Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-11:00 p.m.; Fri. & Sat. 11:30 a.m.-12:30 a.m.; Sun. 10 a.m.-11 p.m. (brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m.)
Prices: Appetizers $6.95-10.95; entrees $8.95-24.95; cheesecake $5.95-7.50
Fare: A little bit of everything
Atmosphere: Grandiose excess
Liquor: Full bar
When is a factory not a factory? How can a former factory hum with commerce again? Or is that humming sound actually a swarm of vibrating pagers alerting waiting diners that their tables are ready?
The answer to all these questions lies on South 27th Street on the site of the former J & L steel plant, now a mixed residential-office-retail development called the South Side Works. Initial impressions suggest that it has managed to incorporate many of the urban amenities that a certain other former steel-mill-turned-shoppers'-paradise lacks. Foremost among these is an emphasis on the pedestrian over the automotive, signified by sidewalks and a brick-paved plaza complete with fountain, town-square-style clock and cute information gazebo.
The Cheesecake Factory's opening in Pittsburgh was preceded by a buzz of Krispy Kreme proportions, so that even on a Monday night, hosts were handing out vibrating pagers to those who would pass their 30- to 40-minute wait outdoors.
Actually, the Cheesecake Factory is a factory, in the sense that it's a chain restaurant with all of the formulaic uniqueness that entails. Part of The Cheesecake Factory's particular brand of self-conscious esoterica is its grandiose aesthetic: An exuberant exterior of arcades and domes gives way to an interior that is an over-the-top pastiche of faux frescoes, gilt-topped Egyptian columns, and Art Nouveau etched glass.
At 19 pages (not counting several full-page advertisements for local businesses), the menu shows, if possible, even less restraint than the décor. Homely comfort foods like shepherd's pie and meatloaf jostle for your attention with Thai chicken pasta, Chino-Latino steak, Jamaican black pepper shrimp and Santa Fe salad.
An appetizer of avocado eggrolls consisted of six open-face rolls packed with slices of velvety avocado, whose smooth flavor was punctuated by more pungent sun-dried tomato, red onion and cilantro. The deep-fried wrapper had a toothsome, chewy-crisp texture, almost like bacon. Angelique loved these, while Jason could not get his head around warm avocado and thought the flavors were out of balance. We agreed, however, that the tamarind-cashew dipping sauce was too sweet for the rich avocado; Angelique thought something more citrusy and Jason thought something more spicy would have been better.
Acting on his search for spice, Jason whetted his appetite with crispy taquitos, stuffed with purportedly spicy chicken. In reality, the crunchy tubes, beautifully drizzled with creamed guacamole and crème fraiche, mostly served as substantial vehicles for the accompanying mounds of chunky guacamole, bright red salsa and fresh sour cream.
Angelique's chicken chipotle pasta embodied another dimension of The Cheesecake Factory's epic menu: fusion. The dish consisted of penne with chunks of honey-glazed chicken, asparagus, sweet peppers, peas and onions in a chipotle-parmesan cream sauce, all topped with a crisp confetti of chopped tortilla chips. There were some gristly bits of chicken, and some of the asparagus stalks were inedibly fibrous, while others turned out to be green beans in an unexplained but not unwelcome substitution. The sauce was garlicky, spicy and sweet.
Despite the dazzling multi-culti array on offer, Mile High Meatloaf appealed to Jason's inner All-American. This open-face "sandwich" was a towering construction of chewy bread (good), chewy meatloaf (less good), creamy, chunky mashed potatoes (quite good) and crunchy onion rings (superfluous). In some ways this dish embodied the Factory's approach: an impressive, inventive concoction that, ultimately, is just a bit less than the sum of its parts -- more sizzle than steak.
Our entrees served mainly to set down a base coat for the inevitable coda (or perhaps climax) of our meals -- cheesecake, of course. The menu features 34 varieties, plus other desserts in case the restaurant's eponymous confection is not your fave. Bypassing the low-carb option (really, what's the point?), Jason selected dulce de leche and Angelique, Kahlua coffee cocoa. Jason's cake was blissfully restrained, with a modest layer of creamy caramel atop a good but not extraordinary cheesecake. Angelique's featured a buttery-rich chocolate cookie crust. Each slice arrived with piles of whipped cream that was sweeter than necessary to accompany such a sweet dessert. Sometimes too much of a good thing is just too much; Angelique found herself performing the unprecedented operation of scraping whipped cream off her cake and (gasp!) leaving it on her plate.
The Cheesecake Factory has carved a distinctive niche for itself in the universe of chain restaurants, with fare a notch more inventive than most and an aesthetic several notches more extravagant.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2 stars