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Pizza Kitchen Survives by Unnatural Selections

June 24, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

There's a complicated stretch of "Jurassic Park" where the moviegoer is expected to understand how dinosaurs have been cloned from strands of DNA preserved for eons in the blood of amber-encased insects. Restaurants are being cloned these days, too.

A case in point: California Pizza Kitchen, now in 32 locations, according to the number listed on the bustling new Irvine location. Don't be surprised by this proliferation. After the hamburger, pizza might just be America's favorite food. And with the rise of restaurants such as these, pizza toppings have become a mirror for everything we eat.

The chain started as a modest Beverly Hills storefront cafe where, from the very first day, the pizzas were selling like hot cakes. Now you'll find CPKs in Atlanta, Scottsdale, Kahala (on Maui in Hawaii) and even one in the lobby of the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas, not far from white Siberian tigers roaming an environmentally controlled glass cage.

Call it kismet. Crowning pizza dough with Peking duck, roasted garlic or barbecued chicken is certainly an appealing idea. When Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters--the superstar chefs of Southern and Northern California, respectively--began serving wood-oven pizzas a decade ago, back in the dawn of the Foodie Age, Darwin himself might have known big business would be the species to cash in.

Driving up to the new Irvine branch, we are shocked to discover that the parking lot is full at 5:30 on a Saturday evening, but we steal a spot in the lot across the street.

After about 45 minutes, a team of smiling, apologetic managers and hostesses seats us. The smiling server comes by and we order, and then he tells us emphatically that our pizzas will take no more than . . . 15 minutes. Some 45 minutes later, we get our pizzas.

The good news is, they're worth the wait. CPK specializes in thin-crusted masterpieces topped with everything but the kitchen sink, and they've got these pizzas down to a science. All are wood-fired, available with or without cheese and on a choice of traditional or faintly sweet honey-wheat dough. No matter what combination, chances are your pizza will taste good.

Be ready to be seated in a gigantic, ultra-bright, balloon-yellow and acetate-white bubble of a room with a wide-open kitchen. The energy is nonstop; waiters bounce around like electrons. It's not what I'd call relaxing. Imagine sitting on the inside of a beach ball in play and you'll get the picture.

The pizzas tend to be small, more than enough for one but not quite enough for two. I've had at least 10 varieties here, and there are some intriguing choices: grilled eggplant cheese-less, tandoori chicken, Peking duck, Southwestern burrito, artichoke, olive and caper, five-cheese. Not exactly a 'round-the-world cruise, but they'll do.

I'd definitely travel a long way for the five-cheese. It blends bufala mozzarella, Fontina, smoked Gouda and two kinds of Romano with fresh sliced tomatoes and sweet basil but manages to be less greasy than any of its counterparts at other restaurants--and magically crisp.

The tandoori chicken pizza is equally good, and a natural idea, because tandoori chicken almost always comes with a flat bread called naan , which closely resembles a baked pizza crust. The chicken here is ruddy with the same tandoori spices used by good Indian restaurants. Zucchini, cilantro and a lighthearted mango chutney round out the pizza topping.

Not every topping works, of course. Artichoke, olive and caper is a bad idea to begin with--a bunch of salty, clashing flavors. This one is so loaded with capers you can hardly taste the other components. Peking duck is even more controversial: It's topped with duck breast, won ton-like crisp fettuccine , slivered green onions and a sweet, sticky hoisin sauce. I've had good versions and bad versions here, depending on the hoisin sauce, which can ruin a pizza with its pungency if overused.

California Pizza Kitchen is geared to the mass market, so the menu contains far more than pizza nowadays. There are numerous pastas made on the premises, good soups (e.g., Sedona white corn tortilla soup) and a brace of complex salads.

I like the Greek salad, made with firm-fleshed olives, sun-dried tomatoes and a mild goat cheese. The sweet-sour sesame dressing on the Oriental chicken salad reminds me of novelty candy.

I'd say the company has desserts down to a science as well. One of the best is apple crisp, Granny Smith apples baked with an unctuous brown sugar and butter topping. Try it with a scoop of Haagen-Dazs vanilla.

There are also fine cheesecakes, such as a traditional New York-style crusted with vanilla wafers, or a creamy peanut butter version with a crumbled Oreo cookie crust. But the one I like best is the Key lime pie, a tangy, pale green filling in a graham cracker crust. The menu claims the pie is made from real Florida Key limes, even though it is said that real Key limes have become almost completely extinct.

Maybe this company knows more about DNA than they let on.

California Pizza Kitchen is moderately priced. Salads are $3.95 to $7.95. Pastas are $5.95 to $8.95. Pizzas are $5.95 to $8.50. Desserts are $1.95 to $4.95.

*CALIFORNIA PIZZA KITCHEN

* 2957 Michelson Drive, Irvine.

* (714) 975-1585.

* Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.

* All major cards accepted.

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