At the height of weekend dinner service, the Bistro's waiting area is as difficult to navigate as the Palace Theater during a fire drill, and the first whiff corresponds: a sweet-plasticky smell of perfume, synthetics and flaming things. The overflow alone -- spilling into the carport, the adjoining hotel lobby, the bar -- amounts to more customers than many deserving restaurants attract over the course of an entire evening. One person in each waiting party clutches a spaceship pager, willing it to blink; everyone else's attention falls upon nearby servers hefting dinner plates loaded with dictionary-size slices of carrot cake, salads worth two heads of iceberg each and schools of fried seafood. An entire evening at the Bistro can make a full-grown adult feel like he's an escapee from Lilliput, right down to the Great Dane-size doggie bag he'll haul home when it's all over.
Forget the French roots of the word "bistro"; the Cheesecake Bistro is as French as the Paris casino in Las Vegas. This common misuse of a word is not the greatest stretch in the world of Copeland, where almost anything goes. There, one man may affix his own name to a restaurant concept that has existed nationally since the 1980s. One order of bread pudding is granted the berth of a foot-wide soup bowl. One couple may request a booth fit for two small families.
The Bistro is nearly all booths, some elevated, some curved, and all cushy. It works out for most diners but abandons the rest to the middle of the dining room with only poster-size menus for protection. Request a booth. The room itself is more casino than typical restaurant -- swirly patterns, brass palm trees, nightclub lighting and a young, attractive staff that looks like it plays as hard as it hustles.
There's also an undercurrent that everyone in the room is cashing in. The test kitchen food, meticulously researched to please everyone, is likely to offend anyone with demanding tastebuds. A meatloaf sandwich the size of a baseball mitt, for example, tasted more strongly of dehydrated onion product than meat. This sandwich also typified the restaurant's preference for packaging over flavor: the mighty meatloaf rested between gorgeous slices of glistening (and greasy) Texas toast, with caramelly (if much too sugary) onions hanging over the edges. Even so, it would be difficult to argue that the Bistro is ripping anyone off. The place rollicks at all hours; like everyone else, you'll congratulate yourself for filling up on the meatloaf and scoring tomorrow's lunch for just $8.95.
It must be said that none of the food I tasted was terrible, just weak. The kitchen crew clearly grasps technique -- chicken was moist and chickeny, shrimp were plump and firm, wood-fired pizza didn't sag -- but recipes merely hit the mean in taste. Regional dishes like chicken and andouille gumbo, Creole-marinated rotisserie chicken and barbecue shrimp linguine all appeared to be sprinkled with a fair bit of spice rack, but typical New Orleans spunk was absent. Better to order dishes whose nature is bland, like chicken potpie. The Bistro's version was a mound of creamy, cheddar mashed potatoes smothered in standard carrot-potato-celery chicken potpie filling and crowned with a wedge of shiny puff pastry. There was more puff pastry underneath, but kudos to anyone who gets down that far. Cream sauce pastas are also decent, like the linguine mounded with fried eggplant and seafood dressing, another creation that existed happily with only salt and pepper.
Beyond the well-chosen New World wine list, I did find three items with vibrant personalities. Two were salad dressings: "chili-salsa vinaigrette," a smoky puree of chipotles and cilantro, was a match for the house salad's real bacon bits; punchy wasabi-soy vinaigrette slicked another salad topped with pristine, seared tuna and orange pieces. Fried "onion strings," though limp as actual shoestrings, were Cajun-style spicy.
This story, which could go on as long as the menu, ultimately can be told in one slice of the restaurant's signature cheesecake. A towering symbol, it has been whipped into a state of near-mousse and sweetened to resemble a marshmallow. It comes in more flavors than a box of Valentine's chocolates and in portions that promise another dessert tomorrow, and possibly a snack after that. Finally, the cheesecake tastes so little like cream cheese that, whether it's cascading with caramel or standing alone, even diners who think they loathe cream cheese will eat it up.