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Thursday, June 28, 2001

Sweet smart

Posted on Thu, Jun 28, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Stumbling out into the blinding Winter Park Village midday sun after a matinee movie, I was stunned to see an edifice that looked like a bank, where the old Dillard's used to be. The sign said The Cheesecake Factory, and I'd never heard of it. Why would a place that makes cheesecake need such an enormous building? Not one to turn down a good slice of dessert, I went to investigate.

Turns out, there are 42 other CF restaurants, which started in the late '70s in Los Angeles, everywhere from Boston to California. I'm told the architecture is fairly similar in all of them. The decor is slightly Egyptian revival -- towering high ceilings, thick weathered columns painted in hieroglyphics, dark wood and upholstered booths. There are striking accents of glass all, like textured leaf shapes on columns and red swirled lamps, and open spaces alongside cozy partitioned areas.

The menu is almost as large as the building -- a dozen pages of appetizers, pizza, burgers and steaks, not counting the full page of cheesecakes. So doing the addition (huge place, tons of menu items, slightly gimmicky name) I was somewhat skeptical. But from beginning to end, everything was wonderful.

Our waiter advised us that "the appetizers are kinda large," which was like saying that I-4 gets a little crowded. I started with "Tex Mex eggrolls" ($7.95), crisp packages of corn, black beans, salsa, cheese and a rather spicy chicken with mellow avocado dipping cream. The massive serving was very tasty, with a nice melding of flavors.

Onion rings come in a two-foot-high pile. The fillet of salmon ($15.95), a thick slice crusted with sesame and served with soy-ginger sauce, looks close to an entire fish. My "Navaho" sandwich had large strips of avocado and tender grilled chicken stuffed into real fry-bread (in Orlando?), a tasty bargain at $8.95. And the Thai lettuce wraps ($8.95) were a knockout, with curry noodles, satay chicken, sprouts and more to roll into hand-sized leaves.

Ah, yes -- the cheesecake. More than 30 kinds, from regular to white-chocolate raspberry truffle to Kahlua-almond fudge. I had the "dulce de leche" caramel. There's a good reason for the takeout counter at the front; you'll want another piece by the time you hit the door.

This must be a new strategy: Make portions so gigantic that two people can't even finish the appetizers and supply shopping bags emblazoned with "The Cheesecake Factory." Then send diners out into the world as stuffed and slightly sugar-rushed ambassadors. Signs above the restaurant offer loft apartments for lease. Think of it -- just call down from bed for all the cheesecake you can hold.


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