191031LUCERNE

This pile of delectable edibles, served with 12 different dipping sauces, was the main course of a four-course meal The Gazette’s restaurant review team The Four Dishes enjoyed recently at Lucerne’s Fondue and Spirits in Rockford, Illinois.

ROCKFORD, ILLINOIS

Trying to get in the Halloween mood, we stumbled upon a haunted house that was also a restaurant.

Having spirits with our food isn’t out of the ordinary for most of us, but when it entails spirits of the supernatural kind—as suggested in the book “Haunted Rockford”—we knew we had to investigate. We hoped it wouldn’t ruin our appetites, and what we found was quite an experience.

Lucerne’s Fondue and Spirits is a house with a history. Refurbished into a funky, welcoming and quaint restaurant and bar, this Victorian home looks a bit abandoned from the outside with its yellow exterior, purple shutters and stained-glass windows on the corner of a busy street. The menu tells the home’s story, and Mark—the owner—will elaborate on the ghosts that haunt the upstairs dining room and have been known to commandeer the house stereo system—much to the horror of diners who quickly became unwitting witnesses.

We didn’t really know what to expect except that Lucerne’s is a four-course fondue restaurant and reservations are required. The owner’s individualized service and the unique menu were added treats.

The dining room, adorned with navy blue wallpaper, crisp white painted trim, original hardwood flooring and a gorgeous crystal chandelier, made us feel like royalty. Mark offered to hang our coats and purses on the nearby coat rack, which was a nice touch. He then explained how the dining experience works at Lucerne’s.

The meal consists of an appetizer, salad, main course and dessert. Entrees are individually priced, which is how the meal is charged. Drinks were not included, but we were delighted by the large goblets of wine, literally filled to the brim.

I had a wonderful California riesling ($11), which the owner recommended, saying it pairs nicely with all of the courses. Helene had a nice, dry pinot grigio ($11) while Jennifer, the rebel of the night, opted for a vodka and tonic ($11) with extra limes, served almost to overflowing in a huge tumbler.

The first course of our meal was a light cheddar and Swiss fondue, and we were given the instruction that, once it melted, we should dip our food in the center and swirl outward. We were eager and hungry, so we started before the cheeses were thoroughly melted and lost some items in the pot. The big bowl of bread, carrots, celery, apples and several types of grapes gave us a lot of practice, though. I had not thought of grapes dipped into cheese, but they were perfect.

The next course was a tart and tasty salad. Mark makes his own golden Italian dressing and uses a mix of lettuce varieties. It provided a nice, light contrast to the fondue.

The main course was served on an enormous industrial baking sheet lined with collard greens. Our individual selections were placed in each of the four corners.

Piled high in the middle were baby potatoes, thick sliced onions, broccoli florets, cubed squash and hefty slices of colorful bell peppers. To top it off, 12 dipping sauces—eight of which are made in-house—lined the tray. All were delicious.

Mark heated our oil pot, and then we got started spearing and cooking the bite-sized morsels. We had a mix of chicken, beef, lobster, shrimp, scallops and ostrich sausage. The sauce options give you the ability to really create and experiment with flavors, and we had a ball cooking our food in the pan of hot oil as the effects of our cocktails kicked in. It took a couple of tries to get the timing right for cooking the meat, and our first bites were slightly overcooked and chewy.

I am not a big fan of chicken, but my favorite bite of the evening was the crispy chicken dipped into the sriracha barbecue sauce. Helene’s favorites were the onions and bell peppers we just left in the oil to go limp—the equivalent of being roasted. Nikki kept defaulting to the classic combo of beef tenderloin and horseradish sauce.

Knowing our final course was still to come, we fried up all that remained of our main course and took it to-go.

And that brings us to dessert. Who isn’t in love with melted chocolate and caramel, especially when you get to dip cubed pound cake, strawberries, blueberries, pineapple and marshmallows in it? Charming would be an understatement in describing our dining experience at Lucerne’s. It is one we won’t soon forget.

The Four Dishes—Nikki Bolka, Helene Ramsdell, Jennifer Spangler and Beth Webb—review regional restaurants for The Gazette.

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