O Brave New Pizza

It was white and sleek and square, and it slept in my hand like a time bomb.
"Welcome to the brave new world of restaurant beepers," I thought glumly, perched in the bar of FM l960's brave new California Pizza Kitchen.
It was Saturday. The place was packed. We were ravenous, but nary a scrap of food was allowed during the 50 minutes before the beeper, shuddering mutely, would summon us to dinner. Not even a piece of bread, our waiter informed us blandly -- let alone one of the brave new multicultural pizzas with which the ferociously expansionist West Coast chain intends to conquer America.

So we consoled ourselves with tart lemonade, plus a celery tree snatched desperately from a virgin mary. We goggled at the menu in hungry stupefaction: tuna-salad pizza? Moo shu chicken calzone? We learned we had to "tab out" between bar and table, multiplying our credit card transactions. We pondered why some restaurant setups seem so much less user-friendly than others in this We-Don't-Take-Reservations age. (Carrabba's, its neon beckoning next door, was looking better by the minute.)

Mostly we drank in the hard, shiny phenom that is the CPK: acres of white tile; curves of yellow neon and fat golden ductwork; matte black tables; lots of mirror and glass. Very tech-y. Slightly antiseptic. More remindful of a flossy gym (or a futuristic roller rink) than a place of nourishment.

There are nearly four dozen CPKs now -- from California to Boston to Hawaii -- with over two dozen more on the way. It's a sign of the times that at Post Oak and San Felipe, where that poor little S&L was just demolished, a CPK will rise; nowadays Italianate restaurant chains are proliferating as fast as real estate loans once did.

CPK wants to do for pizza what Semolina, that other new chain in town, wants to do for pasta: namely, throw the genre into the melting pot and stir it up with a spoonful of wit, a ton of trendiness, a pinch of sophistication -- but not enough to turn off Joe Restaurantgoer. Multiculturalism goes mainstream, at prices (circa eight bucks per nine-inch pie) that won't break the bank.

So does CPK make it work? Sort of. The food runs the gamut from good to middling to weird. The salads are first-rate. So are the thinnish pizza crusts, their undersides crisply singed, their rims blistery. What goes on top of them... well, let's just say that CPK's attempts to push the pizza envelope can amuse and gratify, or disconcert and vex.

In the amusing-and-gratifying column goes the Tandoori Chicken pizza, a vivid wheel sporting lipstick-coral hunks of bird, thin disks of zucchini and judicious dabs of tomato-yogurt curry sauce. "Wrong!" screams some primitive part of your brain when you bite into it, but presently the alarm subsides, soothed by the familiar presence of mozzarella, coaxed by cilantro. Soon you're thinking, "Indian pizza! Why the hell not?"

File the high-concept BLT pizza under amusing-but-disconcerting. You've got your bacon (Hormel, the menu asserts in a fit of brand-consciousness). You've got your pretty red roma tomato slices. You've got your romaine lettuce, chopped into ribbons and lightly dressed with mayonnaise; it blankets everything, including the molten cheese binder. It's crisp. It's cold. Salad pizza? Pizza salad? The palate reels. Here are textures and temperatures that challenge the notion of pizzahood. Tastes pretty good, though.

CPK's duck sausage pizza falls under the category -- and it's a small one here -- of just-plain-

gratifying. It's simple and ungimmicky, brightened with vibrant, savory sausage and sun-dried tomato, freshened with sauteed spinach, softened with an earthy murmur of roasted garlic. Makes some of its sibling pizzas look too cute by half.

Under the heading of just-plain-vexing comes the grilled eggplant cheeseless pizza that epitomizes CPK's healthful pose. Not only does the chain ban smoking, it makes a point of offering all its pizzas in a cheese-free state. Unfortunately, the menu's one Official Cheese-Free Pizza is a mess: not because of its fine layer of grilled eggplant and caramelized onion, but because of the naked raw-spinach mountain on top. This greenery might have been run through a paper shredder; adding oil and vinegar from accompanying cruets tempers its resemblance to packing excelsior, but not by much. Sauteing the spinach in a bit of olive oil would make this pizza easier -- and far more rewarding -- to eat.

Digress with me for a moment on this health business. Despite the option of "healthy toppings" like shrimp pesto and grilled vegetables, in their normal state CPK's pizzas rely surprisingly heavily on cheese for their appeal. Good for you? Hardly. Ordering a pleasantly nutty-tasting honey-wheat crust (as opposed to the excellent plain variety) may make you feel virtuous, but it's what goes on top that matters. Finally, you may wonder how a cigarette ban jibes with wood-fired ovens. And CPK has such arctically efficient A/C and ventilation that secondary smoke ain't a problem -- catching a cold is.

The menu here features a lot of chicken, which probably has emerged as a key pizza ingredient of late precisely because it makes Americans think they're doing their bodies a favor. There's a catch to chicken pizza, though -- poultry dries out fast in the high temperatures of a wood-fired oven. Indeed, the chicken in some of CPK's signature pizzas fares less well than it does in the restaurant's pastas and sandwiches.

Take the Southwestern burrito pizza, in which nubbins of lime-marinated chicken are the least appealing part of a mix that includes green chiles, onions, funky black beans and two kinds of cheese. Tomatillo sauce and sour cream come with it -- irrelevantly, not to mention jarringly in the case of that cold sour cream.

Jarring effects may be unavoidable in a place that strives so hard for novelty. Bean sprouts, mustard, chutney, guacamole, wonton fettuccine -- they're all fair game for a CPK pizza. Call me old-fashioned, but I think the restaurant goes astray with the notion of sweet pizzas. I was relieved when the advertised mango chutney failed to show up with the tandoori chicken pie. And I couldn't make peace with the sweet, strong peanut-and-ginger sauce that dominates the Thai chicken pizza, although its crisp bean sprouts and crushed peanuts grew on me.

If there's justice, CPK's salad-salads will give the much-hyped ones at Houston's a run for their mass-market money. The big Greek salad is flat-out terrific, with interesting greens in a buoyant lemon-herb dressing, and goat cheese instead of the traditional feta (at $7.50, it's enough for three people). Upscale field greens in balsamic vinaigrette are pure and perfect. Romaine and watercress with gorgonzola and walnut are fine, too. Would that CPK could achieve such consistency with its non-salad repertoire.

Among the restaurant's so-called pizza buns (fat sandwich rolls made from pizza dough), a grilled chicken breast was obliterated by an overdose of honey mustard; it had been marinated in rosemary and white wine, but how could anyone tell? And the chicken-tequila fettuccine -- deliciously bright-tasting in its edgy jalapeno cream -- was so unrepentantly oily it even scared a reprobate like me.

Nobody else in the SRO crowd of suburban families and young folks seemed worried about indulging. Across from me, a young boy practically expired in loud pleasure at the sight of his ice-cream dessert. His dad, a beefy polo-shirted guy who looked like he knew his way around a pool hall, explained the mysteries of tiramisu to the curious teens at the next table. It was one of those '90s moments (and no, he didn't use the laden tiramisu gag from Sleepless in Seattle).

The tiramisu? Surprisingly decent, swathed in frothy marsala custard the color of cappuccino. There's a tart apple crisp that's perfectly respectable, and an ice-cream ball called a "tartufo" that is not -- its chocolate gelato, pebbled in bittersweet chocolate, clashes with its berry puree. Better to finish with a cup of cafe au lait that is as strong and serious as nails.

On your way out, you can pause for another one of those '90s moments: CPK's very own fashion line is available for take-out, right down to the crisp black-and-white aprons worn by the crisp young staff. Life is turning out to be one long, multicultural orgy of product placement.

California Pizza Kitchen, 5322 West FM l960, 587-1700.

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