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.
But Seasons is not really about escolar, fennel-accented French green beans or pseudo-risotto. It's basically about meat, either licked by flames from the grill or seared by heat from the rotisserie. And that's basically what I'd come back for.
The waiter said the double-cut pork rib chop is a signature item, and I can see why. It's a beautiful piece of meat, thick, tender and grilled to juicy perfection. Garlic mashed potatoes and an "Asian" slaw with a ginger kick make just the right teammates.
Hard-hitting Australian lamb sirloin practically grabs you by the lapels. It's not for wimps -- Down Under lamb tastes stronger than the domestic variety. You can practically feel the animal protein coursing through your veins as you chew. The goat cheese-olive tart would have been an inspired complement, had it sported a fresher pastry crust. This one, though, seemed a bit over the hill.
At $24.50, seared beef medallions are no bargain. But I can't imagine anyone complaining about the quality or quantity. You get two hefty pieces of dreamy filet. After one bite, my group of beef lovers all let out an involuntary "Mmmmm."
Too bad that wasn't the reaction to the Maine lobster hash, a side that promised more than it could deliver. The server's description practically had us drooling: a thrilling mix of potatoes, lobster and crawfish. But you can't eat concept. If there was any shellfish in these dull spuds, it must have been dropped in with tweezers. This accompaniment needs some serious retooling, especially if Seasons continues to offer it as a $6.50 à la carte side to entrees other than the beef.
The Maine lobster hash isn't the only side-dish misstep. The beef also came with a useless mound of zucchini, a lazy, unimaginative choice that brings the kitchen no credit.
I'm no fan of ordering chicken in restaurants. That's because chefs know it's only ordered by two kinds of diners: folks obsessed with fat grams and timid souls frightened by everything else on the menu. Still, no restaurant can afford to write these customers off, unless it wants to skirt the edge of Chapter 11.
Seasons' poultry will surely please the chicken crowd. It's a spit-roasted, herb-rubbed half-bird, with juicy meat on the inside and crisp, crackling skin on the outside. And mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli are probably just the right bland sides to satisfy the calorie counters and the risk-averse.
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I'm also wary of ordering vegetarian dishes in restaurants. Most chefs have no more respect for twig-and-berry principles than they do for chicken people. Seasons' kitchen, however, treats veggie lovers with respect. Otherwise, it wouldn't have crafted such an offbeat and compelling platter of grilled portabella mushroom, crunchy rice cake and broccoli rabe (a pungent, underappreciated green vegetable related to the cabbage and turnip families, also known as rape and rapini).
A couple of Seasons' desserts are worth hanging around for. The blackberry pie is simple, and simply scrumptious. A perfect pastry crust and big, fat, juicy blackberries do the heavy work. Homemade nectarine ice cream and slices of fresh nectarine provide extra support. The Key lime tart is also nicely done, its sharp, citrusy bite balanced by a bit of candied fruit.
The sweet-toothed set, meanwhile, will enjoy the homemade ice cream sandwiches: vanilla ice cream packed between chocolate cookies, and chocolate ice cream packed between chocolate chip cookies. And if you're partial to gloopy-gloppy sweets, you'll hit the jackpot with the Chocolate Banana Napolean [sic], a sugar-packed combination of chocolate, banana, banana ice cream and caramel sauce, heaped over a phyllo dough base.
Seasons knows its limitations -- no one here is aiming to chart a new culinary path. The restaurant's goal is much more modest: Fill up hungry Scottsdale bellies with comfortable food, in comfortable surroundings at comfortable prices. Mission accomplished.