Cafe Society

Counter Claim

Question: What do you get when two California lawyers decide to open up their own pizzeria?

Answer: A lot of pizzerias.

But the California Pizza Kitchen is no joke. As of last week, when a second Colorado location opened at FlatIron Crossing, there are 83 full-service CPKs, as they like to be called, as well as 24 quick-service sites stretching across 22 states and on into Guam, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. (The Manila location is the chain's largest, with 10,000 square feet over two floors.) The fifteen-year-old CPK company went public this summer, and today it has the solid backing of a private investment firm as well as the continued strong presence of its publicity-hound founders, Rick Rosenfield and Larry Flax. The former federal prosecutors have appeared in the same pose -- pizza paddles wielded stiffly in front of them, an oven behind -- in almost every magazine with a remote connection to either food or business.

And not without reason: CPK is currently the thirteenth-largest casual-dining chain in the country, which puts it not too far behind the Cheesecake Factory in revenues. And it's already way ahead of the Cheesecake Factory in the quality of food that comes out of that kitchen, which these days produces much more than pizza. In fact, CPK's salads are such stunners that they recently snagged a Best of Denver award.

I've sampled those salads -- as well as pizzas, pasta dishes and appetizers -- at Colorado's first California Pizza Kitchen, which opened this spring in the Cherry Creek Shopping Center, in Sfuzzi's old space. Although the dining room setup is much the same as it was during the Sfuzzi days, CPK has cleaned up the decor, giving it a modern, tidy look that matches the eatery's streamlined, fussless approach to food. Diners have a choice of sitting indoors at a table, outdoors (where the people-watching is unbeatable) or at the counter, an attractive option for shoppers who are looking for a quick bite mid-shopping spree -- and who clearly appreciate the fact that CPK is such an improvement over other casual options in the mall, which usually involve sandwiches, burgers and pizza that has been sitting under a heat lamp for heaven knows how long.

CPK's pizzas are fresh and fun, with a focus on funky, intriguing toppings; it's almost impossible to order something as pedestrian as a pie covered with tomato and cheese. The company prides itself on having come up with many of the weird combinations, including the Original BBQ chicken pizza ($8.99). The list of toppings sounded awful, but they tasted wonderful together: a sweet, slightly smoky sauce under smoked gouda and mozzarella, as well as big chunks of barbecued chicken, long shards of red onion and a sprinkling of cilantro, which added a Southwestern quality. The BLT ($8.59) was another successful combo, with a base of bacon, mozzarella and tomatoes lying beneath a blanket of chilled, shredded lettuce thinly slicked with mayo. Close your eyes, and it was an open-faced sandwich minus the toast crumbs that always gather in the corners of your mouth with a traditional BLT. (Consumer alert: By design, many CPK toppings are almost raw, which can be a surprise when you bite into a piece of onion or pineapple.) The Thai chicken ($8.99) was a more worldly winner, boasting a mildly spicy, peanut-butter-based, ginger-heavy sauce studded with sesame seeds that coated pieces of chicken breast (a little on the dry side); on top of that sat mozzarella cheese, raw scallions, bean sprouts and carrots, as well as a liberal sprinkling of chopped roasted peanuts. The effect was almost like eating a spring roll spread out on a cracker.

If these pies had a drawback, it was that cracker-like crust -- dry, kind of chewy and bland. Although you don't expect a pizza's crust to be a major flavor contributor, there's something to be said for it not tasting like a Carr's Table Water cracker, which is what kept coming to mind as I bit into slices of those three pies. But they were all regular-crust offerings, so we also sampled a Neapolitan-style pie, the margherita ($8.29), the classic combo of romas, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and parmesan on a cracker-thin crust. Here we expected to get more Table Water cracker flavor; instead we enjoyed a more oily crust that had a faintly nutty flavor and was an altogether tastier foundation.

Tastier still were the pasta dishes, especially the portabello mushroom ravioli ($9.29), a rich, rich dish of round little pasta pillows flavored with rosemary and stuffed with mushrooms and ricotta cheese, all blanketed in your choice of a fresh tomato sauce with basil and garlic or a garlic parmesan cream sauce. The latter sauce, which was not too thick or gloppy, sported a delicate garlic flavor that had us scraping the plate with a spoon. The tequila chicken fettuccine ($9.29) was fabulous, too, a mess of spinach fettuccine tossed with tangy chicken bits, diced red and yellow peppers and red onions, all of them permeated by a feisty cream sauce spiked with tequila, tarted up with lime and fired up with jalapeños.

The appetizer roster offered more proof of the kitchen's savvy mixing abilities. An order of spinach and artichoke dip ($5.99) brought a generous portion of a tangy, cheese-gooey delight along with blue and white tortilla chips. The tortilla spring rolls ($4.99) were another good noshing-while-shopping choice. The tortilla-wrapped packages come two to an order, stuffed with your choice of fillings (we ordered Baja chicken and more of the Thai), and since they're baked, they seemed healthier than the fried variety. Even so, we found them filling and delicious. Ditto for the soup, which is particularly enjoyable when you pick the option of trying two in one bowl ($4.49): The kitchen pours the soups in from both sides simultaneously, which makes for a nice presentation as well as the opportunity to try two things at once. We slurped up the potato leek, with its cream-enriched base and strong onion taste, and the Sedona white-corn tortilla soup, a pungent mixture of sweet tomatoes and sweet corn in a tomato-based broth, with crispy tortilla strips for texture.

And then there were the salads, the real stars at CPK. The Oriental chicken salad ($8.99 for a whole, $4.99 for a half, which is still very generous) was a marvel of simplicity, a savvy mix of lettuce, carrots, scallions, fresh basil and cilantro, tender grilled chicken and crisply fried angel hair, every bit of which was kissed by a beautifully balanced sesame-based dressing that was at once sweet, sour, spicy and nutty -- and utterly addictive.

CPK's portions are generous -- one pizza easily serves one, and maybe two, depending on how hungry you are -- and its prices are modest. This is a place that appeals to families as well as shoppers, which is why it was a surprise to find the children's offerings a disappointment. The kids' pizzas (each $4.99) had an odd flavor, almost as if they'd been frozen, which staffers assured me was not the case. And although the mac 'n' cheese ($4.99) had potential, with fun fusilli pasta for kids to stab at, the light cheese sauce was too gourmet for them to appreciate.

Overall, though, the Cherry Creek California Pizza Kitchen is an oasis of competent casual dining in a vast wasteland of mediocre mall fare, and there's no reason to expect less from the FlatIron outlet. Already, the CPK has put a couple of eateries that sit outside the mall -- most notably, Macaroni Grill and Canyon Cafe, where employees say they've seen a definite drop in business since CPK moved in -- on notice that they're going to have to stay on their toes to keep up. Just because a meal has a relatively low tab doesn't mean it can't be high in quality.

Today, no one's laughing at the former legal eagles who decided to open their own pizzeria. The verdict is in: Fewer lawyers, more California Pizza Kitchens.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner