Cheesecake was my personal introduction to the great gustatory world beyond Rice Krispies, graham crackers, and vacuum-packed bologna. The first time I tasted the stuff, the grass grew a little greener, the moon shone a little brighter, and a hitherto undiscovered country of taste and texture opened up before me. I was 8 years old and the seductress was Miss Sara Lee. I determined at that moment, in an obsessive-compulsive grammar school sort of way, that I would taste cheesecake wherever I could find it and, through the compare-contrast method so beloved by the educational pooh-bahs of that time, track down the finest cheesecake on Earth. My critical faculties weren't necessarily precocious; for a long time the front-runner was my maternal grandmother's version, which was composed, as I recall, of cottage cheese and dehydrated lemon pudding. For another long time numero uno was the cheesecake served at the old Sheraton Palace Hotel, which in retrospect was most likely of the carefully defrosted variety. Then, in a rare moment of prepubescent self-esteem, I decided that my cheesecake, the one I learned to prepare from the pages of the Mike Roy Cookbook, was the fairest in the land. I have the recipe before me as I write; the dessert consists of only cream cheese, eggs, sour cream, and sugar. What's not to like?
In the past two decades there has come upon the landscape a chain of restaurants called the Cheesecake Factory, which promulgates the graham-crust gospel in communities wide and wee. A friend of mine is enamored of the restaurants, and her husband (who has never set foot in one) has been trying to figure out why. "Is it because it's a reward after a long afternoon of shopping?" he asks me -- and the universe. "Is it the idea of a whole restaurant named after a dessert? Is it because it's a fancy-looking place but they have, like, burgers and pizza?"
The answer, of course, is all of the above. The San Francisco Cheesecake Factory is strategically located atop Macy's in Union Square, and most of the clientele have a feverish, only-11-weeks-till-Christmas look about them, exacerbated by the shopping bags atop every other table. While you're waiting for your name to come up (a lengthy process involving two hostesses and a pager that vibrates when your table's ready) you can reflect upon the titular 35 varieties of cheesecake offered on the dessert menu. And once you're ensconced in one corner or another of the vast, rococo dining space, it's perfectly within your rights to order up a humble hamburger, or a pepperoni pizza, or nachos, or a burrito, or, if the mood strikes you, Thai lettuce wraps with tamarind-cashew sauce. It's like dining in an oasis of Vegas splendor and Olive Garden abundance while the taro root-stuffed ravioli of downtown San Francisco is kept at bay: an undoubtedly comforting expression of cut-rate glamour.
The setting at the Cheesecake Factory falls somewhere between the Gilded Age excesses of Cornelius Vanderbilt and the Egypt-obsessed forefathers of art deco, with dollops of 1990s burnished-pastel Tuscan villa and the occasional Gladiator-worthy Doric column taking up the slack. Outdoor and windowside seating affords fine top-floor views of verdant Union Square across the street, and a crowded, well-stocked bar along the opposite wall dispenses Flying Gorillas, Strawberry Creamsicles, and Kahlúa Kissers at a steady rate. There is considerable hubbub. The Factory does not accept reservations, so unless you drop by between, say, 2 and 4 on a weekday afternoon, the aforementioned wait is inevitable.
The menu is a 20-page, wire-bound denotation of the chain-restaurant ethos, with 800 numbers and full-page ads and requests to refrain from pipe and cigar smoking in the dining areas -- in nicotine-unfriendly California, practically an invitation to light up a Camel. One gets the impression that the featured Baja fish tacos are identical to the Baja fish tacos served at a corresponding Cheesecake Factory a thousand miles away. Much of the menu is devoted to the kind of transcontinental fare you're likely to run across at the next Denny's up the interstate. The surprise, then, is how tasty and distinctive some of the food turns out to be.
This being a place called the Cheesecake Factory, let's start with dessert, namely a few of the Ben & Jerry's-esque varieties of cheesecake offered daily. They are, by and large, indomitably goofy: tiramisu, dulce de leche, banana cream, pumpkin pecan, Dutch apple caramel streusel, and the like. We began slowly, with plain old cheesecake. As a devotee of the classic New York style, that ivory slab of unholy denseness that inevitably follows a thick chateaubriand and a lusty claret, I found the Cheesecake Factory version a bit soft and sweet, though absolutely tasty. Even so, it was more fun and instructive to pursue one of the wilder species afoot: the chocolate peanut butter cookie-dough cheesecake, for instance, a surprisingly rich, dense, dark dessert lightened with a crowning dollop of puréed and sweetened peanut butter. Or the white chocolate chunk macadamia variety, smooth and light and infused throughout with the taste of the Hawaiian nutmeat. Or the altogether disparate raspberry lemon cream cheesecake, a startlingly bright and puckery amalgam of citrus and sweetness. My favorite, though, was the circuslike Snickers-studded version, in which nice big chunks of my favorite candy bar ribboned the perfectly palatable house specialty.
The appetizers are as good -- and sometimes better -- than the cheesecake. The firecracker salmon rolls are a considerable step up from the typically greasy, leaden egg rolls you come across in Chinatown: Here, a supple, spicily marinated salmon fillet is rolled in spinach, wrapped in crisp rice paper, and tied with a scallion to resemble a firecracker. The guacamole-brie melt is a yummy lowdown mess of avocado and pungent cheese served hot on slabs of sourdough with a tangy sun-dried tomato sauce. The endive salad isn't as pungent as it could be, but the greens are fresh and the ribbons of radicchio, glazed pecan, and blue cheese add welcome lusty accents. The roadside sliders -- four bite-sized burgers reminiscent of White Castle's Midwestern specialtie d'hôte -- are smoky and oniony, if not outstandingly juicy. And the tamale cakes are marvelous, thick and creamy and sweet with corn, served en husk and topped off with avocado, sour cream, and two varieties of bracing salsa.
The portabella pizza is delicious as well: The dough is soft and thick; the topping sweet with caramelized onion, roasted garlic, and bubbly fontina; dollops of blue cheese add a pleasantly pungent jolt; and the great mushroom of the title crowns the whole shebang with slices as thick, meaty, and juicy as a good porterhouse. But other entrees suffer from a disease afflicting many local and national restaurants: a curious yet inevitable drop-off between starter and dessert. Many main events fail to live up to the promise of the opening act. There's an unwieldy bland sweetness afoot, a culinary lethargy; the food isn't bad, it's just uninspired. The Cajun jambalaya pasta, for instance, is bland and busy and far removed from the sassy intricacies of southern Louisiana cooking. In it, overdone shrimp and chicken dot monolithic linguini in a sauce as rich and as spicy as tap water. The Jamaican black pepper shrimp is equally overcooked, presented in a Disney-version jerk sauce and accompanied by slimy plantains, rudimentary black beans, and an attractive yet insipid sphere of boiled rice. The baby-back ribs -- a huge rack of them -- are tender but not succulent, and their minimal barbecue sauce is sweet but not tangy or hot or earthy or anything in particular. The chicken and biscuits, while appetizing enough -- the chicken is tender, the biscuits light and lovely, the supportive mashed potatoes rich and chunky -- is afflicted by a blanket of mediocrity stemming from the gravy, mushrooms, peas, and carrots. Moral: When you find yourself in a cheesecake factory, eat cheesecake. There are worse ways to pass the time of day.