The new year has come with little event and for a change, I'm not disappointed. The times of expectation and hype are behind me and I look forward to just living my life. This of course includes eating and eating well.
We started off 2009 with a late morning. Who am I kidding, it was afternoon when we ventured out for fresh air and food. We'd passed a restaurant a few times that was simply teeming with people at dinner time, and still attracting a small crowd this new year's day lunch. The Cheesecake Factory is a restaurant chain and entices with a fridge cabinet full of delightful looking and sounding cheesecakes at the front of the restuarant. We point greedily at different varieties: think peanut butter, cookie dough, cookies and cream and many more, and promise to save space in our tummies for them.
The menu offering at the Cheesecake Factory is enormous and a little confusing. There's no way that I can pinpoint a style of food, other than maybe calling it upmarket casual, as there are strong American influences along with Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and a few others still. On top of this, the segregation of the menu has me a little overwhelmed, with appetisers, pizzas, specialties then lunch specials, pasta, fish, meat, salads (in addition to the salads mentioned in the appetisers section) - a bit of simplicity is all I ask! I need a drink just after my first glance at the menu and we opt for non-alcoholic beverages this afternoon.
The frozen iced mango is a very sweet blend of juices with mango served with raspberry puree fetchingly swirled into the glass. The strawberry smoothie comes in a huge tumbler, thick, cold and fruity. Complimentary white and brown bread rolls and butter are also brought to the table with the drinks. When we finally manage to whittle down to our choices from the menu, we think we've ordered considerately enough to leave room for a shared cheesecake, as these too come in huge servings with piles of cream as seen on neighbouring tables. We polish off the soft, fresh bread as we wait for our meal to arrive.
We start with an appetiser sized serve of buffalo wings - we're giving them another go - that come with celery sticks, a blue cheese sauce and a hot chilli sauce. I wonder why they are served with celery sticks? The token vegetable presence? These wings are deep fried well with a spicy coating covering mid-wings and drumettes. I find the blue cheese dressing strong but complementary and the chilli sauce unnecessary. Next arrives my rather thoughtless choice of the kalua pig pizza - thoughtless because of the ingestion of two bread rolls before the meal.
The pizza smells fantastic, as even the server comments. It's colourful and gourmet-looking. There are generous handfuls of my new favourite kalua pig; smokey, tasty and tender. Other toppings include Spanish onion, capsicum, chopped parsley and cubes of mango. There's a lot of thick, stringy cheese and the base is bready, probably about three times the thickness of an Italian pizza base. Finally we've ordered our vegie fix in the way of an appetiser salad.
Which comes out on an oval platter sized plate. Appetiser? More like a meal in itself! Half the platter consists of fresh, leafy greens with a very light vinaigrette dressing. On the other side of the platter is tomato layered with slices of milky mozzarella. This is then topped with sun dried tomatoes, Spanish onion, crumbled blue cheese and a small amount of basil. I guess this is supposed to be the American 'bigger and better' embellished version of insalata caprese.
Most likely because of the bread before the meal and the huge serving sizes of everything, we manage to finish only the salad. Half the pizza stares sadly back at us along with a few wings minus their celery stick partners. We tried our best but can not even contemplate more food, let alone decadently sweet and rich cheesecake with naughty flavour and topping additions. Next time?
We somehow manage to fill the time in between lunch and dinner undertaking non-eating related activities. Mostly. But when dinner does eventually roll around we stay a little more local, exploring near our hotel. We chance upon a little Japanese ramen store with a queue of almost entirely Japanese tourists snaking across the footpath towards the road. It looks promising so we jump onto the end of the line at Ramen Nakamura and wait.
About 15 minutes later we find ourselves seated at the end of the narrow, rectangular bar seating next to and across from Japanese tourists both young and old. (There's a little boy opposite us that is almost falling asleep into his huge bowl of ramen. He has his eyes closed yet picks up noodles with his chopsticks and eats all the while. We fear that sleep may conquer and he'll end up with a hot, salty head but he doesn't.)
The server is friendly and very efficient, and brings us glasses of iced water with our menus. We pretty much know what we want, having stood waiting outside assessing the menu options. Their specialty is an ox tail ramen, but we both order more familiar sounding choices.
As the ramen arrives hot and steaming in massive basins, my companion and I look and grin at each other. We're in for some big eats tonight! The miso ramen of my companion's looks thick and creamy - the hit of miso flavour confirmed in the first mouthful of hot but not scalding soup. The noodles are accompanied by bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, shallots, a thin slice of roast pork and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
I've ordered a set that comes with three gyoza and opted for the shoyu ramen. The soup is darker in colour but lighter in consistency, and tasting light and meaty. Mine also comes with the same additions as listed above. Actually, both bowls of noodles are also garnished with a few slices of deep fried garlic - crunchy when not soaked in soup but releasing their pungent aroma once submerged in soup. You end up with a slight garlicky taste that's quite unique. The bean sprouts and bamboo shoots are cooked soft, the pork is tasty albeit a little fatty but the noodles are sensational. They're a little thicker than I've normally seen with a bit of bite to them and perfect with mouthfuls of the flavoursome soup.
The gyoza are close to the best I've ever had, if not the best. Obviously fresh made, the pastry is thin yet capably encasing the meat and vegies. The pan fried bottom is superbly crunchy and the first bite has vibrant, soupy juices running out to greet you. A dip in soy (not necessary even) and I'm in dumpling heaven. I wish that my stomach wouldn't fill so I could just eat these forever. Inevitably it does fill and we leave completely sated and very, very satisfied for a new year's day.