Good Thing They Don't Call Themselves “Pasta Factory”
You ever wonder why some restaurants choose to name themselves some sort of “factory?” In this day and age of “handcrafted” and “artisan” goods, doesn't the “factory” designation ring a little industrial and uninspired? Dictionary.com defines a “factory” as: “a building or group of buildings with facilities for the manufacture of goods; any place producing a uniform product, without concern for individuality.” Hmmm.
We recently decided to spend a Cheesecake Factory gift card my wife had received for her birthday from a coworker. We'd never been to a Cheesecake Factory before and, after this past weekend's experience, we will likely not be going again. At least not for anything other than the cheesecake.
The atmosphere and décor at the restaurant we visited were stunning; very art-deco and upscale. And we were impressed if somewhat nonplussed by the twenty page menu. That said, let me offer a little insider tip: elaborate window dressing like dramatic décor and gargantuan menus are rapidly becoming passé in the industry. They are holdovers from an era when “if you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with bullshit” held sway. Give me a little hole-in-the-wall place with a single page menu of extraordinary food and I'm a much happier camper.
Anyway, we were shown to our table promptly by a smiling hostess and immediately attended by a very friendly, personable, and knowledgeable server. So far, so good. Undaunted by the daunting menu, my wife decided to go a little outside her usual comfort zone and try the Chicken Pot Stickers, classic pan-fried Asian dumplings served with a soy-ginger sesame sauce. I opted to stay close to my Italian roots and go with the Four Cheese Pasta, a dish consisting of penne pasta in a marinara sauce with mozzarella, ricotta, Romano and Parmesan cheeses, topped with chopped fresh basil. Of course, the server asked me if I wanted chicken with my pasta because Americans simply can't wrap their heads around the idea that pasta is a dish in and of itself and that Italians do not mix chicken – or any other meat – in with their pasta. So I politely declined the offer.
Our beverages arrived quickly and we were presented with a basket of delicious assorted breads while we were waiting.
My wife's pot stickers surprised, pleased, and satisfied her very much. Despite the typically Brobdingnagian American restaurant portions, she cleaned her plate quite effectively and was ready to move on to the signature cheesecake offerings.
It was not, however, love at first bite for me. In the first place, the dish came with a rather unappealing glop of wet ricotta and chopped basil on top. The consistency of the ricotta was such that I at first mistook it for sour cream. After I mixed it into the sauce, turning the red marinara rather pink in the process, I was ready to dig in. Well, my mama always taught me that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all, so let me say that the bread was delicious.
Look, I'm not a big one for complaining to the kitchen. Generally, if I don't like something, I don't finish it and I don't go back. But this was different. This was so egregiously awful I had to say something. The last time I remember being so offended by a dish was about fifteen years ago when some chain steak joint served me a fettuccine Alfredo rendered absolutely inedible by the heavy-handed adulteration of nutmeg and God knows what else in the sauce. At the Cheesecake Factory, the sauce was inoffensive enough, but the pasta was simply the worst I'd ever been subjected to from either a professional or a home kitchen. Although properly cooked for texture, it was indescribably bland. There was more salt in the tears I shed over this affront to Italian cookery than there was in the water in which the pasta was prepared.
In case you have never read anything that I or any other Italian cook has ever written about cooking pasta, you have to, have to, HAVE TO add generous amounts of salt to the water in which you cook the pasta. Some cooks say to “aggressively salt” the water. Others will tell you the water must “taste like the sea.” In any case, salt is essential to flavor in pasta. And that flavor must be imparted during the early cooking process when the pasta is opening up to release its starches and absorb flavors. Once the pasta is cooked, no amount of salting will give it flavor. Salting badly cooked pasta after the fact will only result in salty-tasting but otherwise bland pasta. And that was most definitely the case here. I literally took the top off the salt shaker in an attempt to infuse some semblance of flavor into the pasta set before me, but it was impossible. I had my wife try a bite. She could taste the sauce and the salt I'd dumped onto the noodle, but she agreed that the underlying pasta was hopelessly underseasoned.
I spoke to the server who sent over her supervisor who sent over the kitchen manager. I wasn't trying to be an obnoxious jerk; I genuinely wanted to know if this grievous, flagrant abuse of perfectly good pasta was the result of some corporate policy limiting the use of salt for “health reasons” or if it was just a preposterous lack of experience in the kitchen. Hey! It happens. I had to retrain one of my restaurant cooks once because he was using half-teaspoons of salt where half-cups were called for.
I think word about me must have made it up the line because the first question the kitchen manager inexplicably asked when he arrived at the table was about my occupation. I told him. And he admitted they were, indeed, required to “control” the use of salt in their kitchen. (Sigh) Why is it nobody understands that pasta only absorbs a minuscule amount of actual salt from the water? That the rest of the salt goes harmlessly down the drain? That nobody's going to get hardened arteries or have a stroke as a result of eating properly seasoned pasta? I don't know. (Sigh)
My wife properly explains that restaurants are really over a barrel on this issue. There are some salt-nazis out there who will raise holy hell if they taste the slightest hint of salt in a dish. “What are you trying to do, kill me?,” they screech. And then you have folks like me on the other side of the equation who will crucify a cook for attempting to bore my palate to sleep with bland, tasteless food. Working upward from the lowest common denominator, some restaurants choose to properly season food and suffer the slings and arrows of the outrageously palate-numbed masses while others – apparently including Cheesecake Factory – opt for pandering to them.
At any rate, the kitchen manager went on to explain that they followed fairly standard restaurant procedure in that they par-cooked big batches of pasta first thing in the morning, stored it in the reach-in until needed, and then finished it portion by portion in hot water and sauce before serving. No problem. That's the way I've done it, too. BUT, the pasta gets its flavor in the first few minutes of cooking. If the water in which the noodles were par-cooked wasn't salty enough, all bets are off when you reheat them. He told me he was going to go back and taste the water they were using to reheat the pasta. Too late, dude! The damage was done by the prep cooks this morning. You get a little wiggle room with something relatively fine like capellini or even regular spaghetti. But with big honkin' pasta shapes like penne, you just get flavorless, bland, inedible chunks of chewy cardboard. And that's what I was served – in a four-cheese marinara sauce with a wet glop of ricotta.
But on the bright side, the chocolate mousse cheesecake was decadently delicious. And, as I said, the bread was good, so the meal wasn't a total loss.
I know I'm an opinionated, hyper-critical old fuddy-duddy when it comes to Italian food. And I know Cheesecake Factory is a very popular place. The one we went to was packed to the doors, so obviously somebody likes it. My wife liked it. She's now a confirmed consumer of pot stickers. And who's to say the next Cheesecake Factory down the road might not have a kitchen a little less stringent in its “control” of salt? The fact remains that for my money – even though it technically wasn't my money – it all amounted to a rather disappointing dining experience. Except for the cheesecake: I'll definitely go back for the cheesecake.
Which is why, I guess, it's a good thing they don't call themselves “Pasta Factory.”