Everyone loves cheese. Across the world, the desire for dairy is universal. South of the border in Mexico, they serve queso fundido, melted cheese prepared in cast-iron bowls and eaten with tortilla chips. Across the pond, pubs in England will offer Welsh-style rarebit, a cheese dip made with cheddar that's melted and blended with a mix of beer, mustard, and Worcestershire sauce, served poured over chunks of toast.
But we can thank the Swiss for introducing fondue, their decadent cheese dish, to the States. It's a meal traditionally prepared with a blend of cheeses, seasonings, and wine served from a communal pot (known as a caquelon) heated over a portable stove (often referred to as a échaud). From there, the process is relatively straightforward: Dip the accompanying meats, bread, and vegetables into the bubbling vat of melted fromage using long, skewer-like utensils.
When we think of fondue, most Americans think of the Melting Pot, the fondue restaurant chain offering heated pots of cheese, chocolate, or broth for dipping and cooking meats and vegetables. It's one of the few places where you can enjoy this dairy-heavy dining experience, something that saw its American heyday in the early 1960s, when at-home fondue sets and parties were all the rage.
Today, Little Chalet co-owner Ricky Marcellini — whose family began a Swiss-style fondue restaurant business in Belo Horizante, Brazil, back in the late 1970s — is here to tell you melted cheese will never go out of style. Though the Little Chalet opened its first brick-and-mortar restaurant stateside in October, the family has plans to expand the name across South Florida, beginning with its flagship location off Federal Highway in Boca Raton.
Marcellini grew up in the restaurant business. Specifically, the fondue restaurant business.
"My father and mother owned a small business in my hometown, a gift shop where they sold fondue sets," says Marcellini. "It was there they built a small chalet behind the store to sell wood furniture and other trinkets from the Alps and Switzerland. Back then, the chalet would close at 6 p.m., and the store would morph into a piano bar."
As Marcellini tells the story, one winter some family friends asked his father if he would consider making fondue at the chalet piano bar. After a few late nights, customers caught on to the idea, and it quickly morphed into something bigger, says Marcellini, transforming into a stand-alone concept. The family dubbed it the Chalezinho — Portuguese for the Little Chalet — a small restaurant that specialized in serving traditional Swiss-style fondue.
In 1997, 17-year-old Marcellini and his 19-year-old brother, Ralph, took over operations for their father, Antonio. The duo decided to expand the concept across Brazil, growing the menu to include prime meats and seafood — even Lindt chocolate desserts — and six locations by 2014.
Last year, Marcellini relocated to South Florida with his wife and child, opening the first U.S.-based restaurant in Boca Raton, off Federal Highway. The menu boasts a vast selection of gourmet fondues, with the addition of prime seafood and meats. The plan, he says, is to expand north across Palm Beach County and south to cities like Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
A 4,400-square-foot space, the Little Chalet presents a charmingly cozy space, complete with homey and whimsical decor reminiscent of a true Swiss chalet. Trinkets adorn almost every nook and cranny, kitschy items scattered amid the dim-lit red walls. Cobblestone floors, intimate alcoves, an oversized fireplace, and a swanky piano bar set the mood for a romantic night out, while a glass-enclosed indoor terrace provides a courtyard-style dining area that will spirit you off to the Swiss Alps.
At the Little Chalet's Boca Raton restaurant, executive chef Ferrin Koplan runs the kitchen, bringing with him more than 20 years of culinary experience, specifically with steakhouses. While the Brazil-based restaurants offer a number of European dishes, Marcellini says he and Koplan expanded the South Florida menu to include a number of new selections.
Signature offerings include a honey-glazed wild salmon; oven-roasted chicken stuffed with a blend of cheeses and applewood-smoked bacon; and the Chalet Soup, a creamy and hearty aged Wisconsin cheddar and beer-based soup served with a warm homemade pretzel.
Of course, melted cheese isn't the only thing on the menu. A variety of USDA Prime meats takes center stage, from filet mignon and New York strip to a bone-in rib eye and porterhouse steak. The most creative is the Chalet Swiss Filet, prime filet mignon filled with prosciutto and Brazil's own Catupiry cheese, drenched in a rich beef béchamel and accompanied by tiny mounds of crispy-creamy potato noisette.
And then there's the fondue. The Little Chalet offers a number of European-style options available as appetizers or full meals, accompanied by everything from filet mignon, chicken, pork, and white truffle noisette potatoes to bread and vegetables.
Ever-attentive staff will ensure your cheese remains heated just to the point of bubbling, your bread basket is full, and your experience is topnotch. They'll also guide you through the myriad fondue options, from all-cheese blends to vino-based picks made with a red wine and a homemade beef broth, creating a bourguignon-style sauce.
Cheese fondues are made using Swiss-imported cheeses and include the signature Creme de la Creme, a fondue made with aged Gouda, Grand Cru, and Emmental delicately combined to create a light and fragrant appetizer. More experienced diners may want to go with the Quattro Formaggi, a blend of Emmental, Grand Cru, Parmesan, and blue cheese that offers a stronger, more pungent blend that pairs well with the menu's offerings of house-baked artisan breads, smoked sausages, or lightly seasoned chicken breast.
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If the cheese doesn't do you in, guests can indulge in yet another fondue creation: the Little Chalet's gourmet Lindt-based chocolate desserts, developed by Marcellini himself. Standard offerings include dark and white chocolate, dulce de leche, peanut-butter-infused takes, and seasonal offerings like white chocolate pumpkin. The s'mores is one of the best, served with melted marshmallow cap beside a platter of fruit, crispy wafer cookies, fudgy brownies, and small cubes of butter-rich pound cake.
"This is fondue, but it is also a family business," says Marcellini. "When you dine with us, I guarantee you'll never see fondue the same way again."
The Little Chalet is located at 485 S. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Hours are Sunday through Saturday from 5:30 to 11 p.m. Call 561-325-8000, or visit thelittlechalet.com.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.