Factory turns out good food at a good price Restaurant: Dining chain moves into Harborplace, bringing its namesake dessert and a whole lot more.

September 01, 1996|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Baltimore finally has its own Cheesecake Factory, one of the most successful restaurant chains in the country. Don't be fooled by the name: While there are nearly 40 varieties of cheesecake on the menu, they are only part of the restaurant's appeal.

The first thing you need to know about the Cheesecake Factory is that it is a factory. It's in the business of churning out millions of meals to millions of people, all of whom have decided to eat there on the same day and at the same time you have.

So why is it so successful?

Start with the surroundings. The space in Harborplace (where the Nickel City Grill used to be) has been completely revamped. The decor is flashy but remarkably tasteful, considering that it's a combination of deco, neoclassical and contemporary with a little Egyptian thrown in.

The service is admirable, delivered by a young, well-trained staff as friendly as puppies.

But the food is the main drawing card, the reason people wait up to two hours to get a table. It's California casual produced with pizazz. Portions are huge, and prices are moderate.

By California casual I mean lots of appetizers, salads, burgers and gourmet pizzas, plus specialties with Southwestern and jTC Pacific Rim antecedents. Add to that comfort food like meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and you've pretty much described the 200 or so items on the Cheesecake Factory's gigantic menu.

Not everything works. The Factory burger on sourdough with not-melted-enough Cheddar, tomatoes and grilled onions was just OK; and a fabulous piece of sal-mon had a too-thick herb crust with knock-'em-dead amounts of tarragon. Great mashed potatoes, though, as well as baby asparagus spears.

A spicy Peking salad was obscenely large, smothered in fried noodles and rice noodles that you had to dig through to get to the pasta, cucumber and chicken salad in a fine spicy peanut dressing.

Still, two of our three appetizers were nothing short of spectacular. If I did it again, I'd start with the Vietnamese shrimp spring rolls or the roasted vegetable quesadilla and then skip straight to the cheesecake.

The three delicate spring rolls, technically summer rolls, are served chilled, not fried. Their rice-paper wrappers are filled with whole shrimp, tender-crisp asparagus, mushrooms, rice noodles and grated carrots. You dip them in a spicy peanut sauce.

Quesadillas stuffed with smoked Gouda, peppers, squash, eggplant and red onion were also addictively good; they came with a delicious guacamole, salsa and sour cream. Our third appetizer was sweet tamale cakes. The corn mush with crisp edges topped with avocado and two salsas was full of flavor, but got a bit monotonous after awhile.

Even if you don't save room for dessert (and it's not easy to do so, given portion sizes), you'll still probably end up ordering a slice of cheesecake. Who can resist? I would suggest plain, perhaps with fresh strawberries. It will be the richest, heaviest, creamiest cheesecake you've ever put in your mouth, and it comes with real whipped cream. Think nothing could possibly be more decadent? Try the double chocolate upside-down Jack Daniels cheesecake or the white chocolate raspberry truffle, and die happy.

Cheesecake Factory

Where: Pratt Street Pavilion, Harborplace

Hours: Open Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11: 30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-12: 30 a.m.; Sundays, noon-11: 30 p.m.

Prices: Appetizers: $5.50-$7.95; entrees: $8.95-$17.95. Major credit cards

Call: , (410) 234-3990.

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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