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.