How about fondue for Valentine’s Day this year? There’s this new place in Brightleaf Square called The Little Dipper, and I’ve been hearing good things about it. Even my restaurant critic friend – you know, the one who writes for the N&O – says it’s good. And you know what a snob he is.
Anyway, he says it’s very romantic. They’re in the old Nikos Taverna space, and they’ve completely redone the place so that there’s lots of cozy little nooks and corners. It still has those rustic brick walls and old timber beams from its tobacco warehouse days, but they’ve decorated it in warm colors with modern art and these really cool retro chandeliers straight from the seventies. One wall is painted black with little holes drilled in it and lit from behind so that it looks like starry constellations in a night sky (Little Dipper, get it?).
All the tables have an induction burner built into their tops, so that the fondue pot gets hot but not the surrounding burner or table surface.
And boy do they ever have a lot of options for what goes into the pot. The menu is set up as a three-course meal, starting with a cheese fondue appetizer. There’s the classic Swiss fondue, of course, plus five variations ranging from havarti dill to Tuscan sun-dried tomato with a blend of three Italian cheeses. Whichever you choose, you get a platter of fresh fruits and veggies, plus a bowl of Ninth Street Bakery bread cubes, for dipping.
If you order the cheddar ale fondue, you’ll have another decision to make: Do you want Stella Artois, Yuengling or Guinness? My restaurant critic friend likes Guinness in this one, which he says gets a tableside addition of Worcestershire sauce, garlic and a pinch of dry mustard in addition to the beer. But garlic only if you want it, Honeybunch. Your server, who assembles the cheese fondue ingredients at your table, will ask if you want garlic before adding it to the pot.
The entree fondue selection is even broader, with six options ranging from beef broth seasoned with rosemary and spices (and a splash of port wine at the table) to a ginger- and sake-spiked vegetable brew called Asian Firepot. If you’re feeling adventurous, there’s a deep-fried tempura batter fondue.
And those are just the cooking styles. Then you get to choose which morsels you’ll be cooking in the pot, and what house-made sauces you’ll want to dip them in once they’re cooked. With 17 sauces to choose from, and a dozen dippers ranging from filet mignon to scallops to portobello mushrooms, the possible combinations are – I’m just estimating here – ten times greater than the number of stars on that dining room wall.
You can save yourself the trouble of all that mixing and matching by opting for one of the pre-selected entree combinations for one, two or four – all of which include a cheese fondue for the table, a salad, and three dipping sauces. That’s not a bad deal for, say, the Instant Karma, an entree for two that includes filet mignon, chicken and shrimp for $49.
Of course, cost is no object for our Valentine’s Day dinner, Honeybunch. I’d happily spring for the $85 Full Moon, which adds sashimi-grade tuna and a couple of lobster tails to the Instant Karma.
Or how about the special “Local 919” menu? We’d start with a fondue featuring cheese from Chapel Hill Creamery, followed by a salad of local greens and pickled beets tossed in a Maple View Farm buttermilk-dill dressing. For our entree fondue, I’d be happy with either the Herbivore (Melina’s gnocchi and lemon ricotta ravioli, tempeh, butternut squash) or the Carnivore (Spain Farms Muscovy duck breast, Chapel Hill Creamery sausage, Sunset Ridge bison meatballs, gnocchi). Or maybe the Omnivore, which gets us the best of both worlds.
Naturally, we’ll want a chocolate fondue for dessert. I think the Aztec (dark chocolate, Patron XO Cafe coffee liqueur, cinnamon and red chili spices) sounds good. But I’ll happily go with whatever you choose from the list of more than a dozen. Maybe just a simple milk chocolate fondue with a splash of Frangelico?
My restaurant critic friend says service is – as he likes to put it – “a decided notch above the norm.” He says they even give you a little tip sheet with recommended cooking times when they bring out the entree fondue. When he complimented the waitstaff to Ben Neal, one of the partners (and an all-around guy who preps the food in the kitchen, then morphs into the hospitable host in the dining room), Neal replied, “When you’re serving food that the customer cooks, service had better be good.”
So what do you say, Honeybunch? Fondue at The Little Dipper? Just let me know as soon as you can. I hear reservations are a must for Valentine’s Day, and I’m sure they’ll go fast. Feb. 14 falls on a Friday this year, so I’m guessing they’ll be extra-busy all weekend.
P.S. - Turns out this is the second Little Dipper. The original is in Wilmington, where it has won several local awards, including Best Place for a First Date from Encore magazine last year. That’s especially appropriate, since Ben Neal told my restaurant critic friend that his first date with his wife, Amy, was at The Little Dipper. How romantic is that?