Girth of a Nation

Amy Norby, consulting chef for Seasons, prepares dinner with executive chef Chris Pope (left) and sous chef Mark Barks (right) in the open kitchen at Seasons restaurant in Scottsdale.

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, nightly after 5:30 p.m.

Is there such a thing as American Cuisine? The answer to that question depends on a smorgasbord of social, culinary and historic facts, as well as a maze of philosophic mumbo jumbo.

Apple pie, hamburgers, corn on the cob, fast food and Thanksgiving turkey are American foods. Alone or collectively, these foods don't constitute a "cuisine" any more than pasta defines Italian cuisine or egg rolls exemplify Chinese cooking.

The Webster's New World Dictionary of Culinary Arts defines cuisine as the "ingredients, seasonings, cooking procedures and styles attributable to a particular group of people; the group can be defined by geography, history, ethnicity, politics, culture or religion."

This mouthful of a definition raises more questions about American food culture than it answers. Can an ethnically and religiously diverse country with huge geographic boundaries and politically diverse members share a cuisine?

I think that America does, in fact, have a cuisine. I also think that, despite some pretty good chow, American cuisine is in its youth. Like youth, our food has appeal and vitality. It also keeps changing direction in an attempt to find itself.

Leslie Brenner, in her timely book American Appetite, notes that we perceive ourselves as obsessed with exercising, when in reality, "The slice of American society that has gotten off its collective butt and exercised is relatively small, but that slice represents the way we'd like to see ourselves . . .

"In much the same way, gastronomic sophistication has become very much part of an emerging American ideal. . . . Food has taken a place in our culture above and beyond the role of merely providing sustenance and even just gastronomic pleasure: It's serious business; it's entertainment. It's important."

Seasons Rotisserie & Grill is an American restaurant. Its menu offers what it calls "American-style" foods. Not surprisingly, the kitchen uses a smattering of culturally diverse ingredients. Grilling and roasting are the main cooking methods. An attempt to use fresh "seasonal" ingredients is another nod to emerging American culinary trends. (The fall and winter menus -- based on my visits to the restaurant and its Web site -- aren't different enough to distinguish the seasons.)

The decor is purely American. Seasons has the soft, comfortable, "dressy casual" sophistication that pairs well with good food.

The restaurant reminds me of a New York loft -- the hippest of American places. We're talking about one big room with a high ceiling that has an intimate feel. Partial walls, good lighting and a raised seating area along one wall create this intimacy. You can see and be seen without feeling the least bit on display.

Carpet and wood floor combinations, and a lot of booth seating, add to the sense of warmth. The walls are a rich butter yellow. The chairs are blond oak, like the floor. Tabletops are mahogany stained, as are semisconce-like pillars that emerge from one of the walls.

The art is pleasantly eclectic. Nicely framed black-and-white photographs line one wall; another area has colorful oil paintings.

The bar, with its ample seating area, separates the entrance from the restaurant. A nice combination of granite and mahogany adds to its sophistication. The stools have a comfortable, modern grace.

Even the music is an American mix of soft jazz and New Age. It won't offend while eating.

So let's talk American food. Seasons' menu reads very well. I wanted to try just about everything. The menu includes the daily specials, so you don't have to listen to a speech by your server.

Customers are given a plate with three kinds of bread. I loved them all. Not since RoxSand's now-closed Paniolo Grill have Phoenicians been served such well-made bread before a meal. The walnut bread is dense, moist and has a firm and slightly chewy crust. The sourdough is crusty, yeasty and full of body. The focaccia (served at night) melts in your mouth. At lunch, instead of focaccia, we were served a sesame-crusted bread that was so good I hogged it all.

Any restaurant that can make bread this good can fix the minor problems I mention below.

The deep-fried calamari appetizer has its roots in Italy, but its execution is all-American. It was perfectly fried. The grilled tomato salsa added lots of flavor without relying on anything more than a little garlic and olive oil. (Tomatoes are native to the Americas.) Lemon aioli drizzled over the big mounded portion was a visual and taste success.

The grilled quail should be an appetizer menu standout. The quail comes on a bed of fresh, crisp greens dressed with just the right amount of superb fig vinaigrette. The bits of bitter frisee lettuce in the greens are a perfect yin to the dressing's slightly sweet yang. The quail, although tasty, was a bit overcooked. It only takes an extra minute on the grill to make such a little bird tough. The crispy carrots on the side weren't quite deep-fryer crisp.  

The carrots weren't the only fryer victim that night. The calvados (French apple brandy) cured salmon was tasty. The salmon and the calvados married well. Blending American salmon with French brandy is the type of food experiment going on in the best kitchens in America.

Unfortunately, the salmon came on top of a potato and apple "lace cake." This pancake could have taken the salmon from good to great. Too bad it was greasy and soggy. Most likely the frying oil wasn't hot enough, so the pancake absorbed oil instead of getting crispy.

Another appetizer I wanted to like was the ragout of wild mushrooms. Served with a balsamic sauce and polenta, this dish should work, but it needed a bit of a tweak in the kitchen. If nothing else, the person making the polenta should taste it before serving it. I'm pretty sure the kitchen didn't use any salt. Oops. The mushrooms were nice, but a splash of sherry or Marsala wine would really enhance and deepen the flavors.

Overall, the entrees were prepared better than the appetizers.

The server recommended the double cut pork rib chop. He did us a favor. This was enough meat for two, and was cooked to perfection.

Seasons sensibly recommends ordering the pork chop medium. Assuming that the kitchen uses a meat thermometer, medium pork is safe and has the best flavor. We're talking a little bit of pink, not a red or cool center.

The chop was nicely frenched (the fat and bits of sinew attached to the bone were removed). The drizzle of caramelized shallot sage sauce did the pork justice. The braised red cabbage was colorful, tasty, and a pleasantly appropriate winter veggie choice. The roasted potatoes were tasty, but not crisp. I suspect that they were kept warm on a steam table. If they were put into a hot oven for a few minutes before serving, they'd crisp nicely.

The tuna special was pretty special. The rice was tender, fluffy and mildly gingery-sweet. The baby green beans were hot, crisp and perfectly cooked. The lightly buttered beans were tossed with a generous amount of thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms. This was a big American plate with a little Asian nuance. If the tuna had been cooked medium-rare, as ordered, instead of medium-well, it would have been the hit of the evening. Since the tuna steak was an inch thick, it should have been no problem to serve it with at least a little red (or pink) in the center.

The grilled sea bass special was also a hit. The fish was juicy on the inside and just starting to get crisp on the outside. The kalamata olives flavoring the bass were a nice touch. Once again, perfect baby green beans came with the fish. The warm crimson lentil ragout was just a bit off.

The lentils were perfectly cooked, but they were mixed with a mirepoix, a mixture of carrots, onion and celery used in much of French cooking. The sea bass was a dish with a Mediterranean theme. This is American food, not global fusion cuisine. Too many cultural influences here.

The roasted chicken was wonderful. I even ate the skin, which I only do if it's crisp and well-seasoned. The meat was tender. The broccoli on the side was cooked through, but still had a hint of crunch, and my mountain of garlic mashed potatoes was pleasant, although not very garlicky.

The oven-roasted half duck was crispy-skinned with tender and juicy meat. I asked for the breast to be cooked medium, and the kitchen did just that. The accompanying sour cream and chive whipped yams and braised chard (a green leafy vegetable that resembles lettuce and needs to be cooked) were well prepared, and the garlic-port glaze brought all of the flavors together.

The desserts, like the appetizers, are a little hit and miss. Most of the problems are because of errors in the kitchen and not with the recipes.

The Granny Smith apple cobbler is by far the best dessert on the menu. Made and served in individual dishes, it has a nice crust and lots of soft plump apples. The cobbler had just a hint of cinnamon flavor, but was topped with an incredible, and very large, scoop of cinnamon ice cream. This ice cream made the dish special. It was very white, but had a walloping cinnamon kick. The kitchen must have used cinnamon oil or essence to get such an intense flavor.  

The crème brûlée was pleasant. Making good custard means using eggs. If I taste custard, the recipe is a success. If I taste egg, and I'm not eating breakfast, I'm disappointed. I tasted a hint of egg. The shortbread triangles on the side were thin, crisp, buttery and textbook perfect. The dish was garnished with the five biggest and tastiest blueberries I've ever seen. At first, I thought they were grapes.

The tiramisu was tirami-so-so. I'm tired of tiramisu, and I can't wait until everyone else gets just as bored with it as I am. Seasons serves a big square portion; the kitchen makes a huge pan of the stuff and cuts out a square when an order is placed.

The other desserts had so much more personality. No matter how good the pastry chef, tiramisu is ladyfingers, loads of whipped cream, and espresso. The crème anglaise and the espresso cream used to garnish the tiramisu were the best things on the plate. Save those sauces for a more inspired dessert.

Service definitely came with a smile. Most of the staff is prompt, eager to please, and friendly but not overly familiar. One server didn't know much about the wine I selected, but later she asked how it tasted so she could tell future customers.

Food comes hot off the grill delivered by whichever server is available. Once, the manager brought it. Good call. There is no reason for the food to be kept warm until a particular server can bring it. A good staff is a team. Rah team.

The servers wear jeans and white shirts. The shirts were just right, but the jeans, at least at dinner, seem a bit too relaxed. This is a casual restaurant, but it's dressy casual. Seasons' own Web page calls the dining room casually elegant. You might wear jeans or dress up a bit, but you're paying to be there. The staff should be a bit more manicured.

We live in a world where summer fruits are available in winter. They're shipped from the southern hemisphere. Often the food on our plate has traveled more than we have. I know what four or five hours on a plane does to me, so I can imagine what it does to a bunch of asparagus.

"Some chefs and journalists," according to Leslie Brenner, "worry that the globalization of gastronomy will continue until all we're left with is one cuisine."

Sometimes eating really good food isn't about eating what we want whenever we want it. Good food is about eating what's fresh. It's about food with good, strong, simple flavors. The food at Seasons, like American cuisine, is evolving. Although it occasionally fails to live up to expectations, it's moving in the right direction.

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