By Heather Hoch
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Seasons Rotisserie & Grill, 10050 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-443-1300. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.
When a bunch of jocks get together and open a restaurant, you can usually count on four things: hamburgers on the menu, beer served in pitchers, sports memorabilia on the wall and televisions tuned to ESPN blaring from every corner of the room.
But Lakers coach Phil Jackson, ex-Knick Dick Van Arsdale and Suns center Luc Longley somehow haven't gotten the message. Along with partner Roger Roessler, this investment team has defied convention and come up with Seasons Rotisserie & Grill.
The Valley branch is the third unit in this minichain -- the others are in Colorado and New Mexico. The restaurant moved into prime local territory about six months ago, just off Scottsdale Road and Shea, in a space that last housed Emily's, a short-lived Home Meal Replacement venture.
According to his publicist, Roessler has owned and operated 15 restaurants. After getting a taste of Seasons, I'd say he can stop counting for a while.
You won't find anything here on a bun. You can't get a bucket of suds. Don't look for a signed Michael Jordan jersey, encased in glass. And, to my joyful astonishment, there's not a television in the place, even at the bar.
What you will find are a smart-looking room and a kitchen that crafts traditional and updated American fare with panache. Prices that don't require a dip into your 401(k) -- all but one of the entrees come in at under $20 -- are another plus.
Seasons sends the right signals from the moment you enter. As you're led to your table, you'll walk past a wine cellar, a handsome bar buzzing with handsome Scottsdalians, and an open kitchen, where the rotisserie and flame-shooting grill indicate the chef's two favorite cooking techniques.
The two dining areas have different personalities. I preferred the raised part, a tier at the back of the room. It offers big, comfy booths and arty photos of natural scenes on the wall. This is where you'll see and be seen (and where I spotted Jason Kidd). Around the corner is Seasons' Siberia, where you can't see much of anything, except a trio of disturbing abstract paintings, two of which seem to feature demented cats.
Seasons' breadbasket can also be a little disturbing. For the most part, though the contents are fresh and homemade, they're largely resistible. That's certainly the case with the focaccia and white bread, both of which are way too airy and insubstantial. Only the walnut bread, with its crispy crust, chewy center and full flavor, inspired my group to ask for more.
As is the case in most restaurants, the appetizer list is where the chef's imagination has the freest rein. Diners ought to be grateful -- these starters are seriously tasty.
One evening's appetizer special, homemade tortellini filled with salmon and spinach, may have been just a tad heavier than optimal. But there was nothing lightweight about the flavor, which gets a boost from a rich Gorgonzola cream sauce, a sprinkle of bacon and a dollop of caviar. Vietnamese-style summer rolls also get dinner off to a swift start. They're rice-paper wraps filled with chicken, carrot and noodles, accompanied by a snappy lime-chile dipping sauce that can clear your sinuses in a hurry.
The wonderfully plump crab cake, slathered with aioli, sports just the right-off-the-skillet crunch. But it's still only the second-best ocean-based starter. That's because the luscious, lightly seared ahi tuna, glazed with a ginger-spiked sesame soy sauce, is so meltingly soft that it goes down like butter. If you decide to share this dish with a significant other, your relationship may be tested.
So I suggest that if one party orders the tuna, the other take aim at the marvelous griddled corn cake. Embellished with andouille sausage and grilled shrimp, it tastes like summer on the bayou. Had professional duties not obliged me to make my way through the rest of the menu, I'd have been tempted to get a second round and call it a night.
Main dishes are much more straightforward. You've had everything here before -- beef, lamb, pork, chicken, seafood. And the preparations are just as predictable. But what the kitchen lacks in novelty it generally makes up in execution.
The nightly specials are about as wild and crazy as the sober chef gets. On one visit, I ran across escolar on the list. It's a South Pacific fish that's quite popular these days. But despite its healthful properties and remarkable taste, I've reluctantly sworn off escolar.
(To learn why, see this week's Second Helpings)
But I haven't sworn off halibut, and one evening's offering made me glad I hadn't. Seasons grilled up a wonderfully moist, flaky slab, surrounded it with greenlip mussels, tossed on roasted potatoes and French green beans goosed up with fennel, and ladled on a mild tomato-saffron broth. The last bite of this dish tasted every bit as good as the first.
Risotto, another occasional special, lives up to its billing, as long as you remember to lower your expectations. I assumed I wasn't going to get the authentic Italian version, a notoriously labor-intensive dish. (It requires arborio rice, an expensive grain that becomes especially creamy after small amounts of liquid are continually added over a long period of time.) I was right -- Seasons isn't Franco's Trattoria. But the model here had charms of its own, mostly in the form of lovely scallops and shrimp piled on ordinary white rice tinged with saffron, and flecked with spinach and tomato.