Fusion makes odd combinations work Restaurant: The California Pizza Kitchen serves up some interesting food

you'll like it a lot if you stop thinking of it as pizza.

October 18, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

After all the theme restaurants that have opened in the harbor area recently, the new California Pizza Kitchen seems oddly adult. The attractions are decent food, good service, moderate prices and a sleek, modern interior. That's about it. Funny how that used to be enough for most people.

Baltimore's first California Pizza Kitchen has moved into the space vacated by the Taverna Athena. The opening of the West Coast chain is one more step, although a very pleasant one, in the homogenizing of Harborplace.

If you've been around long enough, you'll remember that the complex once housed both the upscale Black Pearl and the down-home Soup Kitchen. There was once a French bistro, an Indian restaurant, a New Italian, a Greek, a Chinese. The mix offered both varied cuisines and varied price tags.

Now, most of the Harborplace restaurants could be listed under "Casual": ribs, Tex-Mex, pizza, pastas, brew-pub fare. It amazes me that California Pizza Kitchen was willing to open almost directly below Pizzeria Uno in the Pratt Street Pavilion. But I guess the company figured Harborplace visitors have an unlimited appetite for pizza.

California Pizza Kitchen would probably argue that its pizza is unique. And it is different from the traditional thin, crisp crust with tomato sauce, mozzarella and Italian toppings. Try not to compare it to the pizza you're used to, and you'll enjoy the warm, soft, yeasty, slightly sweet crust, which is a good vehicle for the toppings. They range from pleasantly weird (barbecued chicken) to totally bizarro (hoisin duck portobello).

I know, I know: Don't knock it till you've tried it. But you're going to have to tie me down and force my jaws open before a piece of hoisin duck portobello pizza passes my lips. We ordered the BLT pizza the waitress recommended. That was wild and crazy enough.

Again, if you think of it as pizza, you'll be outraged. Think of it as fresh tomatoes and crisp bacon baked into the warm, soft, yeasty crust. Chilled chopped iceberg tossed with mayonnaise is piled on top. Cheese is not part of the equation. Somehow it works.

OK, maybe hoisin duck portobello would work, too. I'm just not ready.

Somebody at your table should order the barbecued chicken pizza, the epitome of trendy California fusion cuisine and the chain's most popular selection. The toppings are slices of barbecued chicken, sliced red onions and smoked Gouda sparked with cilantro. Keep telling yourself, "It's not pizza," and you'll love it.

But what if you want pizza where you can say "It's pizza" and still love it? What if you don't want goat cheese or rosemary chicken-potato pizza?

Well. Good news. California Pizza Kitchen has just introduced two new varieties. Those are the ones on the menu with the word "NEW!" beside them.

These innovations involve ingredients like tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, Parmesan, basil and garlic. Yes, the same kitchen that brings you tandoori chicken pizza now has two "Traditional Italian Pizzas."

You don't have to have pizza at California Pizza Kitchen, but it's a good idea. The "Original Chopped" entree salad features salami, cheese, roast turkey, tomatoes and a lot of chopped iceberg. Not bad, just not very interesting. Kung pao spaghetti with shrimp had lots of heat but not much else that was noteworthy.

First courses, though, were as successful as our pizzas. "Tuscan hummus" might disappoint if you think you're going to get hummus, but why should you think that? The smooth puree of white beans flavored with sesame, garlic and lemon had fresh chopped tomatoes on top and warm pita bread to spread it on.

If you feel like soup, get the "Two in a Bowl." The yin and yang of the white potato leek next to a blush-pink Southwestern tomato and corn tortilla soup was beautiful. The soups tasted great together, too.

Best of all our first courses were fragile won ton dumplings filled with sesame ginger chicken, delicious and also beautifully presented.

Still hungry? California Pizza Kitchen has various rich chocolate, ice cream and whipped cream desserts, plus regional favorites like apple crisp with ice cream and Key lime pie with whipped cream. Management knows that people may put up with fusion cuisine and exotic ingredients when it comes to pizza, but when you're talking dessert, it better be fattening and familiar.

California Pizza Kitchen

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: Pratt Street Pavilion, Harborplace

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers: $2.95-$5.95; main courses: $6.95-$10.95; major credit cards

Call: 410-783-9339

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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