. He was deeply sorry for my experience, and was offered another go at things on the house. I am not confident that I will take him up on the offer, but I do appreciate the desire on behalf of the management to right things.