I love a good gimmick. If it’s temporary or new and has a hook, I’m there. Super-long line? No problem. Thai Rolled Ice Cream. The Oreo Wonder Vault. Rainbow Bagels. The Hello Kitty Café Truck. Cronuts. I’ve done them all.
Some gimmicks turn out better than anticipated. Some fall short of the mark. Some defy your expectations altogether. That was the case with the Spotted Cheetah, a Cheetos-centric pop-up restaurant in Manhattan. I assumed it would be a garish publicity stunt with ridiculous “food.”
When I heard about this 3-night-only event, I wanted in. A menu of 4 appetizers, 4 entrees and 3 desserts, each made with Cheetos products. I like to repurpose foods into other forms, so this was right up my alley.
Any other week, The Spotted Cheetah is known as Distilled – an upscale but casual Tribeca restaurant that I’m only now realizing I’ve eaten in before. As I approached this night, I readied myself for typical NYC event line-waiting and passive-aggressive jockeying for position. Everyone here is important, after all, and we MUST get in ASAP.
To my delight, no one was corralled within the velvet ropes. Shocking considering how much media attention this place has gotten. After a quick chat with the clipboard guy, I glided into a seat at the bar.
Crystal Pepsi – of course.
The menu was designed by Food Network chef Anne Burrell. All I know about her is: 1) her hair and 2) she hosted Worst Cooks in America – for which I once volunteered to test a challenge before shooting started, and failed miserably at everything.
I ordered the Cheetos Crusted Fried Pickles, Cheetos Mix-Ups Crusted Chicken Milanese, and the Cheetos Sweetos Crusted Cheesecake. Apparently I’m a glutton for crusting.
While I waited for my food, I watched patrons talk to a live-animated Chester Cheetah on a TV screen near the entrance.
Normally I despise things that aggressively interact with me, but I was fascinated by this technology. Chester’s mouth and body moved in real-time from a motion capture of the person speaking. I wondered where he was hiding out.
The fried pickles arrived and I dove in, expecting a rubber-mallet-to-the-head of Cheetos flavor. What I got were lovely, tangy, crusty, greasy frickles in a slightly orangier (spellcheck tells me this isn’t a word, I disagree) than normal hue. They were delicious, but only whispered ‘Cheetos.’
Next up – the Chicken Milanese. A beautifully-dressed salad and Cheetos piled atop a slab of extra-crunchy breaded chicken. I pushed the salad off and sliced into just the chicken. Again, it was a wonderful dish, I enjoyed every bite, but I didn’t taste the Cheetos in the breading.
This could appear in any restaurant and no one would say “Excuse me – are there CHEETOS in this??” I started taking bits of Cheetos from on top with each mouthful and ended up with the flavor I expected.
An order of the Flamin’ Hot Limon Chicken Tacos arrived for the couple next to me and I was gripped with jealousy. They looked so tempting.
The cheesecake came closest to capturing the product it was based on. The crust definitely had the churro-ish cinnamon flavor of the Sweetos. It was also a great dish – sweet and tangy cheese with a rich blueberry sauce.
The décor was just subtle enough that it didn’t feel cheesy (pun intended), but there were cute touches all around.
It wasn’t a crowded circus. The food was real. It was like a Friday night out at a nice restaurant, but with a wise-cracking animated cheetah.
I do wish the Cheetos were a bit more present in the dishes I tried, since this was the point of all of this, but I had fun and walked away with a happy belly. I was given a printed book of the menu recipes on the way out – it’s also available on their site. If you’re trying the recipes at home, go a bit heavier on the Cheetos – I’m guessing as junk food fans, you’ll want to know they’re there.
(Nutrition Facts – Oof. I couldn’t even begin to calculate this.)
Purchased Price: $8 (Fried Pickles), $22 (Chicken Milanese, and $8 (Cheesecake)
Rating: 8 out of 10
Pros: REALLY good food. High-tech cheetah. Thrill of experiencing something that makes half my friends say “Ew. That’s disgusting.”
Cons: Expected to leave covered in Cheetos dust inside & out, didn’t, hence slightly disappointed.