Restaurants linked to a smaller hotel are often places to be a little wary of. All too frequently, the proximity to a relatively captive customer base can allow restaurateurs to slack on food and atmosphere, and, moreover, the restaurant quality is often directly proportional to that of the hotel. On the other hand, large, higher-end hotels can pose equal problems, because the restaurant is sometimes so busy with banquets and room service that the operation has little time left for attention to detail in the dining room.
I was thus feeling a little unencouraged by the slightly shabby elevator from the parking garage at the Hallmark Inn in downtown Davis, which I took on the way to its linked restaurant, Seasons. Nevertheless, I’d been meaning to try it out, as I’d heard excellent things about Seasons and its chef, Jonathan Nieto, from friends and also from some local chefs. And indeed, the menu, food and atmosphere at the restaurant were a wonderful surprise, bearing little resemblance to the old-fashioned kind of hotel restaurant.
Seasons sits on a corner at the entrance to Davis’ downtown and features a stylish bar, plenty of warm wood in cool geometrical designs, comfortable banquette seating and a semi-open kitchen with a woodburning oven for flatbreads at its center. A couple of jarring little notes, such as an institutional-looking door at the back with an exit sign, hinted that the space might have had a less exalted past, but the design has done a good job of disguising that.
The menu is similarly ambitious. With adventurous touches such as hibiscus essence adorning bruschetta, or saba (a sweet, reduced grape-must syrup) on an otherwise utterly simple-sounding dish of gnocchi with brown butter and fava beans, Seasons is firmly on the California side of the new American camp. The cooking is fresh and (unsurprisingly) seasonal, with a preponderance of late-spring vegetables when I visited, as well as some heartier dishes that complemented the unusually cool and long spring we’ve had this year. Since my visit, the restaurant has shifted to an early summer menu; although the dishes I sampled have changed, the choices are similar in their flavors and overall style.
The wine list isn’t enormous, but it’s thoughtful and well-arranged, with many appealing by-the-glass picks. Seasons also has a full bar and a specialty martini list (ask to see it if you’re interested). There are also some nice nonalcoholic choices, including Navarro varietal grape juice, which Seasons serves either straight up or, for the white (Gewurztraminer) version, mixed with sparkling water and prettily presented in a champagne flute. Attention to such small details seems to be a specialty of the house: For instance, each table sports not run-of-the-mill salt and pepper shakers, but a tiny grinder for pepper and a little fish-shaped dish of flaky sea salt.
That detail orientation carries over to the food. We started off sharing two appetizers, a pickled beet salad with snap peas and potatoes; and bruschetta with citrus-grilled shrimp, fava-bean paste and hibiscus essence. Both dishes were quite beautiful, particularly the mildly tangy deep red, pink and golden beets, which came nestled into baby lettuces and topped with a tangerine vinaigrette and crunchy flakes of almonds. For the bruschetta, smoky shrimp curled neatly on the bright-green puree of favas, which had a haunting but not overwhelming garlic flavor and which topped oblong slices of bread. The barely charred, crisp edges contrasted with the soft interior, rich with oil, and the drizzle of sweet-tart, pink hibiscus essence was a perfect finishing touch for the whole dish.
Entrees were a tough choice, with intriguing flatbreads, pastas and meat dishes to choose from. I was in the mood for something relatively light and ordered garganelle pasta with asparagus, fresh peas, tomato cream sauce, olives and halloumi—a wonderful sheep’s-milk cheese from Cyprus that I rarely see on menus. Unfortunately, our friendly but professional server immediately and apologetically told me that that night the dish was being served with feta instead. I stuck with my choice, but I later wished I’d changed to something different, such as the English pea risotto with frisee and mascarpone; my dish was tasty enough but rather ordinary.
My husband’s ale-braised pork, however, was a smash hit. Tender and rich, with a wonderfully savory jus, the pork was topped with long-stemmed baby artichokes, perfectly trimmed, and tiny, deeply browned roasted potato halves. Out-ordered, I commandeered several bites, and every morsel disappeared fast.
For dessert, he tried a rich Scharffen Berger chocolate brownie, topped with caramel gelato and crunchy cacao nibs. I had the “market” turnover, which varies from day to day; on our visit, it was filled with strawberries and nectarines. The big, rich, dense brownie wasn’t terribly distinctive, but you can’t go too far wrong with that much chocolate. My turnover was disappointing, however; I liked the not-too-sweet fruit filling, but the crust was unfortunately soggy.
The entree menu listed the name of the chef on it, but there was no pastry chef noted on the dessert menu, which made me think that desserts might not be receiving the same dedicated attention as the savory food. Nevertheless, Seasons’ high level of cooking, creative menu and attractive setting are a winning combination—one that should teach me to keep an open mind about restaurants attached to hotels.