A few weeks ago I had a blogging experience I’ve never had before. Out of the blue, an email from California Pizza Kitchen arrived asking me to try their “new, elevated menu“… at their expense. I’ve been offered special treats at Pollito con Papas and free Thai tea at Talin’s Pop-Up Dumpling Shop, but no one’s ever offered to comp my whole meal. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ve probably noticed that I only review locally owned places (with one entertaining exception), but I couldn’t resist. What would the experience be like? Would I get some kind of red-carpet treatment?
When I said sign me up! and specified a time, Toni (the public relations manager) sent me a $100 gift card and told me to ask for Devin when I got there.
So, a few days after Christmas, Arne and I braved Albuquerque Uptown. My theory that it would be less packed after Christmas than before was probably true, but it was still a madhouse. We finally found parking and headed for the restaurant, which was absolutely packed. I told the hostess that Toni had told me to ask for Devin, and also that we’d like a table. She handed me one of those coaster-shaped things that notify you when your table is ready. Devin appeared shortly and welcomed me, apologizing for the wait; Arne and I were both mildly disappointed and greatly relieved that we weren’t rushed to the front of the line.
After a while we were led to a small table in the back and introduced to our server, Amber, who was delightful – friendly and funny and professional. We scanned the menu looking for items marked with the little green “NEW” marker, since I had been invited specifically to try the menu upgrades. We knew right away what our first item would be: a seasonal special, Brussels + Bacon Flatbread. We also ordered the two new soups, Farmers Market and Baked Potato, served side-by-side in one bowl; the Harvest Kale Salad; and the Sunny Side Up Bacon + Potato Pizza, topped with two eggs. I was surprised to see that the items that used bacon (three of the five we chose) boasted Neuske’s applewood smoked bacon, a premium brand that will set you back 17 bucks a pound if you order it from Zingerman’s deli in Ann Arbor.
The flatbread came out quickly, while we were still munching on our little starter plate of sourdough bread with a pretty nice olive oil and herbs. It was clear on sight that they hadn’t skimped on the fancy bacon. I was reluctantly – as I said, I’m no fan of chains – but completely impressed by this dish. I mean, bacon and Brussels sprouts is far from a stunning new combination, but it’s classic for a reason, and CPK’s addition of caramelized onion is a great addition. The bacon was excellent, the Brussels sprouts sweet. (They must have been par-boiled before going on the flatbread, as they were cooked through but only lightly browned by the pizza oven.) The bread underneath was crisp and tasty, but really just a vehicle for getting the tasty toppings to your mouth. Which was fine by me.
We had just a few bites of the flatbread left when everything else came out. The soups were nice, perhaps over-thickened, but that’s what allowed them to sit side by side in the bowl. It’s not hard to make a good potato soup; I was more pleased by the Farmers Market, which had a base of roasted squash. I would never normally order such a thing, because I dislike winter squash, but this was quite tasty. It started seeming a little too sweet after several bites, and I wouldn’t have wanted a whole bowl of it, but it was a good starter.
The salad was less successful. The baby kale was fine, much better than regular kale, which I don’t care for raw no matter how finely you slice it. The lightly cooked shaved pear was nice. But somehow the whole was less than the sum of its parts. It was okay, but we didn’t eat much of it.
The breakfast pizza was impressive to look at, with its crown of golden eggs. One was still a little runny, as I would prefer it; the other was fully cooked, as the health inspector probably likes better. The bacon, once again, was awesome, and the crust was very nice, crisp and chewy with light charring at the edges. As a whole, the pizza was good but heavy; it needed a brighter flavor, perhaps sun-dried tomatoes, to spark the rest of the ingredients and lighten the overall feel. That said, we each ate two slices and absolutely rolled out of the restaurant. Dessert was out of the question.
I felt that the mission wasn’t quite fulfilled; almost half of my gift card remained, and we hadn’t tried either of the new “Main Plates,” a ribeye and a halibut. I wanted to taste one of them because they aren’t the sort of thing I associate with this brand. So I grabbed my ladies-who-lunch friend Dawn and went back for a second round.
This time we showed up on a Tuesday at 11:30 more than a week past New Year’s, and the restaurant was quiet. Once again, we were served by Amber, who actually remembered me from the previous time, including where Arne and I had sat in the restaurant. Dawn and I started off with the seasonal blackberry drinks; I got the non-alcoholic Fizz and she got the Sparkler, which included rum and prosecco. I loved mine; I’m a sucker for all things blackberry, and the blackberry flavor was strong. I forgot to have a sip of Dawn’s, but she seemed to like it – she spirited the little prosecco bottle away in her purse so she could find the brand to buy later. We also ordered a Roasted Veggie salad and the Fire-Grilled Ribeye. Dawn and I were both delighted to discover that the other preferred rare steak, so that’s how we ordered it.
Rather like the kale salad from my previous visit, the Roasted Veggie salad didn’t really seem to come together. The individual parts, especially the artichokes, were nice (though the avocado was underripe), but something kept them from cohering into a harmonious whole. We were entirely happy to push it aside when the ribeye came out on a big rectangular cutting board, crowned with blue cheese butter and flanked by an enormous pile of lightly dressed arugula and a smaller pile of roasted fingerling potatoes.
The steak smelled wonderful. When we cut into it, I was impressed to see that it was actually rare. Dawn tasted it and her eyes went wide with pleasure; when I had my first bite, I had to agree. Much to my surprise, this was a really good, flavorful steak, with lots of beefy flavor and a good grilled taste. It was pretty fatty; that’s par for the course with ribeye, though, and were both quite happy with it. There was only one steak knife, but the meat was tender enough that my butter knife sufficed. I don’t eat a lot of steak, so maybe I’m not the best judge, but I enjoyed the heck out of this one. The rich, salty butter was gilding the lily, but we ate it all.
Dawn and I were pretty full, but we agreed to get the salted caramel pudding. Then Amber talked up the butter cake: “We’re like family around here. When someone gets food, they share it. Unless it’s butter cake.” So Dawn ordered that too.
The pudding came in a cute little crock, with crushed chocolate cookies underneath and a thick layer of whipped cream on top. (Caramel pudding is rarely a beautiful color, so covering it up is a good plan.) The cake was bigger than we expected, topped with ice cream and accompanied by poofs of whipped cream. I liked the pudding, though it was very salty indeed and that might put off some. The butter cake was decadent, rich and sweet and kind of butterscotchy. The ice cream wasn’t all that flavorful and seemed superfluous. We scraped most of it off and devoured the cake plain.
So, what’s my takeaway? While not every dish was great – I was surprised that both salads were misses, as I think of pizza and salad when I think of CPK – I really enjoyed a couple of the dishes, notably the Brussels + Bacon Flatbread and the Fire-Grilled Ribeye. Overall the food was quite good. Which wasn’t what I expected to be saying.
Would I tell you to go to CPK instead of one of our locally owned pizza spots like Farina or Il Vicino? No. But if you’re in the Uptown area – notorious for its dearth of good local options – or entertaining folks who prefer chain establishments, you can have a really good meal at California Pizza Kitchen.