Say cheesy

Years back, I was in a country western/rock band that toured the nation's mid-section. This momentous opportunity came after long months in a dark, leaky basement attempting to replicate the lush orchestrations of Frank Zappa's "Easy Meat" with a power trio, filling any melodic, contrapuntal deficiencies with generous helpings of wattage.

I heard that this guy needed a guitar player for his band ASAP. His name was Oakly. The band was called Sunbelt. He played country music because John Travolta made a movie with a mechanical bull and Travolta was leading-edge. Oakly paid $250 a week plus expenses. He was ready to hit the road. So I packed up my Ibanez semi-hollow-body and Polytone Mini-Brute amp and loaded them into his Dodge van.

We were bad. And not in an antonymous way, either. Oakly had a decent voice and was a snap at music theory. But he had the rhythmic accuracy of the Vatican's favorite birth-control method. Upbeats became downbeats for no reason. Songs in 4/4 time suddenly had measures of 5/4 and 3/8 randomly inserted at the refrain, or when he couldn't squeeze in all the lyrics in a musical phrase because he had breathlessly lingered over words like "baby" for too many beats. He'd muff an intro, stop after four measures, practice the blown line on his guitar, and then say into the mike: "We screwed up that one, so we're gonna start over."

Yet Sunbelt left me with a host of memories celebrating the resourcefulness of the human spirit. Our drummer, a nonpracticing Jew, had a hard time absorbing the whole cowboy thing. So he ingeniously resolved this dilemma by crafting an elaborate headdress and adopting the stage name "Chief Sitting Shiva." In Quincy, Illinois, we met a leggy call girl who kept a goals and objectives ledger in her appointment book, carefully marking nightly financial progress toward her primary personal goal: getting her front teeth straightened and capped.

And then there was Oakly himself, a virtual self-help slogan depository. There was "90 percent of makin' it is just showin' up" and "take care of business"--or simply "TCB, buddy." "You can do anything you put your mind to," and "there's no stopping a man with a mission" were favorites. He once guaranteed us he'd play Carnegie Hall, though in his more sober moments, he'd admit he really didn't want to be as big as Elvis. A Neil Diamond level of fame would suit him just fine.

Oakly was our own Tony Robbins, fire-walking us through seedy bars with bad western clothes and bad meter. But his favorite man to quote was Sammy Davis Jr. He'd say things like "I'm a variety artist, that's what I am," even though if he ever tried tap dancing he'd end up in traction. Then he'd say "Like Sammy says, 'If you please everybody, you please nobody.'"

Anyway, the memory of Oakly and his Sammy shtick was what struck me after a few moments browsing The Cheesecake Factory's menu. This restaurant is living proof that Sammy was full of cheesecake: You can please everybody by attempting to please everybody. (Well, almost everybody. I didn't like the place at all.) The menu is an encyclopedic blur of virtually every interesting dish ever mainstreamed through a corporate grinder: pizzas, Asian dishes, tacos and burritos, seafood and steaks, salads, sandwiches, burgers, omelets, and so on. Plus shepherd's pie. Did I mention meatloaf? And lest you think the moniker was an afterthought, the Factory offers some 40 different cheesecakes.

"Our flexible kitchen capabilities enable us to have the capability to offer almost any menu item that consumers want to eat," boasts the Cheesecake Factory Inc.'s 1997 annual report. "We update our menu offerings twice a year to keep up with America's changing tastes, which keeps them interested in us."

And interested they are. Lines loop around its Lincoln Park slot at 11 a.m. for lunch. At dinner, you're assigned a vibrating pager with blinking red lights that go off when your table is ready. It's the only way the house can get your attention. The place is so loud, sign-language instruction should be a suggested menu item.

But it isn't as if The Cheesecake Factory doesn't try--stridently--to get your attention. It's a Vegas-like merchandising mecca. Art deco motifs mix with Tuscan touches in a room saturated in amber. Coiled cobras serve as sconces along the booths and in the bar. Those vibrating pagers have plastic sleeves with little ad inserts urging you to stop by the bakery counter for gift certificates or to give whole cheesecakes a FedEx fling. Virtually every other plastic-coated page in the spiral-bound menu is a full-page ad: Park Place car dealerships; Sheers Bodywear Bar; Elizabeth Arden Red Door Salon. There's even a plug for Cheesecake Factory clothing and souvenirs "available now in this restaurant at the bakery counter."

By now you've probably noticed I haven't said much about the food. What's to say? Sammy was a talented entertainer. He could sing, dance, act, and do impersonations night after night in front of hundreds of slot clods in Vegas. Sammy was a common-denominator, high-volume guy: Please as many as you can with as wide a swath as you can carve and shrug off the rest. Bores me to tearful dormancy. The Cheesecake Factory is talented too. You have to marvel at a place that can spit out such a wide range of dishes at such a clip.

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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