by LAUREN McALLISTER & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hile suspense may be a lot of fun at the movies, it can sure wear you down in real life. Uncertainty about an economy in peril and a nail-biter of a presidential election has left too little room for fun. So it was with a sigh of relief that my companion and I slumped into a truly cozy booth at the Melting Pot recently. High partitions above our seats made our next-door neighbors invisible and created the ambience of a private dining experience just for two. The rich red walls and dark wood accents of the interior create a cocoon of warmth, while dim lighting immediately induces a sense of calm.

And the experience is what the Melting Pot is all about. All your food for the evening is cooked in a cute little pot situated on a cook top built right into the table. Most diners will probably want to start with a cheese fondue appetizer ($16 for one or two; $8 each additional person if ordered outside of a combo).

A note about the menu: If you're planning to get a cheese appetizer fondue, salads, entr & eacute;es and dessert, there are a number of combos ranging from $64 to $96 for two (depending on what proteins you order) that may save you some cash. Straight entr & eacute;es with a salad and a side of veggies run $20 to $28.

Back to the pot. Fondues are mixed tableside by the wait staff. Traditional fondue with Gruy & egrave;re and Emmenthaler was inexplicably not high on our server's list of favorites, so we went with her suggestion of the Wisconsin Trio cheese fondue -- with fontina, butterkase and buttermilk-bleu cheeses, white wine, scallions and a hint of sherry. I couldn't taste the sherry, but this was a decadent mixture nonetheless. The bright flavor of the bleu cheese kept it from being overly heavy, and the medley went well with the crisp tart apple slices and the bread cubes, although I didn't think it suited the mini carrots. Still, it is hard to resist anything smothered in cheese, and we cleaned out that little pot, using bread to wipe clean the interior. If you only go to the Melting Pot for one course, make sure it is the cheese fondue.

Next up were salads ($7 if ordered separately). I chose the spinach-mushroom with red onion, chopped bacon, Roma tomatoes and burgundy-shallot vinaigrette. The vinaigrette was sweet and thick and overpowered the salad. My partner's California salad of baby greens, tomatoes and Gorgonzola had way too much of the syrupy raspberry dressing. Even in a reasonable quantity, the dressing's excess fruitiness didn't seem a good match for the tomatoes, and it thoroughly overpowered the baby greens.

Then it was time for the main attraction. Our combo meal included bite-sized chunks of a lobster tail, marinated chicken, steak, shrimp, filet mignon and pork tenderloin, four little butternut squash ravioli and a small bowl of broccoli, carrots, mushrooms and red potato ($88 for two, as a combo). Eight dipping sauces also arrived in cute little square cups -- from garlic butter to teriyaki to a sour cream/bacon/cream cheese medley. Our server said we needed to cook the chicken about two minutes in the bubbling pot, while other meats and fish could be cooked as much or as little as we liked. I would have appreciated a little egg timer to make sure my chicken wasn't raw, but we threw caution to the wind and started cooking. For our cooking liquid, we chose the coq au vin mixture of broth and red wine; other options include plain broth or oil.

The coq au vin was a nice complement to the tender filet mignon medallions, and it added some flavor to the veggies. But I thought the coq au vin actually detracted from or overwhelmed the flavor of the lobster and marinated chicken. Next time I'll go for the traditional European-style hot oil.

But focusing on flavor profiles is not really what the Melting Pot is all about. Slowly cooking and eating a meal bite by bite is a delightful change from the way we often eat -- in a rush to move on to the next activity. And it meant we consumed a lot of food over nearly three hours without feeling particularly full. We enjoyed playing with the flavor combos of the dipping sauces, and trying for the perfectly cooked lobster morsel.

Last up was dessert. Chocolate fondue is on the menu in many forms: straight-up white, chocolate or dark; or combos like milk chocolate with a swirl of crunchy peanut butter, and the Yin-Yang -- white chocolate swirled with dark chocolate into the yin-yang symbol ($14 small or $28 regular, if ordered separately). The Yin-Yang we ordered was almost too pretty to eat, but after admiring it for a minute and literally before all the chocolate had even melted, we could no longer resist dunking a banana slice into it, then a strawberry half. Obviously delicious.

Now, we like sugar as much as the next guy, but we couldn't quite take the graham-cracker crumb or Oreo-encrusted marshmallows dipped in the rich chocolate, nor did we like the Rice Krispies treats after their chocolate bath. The little slice of cheesecake was pretty tasty with the chocolate, but the pound cake was even better. Diners can request more of a particular dipping item, and next time I'll stick with fruit and pound cake.

The locally owned Spokane Melting Pot franchise is one of more than 100 in the U.S. and joins sister restaurants in Seattle, Tacoma and Bellevue. In retrospect, I missed the nuanced food, complex and creative flavors and beautiful presentation of a chef-run restaurant, but it is hard to argue with the sheer fun of cooking up food at a cozy table for two and the pleasure of lingering over a lovely dinner.

The Melting Pot

707 W. Main Ave. (Crescent Building, Second Floor, Skywalk Level)

Open Mon-Thu 5 pm-10 pm,

Fri-Sat 4 am-11 pm, Sun 4 pm-9 pm.

Reservations suggested. Call 926-8000.

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