It was in New York City, quite some time ago, and we stared spellbound as they descended that stairway; in those days the Famous Chef was a rare sight indeed. I recall that, after they'd gone back upstairs, a few less-than-flattering remarks about Mr. Tower's flamboyant silk scarf were uttered by some of the blue-collar crew. But there was something awe-inspiring about seeing these two pioneers of Californian, and ultimately of modern American, cooking in the flesh.
Many years later I am free to enjoy -- or not -- Mr. Puck's pizzas and dinners, available in the freezer section of any supermarket. He has cashed in bigtime on his name and fame, and although those frostbitten meals are regrettable, anyone who's ever worked in a professional kitchen has to be cheered by Puck's ability to turn his considerable talents as a chef into a hugely profitable career. It really happens to only very few.
I was not cheered at the prospect of heading to Sawgrass Mills, site of his latest venture, the Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe. The monstrous stores themselves don't frighten me much, but as a person with no sense of direction, I need a landmark the size of a sports stadium to find my way around. Fortunately Puck's place is situated across from just that: the Panthers' new hockey arena.
More appropriately the outdoor tables of the stylish restaurant sit just a narrow, pedestrian-mall walkway across from those at the Cheesecake Factory, which became successful partly by pirating Puck's idea of funneling Asian, Mediterranean, and American Southwestern ingredients into light Californian fusion foods; the Factory merely scaled it down for the masses. Puck is now vying for that same block of consumers in similar fashion by offering a middle-of-the-road variation on his once cutting-edge cuisine. It is not surprising, then, that the Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe has ended up with a Cheesecake Factory menu.
In other words this ain't no Spago or Chinois on Main. That's OK -- at these prices it's not supposed to be. That it's a Wolfgang Puck enterprise in name only becomes apparent way before you even get to the food, the commercial quality of the venture easily surmised just by noting that Grand Cafes have also opened in Las Vegas and Orlando, on the campus of the University of Southern California, at Macy's in San Francisco and Minnesota, and so on. Another hint that you are not on Sunset Boulevard: The crowd, and I do mean crowd, is not composed of people making the scene (as those hip Californians like to say), but rather families with kids, settling down for lunch or dinner while shopping at the mall or before a movie (yes, a megaplex is right up the street) or a hockey game. Some diners are also locals, people who actually live in this godforsaken area.
The high ceilings in this Factory-size restaurant certainly give everyone enough breathing space, even if all 383 seats are filled. It is a visually arresting room, with pastel-color walls; variously hued panels of fruit-stained woods; color-flecked, black-and-white mosaic columns; a busy bar wrapping around the rear dining section; an open kitchen; and a counter up front. By the entranceway a small takeout area, the Express, features a limited selection of menu items to go; it appeared that most people here were ordering pizzas. The firm of Puck's wife-and-partner Barbara Lazaroff designed the interior, as it does all of his spots, and it's come up with an informal and contemporary look that is, technically speaking, just perfect for the food. Sometimes, though, there's so much money and planning invested in a place that it loses the feeling of being owned by people; the Grand Cafe seems like a restaurant impeccably conceptualized by a faceless corporate entity.
The cheery wait staff emanated enough personality to compensate for the room's lack thereof. The employees were also well trained and menu-smart, though one waiter was a bit fast-food chattery. His grinning visage twice approached the table to ask, in a hypothetical way: "Not too bad, huh?" Well, no, but did I have to keep reassuring him? In fact the food may not be Puck, but it was not bad at all. A basket of fresh focaccia, olive bread, and Parmesan crisps started us off auspiciously, our optimism reinforced with a smooth and buttery butternut squash soup with a swirl of red pepper purée. Next a duo of moist, well-seasoned Florida rock-shrimp cakes, their golden cornmeal crusts giving way to steaming hot interiors stocked with sweet nuggets of the crawfishlike crustacean. A velvety corn sauce complemented the cakes well, but the "fire-roasted pepper salad," a scattering of wilted spinach leaves and a few strips of too-cold red peppers was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a salad.
An Asian-inspired appetizer of barbecued ribs "ObaChine" style, also available as a main course, was excellent. I couldn't tell you what ObaChine actually means, but I do know that the four short, meaty pork ribs glazed with hoisin, honey, and ginger were sweet, as the ingredients would indicate, and tasted like a flawless version of the ribs you'd like to get, but never do, from your neighborhood Chinese take-out. They were accompanied by an Asian cabbage-and-radish slaw that, except for the radish, was tasteless.
Puck was the first to popularize thin-crusted, wood-fired, trendily adorned pizzas. When you see a pie with unusual ingredients like duck sausage, shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onions, and sage, you have Wolfgang to thank -- or blame, depending on your perspective on such matters. What we can all agree on is that no human being has ever gotten so far on an ability to make a good pizza pie as Mr. Puck. The toppings at the café are similar to those you'd find on the menu at Spago, where for $14.50 you can get a pie peppered with Louisiana shrimp, plum tomatoes, leeks, and basil. Here, for $8.95, the spicy shrimp pizza comes with red and yellow peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, leeks, and basil. (And think of what you save on airfare!) Our pizza with spinach, mushrooms, blue cheese, pesto, oregano, and thyme was, as our waiter would say, "not too bad," though in truth I've had better wood-oven crusts elsewhere.
Pastas come with many of the same Mediterranean ingredients as the pizzas, though in different configurations. The pappardelle was as satisfying as that served by any local Italian trattoria: wide strips of homemade pasta tossed with soft, high-quality Laura Chenel goat cheese, arugula, basil, sun-dried and fresh tomatoes, and slivers of garlic, double-blanched to soften the potent bulb's punch.
Another praiseworthy entrée was the peppered rare-charred tuna, six disks of sushi-fresh fish in a pungent mustard-brandy sauce. Mashed potatoes, assertively dashed with horseradish, came on the side, along with an unfortunate foursome of crunchily undercooked baby carrots. The "Adventures in the Kitchen" meat loaf, named after one of Wolfgang's cookbooks, is made with lamb, veal, and pork but tasted just like beef. Caramelized bacon wrapped around the edge of the slice was a nice touch; the dried sheen of port-wine glaze stretched across the top was not. More mashed potatoes, these weakly infused with garlic, came heaped aside the loaf, sopping up whatever little port-wine sauce remained on the plate. Two hot and crispy onion rings were fastened atop the mash by a flag-at-Iwo-Jima-angled rosemary sprig.
The Grand Cafe offers an extensive selection of food. Besides the appetizers, pastas, pizzas, and main courses, there's a separate sushi menu offered, as well as three variations of pad Thai, two dishes called "Wolfgang's Favorites" (Wiener schnitzel and Zwiebelrostbraten from his native Austria), and numerous salads (like Cobb, caesar, and "new style" Niçoise). Three of the most popular lunchtime sandwiches are a shrimp-BLT club on grilled sourdough bread, a half-pound Angus beef "PuckBurger," and a rotisserie lamb sandwich with goat cheese, ratatouille, and rosemary jus on focaccia. Half of a very large chicken also comes from the rotisserie, basted with rosemary and garlic or barbecue sauce. We chose the former treatment for our bird, which was tasty and tender but seemingly oven-cooked and suspiciously lacking in the unique flavor that only rotation on a spit can spin into food.
A warm oatmeal-crumble apple pie topped with Häagen-Dazs ice cream is tough to beat for a homey, autumnal ending to a meal, though little tastings of vanilla, dark-chocolate-espresso, and Grand Marnier crème brûlées were likewise heartwarming. The Maida Heatter-inspired bull's-eye cheesecake, with vanilla and espresso flavors swirled together, was fine, too, though I had a nagging suspicion that I could have done better across the street. It is their specialty, no? Just the same, if I had to choose between the Cheesecake and Wolfgang factories for the rest of my meal, it wouldn't be the Puck that I'd pass.