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It's Cheesecake--and Much More

March 25, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Fashion Island is already home to superstar concept eateries such as California Pizza Kitchen, El Torito G-R-I-L-L and most recently, the crowd-pleasing Hard Rock Cafe. Here comes another: the Cheesecake Factory. It opened in February, and it's already hugely successful--at peak hours, you may be looking at a two-hour wait. The restaurant is part of a chain that includes several L.A. County locations and a franchise in Washington, D.C.

We are talking a serious madhouse here, a place so noisy that a conventional paging system is unworkable and customers are given little vibrating beepers that purr like Siamese kittens when tables are ready. The use of this technology is controversial, to say the least. Apart from the fact that some folks have been walking off with the things (don't bother--they're useless outside the restaurant), some find being beeped to a table by a little piece of machinery impudent, and the Siamese purr annoys them even more than the buzz of a digital alarm clock.

The crowds, though, seem happy to overlook the little things.

Thanks to a million-dollar face-lift, the ill-fated Rex has become a room that could easily be taken for a faux Roman bathhouse cum tables. This is a huge restaurant, seating more than 300 and with a staff numbering almost 175. The walls are covered with sponged parchment, offset by bronzed ceiling panels and enormous floor-to-ceiling pillars. Seating is at handsome wooden booths framed in etched glass, or at high-rise bar tables, on comfy post-modern chairs.

You get the idea right from the first. Enter on the parking level, and your eyes are met by those of a fruit-bearing goddess staring down from a fresco as she beckons you up an ornate staircase. Enter on the plaza level, and you run a gantlet of gaudy, colorful cheesecakes on prominent display in the restaurant's front lobby. (The cheesecakes, incidentally, look as if they contain 20,000 calories apiece, evoking many an "Oh my God!" from passers-by.)

Now prepare yourself for one of the most relentlessly comprehensive menus anywhere. The multipage plastic-embossed full-color menu is bound with rings, notebook style, and doubles as a vehicle for local advertising. This may be the only Orange County restaurant where you can shop for a condo at the same time you decide how you want your burger cooked. A coming trend? Let's hope not.

With regard to trendy dishes, though, the clear-eyed, enthusiastic management team at Cheesecake Factory has left little to chance. The menu's dozen-odd pages read like a top 100 of popular dishes--everything from crab cakes to Southwestern pasta to Thai chicken pizza, the grand finale being a long list of--what else?--flashy cheesecakes.

The first two pages are devoted to appetizers and pizzas. For instance, the odd-sounding avocado egg rolls. They're actually a good idea: crisp Chinese egg roll skins, stuffed with a chunk-style guacamole mixture enlivened by cilantro and sun-dried tomatoes. Fortunately, the skins are cooked up separately, so there's no extra oil on the inside.

Mini coconut beer shrimp, like many of the dishes here, is pure kid food. In this case, a dish only a kid could love--sticky, over-fried and served with a horrific spicy sweet-hot marmalade. The pizzas are adequate, with slightly doughy crusts and generous toppings such as six-cheese. Max's calzone belongs in the same category. Ingredients such as pepperoni, sausage, herbed ricotta, peppers and mozzarella cheese spill out when it is cut open. It would serve three comfortably.

Keep paging through this giant menu and you'll find salads and sandwiches, the category where the kitchen is most consistent. Good sandwiches such as grilled shrimp and bacon come with an unctuous garlic-tomato mayo. Salads like a not-so-classic chopped version of Cobb are extremely generous--too large even in a smaller lunch portion.

The best pasta we tried was without doubt Mesa Verde--a page from the next-door El Torito G-R-I-L-L perhaps, but a winner nonetheless. This is a delicious mix of linguine, fresh corn, red and yellow pepper, mushroom, jicama and red onion in a delicious cilantro cream sauce. I'd almost prefer it without its busy, palate-confusing topping of sun-dried tomato, pine nuts and Parmesan.

Hot items can be practically anything from the four points of the compass. A Chinese dish called spicy cashew chicken has a candy-sweet teriyaki sauce and a blanket of white sesame. Thai chicken pasta is gooed up in a sugary peanut sauce.

Cajun cuisine surfaces in dishes such as blackened prime rib and jambalaya pasta with shrimp and chicken. Run-of-the-mill steaks (e.g., the Cowboy, served with fried onions, black beans and rice) and barbecued dishes (such as some reasonably tender but blandly sauced baby back ribs) are available in force. You'll also find casseroles such as an oddball shepherd's pie made with beef.

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