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.
With the entrées, the velvet curtain rises, the orchestra strikes up the overture, the spotlights come on, and the dishes come out singing and dancing, with an all-star cast strutting the stage.
Four pan-seared day-boat scallops, large and luscious, are set atop a buttered-leek fondue. Most chefs would automatically plate scallops atop a starch, but leeks offer full, complementary flavor with none of the carbs. Each scallop was topped with a sweet-tart swirl of "Moroccan tomato jam" and set over a red-wine reduction. For the carbs, if you want them, there's a rather dry chorizo bread pudding that my tablemates and I found anticlimactic.
On a menu that changes with the weather, Sea Bass Dynamite has replaced the Scottish Salmon Dynamite of two weeks previous. I think I'd prefer the salmon with this treatment, a moister, more assertive species, better able to stand up to the aggressive seasoning. The "dynamite" isn't the mayo-inflected béchamel of most sushi bars but a sharp, spicy glaze of mayo, hot pepper, and eel sauce. Two large pieces of fish (enough for two normal diners) sat on the plate, each surrounded by a pretty bull's-eye of glazes, dribbles, and garnishes, including twin beds of garlicky edamame-and-corn succotash and a slick of scallion-infused oil.
Surf and Turf is a bold, far cry from steakhouse stuff. The "surf" is a seafood chile relleno, a large, gently spicy poblano cradling sizable chunks of lobster and shreds of crab in a cream sauce, with three cheeses and a complex blend of dried chiles -- ancho, New Mexico, and guajillo, for a little pica. The "turf" is tender Kobe flat-iron steak, a deeply flavorful cut, rubbed with the same dried-chile mix and plated over a succulent hash of purple potatoes and a black-bean demi-glace. There's a small pool of spicy, acidic guajillo chile cream to dip your steak into. The combination is as brilliant as it sounds.
New to the menu at my second visit were Brandt natural short ribs braised in Syrah, then removed from the bone to serve in cubes decoratively plated next to orbs of sweet cipollini onions, all set atop a long pale streak of goat cheese--potato purée and sauced with an intense Syrah reduction. It is both beautiful and thoroughly appropriate winter fare. There's a bit of white corn and a spoonful of sautéed spinach. This chef never rests.
Two entrées that were simplified in the space of a couple of weeks are the Jidori chicken and the pork tenderloin. The Jidori lost its ginger pot stickers, the pork its shoulder meat, along with a "sponge bread" cradle resembling a traditional Ozark sweet bread called Sally Lunn, or Sol et Lune in its original Canadian-Huguenot form. (Turns out that the chef, although Southern born, has never heard of Sally Lunn but reinvented it from scratch, inspired by Ethiopian injera.)
What remains of the poultry is soft breast meat slow-cooked sous vide (gently poached in a vacuum-sealed pouch), plus a spring roll stuffed with the braised thigh, over an avocado mousseline. It's good, but of course I liked it better with the pot sticker and crazy soup. And a former heirloom pork duo is now an ancho-rubbed tenderloin that arrived thrillingly rare (about 130û F), the way they cook this cut in France -- where they have fewer food fears and ingredient scares. Tender and juicy, the meat arrives with a pleasant corn pudding, a sauce of rum and molasses, and crispy fried plantain chips -- not in the often ponderous LatinAmerican style, but thin-shaved to create crisp, greaseless rectangles.
With so many interesting sauces to sop, it's too bad the table bread is third rate, an almost gummy rosemary bread. I don't know who makes it, but Bread & Cie is a near neighbor and could provide much better.
Because the cooking is so interesting and the portions so large, it's hard to manage dessert. Nonetheless, three of us enjoyed a shared Carlsbad strawberry tart. It wasn't exactly light, but it was refreshing enough to reawaken our palates. The strawberries, glazed with frangipane for shine, not excessive sweetness, maintained their tart, clean nature. They were topped with dense sweetened whipped cream (superfluous, to my mouth) and sat atop a smooth crème anglaise custard, with a thin layer of chocolate against the faintly sweet, crumbly, and rather heavy crust. On the plate were small concentric ovals of two glazes -- a reduction of blood orange, with ancho chile and vanilla bean, surrounding a center of tart champagne-and- kiwi-juice glaze. What started out as a summery Normal Rockwell soda-shop dessert remained cheerful, but as you plunged deeper, its graces no longer seemed simple -- it was art, sunny art, on a dark and stormy night.
ABOUT THE CHEF
"My grandmother was an excellent cook and I spent a lot of time in the kitchen watching her, and because of that I naturally gravitated to it," says Comer D. Smith. "It started with summer jobs working in kitchens, peeling shrimp -- the classic dishwasher story. I just really took to it. By the time I was 16, 17, I was working the line during the summer, and by the time I was 18, it was time to take a career because I had to support myself -- I didn't come from very much money. I got my first break working for a chef on a little island off the coast of Georgia, a little restaurant called Chelsea. It wasn't super-high-end food but it was done right, with classical French techniques. All the stocks were done in-house. Fresh ingredients, proper technique. It just fascinated me, because the flavors were mind-blowing. I've always had a kind of advanced palate, and this job gave me my first experience with tasting phenomenal food. From then on, I've never had any job outside of the kitchen.
"I went to Johnson and Wales Culinary School in Charleston, South Carolina. I worked and went to school at the same time -- but school was a little bit easier for me because I'd already got it. A lot of the people who were in culinary school with me had never worked in restaurants and are out of the business by now.
"Out of school, I went to Vancouver and worked in Victoria at the Empress Hotel, until my father got sick with multiple sclerosis. I moved back to Georgia to be closer to home and worked in all the local restaurants. Atlanta is a great food town because there's a lot of golf, which spawns good food at all the golf resorts in the area. I got my first sous-chef job at one of them, and then my first executive-chef job when I was about 25. I worked for some other great chefs in that area, and then I moved to San Diego.
"I was chef de cuisine at the Sky Room at La Valencia for 3 1/2 years. I moved on to work for Deborah Scott at Indigo Grill, which was a totally different experience. I was mainly looking within the Cohn Restaurant Group to learn about the administrative side of things, dive into the dollars -- they're very successful in that way. But I wasn't the right fit for that restaurant. Then I worked with Deborah Schneider at the Turf Club at the Del Mar racetrack. We really turned the food around this summer. She's so down-to-earth, and she really got me excited about food again. She took an interest in me and has been trying to help me get my name out there. She really promotes the younger chefs, nurtures them. I want to do that, too.
"The reason I moved here is, I'd been living on the East Coast for most of my life, and I wanted a new start. The time I spent out here, I always liked how so much great produce was so easily available. My menu changes often because I like to keep it fresh. I'll make small changes two or three times a week to take advantage of ingredients coming into season -- like now there are these fantastic Fuji persimmons. I like to take French and Asian and Latin and put them all together -- I love Latin flavors, I think they're phenomenal. When I got here, I realized that San Diego is not quite the culinary town that New York or San Francisco or Las Vegas is, but I really like being here because it's making that step. I'm glad I stayed, because I think now we're on that cusp of really being on the map culinarily.
"What I'm looking to do is cook fine-dining food without having the fine-dining atmosphere. I want people to be able to come in and relax. I'll learn from anyone I can. If the dishwasher comes up with a good idea, I'll use it...We've got a really small, sweaty kitchen, and we're working all together, crammed back there. But I'm happy with the product we're putting out. I get to put my hands on everything, because I work the line every day, lunch and dinner, six days a week, 14 hours a day. We make everything in-house, so there's a lot of challenge to it. I'm suffering for my art, but at the end of the day, it's so much fun. I'm so lucky to be in a job where I get to do what I love every day. My philosophy is, do it fresh, do it right."
*** 1/2 (Very Good to Excellent)
142 University Avenue (at Third Avenue), Hillcrest, 619-692-1919.
HOURS: Tuesday--Thursday and Sunday, 11:00 a.m.--9:00 p.m. Friday--Saturday noon--10:00 p.m. Closed Mondays.
PRICES: Global tapas, $5--$9; appetizers and salads, $7--$12.50; entrées, $15.50--$28; desserts, $5.50--$7.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Generous portions of creative global fusion, surprising but sane, made with naturally raised meats, sustainable seafood, local sustainably raised produce. Wine list modest in size, but international, adventurous, and mainly affordable, with plenty by the glass. Full bar.
PICK HITS: Porcini mushroom and chestnut soup; ginger-chicken pot sticker in hot-sour soup (tapa); blue crab bites (tapa); slow-roasted pork (tapa); day-boat scallops with leeks; surf and turf; braised short ribs; strawberry tart.
NEED TO KNOW: Free/validated parking in small lot a few paces north on Third Avenue. Streetside patio tables in good weather. Menu changes frequently. One vegetarian pasta entrée, nothing vegan. Noisy when full. Casual atmosphere.