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Factory Approved

Following my first visit to the new Cheesecake Factory, I came away musing that here was a case where hype outweighed performance. I'd heard all the buzz about the loyal patrons of this California-based chain who were willing to wait epic lengths of time for a table at their city's Cheesecake Factory. But after being served a cafe latte that looked like something you'd get at a children's birthday party, down to the plastic mug and the bouffant of whipped cream balanced on top, I found it hard to comprehend why anyone would consider this something worth waiting two hours for.

It also didn't bode well that once I'd been seated at the downstairs bar (since I was only ordering coffee and desserts) and asked the appetizer cook which of the 40 odd cheesecake flavors was her favorite, she shrugged her shoulders and said rather sheepishly, "I like the Original best."

What? With cheesecakes the likes of Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie Dough Cheesecake and Craig's Crazy Carrot Cake Cheesecake, here was someone-who-should-know recommending we stick with boring old Original? I was not won over, despite the Cheesecake Factory's upscale Galleria address, and despite its dramatic interior design. The word "factory," I surmised, said it all: regulation coffee drinks, churned-out cheesecakes, a high customer turnover rate, an eye-glazing 18-page menu. Who wants to eat dinner at a factory, even if, as is oft-reported in restaurant trade journals, this one does spend more money per square foot on design and development than almost any other chain restaurant?

That high-dollar decor has become one of the signatures of this chain, which started 23 years ago as a mom-and-pop wholesale bakery. (When son David Overton opened the first restaurant in 1978, he decided to keep the bakery's name and to retain his mother, Evelyn Overton, as chief cheesecake consultant.) The color-drenched Houston site draws lightheartedly on influences from around the world: bas-relief papyruses and King Tut heads flow into a dreamy Zodiac mural on the ceiling. Appealing as I found this, the restaurant's visual amusements couldn't distract me entirely from its awkward flow. The host stand in the downstairs bar area seems redundant, given that you have to check in with a second host upstairs to queue up for a table. (The longest I had to wait during my visits was about 15 minutes, but I've been told that weekend evenings bring waits of up to 45 minutes.) And once you are on the waiting list, unless you want to stand around orphan-like, you have to return downstairs to the bar, only to haul yourself back up the stairs once more when your table's ready.

Still, despite the unpleasantries that seem to be a consequence of the restaurant's factory mentality, and despite my initial feelings of dismay, return visits have led me to the conclusion that many things at the Cheesecake Factory do work, and work well. Their cheesecakes, for example: it's true I was initially bemused when the appetizer cook recommended I go for the basic version, but (at least based on the flavors we ordered that first evening) she turned out to be right.

Boring old Original -- I actually ordered the Fresh Strawberry Cheesecake, which came with most of the glazed strawberries on the side, so that it was quite possible to have several bites of the unadorned Original -- was dense, sticky without being gummy and sweetly sour. It lived up perfectly to what a basic cheesecake should be. In contrast, the White Chocolate Raspberry Truffle, reportedly one of the restaurant's most popular cheesecakes, was way too sweet and left behind a mediciny aftertaste. The Chocolate Mousse Cheesecake was almost over-rich, though that problem was alleviated when a bite of cheesecake was tempered with a bite of whipped cream.

About that whipped cream: in the case of the Chocolate Mousse Cheesecake, the topping was a plus. But in general, the Cheesecake Factory is way too eager to pile on the fluff. Besides the huge cloud that had somehow landed on my cafe latte to transform what would have been a respectable espresso beverage into a fountain drink, two fist-sized puffs of whipped cream adorned each and every piece of cheesecake that was served. The white mounds began to irritate me after awhile. The one good thing I can say about all that whipped cream is that at least it doesn't come out of a can.

I finally came to the conclusion, though, that the Cheesecake Factory's enthusiasm for piling on the whipped cream might be an example of the axiom that faults are simply virtues carried to the extreme, for one of the things this restaurant does well is provide bang for the buck. Even when I went only for coffee and dessert, I still had to bring home leftovers. And that generosity applies across the board. I don't think this restaurant even owns a standard 12-inch dinner plate; everything seems to arrive at the table on a 16-inch-long oval platter. Admittedly, the prices aren't cheap, but the average diner (if not the average professional defensive lineman) will generally get two or three meals out of any entree.

One afternoon, when our server brought out a mountain of flash-fried white rice noodles beneath which was a mess of plum-dressing-coated sliced chicken breast, tossed greens, fried won ton strips, nuts and mandarin orange slices, my companion pointed out that she had ordered the smaller, lunch-sized portion of the Chinese Chicken Salad. "That is the lunch-sized portion," she was told.

Likewise, my Classic Burger, eight ounces of charbroiled cow plus all the fixings, was of the Dagwood variety and thus proved gratifyingly difficult to wrap my mouth around. "That," someone at my table observed, "is definitely a knife-and-fork burger." On the double-decker Tons of Fun Burger, however, those eight ounces of bevo were less satisfactory by virtue of their being divided into two patties, both of which were too skinny. The burgers were served with delightfully artsy vegetable chips: delicately fried beets, sweet potatoes and yucca.

Another thing I found to like at the Cheesecake Factory is Sunday brunch. The Factory breakfast burrito is a convincing Tex-Mex creation crammed full of scrambled eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, chiles and onions, all topped with salsa verde, avocado slices and cheese. Sides of black beans and rice fill the platter. Better still is the apple banana-nut French toast: several triangles of inch-thick egg bread French toast smothered in gooey cinnamon apples, nastily mushy caramelized bananas a la bananas Foster (sans the flames) and sugar-glazed walnuts. Yum, my table agreed, after I had scraped off about a cup of that dastardly whipped cream. Eggs Benedict is a reliable interpretation, but on one occasion they came out cooked runny even though they had been ordered cooked medium. Again, all the servings were huge.

In fact, the quality of most of the food I tried at the Cheesecake Factory was up to par. The Cajun jambalaya pasta, heavily seasoned with a showering of powdered spices, was a pleasingly simple sniffle inducer, although its four measly shrimp proved a notable exception to the restaurant's usual oversized portions. Another Louisiana dish also satisfied: the Louisiana chicken and andouille, whose success was lent by its pale, earth-toned, creamy sauce, which smacked of the same Cajun spice blend as the jambalaya. These dishes also exhibited the Cheesecake Factory's affinity for visual theatrics, which seems to spill over from their decor to the presentation of their food. The chicken and andouille were showily angled forward at the front of the plate on their base of rice. Likewise, the slab of steamed salmon that was the centerpiece of the herb-crusted salmon salad was dredged in a sweater of fresh chopped herbs and showcased on a hidden stand of sliced cucumber and onions. At the back of the platter of baby lettuces, wedges of fresh tomatoes (which looked prettier than they tasted) stood upright, alternating with shells of endive. Blanched asparagus fanned out on either side. The whole spiky effect was like some sort of Magritte-inspired Aztec headdress.

No, I finally decided, the food here isn't a problem. If you can wade through the oceans of whipped cream, if you can distract yourself from the plastic mugs by musing on the watercolor mural on the ceiling, if you can successfully negotiate your trips up and down the stairs, if you're willing to navigate your way through the menu that never knew when to stop growing -- if you can do all this and manage to stick around till your meal arrives, you'll find yourself pleasantly rewarded.

Cheesecake Factory, 5015 Westheimer (the Galleria), 840-0600.

Cheesecake Factory: apple banana-nut French toast, $8.95; Cajun jambalaya pasta, $15.95; cheesecakes, $4.75 to $5.50 per piece.

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