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At first bite: Say cheese

F. Pigalle
Photography by Christopher Smith


F. Pigalle recasts the fondue experience in a French boudoir on East Fremont. The result? Mon Dieu

For people of a certain age, fondue was a fixture on the table of 1960s dinner parties, somewhere between a garish Jell-O mold and quasi-“Oriental” pu-pu platter. Its popularity was a no-brainer. With luscious blonde cheese sauce, made slightly tipsy with white wine, and pillow-soft cubes of white bread, the Alpine dish had as much appeal as a Swiss babe.

But just how desirable is that same gal when she’s decked out in leather and latex? F. Pigalle is probably the only restaurant on the planet to pose that question.  The new fondue restaurant on Fremont East tries to elevate the ooey-gooey, messy, sexy dish to obscene levels. Unfortunately, it overshoots and delivers an inadvertently comical experience. Where you might expect the dining equivalent of an erotic film, instead you get a late-night B movie. It’s shock value and provocation without substance.

The interior is inspired by Pigalle, Paris’ red light district. Certain touches—an over-the-top crystal chandelier and shiny stripper pole — are welcome nods to the theme; others, not so much. For instance, the waiting area features a glass showcase full of BDSM equipment. It’s an interesting way to bide time (we twiddled our thumbs for five minutes before being acknowledged by a server/hostess), but an implement meant to be inserted in, um, an orifice many considered to be “exit only” is perhaps an unwise prop choice.

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The meal began with complimentary pickles, a perfunctory pile of salty and acidic veggies. Ours included green beans, carrots, cauliflower, and spicy peppers. From there, guests choose from four styles of fondue — traditional Suisse, beef, shrimp, and chocolate — and an optional side of seasoned French fries. Remember this, because if you aren’t seated in view of the chalkboard menu, you’ll never know your options. Paper menus are not part of the program.

A cocktail and beer menu was available by request, but it seemed that the house was keener on pouring complimentary bottomless wine. Guests may choose one style, Chablis and Burgundy on our particular evening, per order of fondue.

Paging Dr. Freud! Here’s where things got weird: the booze was served in baby bottles with rubber nipples, tips sliced off. Infantilism not being on my list of preferred bedroom activities, I took a cue from neighboring tables and unscrewed the cap before sipping. “Suckers for suckers,” a dining companion noted of the gimmick.

All of these missteps are easy to repair, and they were just as easy for me to overlook if the food was excellent. It pains me to say that this wasn’t the case. I’ve been a loyal patron of Sam Marvin’s Tivoli Village steakhouse, Echo & Rig, since its inception. After countless visits in its two years of operation, I’ve never felt shortchanged on service or quality.

In comparison, his F. Pigalle feels like a phoned-in attempt at making a quick franc. Take the traditional Suisse fondue, served with French bread cubes, generous chunks of salami, pee-wee potatoes, and apples. Yes, Marvin nailed the cheese sauce. It arrived piping hot and covered the dipping specimens in ribbons of nutty Gruyere-flavored goodness. But it eventually overheated, and the fat and milk solids separated. Meanwhile, the spuds were as cold as a corpse, as if pre-filled bowls were rushed from the prep fridge to our table.

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The steak fondue came with the same potatoes, shreds of tri-tip, and kale. Our server instructed us to plunge the beef in a bubbling vat of oil for 30-45 seconds (oy vey, a lawsuit waiting to happen) before seasoning each piece in a selection of dipping sauces: horseradish, A-1, chimichurri, or béarnaise. Unfortunately, each piece was too oily for the sauces to cling. The kale was also cold. A tablemate wondered if it should be dropped in the oil, but I hesitated at the prospect of frying watery, leafy greens. Still, we tried. The sputtering fat made one friend jump from his seat. At that point, we opted to skip dessert.

I can appreciate the intention of reinventing a dining tradition once favored by housewives. And in our current age of over-sharing and overt sexuality, I’d like to believe that I am hardly prudish or out of touch with The Kids. But if F. Pigalle strives for longevity, perhaps the best option is to go full camp: hire showgirls, have performers break into song and dance during service, spank the customers. (Our server gave each guest a firm, formal handshake—a bizarre greeting for a place that proudly displays handcuffs.) Otherwise, the impossible task of juggling professional hospitality and food with a crazy sex schtick will leave many guests confused and disappointed.  


F. Pigalle

508 Fremont St.

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