It was a dark and stormy night. (Well, it was. ) And that night, as the rain streamed down and sideways onto Third Avenue, forming a shin-deep pond at the corner, we were sipping a soup that brought chills to my spine -- chills, that is, of warmth, comfort, and joy. Chef Comer D. Smith's cream of porcini and chestnut masterpiece was intensely mushroomy (mushroomy multiplied), made from an assortment of fresh varieties (shiitake, maitake, cremini, etc.), as well as dried porcini. A back-of-the-palate nutty sweetness emerged from puréed chestnuts and a touch of Port reduction -- as well as from a secret base of the corncob stock Smith uses instead of water in his broths. ("A lot of love goes into this soup," the chef later told me. We could taste it.) The bowl was garnished with poufs of chive-flecked tart goat cheese. As earthy and insinuating as a lover's caress, as comforting as a crackling hearth on an icy night, the soup seemed more like magic than mere pottage. "Maybe good jazz doesn't beat all food after all," I murmured. "This could be a contender."
The last thing I expected from Seasons was to be thrilled. A serious chef? Fresh and lively cooking? There? The new restaurant took over the rather divey premises of the former Brazil on the Hill (the latter's owners are its primary investors, although the chef has a small stake in it, too), and the decor has remained true to its original shabby non-chic. Although the window details (inherited from an earlier Italian restaurant) have an airy, Mediterranean look, the gloomy dark-red walls are hung with dark-and-stormy paintings. Still no carpet, just a dark floor, but at least the bar and huge TV (muted) have been moved from the entry area to an inner corner. The tables, widely spaced, have white linen cloths topped by brown butcher paper, with pinkish napkins tucked into goblets. The unpadded, un-ergonomic wooden chairs grow punishing over a long evening, but booths are in the works. Obviously, the feel is casual rather than snobby. Happily, Brazil's painful din has diminished to a lively conversational buzz (except when full), and service is now friendly, benign, and thoroughly competent.
Chef Comer, an energetic 33-year-old from Atlanta, is more than competent, and he's created a venturesome, ever-changing seasonal menu. There are, of course, the usual courses (appetizers, salads, entrées), but there's also a delightfully diverse separate page of "Global Tapas" drawn from entrée highlights, miniaturized and reduced to their vital elements. "Eat me!" they say. These plates are sized to be shared among three or four, and a convivial shared grazing dinner of tapas would run less than $25 a person (food costs only).
Among the most daring of these tastes: ginger-chicken pot stickers in hot-and-sour soup. The potsticker skin is tender, plumply filled with well-seasoned, premium Jidori chicken meat. The broth is neither Szechuan Chinese nor Thai. It's rich, thick, and complex, and it took careful tasting to figure out why it seemed vaguely familiar: It was like Eastern European stuffed-cabbage gravy -- as interpreted by a Southeast Asian chef. This tapa used to be a part (the best part) of a Jidori chicken "trilogy" entrée, but two is company, and the dish is now a duet featuring a breast and a spring roll. (The chef needed to simplify, given space, time, and staffing limits.)
Similarly, slow-roasted pork and corn pudding is an exile from the now-divorced duet-of-pork entrée. The tapa gives you chile-rubbed shoulder -- the most flavorful of pork cuts (it's the one used in pulled pork, which this resembles), but you don't see it in many "fine-dining" restaurants. I guess it's considered too low class and somewhat burdensome, because of the long, slow cooking required to melt down the sinews and fat.
Blue crab bites are sparky bright -- small, battered orbs of crab plated over diced mango that -- far from the standard salsa of lazy chefs -- has been brined and poached in reduced rice vinegar with shallots, then mingled with a slightly sweet syrup, with spicy aioli on the side for dipping. The edge of the plate is rimmed with Japanese eel sauce -- the same stuff you find on your Philly roll in a sushi bar, a bottled potion made from reduced eel-bone stock. I found I preferred these bites to the regular appetizer of Chef Comer's Famous Crab Cakes, which come with the same garnishes (plus a bacon "foam"). The bites taste crabbier, their filling moister, and their surface crisper.
We also enjoyed duck confit mini-tacos with pico de gallo sauce and puffs of feta cheese; the flavors were bright, fresh, and up-front. Fried butternut squash ravioli have rather chewy skins (from the frying, duh) encasing naturally sweet purée, topped with slices of Reggiano cheese, candied walnuts, and another minimalist "foam." Goat cheese fritters are cute little things with microgreens and a rich balsamic reduction.
Among the regular appetizers, Wagyu ground beef tartare includes a white truffle and caper aioli and flakes of Parmesan Reggiano. One of the posse was worried about eating raw beef. "I don't think E. coli is an issue here," I reassured her. "I'm sure that any rancher raising Wagyu [Kobe] beef wouldn't risk his reputation with unsanitary crowding or sloppy slaughterhouse practices." Between the buttery beef and the rich, smooth aioli, the overall effect was of lush mildness -- I found the caper and white truffle notes overly subtle. And beef this marbled really needs more "bite." There was plenty left over, and next day I turned it into a rare-cooked "slider," in which the truffle note came out of the closet to make a rarely fine burgerette. You can get a tapa of a Kobe avo-bacon slider at Seasons, but the meat is a lower grade than that used in the tartare.
A tuna appetizer offers a duet of ahi, starting with velvety raw sashimi with preserved lemon (a quiet presence) and shaved cucumber. Part II, which also recurs as a solo on the tapas menu, has thick rectangular satays of rare pan-fried ahi coated with sesame seeds and furikake, a smoky-tasting Japanese bottled-spice mix. For sweetness, there's a charming, tart-apple salad with salty-sweet eel reduction (the Philly roll sauce again), and a dip of soy, rice wine vinegar, and orange juice.