On my first visit to Seasons St. Louis, the pianist played "Memory," from the Broadway musical Cats, which easily ranks as one of the sappiest songs in human history. Determined to see me run screaming toward the nearest Mastodon album, he also performed Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings" and Céline Dion's "My Heart Will Go On."
There was no live music on my next visit. Instead, the sound system purred smooth jazz. Frankly, I preferred the pianist.
Seasons St. Louis opened this spring in a strip mall at the intersection of Olive Boulevard and Woods Mill Road in Chesterfield. (This space was formerly occupied by Peppertini's Piano Bar & Grill; the piano, it seems, remained.) In both appearance and ambience, it's an old-school restaurant, from its cheesy music to its walls covered in art that's most charitably described as pastoral.
So what the hell is this foam doing on my roasted squab?
Foam, of course, is both the most widely known and the most frequently derided example of avant-garde culinary technique. First introduced by the Spanish chef Ferran Adrià at Catalonia, Spain's El Bulli, widely tabbed the best restaurant in the world, foams are now so commonplace that you might think they were a natural food, harvested from any ordinary backyard garden.
OK. I exaggerate slightly. My point is this: I've been served foam at a few restaurants in St. Louis. I can think of a few others where food topped with foam wouldn't surprise me. At exactly none of these restaurants would I expect to be serenaded by a Kenny G-esque cover of Steve Winwood's "Back in the High Life Again."
But for all of its old-school trappings, Seasons features the work of two very young chefs, Benjamin McNabb and Josh Striplin. (McNabb's parents, Bill and Holly, are owners and oversee the front of the house.) At their best, the duo gives this stale space an inviting mix of French technique and contemporary American tastes.
A fine example of this approach is the smoked barbecue pork tenderloin, as American an entrée as any — here, it's sensibly paired with cheddar-cheese polenta and a roasted tomato, and all of it encircled with a sweet-corn beurre blanc. The pork was tender enough by itself, but dabbing it with the beurre blanc made it downright luscious, while the slight sweetness of the sauce provided an excellent contrast to the smoky pork and its mildly spicy dry rub.
Steak au poivre is nothing more, nor less, than six ounces of beef tenderloin encrusted (but not overwhelmed) with black pepper and given a perfect sear. At medium-rare, the meat was as tender as you expect a tenderloin to be and much more flavorful, a rich poivre sauce rounding out its beefy essence. The presentation was striking, with the steak set upon verdant green haricots verts and topped with a tangle of crisp shoestring pommes frites.
My favorite dish was the soup au pistou. Pistou is a traditional French condiment of crushed basil, garlic and olive oil. It looks like pesto, minus pesto's cheese and pine nuts, and has a sharper flavor. A scoop of it brightened an already flavorful vegetable broth chock full of white beans and vegetables (carrots, leeks, fennel, to name a few).
Seasons' summer menu featured a roasted game bird of the day. On my visits this was the aforementioned squab, which was served with a tapenade stuffing atop an eggplant purée and swirls of fennel sauce. The foam in question was a tomato emulsion. I tasted very little tomato, though, nor did the tapenade stuffing convey the condiment's strong, salty character. Here the dominant flavor was the squab itself, crisp skinned and lightly gamy, the fennel sauce giving the moist meat an autumnal accent.
Foam — a lot of it — also topped an appetizer of housemade ravioli stuffed with smoked shrimp. As with the tomato emulsion, this saffron emulsion was more texture than taste; considering how much foam there was, the dish looked as if someone had doused it with soap suds. The foam aside, the shrimp had a pleasant smoky flavor, and the ravioli were plump and toothsome. As with the squab, fennel, here caramelized, added a touch of fall to the dish.
The presence of fennel on the summer menu suggests a slight disconnect between the restaurant's name and what the kitchen is actually serving. Still, the bounty of late summer was in evidence: Local peaches with vanilla-bean ice cream made for a wonderfully simple dessert. And there were tomatoes everywhere, including in two appetizers, a roasted cherry-tomato tartine and an heirloom-tomato terrine. I opted for the latter, striped layers of tomato, spinach-flavored pasta, prosciutto and, especially, fresh mozzarella. Indeed, the cheese was so plentiful that the tomato seemed rather meager in comparison, giving the terrine as a whole a bland flavor.
The summer menu concludes the week that this review is published, and the fall menu will debut the following Tuesday, September 22. A flyer for the new menu promised exactly the foods and dishes you would expect in cooler weather: pumpkin, butternut squash, beef bourguignon.
But if McNabb and Striplin are truly committed to their ideal of seasonal cuisine, I hope they reconsider this approach from the summer menu: Of the six entrées listed, the roasted game bird and a seafood Provençal change daily — that is, the specific fowl and seafood change, but the preparation doesn't. The squab held up well to this approach, but the seafood Provençal didn't.
When I sampled it, the fish in the seafood Provençal was wild-caught Pacific salmon. This was served atop housemade tagliatelle in a tapenade sauce with capers, niçoise olives, garlic and roasted tomatoes. The salmon, taken on its own, was good, with a lovely browned exterior and a tender, if slightly overdone, interior. Unsurprisingly, though, its distinct flavor clashed with its Mediterranean accompaniments.
Indeed, what appealed to me most about Seasons was the simplicity of the chefs' approach: The pork tenderloin with its side of plump roasted tomatoes and the steak au poivre didn't need foams or a preconceived template to succeed. They were simple dishes, executed well and presented with real care.
Will dinner at Seasons St. Louis have you singing "Memory" for weeks to come? Maybe not, but in a stretch of suburban strip-mall sprawl regrettably bereft of this kind of honest food, it's good to hear a new tune.