A visit to the Cheesecake Factory In Suburban Cleveland, or, How To Use a Fancy Pants Word Like “Insipid” Twice In a Two-Minute Video (insipid: 1. without flavor, tasteless 2. not exciting or interesting, dull; lifeless).
A week or so ago I made fun ofauthor and journalist Kelly Alexander after she wrote an article in praise of the Cheesecake Factory. She quickly issued a challenge by email: “OK, Ruhlman: A wager is in order, clearly. If you go to the Cheesecake Factory, taste that miso salmon, and after that can honestly tell me it doesn’t rock, I will not only pay for your salmon but will personally buy 15 copies of Ratio. If you go and eat it and then concede that it tastes good, you have to blog KELLY ALEXANDER IS RIGHT ABOUT THE SALMON AT THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY. Deal or no deal?”
Watch the above for the actual tasting and response, but beyond that, the whole visit brought up for me all kinds of questions about why my gut reaction was opposed to the CF. Was it simple unexplored snobbery? Or is the place truly reprehensible?
As it happened a friend had organized a lunch, four high school friends welcoming a fifth back to town. I suggested the CF, saying I would explain. (That it required an explanation, says a lot.)
“I never ate here because the name turned me off,” said DH perusing the menu. “Do you think the Roadside Sliders are made of possum?”
The menu runs 20 laminated pages, many filled with full-page ads for Coke and Carnival Cruise Lines and Alberto Men’s Pants.
DL said, “There are 92 specialties. How special can they be?!”
Beside the dish filled with foil-wrapped pats of butter was a second menu, with still more “specials.” There is indeed a lot to choose from.
We ordered five entrees (lunch-sized portions, except for the salmon): the crispy beef, an Asian-style stir-fry, the salmon, chicken piccata, pasta carbonara and eventually the fish tacos. The salmon, as described above was delicious–juicy, flavorful, excellent miso glaze, just the right amount of sweetness, the sauce was buttery/creamy but lacked the acidity that would have added a lot to an already sweetish dish. The crispy beef was indeed crispy, lightly coated and deep fried I suspect, then tossed in a sweet sour sauce and al dente green beans. I’m a sucker for this dual cooking technique and enjoyed this the most.
The piccata was fine, but more to the point, it would have been fine even if you didn’t like boneless skinless chicken breas
I’d ordered the carbonara because it’s so simple and one of the best pasta dishes there is and I wanted to see how the CF handled this classic. The waitress asked if I wanted chicken on it. I asked “Why I would want chicken on it?” She said, “You’re just like my husband, I don’t know why.” (She was very nice, btw—all service was prompt, friendly and attentive.)
The carbonara came dressed in a cream sauce and was garnished with peas (where did this peas thing come from—CF is not the only one).
The friend beside me, LJ, said, “It’s a guilty pleasure, liking bad pasta,” as he polished off the carbonara.
And the fish tacos, which we ordered on the fly, were all about texture, since the fish didn’t have a flavor of it’s own. But the texture and the garnishes were enjoyable, as was the fact that you could eat a few tacos and not feel stuffed. That, the beef and salmon were winners. The lay-ups, the piccata and carbonara were like muzak versions of the real thing. Portion size was generous. By the end even LJ was too full to taste the White Chocolate Caramel Macadamia Nut Cheesecake that he’d wanted to order for his lunch entree.
So, clearly, decent food can be had at more than reasonable prices, but it takes some careful choosing on a menu with more than 200 offerings. The biggest drawback is the mall-like atmosphere, a sense of faux everything that is perhaps inevitable in any large chain. The fact that any of the 146 CFs around the country can put out this astonishing variety of food is an impressive work of corporate organization and efficiency.
But I left feeling sad, and not sure why. I think, on reflection it was because of the sense that what we’d just experienced was simply a company responding to the demands of America, and the demands of America were helping us to take our food one step backward rather than one step forward, and I don’t think we have time for backward steps.