Say cheesy

The Cheesecake Factory aims to please everybody. Blah.

The portions are big. Vegetables are crisp and fresh. The shrimp tastes like shower gel. The chicken is spongy. Spring-roll rice paper is hard and clumsy. A big, gooey angel-hair knot emerged from one of the pasta dishes. Caribbean steak held its own. Service pacing was lousy. Anything more would be pointless analysis. So whistle "Candy Man" and order yourself some cheesecake. That wasn't bad.

The Cheesecake Factory opened in Los Angeles in 1972 as, appropriately, a cheesecake factory supplying restaurants with desserts. The first restaurant opened in 1978, and the '97 annual report touts the company's subsequent conservative approach to restaurant development and expansion. "We are very fortunate to be 23 for 23 in terms of successful restaurants," it boasts. Today, there are 27 Cheesecake Factories sprinkled across the country, pleasing everybody virtually all the time. Somehow, I know Oakly is hovering around Carnegie Hall right now with a metronome in one pocket and a Cheesecake Factory menu in the other, screaming "Man, I'm electric!"

A few months ago, I lamented the dreadfully dull wine list at P.F. Chang's China Bistro. Long on rich, oaky chardonnays and full-bodied reds (Asian spices mostly eviscerate the fruit in complex reds, leaving only the tannins to bludgeon your mouth), the place seemed to have no idea it was serving Chinese food.

That's why a recent trip to the newest P.F. Chang's in NorthPark Center was such a pleasant surprise. Operating partner Jennifer Olson has sunk the time to craft her list not only with the menu in mind, but with a surge of adventurousness (P.F. Chang's opens each of its restaurants with local partners). Whites include pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, pinot blanc--even a Sancerre, a wine with sufficient acid to butt heads with fatty pork dishes.

"I wanted wines that went well with the food," she says. "And I like to do things other than chardonnay and cabernet. But there's still chardonnay and cab for the people who won't vary from that." Maybe a little too much, but this is quibbling.

What also seems to be happening here is training. Listen closely to the bartenders, and you'll hear them gently steering customers away from, say, a Kendall Jackson or Hess Select chardonnay to an R.H. Phillips EXP Viognier, for example. One steered me away from a syrah to a Rioja because it was his favorite wine and he wanted to check out my reaction (the wine was good, and cheaper too).

Girard Winery's chenin blanc, from Napa, was a real surprise. Its firm spiciness and appreciable acid stood up to the silky seared tuna sashimi with oriental spices and mustard, an appetizer special. Most dry chenin blancs don't come across like this. Reds are trickier with this cuisine. Young, acidic wines probably work best, and there are a few pinot noirs and zins that might hold up ably. Yalumba's Bushvine Grenache (Australia) was clean and spicy, but that seared tuna kicked the legs out from under it, which isn't to say it wouldn't work with other menu items. Drier German wines arguably work best with Chinese dishes and their sweet-sour tugs and pulls. And there aren't any here. But this just gives Olson (and us?) more frontier to explore.

The Cheesecake Factory, 7700 W. Northwest Highway, (214) 373-4844. Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m-11 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m.-10 p.m. $$

P.F. Chang's China Bistro, 225 NorthPark Center, (214) 265-8669, Open Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 11 a.m.-Midnight. $$

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