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Get out! Cheesecake Cafe an OK dining experience

Canadian cuisine? Is there such a thing?

A bit of research led me to believe that no such thing truly exists (although I did find out that the Chinese restaurant as we know and love it today began in Vancouver, B. C., in 1870). According to Wikipedia, the cuisine of Canada is a wild mix of influences including British, French, Scandinavian, German and Eskimo (fishsickle, anyone?)

Perhaps this partially explains the wild cultural collision that is the menu at America’s Cheesecake Cafe, which opened last year in Coeur d’Alene on U.S. Highway 95 across from the mall.

This young Canadian chain restaurant (known simply as Cheesecake Cafe north of the border) has a menu that reads like an abridged Encyclopedia of International Foods.

It seems as if most boxy chain restaurants these days have rather limited menus mainly full of exquisite food photography but little substance. Not here – this menu doesn’t include a single photograph and still manages to be enormous.

The five-pound spiral-bound behemoth includes lists of bottles of gourmet wine, ecstasy-inducing cocktail fantasies (Caramel Appletini, Ice Cream Sandwich) and appetizers from around the globe listed in totally random fashion (Tuscan bread, chicken nachitos, shrimpcargots) – and that’s just the first 10 pages!

For main fare, there are dozens of choices, including fruit salads, calzones, quiche, fish tacos, omelets, liver and onions, jambalaya, mahi-mahi, fajitas, veal parmigiana, Singapore stir-fry and something called a “hippie sandwich” (uh, no thanks).

I was impressed and surprised to see “Joe’s Special” on the menu, a delightful spinach and scrambled-egg concoction that I haven’t seen since Henry’s on Sherman Avenue closed.

The last few chapters of America’s Cheesecake Cafe’s epic tome are dedicated to the weekend champagne brunch, which looks a little exhausting, and to the reason we came here in the first place: the cheesecake.

There are at least 30 varieties listed, and they also tease you on your way in the door with a huge display case full of these delicacies. My jaw dropped when I saw the carrot cake, which was approximately as tall as my 3-year-old nephew.

For my recent birthday dinner, my mom, stepdad and I decided to venture into America’s Cheesecake Cafe to check it out for the first time.

Here, the host seats you, gives you menus and water, then disappears for a long coffee break because the staff knows that with such a huge menu, it’s going to take you forever to decide what to order. We had to send our poor waiter away three times before we had had a chance to make it through the whole menu.

Making matters worse, my mother had forgotten her reading glasses, and the menu type is so small, it practically requires an old-fashioned microfiche machine to read it. I was hoarse from reading the long list of options aloud when she finally decided on the Thai shrimp salad. My stepfather, never one for heavy-duty decisions, opted to order the same thing.

Although massive, the America’s Cheesecake Cafe menu was not quite as all-encompassing as I’d like. The thing I almost always order on my birthday was absent – seafood fettuccine. Instead, I opted for the thing I always order when I hit the Satellite Diner in Spokane: the black and bleu burger, well-done.

We were ravenous, and our food couldn’t arrive fast enough. But this is one of those places where, even though it’s packed with customers, young staff members are lingering in groups in dark corner stations, gossiping wildly. Meanwhile, you begin to wonder why the food is taking so long. Why don’t they go back in the kitchen and help or something?

Our waiter was friendly, but his attitude was a little too much on the casual side, like he had just woken up and hadn’t quite gotten with it yet.

The food finally arrived. Although I did enjoy my burger, it wasn’t quite up to Satellite standards. America’s Cheesecake Cafe was cheap with the bleu cheese, which gave the whole thing a lack of pizazz. The Satellite version has a perfectly charred patty with rich caramelized onions and heaps of fresh, pungent bleu cheese. It’s one of the most satisfying flavor combos I know.

The fries at America’s Cheesecake Cafe were standard, but it was the plastic cup of “cafeslaw” that cast a real shadow of tragedy across my plate: a bland and mayonnaisey cabbage concoction that must have come from a recipe borrowed from down the street at Kootenai Medical Center. Yucky.

Memo to upper management: Please substitute a nice green salad or something and leave the coleslaw to KFC.

My mom and stepdad fared a wee bit better with their Thai shrimp salads, although it was hard to identify exactly what made them “Thai.” Was it the presence of snow peas? The crunchy canned chow mein noodles?

Must be the dressing, which by all accounts was quite delicious, an Oriental-style dressing with hints of spicy peanutiness.

One problem: Both salads were swimming in a lake of this dressing, totally drenched – more salad dressing than even a salad-dressing fanatic would want to use. Unbelievably, a little side of dressing was included with each salad just in case the half-gallon already poured on each one wasn’t enough.

The salads were so rich with dressing that my mom and stepdad couldn’t eat more than a few bites – it tasted good but was just too much.

Wisely, my mom asked for to-go boxes, took them home, diluted the salads with some of her own lettuce and some other stuff and re-served them a few hours later, saying they were much better the second time around.

The waiter must have seen me open the birthday card from my mom, so he offered me a free piece of cheesecake – my choice. It actually was the day after my birthday, but he didn’t ask to check my ID or anything. (So when you go to this restaurant, bring a card as a prop, stage a fake birthday, and voila! Free dessert!)

The pressure to decide seemed enormous. I skipped the tempting Tunnel of Fudge in favor of the Black Forest cheesecake.

It was a giant slice, and I was so full from my burger that I managed only a few bites. But it was absolutely fantastic: rich and tart and chocolatey. I took the rest home and nibbled on it for three days.

Overall, this was a merely acceptable dining experience, with nothing truly awful to report, but nothing especially memorable either. Suitably fine and inoffensive, but nothing to rave wildly about.

Perhaps America’s Cheesecake Cafe is spreading itself a bit thin with its zillion-item menu and might do better by concentrating on a few specialties.

Also, hardly worth discussion is the general ambience of the place, which is pretty much nonexistent. I don’t think I could handle a revival of the ‘80s Southwest look with its pottery tones and pastels, but that’s the closest thing I could match to what is happening inside this place.

The only highlight is the bar area with its cool display of backlit booze-bottle multiples that reaches impressively to the ceiling.

To the restaurant’s credit, the food prices are quite reasonable. But the main reason I will return is that the huge menu mocks you into wanting to try everything on it.

That, and to claim another free piece of “birthday” cheesecake. Shhh!


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