Our waiter at Seasons is wondering with us where the crowds are. It's 8 o'clock on a Friday night, and the spacious dining room is speckled with perhaps two dozen guests. It's like this all the time lately, he laments, and no one can figure out why.
It's a stumper. Seasons is gorgeous -- upscale, yet refreshingly comfortable. The service is excellent, paced and professional. The wine list is expansive. And the food, for the most part, is right on track for its north Scottsdale location -- creative, and emphasizing lots of fresh, organic products. Yet each night we visit, we've got our choice of tables. And recently, the eatery closed for lunch.
It's not a new problem for the restaurant. Since it opened in 1999 under the ownership of L.A. Lakers coach Phil Jackson, ex-New York Knick Dick Van Arsdale and Knick center Luc Longley, the place has struggled to attract a following. Customers apparently haven't found enough spark in the meat-heavy classic American menu, with beef, lamb, pork and chicken flamed from the grill or rotisserie-seared.
So a few months ago, Seasons' partner Roger Roessler wooed celebrity chef James McDevitt (he of Restaurant Hapa fame) to take over the kitchen as a consultant. McDevitt has lent his distinctive touch, crafting dishes with a more exotic Asian flair, and bringing in the popular trend of chef's tastings.
With such a high-profile chef to promote, Seasons should be blooming. Yet it's not. I've got a few ideas why -- some that can easily be remedied; some, unfortunately, that can't. But overall, I'm as confused as my waiter as to why this place isn't a bigger draw.
First, what can't be fixed. Location is Seasons' biggest problem. It's in a great neighborhood, but tucked too far in the back of a low-profile mall south of Shea on Scottsdale Road. Seasons is impossible to see unless a diner is specifically looking for the place. Hungry folks likely won't get past the California Pizza Kitchen directly in front of it, or Sam's Cafe, off to its side but fronting Scottsdale Road. (If CPK were to suddenly explode in a gas fire, our waiter knows nothing, he jokes.)
Second problem. The dining public is nuts. I know where the crowds are, it pains me to tell my sad server. They're across the street at Macaroni Grill, and down the road at the new chain-restaurant cluster in Gainey Village. Why people would prefer to sup on the safer, sleepier fare from Gardunos, Bloom, Village Tavern and the boutique Thaifoon is beyond me, but that's where the cars are.
Other challenges are easily manageable, such as pricing. Even with the McDevitt name on the marquee, Seasons commands a lot of green. It's a mini-chain of sorts, after all, with locations in Colorado and New Mexico (Scottsdale's got a different menu emerging now that McDevitt's stepped in). But at $18 for an appetizer nubbin of Sonoma Valley foie gras on toasted brioche with Concord grapes and muscat jelly, Seasons is as expensive as our premier Valley restaurants. A few bucks down might tempt the tasters.
Consistency needs to be considered, too. At times, Seasons is spectacular. Other times, it's just good -- not the worst problem to have, but good is not enough given the high prices and our high expectations.
Nothing needs to be changed about Seasons' handsome interior, however. The place is a stunner, from the grand rock-and-water-feature entry to the elegant patio that in cooler months invites with comfortable seating. Inside, it's a symphony of cherry wood and copper, with centerpieces of a wine cellar, a clubby bar area, and an open kitchen displaying a rotisserie and flame-shooting grill. The best seats in the split dining areas are on the raised platform along the back wall: Booths are spacious, comfy, and offer an opportunity to survey the scene (such as it is). The pianist, meanwhile, is magical, tickling the ivories with seductive renditions of Sinatra -- I'm practically melting as the pianist croons "It Was a Very Good Year" and "Fly Me to the Moon." He visits the tables between sets, seeking requests -- nice touch.
Dinners get off to a good start, with bread better than I remember pre-McDevitt. The purveyor has been switched from the Arizona Bread Company to Willo Bakery (while Arizona Bread is topnotch, too, it's no longer baked on-site at the shop a block away from Seasons). Crusty sesame-seed-dusted country bread is wonderful on its own; dipped in a gutsy garlic-spiked olive oil, it's nirvana. A satisfying, musky-toned kalamata bread sometimes shows up, too.
Sometimes an amuse bouche appears as well, sometimes not. One evening's gift is happily accepted, bringing crostini spread with an electrifying kalamata olive, tomato and basil tapenade.
No need to hold back on the breadbasket -- appetizers are lean to petite. A crab cake -- a survivor from the original Seasons' menu -- is outstanding, though don't plan on sharing this wonderfully plump little critter. I wouldn't want to, anyway, not this moist oval, stuffed with East Coast rock crab and herbs, then seared to a golden edge. It's superb taken in forkfuls with bitterish baby greens, and stellar when gilded with a touch of fiery chipotle aioli.
An appetizer of baby-back ribs is more generous, with four well-fleshed bones cooked tooth-tender in a thick, sweet guava glaze. The sauce is more sugary than I like, but my barbecue-loving buddy practically licks the plate. An accompaniment of pickled watermelon is genius -- think sunomono, but with pale pink melon curls sprinkled with sesame seeds. When we're done, we clean our paws with thoughtfully provided damp napkins spritzed with lemon.
For a more startling starter, caramelized prosciutto-wrapped figs do the job, the sweet-salty bundles nesting with greens, goat cheese and candied pecans in a not-too-sweet pear vinaigrette. And the ever-popular chicken wraps show up again here, but spruced with fine duck instead, and a zippy orange-chile dipping sauce.
But the best way to begin a meal at Seasons? A get-it-now special of heirloom tomatoes. This plate's a celebration of the best our local organic farmers have to offer, and it's opulent, showcasing a changing variety of fruits (ever heard of a green zebra tomato?) bathed in a gloss of fresh basil and extra-virgin olive oil. You haven't lived until you've experienced the pop of a tiny grape tomato in your mouth, joyous rush of seeds and all.
The Arizona salad comes in a close second, handicapped only because there's not nearly enough of the beautiful stuff. This plate arrives as a very simple toss of whisper-thin carrot and jicama strips, baby tomatoes, pickled garlic and a thrilling dressing uniting fig and balsamic.
Seasons' stumbles start with the entrees, which stick to the staples -- rack of lamb, New York steak, Maine diver scallops, double-cut pork chops and so on. While meats are of obvious high quality (the lamb is Summerfield, the duck is Maple Leaf), they're simply no better (or worse) than many other restaurants around town. I like that the New York steak is enriched with a subtle Oregon black truffle butter, and that the pork is paired with a restrained party of dates, shallots and pork reduction, but it's just not enough to plan a special event around the dishes.
Chicken, however, is worth as many visits as I can fit in. Forget any thought of the throwaway poultry found on so many menus. The beauty of this bird is the skin -- it's been left intact, so the spit-roasted, herb-rubbed half-chicken retains its juices with a crisp, crackling casing under a splash of herbed jus. Wow.
Fish flops. Twice, the daily fish special comes oddly cooked. Grilled ahi tuna, for example, is a generous piece and pretty to behold, but much too dry even as it glistens with pinot demi-glace and a cap of shiitake mushrooms. The best part: It rests on a mound of whole baby red potatoes, large chunks of summer squash, whole baby onion, and salty greens. Another night's monkfish shows up in thick, scallop-like medallions, lightly herbed but rubbery and tasteless.
A house specialty of potato and eggplant ravioli doesn't work, either, not earning its $16 tab. The pasta pockets are unfortunately stiff, the insides baby-food mushy, and the whole is bland with a lifeless sauce of roasted organic tomatoes, tomato purée, onion and a few slabs of ricotta. The whole cherry tomatoes are a nice idea, but their charred skins slip off on our teeth and we have to spit them out.
The best dish, not surprisingly, sounds the most like McDevitt. A hefty slab of oak-fired tenderloin is a luxury, partnered with Sonoma Valley foie gras, sautéed Chinese broccoli, fava bean and potato purée with green-garlic confit and port reduction.
Bouillabaisse is another beauty, an elegant stew swimming with mussels, clams, Maine lobster, shrimp and scallops spirited with lemon aioli, plus grilled sourdough for dipping. Fans of this fish dish will want to put Seasons on their list.
Vegetarians will want to make a mark, too. Because while Seasons' market is meat, its side dishes are all about the garden. And what a great garden it is, overflowing with the best of the fresh, tinkered with just enough to bring out full natural flavor. Entrees come with a choice of two, but all are available individually for $3.
My dream plate consists of the roasted organic vegetables, the baby artichokes, and the Chinese long beans. And odd mix, perhaps, but this is my dream. Roasted vegetables change per the season, but one night's side stars sweet little carrots and baby onion that's still got its roots and stems (it's pretty, but actually rather ungainly to eat). The dainty artichokes are braised tender, then lightly jacketed with gremolata (minced parsley, lemon peel and garlic). And Chinese long beans are sweet, crisp, slightly spicy and spiked with almonds. I'd add asparagus into the mix, except the elegant stalks are burned, overly smoky and heavy with a woody taste.
Other contenders include charred tomato and eggplant couscous, whole roasted sweet potato, and sautéed baby bok choy, while starches step up with roasted fingerling potatoes, garlic mashed potatoes and jasmine rice. Choosing sides is one of the most difficult aspects of Seasons.
Seasons is still testing its tasting menu, our waiter informs. Management is trying to gauge customer response, and so far, the menu is offered only on periodic weekends. Again, the only answer I have for why this won't be a success is that the dining public is insane. Why waste time at a next-door chain, when for just $48, diners can indulge in a four-course experience -- panko-crusted soft-shell crab or baked West Coast oysters, heirloom tomato salad or organic greens with strawberries and goat cheese, McDevitt's signature oak-fired tenderloin, and dessert of either blackberry lemon tart or a sorbet trio?
Ah, well, the Seasons will change. Hopefully the dining public will, too.
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