I may as well be honest about this: I just don't get this place. Yes, the newly opened Cheesecake Factory is handsome. Those way-high ceilings, Egyptian columns and impressionist murals may be an architectural mishmash, but they look terrific.
And yes, the menu is filled with California-influenced, innovative ideas -- not to mention that it is also filled with full-page, full-color ads from the likes of Neiman Marcus and Herrington Teddy Bears (huh?). It's sort of like watching commercials when you pay to go into the movies.
And maybe those ads are sending a message. Attention: We are a chain all right, but you are not eating at the likes of Burger King.
But the noise! The hubbub! The cell phones! The crush of humanity! The out and out frenzy! This restaurant is very well named, in my opinion. "Factory" indeed.
I know, I know. I'm in the minority here. The chain is successful . . . incredibly successful. Anytime I've seen a Cheesecake Factory anywhere in the country, there have been lines.
Those lines are due at least partly, of course, to the fact that no reservations are accepted. Our story: We walked in at 5:30 on a Thursday evening, were handed a buzzer and told -- with a very nice smile -- that it would be 20 to 45 minutes.
There were no unoccupied seats near the entry, so we headed to the bar, where we were told we could be served at any seats that became available (and where we subsequently paid $22 for two Grey Goose vodkas -- but that's another story).
There were no seats in the bar either, so we stood until one couple gave us the surreptitious high sign that they were about to get the check. May they and their issue be blessed forever.
It only took 15 minutes, and we were ready to be served.
The service was good, and the food obviously fresh, but it wasn't worth the hassle. It was cookie-cutter food. There was no real spark, no feeling that a real person was involved. Avocado Eggrolls ($9.50) were loaded with more than the usual amount of avocado -- and garnished with onion and sun-dried tomato. The wrappings were crisp, and the generous helping was served with a tamarind dipping sauce, but somehow they weren't satisfying.
The vegetable-based soup ($4.95) was fine. Fresh Fish Tacos ($13.95) were OK, too. The fish was a little dry, yes, and so garnished with grated carrots and stuff that it was hard to isolate the taste. But the black beans, salsa, guacamole and rice accompaniments? No complaints.
Hungarian Beef Goulash ($15.95) was certainly tender, but flavor was lacking. It was accompanied by caramelized onion just as the menu said. The buttered noodles were sprinkled with caraway, a nice idea.
But the menu also said that the sauce would have paprika in it, and I tasted very little paprika. My grandma -- and maybe your grandma -- would not have been overly impressed.
Other interesting items on the menu include Shepherd's Pie ($13.95), Bang Bang Chicken and Shrimp, an "Incredible Grilled Eggplant Sandwich" and a Kobe Burger ($12.95). No matter your ethnic leanings, there's something for you here.
Time for dessert -- time for cheesecake. After all, isn't this the very thing that got the Factory started? The menu lists about 30 varieties, and they are lavishly displayed on the bakery counter (which also is surrounded by lines).
Everything from Craig's Crazy Carrot Cake Cheesecake to Oreo (registered trademark) Cheesecake to Coffee Heath Bar (registered trademark) Crunch Cheesecake to Six-Carb Original Cheesecake (this particular listing neatly accompanied on the menu with a clearly printed Splenda trademark).
Huge slabs came out adorned with ruffles of whipped cream (with the texture of stabilizer). I opted for the Dulce de Leche Caramel Cheesecake on a Vanilla Crust, and it was pretty good. The companion opted for the Brownie Sundae Cheesecake with white chocolate mousse and hot fudge and almonds, and it was pretty sweet.
It was time to get the check, and, as we all know, one good deed deserves another.
So we surreptitiously motioned to a very nice young couple tiredly leaning on the bar; we gave them the high sign, and they were thrilled.
But not as thrilled as we were. Outside in the parking lot, it was nasty and it was raining.
But it was oh so blissfully still.
3 stars (Out of 4)
WHERE: Walden Galleria (685-2600, www.the cheesecakefactory.com). In the new section of the Walden Galleria, this huge California-based chain restaurant has just opened -- and a glossy operation it is. Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
FAVORITE DISH: Avocado Eggrolls
NEEDS WORK: Hungarian Beef Goulash
PRICE RANGE: Dinner specials from $11.95 with vegetable sides. Cheesecake from $5.95; burgers from $9.95 with fries.
NOISE LEVEL: Very high
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday; Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. No reservations accepted. Curbside call-ahead service available.
HEALTHY CHOICES: Many salads and pastas.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
PARKING: In the lot. Valet service available for $5.
KID APPEAL: High. No kids' menu, but lots of stuff they would like.