What to call it?
By all outward appearances, Seasons Eats looks like your typical lunch takeout storefront. Looking through the window, you witness chaotic swarms of downtown types picking up a salad or sandwich to take back to their desks. But peer a little closer and discover a culinary gem that defies categorization.
"We're not a deli. We're not a sandwich shop," says Phil Costas, a New York Times Three Star chef, who with his wife Liz, runs the place. “Maybe we're a cafe. I don’t know. We keep evolving.”
That’s why the Costas have just changed the name from Katie’s Gourmet to Seasons Eats. What started as a gourmet specialty shop 16 years ago, an offshoot of their highly successful American restaurant Kathleen’s, has become a… I don’t know, maybe the best word for it is indeed “Eats.” In this tiny 1300 square foot storefront, Phil and his five elves serve nearly 1400 delightfully inventive breakfasts, lunches and dinners a week.
“Seasons” may be even more descriptive. Not just because a seasoned Chef cooks with seasonal ingredients, but also because Phil Costas seasons his food like a jazz musician. He riffs on the simple standards, soups, sandwiches, salads, plying the palate with unexpected flavor notes supplied by herbs, spices, smokes, or sauces.
Take, for instance, the good old American standard tuna fish sandwich. In one of his many iterations on this classic, Chef Phil starts with Yellowfin, drying it completely before lightly flaking the flesh. He mixes in basil and roasted red pepper, binds the complementary flavors and textures with olive oil rather than mayo, and then lets the medley play out on a tasty Ciabatta Roll. In another interpretation, Phil embellishes the tuna with cilantro and relish and then marries the ingredients with a healthy yogurt and mustard sauce.
“My customers don’t want anything too far out there or too complicated,” Phil reminds himself constantly. “I keep my menu simple, but with twists. One or two, no more.”
After toiling at his family restaurant from the time he was eight years old, and then cooking under ten different trained chefs, Phil made his own name at the acclaimed Bella Luna in Greenwich. In 1996, he and Liz opened their own place, Kathleen’s, in Stamford, at a time when the town was a culinary wasteland. Their instant success heralded the city’s dining boom, and within a couple of years over 40 new restaurants crowded Kathleen’s right out of business. Phil and Liz were left with just their adjacent specialty shop and a huge, frightening debt. To my mind, Seasons Eats may now be Phil’s twist on Kathleen’s...smaller, simpler, more personal, and this time, inimitable.
To that end, Phil is expanding his dinner menu, making it available for takeout or sit down until 7 at night (and eventually later.) He’ll feature his homemade chicken, turkey and beef stews for winter. In the summer the fare lightens and will be served both inside and al fresco -- across from the stunning revival of old City Hall. Like the daytime menu, the emphasis will be on healthy, seasonal, comfort foods. Familiar, but with a twist.
“That’s why I like to work with Chicken,” Phil told me. “It’s healthy, relatively inexpensive, versatile, friendly, and I can have fun with it.” His artistic wife would tell him that chicken is his culinary canvas.
Phil’s superb Gumbo features chicken rather than traditional seafood, alongside the redoubtable andouille sausage. He starts with the “Holy Trinity” of onion, bell pepper and celery, adds Cajun spices, tomato, bay leaves, garlic, and chicken stock -- all thickened with a dark roux that takes about 20 minutes to cook (and is the most delicate part of the prep). He lets the stew simmer for three hours each morning until it’s ready for lunch. Phil believes his Gumbo is as good as, or better than, any Cajun or Creole contender from Louisiana. (Smart money is on him.)
He cooks four soups and three chilies from scratch each morning, playing a game of musical pots on his four burner stove.
The Turkey Chile originated as a burrito filling, which Phil – and his patrons -- eventually deemed should be the solo star of its own show. His poultry purveyor grinds the turkey to Phil’s precise specs, incorporating just enough fat for juice and taste. After browning, he mixes the morsels with corn, black beans, tomato, chipotle, oregano and the requisite cumin, critical to the distinctive flavor of a good chili.
Phil also brews a variety of other soups that he rotates into the menu each day as specials. They range from Broccoli and Cheese to a Creamy Tomato. The smooth Lobster Chowder is clearly a crowd favorite, and Phil’s restraint with dairy renders it delectable more than decadent. The luncheon soups may be the best in town.
Number one on the sandwich menu is also Number One with his patrons: the Tuscan Wedge. It’s antipasto in a bun, featuring prosciutto, salami, country ham, sweet peppers, provolone, tomato, and greens accented by a balsamic vinaigrette.
Seasons offers a trio of four- and seven-ounce burgers, playfully nicknamed “The Beauty,” “The Birdie,” and the “Inner Beauty.” The Beauty boasts a beef patty, layered with American cheese, tomato, sautéed onion, pickles, and lettuce set with Season’s own Special Sauce on a bun. It’s sister burger, The Birdie, features lean ground turkey, Swiss Lorraine, tomato, red onion, iceberg lettuce and Dijonaise on a wheat bun. To endow the poultry burger with flavor and zest, Phil creates a complex herb and condiment rub that he applies before grilling. The Inner Beauty showcases a veggie burger buttressed with tomato, avocado, iceberg lettuce and chipotle mustard on a wheat bun.
Other vegetarian offerings include a Veggie Burrito bearing black bean chili and cheese, and the recently added white Bean and Herb Hummus Wrap.
The popular Cajun Chicken Salad explodes with flavor, offset with sides of fruit salad and slaw. My long time favorite salad is the Smoked Salmon Platter, with translucent slices of New York style nova laid on a bed of greens and veggies. A creamy, pungent horseradish dressing joins the salad with accompanying hard boiled egg, capers and olives. A Greek improv on a Jewish standard… and a standout.
Amazingly, more than 75 items fill the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus each day.
Then there’s the burgeoning Catering Business overseen by Liz Costas, who serves event and business meals throughout lower Fairfield County, bringing her own artistic flair, honed at Stout University, to the presentation of her husband’s vast menu.
And soon there will be a new course. Look through the window after the huge lunch crowds have left the store front, and you’ll see Afternoon Tea being served, replete with a variety of elegant snacks and sweets of the kind Phil used to create at Kathleen’s. He’s also considering savories such as quiche, and hopefully Stamford’s first deep dish Chicago style pizza.
So what to call this amazing, ever changing feast of foods and platforms?
“Eats,” really says it all.
(To dodge the lunchtime madhouse, phone or fax your order by 10:30 am.)
29 Bank Street
Phone: (203) 324-2583 Fax: (203) 921-1987
[Photography courtesy of Jane Beiles Photography]