I’ve never been in an opium den, but if my Hollywood-inspired image of one—a labyrinth of dark, smoky rooms populated by glassy-eyed users—is anything close to accurate, then I can now claim to have had the next-best experience. The drug of choice at the Melting Pot, a Florida-based chain with three local outposts, is not opium but its contemporary culinary equivalent: saturated fat, doled out in the form of fondue, fondue, and more fondue. The victuals that emerge from the Melting Pot’s cauldrons mimic the sweet product of the poppy at least to the point that they can make the user contemplate the risk factors of spending too much time with a little burning bowl.

Which is not to say that the Melting Pot experience is without its charms. Although everything is available a la carte, most folks seem to go for the four-course fondue extravaganza. The arrangement—the waiter places the bowl on a burner built into the center of each table—encourages intimacy, and color-coded fondue forks (two for each diner) help maintain decorum.

Things start out promisingly enough if you order the only appetizer, a cheese incarnation of the restaurant’s signature dish. The menu lists four different varieties, but there are essentially only two, with the “Fiesta” a spicy version of the “Cheddar” and the difference between the “Traditional Swiss Cheese Fondue” and the “Swiss Cheese Fondue” as insignificant as the names imply. (Both are based on Gruyère, with the nontraditional version omitting lemon and a dash of liquor in favor of black pepper). I prefer the Traditional, made with quality Gruyère and Emmenthaler, a little white wine, and garlic—as my father would put it, “What’s not to like?” The cheddar fondue, prepared with beer rather than wine, has less complexity but is perfectly pleasant, as well—although with a mildness that betrays a younger cheese.

The items provided for skewering and dipping in the cheese are more of a mixed bag. Vegetables—mostly raw cauliflower and carrots—belong in hot cheese as much as they belong in chocolate sauce, and the cubes of bread, whether white or pumpernickel-colored, are mushy and tasteless. The winning dippers are slices of green apple, sweet and crispy enough to hold up to the astringent tang of the cheese.

As a sort of Disneyland of fat, the Melting Pot does not handle salads well. Too bad, because they’re included in the price of entrees. The most tempting of the offerings—the California salad with green-leaf lettuce, tomatoes, walnuts, and Gorgonzola—is ruined by a raspberry vinaigrette so sweet that the dish seems drizzled with syrup. The protein-loaded chef salad—also too sweet—seems more than one should have to face after sopping up 6 ounces of cheese, leaving the mushroom option the obvious choice. The half-inch layer of uncooked fungus would throw a salad twice as large out of balance, but if you drill through the crust, you’ll find excellent fresh greens and the most savory of the three available dressings, an Italian with Parmesan.

Able to provide two courses without a chef, the Melting Pot sees no reason to hire one for the entree—which means that diners face down that little burning bowl again. The entree, however, delivers only an echo of the first-course rush. The table agrees on a preparation for cooking—the “Traditional” canola oil, the “Court Bouillon” vegetable broth, or the vegetable- and Burgundy-based “Coq au Vin.” Then diners choose from several mixed grills, which might include steak, shrimp, chicken, lobster, portobellos, scallops, salmon, or andouille, or a more focused plate of chicken, salmon, or steak. Few steakhouses are famous for their aged, boiled sirloin, and deep-fat frying is hardly the best choice for a delicate fish such as salmon, so unless you’re part of a remarkably like-minded group, the preparation leaves much to be desired. And the fact that you have to watch the little buggers swimming around in the pot yourself adds no joy to your dining experience. Sitting with friends in a dark room, who can be bothered to monitor the progress of a nugget of food? I found myself leaving most items—particularly the dangerous-when-underdone chicken and shrimp—in the soup until they were rubbery.

But cooking time is not the only reason a Melting Pot dinner can turn from pleasure to puzzle. All entrees are served with several sauces, and the oil comes with a batter. If you order a variety plate, or especially one of the “Fondues for Two,” the array of little bowls that come along with it can grow truly staggering. A special one night, the “Lobster Feast,” for example, which features a sliced raw tail along with steak and shrimp, is delivered with 13 separate bowls. Though basic ingredients at the Melting Pot are generally of excellent quality, these predictable sauces (soy-based, mustard, horseradish, garlic butter) are nearly always sugary and often plasticky. And because they cover every inch of the Arlington Pot’s smaller 4-foot-square tables, you’re liable to go home wearing what you don’t eat.

The best approach to the entree, as well as to most other courses at the Melting Pot, is to keep it simple, in this case by choosing one of the broth-based cooking media. The broth adds little to the food—even the wine version imparts no noticeable flavor—but neither does it leave it unpleasantly greasy. However, the oil preparation, on top of the cheese course, leaves this diner feeling bloated and beaten up. One night at the Rockville Pot, the happiest person at our table ordered the vegetarian plate, which includes rich, subtle Gorgonzola-and-spinach dumplings—and even better—a freedom from fear. Meat eaters should stick to the steakhouse-quality sirloin, which can be left a little underdone without concerns about sickness and death. Fear is a real factor at the Melting Pot: Every meal comes with a stern warning about how to handle the food: “If you put something raw on your plate, tell us—we’ll replace it right away,” stresses a waiter.

Dessert, the third fondue dropped on the table, seems rather superfluous by the time it arrives, but it is nevertheless where the Pot shines. The pure chocolates are the real thing, dark and rich, and the “Original” has an almost undetectable flavor of hazelnuts. However, some of the more complex sauces, such as the “Flaming Turtle” (milk chocolate with caramel and pecans), have a melted-candy-bar quality. Strawberries, banana, and pineapple, along with skippable marshmallows and Sara Lee-quality cheese- and pound cakes, are provided for dipping.

The Melting Pot is not cheap. Dinner for two with a bottle from the dull, overwhelmingly American wine list and dessert is more than $100, with most of the entrees at the high end of a $12-$22 range. Doubtlessly, the Melting Pot plays a useful role in the universe: The night I was there, the Rockville Pot was rocking from a successfully rowdy teen birthday party whose guests ran in and out of the “kitchen” while Mom and Pop took refuge in a corner booth. But if the Melting Pot offers gateway gourmet for the food-court set, the prices should match. One can’t help feeling that a man who pays $22 to cook his own steak has a fool for a chef.

The Melting Pot, 1110 N. Glebe Road, Arlington, (703) 243-4490; 128 Rollins Ave., Rockville, (301) 231-8220; 11400 Commerce Park Drive, Reston, (703) 264-0900. —Jandos Rothstein

Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to hungry@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.