Photo by Anne FishbeinIF YOU SPENT MUCH TIME DATING IN LOS ANGELES in the '70s, you probably ended up at least once at La Fondue Bourguignonne, a small, fondue-intensive Westwood restaurant tucked away at the top of a long flight of stairs. Post-hippie competitors like Alice's or the Aware Inn were respectable date places, nicely lit and striking an ideal midpoint between Continental Cuisine and carrot cake, but La Fondue was, you know, serious: dark enough for romance, cheap enough for a college student to afford sometimes but expensive enough for glamour, and stuffed with some of the thickest Gallic accents you have ever heard outside a Maurice Chevalier flick. Plus, the giggly single-mindedness of the thing, the wanton simmering in boiling wine, the really long forks, may as well have been designed as a way for couples to feed scallops to one another. La Fondue was . . . like, wow.
A restaurant dedicated to the art of immersing things in hot liquid seemed a little old-fashioned even then. The fondue craze was a product of the late '50s, and the Sterno-fueled fondue pots many of our parents had gotten as wedding presents had been relegated to the attic more than a decade before. (My mother's bottle of kirschwasser, a cloying cherry brandy whose only known function is as a flavoring in cheese fondue, clearly predated the Vietnam War.) When La Fondue closed a decade or so ago, some of us were surprised that it had actually lasted as long as it did.
In the last few years, though, fondue has, along with Louis Prima and flaming mai tais, slowly crept back to respectability. Fondue sets are suddenly hot again in department stores and the pages of Wallpaper, and tony restaurants on Melrose serve the stuff.
And I was stunned last week to discover not only that the Sherman Oaks location of La Fondue Bourguignonne had been there all along, but that reservations on a weekend evening were actually hard to get. Here are the dark wood, the gleaming copper and the frilly curtains; the gallon jugs of California "burgundy" siphoned off into carafes; the tape loops of classical music that repeat so often you begin to suspect they are recorded on 8-track. The headwaiter answers the phone in the kind of heavy French accent you may associate with hockey goalies; iconic '70s-era French posters line the walls.
If you have ever eaten fondue, you probably know the drill. A waiter brings out a chafing dish filled with bubbling melted Gruyère, and you dunk stale hunks of baguette into the stuff, twirling until the cheese has completely coated the bread, inhaling sweetly alcoholic fumes from the cherry brandy and white wine that are always incorporated into the mixture, occasionally pausing to munch on a tart little pickle or to take a swig of wine. Cheese fondue is as universal as it is possible for a food to get.
But at La Fondue, cheese fondue is just the beginning, at least when you order the three-course fondue combination dinner. Next comes the main-course fondue, a segmented tray holding bits of filet mignon, chicken, scallops and shrimp, plus chunks of mushroom and zucchini, which you spear on forks and cook in small vats of oil or wine that have been set to boiling over a burner in the middle of the table.
The oil fondue is a little problematic -- nobody has ever really been happy with deep-fried steak -- although with a little experimentation, you can put just an excellent seared crust on the seafood. The wine bath is kinder to the food (I loved the sweet lusciousness of long-simmered zucchini), but the meat is cut too thickly to cook in the quick, gentle shabu shabu style, and you lose the spectacular transformative effect that hot oil can have. However you decide to cook the food, you dip it afterward in one of five sauces arrayed on your platter, tiny pill cups of richness that range from béarnaise to spicy tomato purée.
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And finally comes the chocolate fondue, a seething pint of melted goo ready to coat strawberries, grapes, melon slices, none of them particularly ripe, as well as all the marshmallows you can eat: spectacular, in its own way.
More detailed than Boogie Nights, more intense than an entire season of That '70s Show, La Fondue is a museum of Love, American Style California, a Three's Company restaurant set come to living, breathing life.
13359 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 501-9813. Dinner daily. Dinner for two, food only, $40$64. Full bar. Valet parking. Reservations recommended. All major credit cards accepted. Recommended dish: cheese fondue.