Weary from a food culture that can take itself entirely too seriously, I opted for kitsch and whimsy for my third night of Triangle Restaurant Week. I wanted yummy fare and good fun, and The Little Dipper—a fondue restaurant that opened in 2013 in Durham’s Brightleaf Square—fulfilled that dream last night. There are worse ways to spend a chilly January evening than lingering over warm bubbling pots of cheese, peanut oil and chocolate with friends, right?
I’m not saying there’s no place for taste trendsetting in fondue, either. In fact, The Little Dipper moves fondue away from the traditional cholesterol-heavy cheese and bread and hunks of meat boiled in broth or oil into exciting territory. The Little Dipper’s approach aims to take fondue from worn-out fad toward something capable of recapturing our imagination and appetite. This thoughtful approach led to success in its first location in downtown Wilmington and inspired the expansion into Durham.
Though our reservation was for 9 p.m., the restaurant was still packed, abuzz with the happy chatter of what appeared to be mostly college students. The space is set up in a maze of golden-hued partitions, allowing diners a bit of privacy at tables that include handmade burners.
While many restaurants participating in Triangle Restaurant Week offer limited menus, The Little Dipper opts to overwhelm with choices. Our waiter patiently explained the intricacies of fondue as we bombarded him with questions, as this culinary adventure requires active participation. It also requires the group to agree on many things, so either go with friends who can come to quick decisions or people who don’t mind one person telling everyone else what to do.
Course One: Cheese
Our choices included cheddar ale, Baja cheddar, Havarti-and-dill, fontina-and-basil, Tuscan sundried tomato or a Chapel Hill Creamery feature. We asked our waiter what the Chapel Hill feature was. “Ah, that’s part of our Local 919 menu—it includes options from locally sourced farms and ingredients,” he said proudly, directing us to the sheet he’d placed on our table. We quickly opted for the local course, a blend of buttery Carolina Moon Camembert, mozzarella, garlic, the Raleigh-brewed Lonerider Shotgun Betty Hefeweizen, walnut pesto and some caramelized onion. For dipping, he delivered thick, fluffy hunks of bread from Durham’s Loaf bakery and fresh fruits and vegetables. As we eagerly dunked our bread into the bubbling cheese concoction, we agreed that this would not be a wise choice for a first date, even if rich and delicious. The garlic and onion wouldn’t make for a good first kiss, mind you.
Course Two: No bubbles
The second course choices offered a potato-and-onion soup, garden salad, romaine salad, seasonal spinach salad and chef’s “loaded” salad. I must confess that I didn’t want to waste any stomach space with greenery, so I chose the soup, perfect for dipping more of that Loaf bread. The soup was creamy and flavorful but ultimately unnecessary, given the smorgasbord ahead.
Course Three: the Entrée
The choices included the traditional offerings—filet, pork tenderloin, chicken, shrimp, sashimi tuna, scallops, pork potstickers, cheddar-and-onion pierogis—and added locally sourced options of Chapel Hill Creamery’s bratwurst, Sunset Ridge bison meatballs and Melina’s pimento cheese ravioli. Our group sampled all of the locally sourced ingredients, plus the potstickers, pierogis, filet and tuna. We also each chose three dipping sauces from 15 homemade options. I went with coconut curry, wasabi lime aioli and Asian ginger, all of which worked well.
And in what seemed to be a series of endless options, we also had to select a cooking liquid. The basic styles were peanut oil and classic chicken broth. Yes, there are premium options, like vegetable broth flavored with sake and vegetable stock blended with merlot, but we went with the peanut oil, served with mushroom caps meant to be dipped in a light tempura batter and then fried. They emerged golden and crispy.
While all of the entrée items were fresh and delicious, the savory pimento cheese raviolis remained the biggest hit. They crisped up beautifully in the peanut oil; in the wasabi lime aioli, they became a hybrid Southern-Japanese wonder.
Course Four: Dessert
So many choices—various mixes of dark chocolate, white chocolate, milk chocolate, Oreo cookies, peanut butter, nuts, marshmallow cream, graham cracker crumbs, many more. But we opted for the Fluffernutter dip—a giant bubbling cauldron of steaming milk chocolate, marshmallow cream and peanut butter. It arrived with strawberries, bananas, pineapple, cream puff, marshmallows and homemade chocolate-chip-cookie squares. The table favorite, though, was the cream puff—light as air with a chilled center, which created a tantalizing sensation of cool cream and fluffy pastry when mixed with melted sugar.
After the last banana slice was eaten and the last finger was smeared into the now-cooled chocolate, we simply sat there sated, laughing and exclaiming how much fun we had. We all checked our phones and realized, simultaneously, that three hours had passed without notice.
The Little Dipper is not for flying solo. Rather, it’s about pacing yourself and and actively engaging not just with fresh, local food but with the companions who have decided to join you for a truly chooose-your-own adventure evening.