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VALLEY WEEKEND | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Menu Offers Fondue With a French Flair

Rustic Burgundian-style establishment in Sherman Oaks serves cheeses, meats and fruits for dipping.

September 05, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Who says dinosaurs don't roam Ventura Boulevard?

Just east of Woodman are two of the city's truly antique French restaurants--Jean's Blue Room, which dates to the early '50s, and La Fondue Bourguignonne, which has only been in Sherman Oaks since 1979 but represents a comparably old-fashion style of dining.

We associate fondue with Switzerland, where it is certainly popular, but the menu at La Fondue Bourguignonne insists that the concept of dipping things in a pot of boiling oil as a way of cooking on the run originated in a Burgundian vineyard; hence the restaurant's name. (Bourguignonne is French for Burgundian.)

The dining room has a relaxed, rustic air. An enormous wooden wine rack separates the main seating area from the bar; tall wooden chairs with leather straps for seats and backs surround wooden tables. The walls are decorated with oversized French cooking utensils, such as the huge copper mandoline hung above one of the archways.

On each table are a flat metal heating element and several piques a fondue, the long, wood-handled, two-pronged forks used both to cook and eat your meal. The menu is simple: for appetizer, fondue; for main course, fondue; for dessert, fondue. What did you expect?

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The appetizer is fondue Savoyarde, consisting of Gruyere, Montal and Mimolet cheeses melted with white wine and herbs in a ceramic pot. The idea is to dip bread cubes--you get a basketful--into the pot until they are completely coated with the cheese. The cheese flavor could be more pronounced, though the dish is pleasant enough. And our French-speaking waitress was all nonchalance when she informed us that we could order the dish for three, despite the menu's stern notice that it requires a minimum of four.

The restaurant does serve a few other appetizers. Both snails and mushrooms are available a la Bourguignonne, in the familiar garlicky escargot butter. The rather nondescript mushrooms are actually presented in a metal escargot dish. Whichever you order, a basket of sliced French bread comes along for sopping up the garlic butter.

After the appetizer round, the waiter mixes a green salad with a nice vinaigrette flavored with mustard and tarragon. The salad isn't bad but, made with iceberg lettuce rather than butter lettuce or other leafy greens, it is emphatically unlike anything you'd get in Burgundy.

Entree time, and you have a choice of fondue gitane ("Gypsy style"), with a wine-broth base, or fondue Bourguignonne, where you fry your foods in boiling cottonseed oil. That is, your table has the choice; there's only room for one fondue pot, so the whole group has to order the same kind of fondue.

As for what to cook, you have a choice of chicken breast, shrimp, scallops and filet mignon. Most parties, I'm told, ask for a combination of all four, available at no extra charge.

The fondue pot is set on the heat element, and each diner gets a wooden platter that holds, besides the raw meats (which are on their own glass plate because of health regulations), a few vegetables and five paper cups of sauces. Some may find these tiny Dixie cups unattractive, but the sauces--sour cream and chive, tomato, Bearnaise, tarragon-garlic and beurre blanc--are just fine.

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All that remains is for you to do the cooking, the key being that the chicken needs well over a minute while the shrimp are done when they are fully curled, around 20 seconds. Spear your meat of choice with the pique a fondue and dip it into the pot. It's simple--and so, of course, is the range of flavors in a meal like this.

Everyone at my table agreed that dessert was the best part of dinner. The chocolate fondue is a pot of melted Swiss chocolate into which you dip plums, pears, oranges, grapes, various melons, sliced bananas and apples and more. This dessert feels like a pagan feast. The chocolate cools gently on the fruit, and each mouthful is an indulgent surprise.

In this era of bistros and fusion foods, an evening at La Fondue Bourguignonne is a real blast from the past. And remember, like the dinosaur, it may not be around forever.

DETAILS

* WHAT: La Fondue Bourguignonne.

* WHERE: 13359 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

* WHEN: Open 5:30-11 p.m. daily.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $40-$69. Suggested dishes: cheese fondue, $5 per person, minimum of four; fondue Bourguignonne, $16.95; chocolate fondue, $7.50 per person, minimum of two, or $5 per person, minimum of four.

* CALL: (818) 501-0181.

* FYI: Full bar. Limited parking in rear. All major credit cards.

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