Eight Seasons Grille has the characteristics of a great little bistro for the locals. Slightly tucked away at the corner of West Main and South Bassett streets, it has a nice patio area for outdoor seating. Jo's Tazzina, the former occupant, was a coffeehouse with modest food ambitions; this new venture appears to have grander things in mind.
Chef Nick Baertschy really wants you to know that he changes the menu eight times per year. The name, website, sandwich board, and the lips of the servers all speak this truth. I'm not sure whether to be charmed or put off by the insistence. At some point, seasonality has to become expected or at least understood with a little less prodding.
What's great for the diner about such a rotating menu is it becomes very difficult to get bored with the place. The downside is that what is reviewed here stands to have very little to do with the menu in, say, mid-December.
Eight Seasons is open for every meal of the day, serving coffee, baked goods and sandwiches. The amply portioned bakery items are made in-house, but generally lacked distinction. There was an unpleasant vinegar flavor to the bacon and poached egg sandwich, which spoke - along with a very overdone egg - to imprecise poaching. Pumpkin pancakes arrived sans walnuts and were cooked over too hot a griddle; the outside approached burnt while the interior was still batter.
The lunch menu treads the comfortably worn tracks of soup/salad/sandwich, with a higher success rate than breakfast. A red pepper and tomato bisque was just the right consistency, though the flavor was a little flat; the turkey and wild rice soup du jour fared better. An iceberg-heavy chop salad could have used more bacon and less vinaigrette, but the flavors were good. And the bacon used at Eight Seasons is particularly hearty.
A BLT and a customizable burger are mainstays on the lunch menu. The balsamic duck sandwich is a loose mix of duck, grapes, apple, celery and onion, all chopped to roughly the same size and with nothing to keep them from tumbling out of the lackluster bun. It's a pleasant sandwich, but one you might make out of last night's really good leftovers.
A selection of shareable plates stands in for the usual appetizers, and might also serve as main courses. Unfortunately, there's a reliance on heavy textures and cream-based sauces. The gnocchi are oily and overshadowed by too many tenderloin tips; squash ravioli, often overly sweet, are paired with a shrimp-and-mustard cream sauce. It's an odd combination, but one that would work just as well without the shrimp. Salmon tartare and house-made chips and corn salsa at least lighten things up.
Main courses are an unusually small percentage of the menu; only five stand in the current lineup. A massive, lightly fried lamb shank is too clever by half. The Peruvian blue mashed potatoes are paste-like and bland, and a pool of Malbec gorgonzola cream sauce is inexplicably flavorless.
The game hen, however - deboned but for the drumsticks - is cooked and seasoned perfectly. With less wild rice and undercooked root vegetables, it could really shine. And judging by the lunch sandwich, the seared duck breast should be quite nice.
The dessert menu shifts on a daily basis. All are made in-house and are plenty flavorful. Save the light-sounding hummingbird cake for a big meal; it's dense and amply frosted. Alternately, the chocolate harvest cake with macerated dried cranberries and candied orange is bright and not too rich.
Baertschy is an involved chef. He's liable to lean over the counter separating the kitchen from the dining room and ask you how things are going. His menu shifts subtly even between the major seasonal changes, and there's an obvious effort going into making the dishes noteworthy. That not all succeed shouldn't diminish the ambition or the value. Prices here are remarkably affordable, even for a student budget.
Service is generally collegial, and only a flat-screen TV mars the comfortable atmosphere. Muddied textures, an occasional lack of balance and way too much cream are all problems that will hopefully burn off as the kitchen evolves. As the saying goes for Wisconsin weather: If you're not happy with Eight Seasons Grille now, wait six weeks.