Remember California Pizza Kitchen? Back before they became kings of the frozen food aisle, they used to have actual restaurants! Remember that? It may shock you to learn that those restaurants still exist today! And, perhaps even more mind blowing, these California Pizza Kitchens appear to be evolving into something new… something sentient, far more powerful and fancy, and featuring non-pizza food items. Believe it! Except for maybe that sentient part. Anyway, a change is coming, and right here in Tampa you can get a taste of that sweet sweet future at the California Pizza Kitchen at International Plaza.
I was recently asked to attend a preview of the newer/bigger/badder California Pizza Kitchen, and, in spite of a series of misfortunes and general stupidity on my part, I was able to stop by and get a taste of a bunch of new dishes (entirely thanks to my contact Austen being incredibly accommodating).
It would seem that California Pizza Kitchen is going for a new look and feel to the restaurant itself, in addition to the new menu. All of these changes stem from a push towards not only using fresher, local ingredients at the restaurant, but also bringing a focus back to the bold, innovative flavors that made California Pizza Kitchen unique from its start (as with their BBQ, Thai, and Jerk chicken pizzas that made them famous). The result appears to have manifested in a series of high-quality menu items and interior decoration, bringing an upscale feel to a mid-range eatery.
Upon my arrival, I was greeted by several friendly faces ready to take me on a gluttonous tour of tomorrow. I informed them that I was on a bit of a tight schedule, and they were very understanding. In order to keep my schedule, I was subjected to a barrage of food and drinks, running the course gamut. It was one part fantasy, and one part heartbreak, as I was presented with dish after dish, but in no way capable of eating more than just a few bites of any one item. Such is my plight, and I bore it alone.
To begin, two cocktails and a non-alcoholic drink. From left to right, the Fresh Strawberry Mango Cooler (non-alcoholic with a Fresca base, which I do not care for, but decently sweet and fruity thanks to the strawberries), the Blueberry Ginger Smash, and the California Roots. The Smash was essentially a Dark and Stormy, but swap Jack Daniels (my favorite) for the rum, add some agave nectar, cranberry juice, and fresh blueberries and lime. Delicious, well balanced, and personally appealing to me. But the winner was still the California Roots, which captures the “innovative” sensibility of CPK by consisting of fresh (muddled?) avocado and mint with vodka and agave sour. The drink was probably the most light and refreshing cocktail I’ve had, perfect for pretty much any Florida day. Add to it a rim of crushed sea salt and fennel, and you have one of the most unique drinks you’ll ever encounter.
The food was brought to me a bit out of order because of my time constraints, but I’ll present everything here in a more “sensible” order, so let’s begin with the Brussels + Bacon Flatbread. By comparison with almost everything else I had during my visit, the flatbread was rather tame. Consisting of roasted Brussels sprouts (which I like even though nobody else seems to), caramelized onions, bacon, and goat and romano cheeses. Everything blended together quite a bit aside from the bacon, so it mostly just tasted like a lightly cheesy bread punctuated by the occasional piece of bacon. Not bad, but nothing special.
The Harvest Kale Salad, however, was actually quite special. Delightfully fresh and light, the salad started with a bed of baby kale, featuring toasted farro, cabbage, pear shavings, cranberries and pecans, with bits of butternut squash and topped with some of the creamiest, most lovely goat cheese ever. The salad featured a citrus vinaigrette, which is right up my alley. A beautiful salad.
As I mentioned before, THIS AIN’T YER GRANDMA’S CALIFORNIA PIZZA KITCHEN. That is to say, there appears to be a concerted shift from pizza towards other types of food. But, at its core, there’s still got to be pizza at the Pizza Kitchen (because, I mean, it’s in the name right?). And so, in keeping with the “pizza” thing, I was presented with the one item of the tasting that was a pizza – the Sunny Side Up Bacon + Potato Pizza. Right away I wanted to make sweet, sweaty, passionate morning love to this thing. I mean look at it – drippy goo flowing from sunny side up eggs, pouring out onto bacon, shaved fingerling potatoes, and caramelized leeks, with Parmesan and mozzarella cheese (the egg yolks provide the only “sauce” present). It’s breakfast pizza. Unfortunately, I cannot say this was a highlight of the meal. While creative and definitely fun, the pizza was mostly just salty, with very little contributing to the flavor outside of the bacon and yolk. Not bad, but not enough going on here to bring me back in.
The four separate main courses begin with the Hearth-Roasted Halibut. Roasted on a cedar plank, the halibut is served with a savory butternut squash farro with baby kale, and grilled asparagus. The fish was not especially tender or flakey, and was so lightly seasoned I didn’t find it to be very interesting. The farro, however, was amazing.
Here we have the Fire-Grilled Ribeye – a 12oz USDA choice ribeye grilled with a Pinot Noir sea salt(!), and served with a tiny lump of bleu cheese butter. I asked for this to be as rare as they would make it, and it came out pretty rare (though I’ve had rarer). Of all the items I was served on my visit, this was the one I returned to and tried to eat the most of. It was just a beautiful piece of meat, an excellent cut seasoned lightly enough that the beef flavor shone through. And the bleu cheese butter on top was insanely good, just enough bleu cheese to give a hint, but not overpower. I could eat this steak forever and be happy. Served with roasted fingerling potatoes in a pesto sauce (decadent!) and a lemon-garlic arugala salad, this dish is the one I would order on my next visit. Steak. From a pizza place.
The Cedar Plank Salmon, by comparison with the halibut, was heaven. Also cooked on a cedar plank, the salmon was seasoned with lime and smoked paprika, which all served to capture the “essence” of cedar plank grilled far better than the halibut did. The salmon’s exterior was salty (almost too salty, but not quite) and lightly charred, while its insides were extremely tender and moist. Perfect fish dish, served with a white corn and spinach succotash topped with feta, which had a spicy Latin feel. Squeeze the half a lime on top of everything, and you are going to have an excellent meal.
To finish out the main dishes, we have the Roasted Garlic Chicken + Seasonal Vegetables, from the seasonal menu (to be periodically changed… you know, with the season). The chicken was prepared with a lemon-garlic sauce (chunks of warm garlic), and served with fingerling potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower. The chicken was godly… never before have I experienced chicken quite so juicy. The moistness had been sealed inside the meat during the roasting/searing process, providing a crisp, perfectly seasoned exterior, hiding the reason I’m not a vegetarian within. Everything else in this dish was probably fine, whatever – just give me the chicken. Though I enjoyed the steak more, this was probably the best prepared item I had.
And we have finally arrived at the end of our meal – the desserts. We begin here with a pair of puddings: on the left, we have S’mores Pudding, and on the right is the Salted Caramel Pudding. I have gone on the record as being a dedicated s’mores fan and supporter, but sadly the S’mores pudding missed the mark, with a gelatinous blob of impassable marshmallow on top, hiding what is an entirely ordinary chocolate pudding below. The graham crackers on the bottom were not easily accessible, not only making this dish difficult to eat, but making it hard to really capture that s’mores flavor.
The Salted Caramel Pudding, on the other had, was completely on point. It was super rich and salty, and in some ways reminding me of a homemade Jell-O pudding that used too much powder… the flavor was so intense that this would be difficult to eat alone in one sitting. Nevertheless, it was incredibly delicious.
The seasonal Pumpkin Cheesecake made an appearance, on a ginger crumb praline crust. Very good, with a slight spice and an excellent creaminess, but nothing that I haven’t tasted before.
Last but certainly not least, we have the Butter Cake. Butter Cake. It’s a Butter Cake. Have you had this? Probably not. This thing was the best. It was something like a pound cake in consistency, with a bit of the light flavor of angel food cake, but the rich butteriness of butter cookies. You know, those blue tins you get for Christmas? That’s it. That’s what this tastes like. Buttery god damned deliciousness. Served warm, with melty vanilla iced-creams on top and whipped-creams on the sides. I would go back just for this dessert.
So, in the end, we are presented with a conundrum. We have here the California Pizza Kitchen. Pizza is in the title. Yet you can clearly see an emphasis on not-pizza. I was reminded of Seasons 52, but obviously this is a far more casual environment and far more moderately priced. The food was excellent, with dishes far better than I’d expect from the California Pizza Kitchen – far better than I’d expect from a pizza place. So what is to come of this? Seasonal menus, local, fresh ingredients, and a slew of decidedly non-pizza items. Is this sustainable? Will people go to a place with “Pizza” in its name for food that is not pizza? I would definitely go back, but the answer remains to be seen.
Regardless, the food was excellent, as was the experience thanks in no small part to my incredibly knowledgeable and proficient server Shawn. In spite of everything I did that should have ruined this event, I was met with flexibility and kindness, and then given tons of great food. I look forward to returning to the California Pizza Kitchen, and am interested to see whether this new concept for the company works here in Tampa Bay, and from there how it may play on the national stage.