A Plate Too Far?

Seasons Café's ambitious menu is an admirable stretch beyond its reach

Back at military school there was a guy who would perpetually challenge us to chess games. So confident was he in his abilities he would insist on wearing a blindfold, while allowing us to play without impediment. He was an exceptionally strong player, but certainly wasn't good enough to beat anyone in his chosen style. A dozen or so moves in, the game would begin to be peppered with "Sorry, where's my bishop again?" and similar queries. Had he but removed the cloth, he could have wiped the floor with all of us, but he was a man who preferred to fail as a genius rather than succeed as a primus inter pares.

Such hubris is apparent at Seasons Café (12740 Kingston Pike, Farragut). The idea is a great one: a small, friendly bistro offering high-quality food with an emphasis on seasonal produce. And the concept surely seems even more enticing at this time of year, with a staggering state surplus of mists and mellow fruitfulness. But Seasons Café refuses to settle for straightforward warmth and comfort, preferring instead to aim for quirky, individual sophistication. The menu provides a few pleasing high points, but overall its vaulting ambition, I'm sorry to say, o'erleaps itself.

As its name suggests, the venue places a strong emphasis on contrasts. But there's a fine line between contrast and clash, and the jarring absence of single-mindedness is evident from the moment one enters. Where is the host? Err… behind us, squeezed awkwardly up against a window to avoid blocking a corridor. Full marks for opening up the kitchen, but why does it face the bar rather than the restaurant, from where it remains stubbornly out of sight? And whose bright idea was it to fashion the restroom doors from glass? The restaurant is lit beautifully, lending the place a romantic, dusky glow at night. Yet, at odds with this mood, the furnishings are austere and faintly uncomfortable.

The slightly uneasy emphasis on gimmick continues with the menu. Table water comes with a slice of cucumber rather than lemon. Soups sit in asymmetrical bowls. Much of the food continues this theme of traditional with a twist, but some of these traditions are arguably not worth the twisting. Surely we don't need another crab cake variant.

The best thing on the menu is a pumpkin bisque, sweet and creamy with deliciously nutty roasted seeds and parmesan breadsticks. A rather sudden tomato soup is less pleasing, and a New England clam chowder altogether too dour.

The shrimp and pesto flatbread proves a regrettable choice. An exaggerated foil to the pretension of many of the other dishes, it is perhaps the most boring-looking meal I've ever seen. The perfectly square dough sits on its perfectly square plate with nothing to enliven eye or palate. Equally unappealing was the venison sausage sandwich, the venison inedibly salty and the bread soggy and dank.

The meatloaf is hard work, and is inexplicably topped with a film of mozzarella, which howls angrily against the tart blue-cheese mash on which the loaf sits. A pear and balsamic chicken was enjoyable enough until the discovery of a literally painful faux pas—pieces of cinnamon bark from the marinade had embedded themselves into the meat, poised to crack the enamel of any inattentive tooth.

Head chef Deron Little is clearly passionate about food, and is blessed with an inquiring mind and a lively imagination. He also happens to be an immensely likeable individual. But he's trying too hard. His ceaseless invention—a commendable quality—needs to be tempered, since it plays against the central concept of the restaurant. I suspect in the gastronomic desert that is Farragut he's playing to an appreciative gallery, but would wager things might be different on Gay Street.

Even allowing for the fact we live in a country where "intellectual" has a negative connotation, Seasons Café is too clever by half.