The concept at Seasons 52, this health-conscious, calorie-aware, casual fine-dining restaurant at the Arden Fair mall, boils down to a message you may not want to hear: We are a nation of gluttons, we cannot control our impulses, and we hate ourselves when we can’t fit into our skinny jeans.
We also love the mall.
If only we could shop ’til we drop, then stop in for a seasonally appropriate meal and a beverage from an award-winning wine list, and walk out feeling a bit more waif-like as we struggle to remember where we parked the car.
Where did such an inspired, superbly focused and nuanced concept originate? From a passionate, true-believing chef? A farmer who wants to change the world via organic produce? Maybe not, for Seasons 52 is owned and operated by the same company that brings us Olive Garden.
Enter the good, old-fashioned corporate brain-storming session. I picture dry-erase boards, markers and ideas galore generated by bright minds. Watch how one epiphany after another takes root like a plucky radish.
Seasons 52, we love and respect how carefully packaged and market-tested you feel. Seasonality? Check. The food comes from farms? Yes, let’s spin it that way. Rotating menu? Bring it. We’ll change it weekly, as in 52 times a year, even when it’s too cold to grow anything. An award-winning wine list? Um, let’s give our wine list an award for having all kinds of wine on it. (To be fair, the chain has won awards from such publications as Wine Spectator and Orlando Magazine.)
Seasons 52 is a clever idea. It’s a mildly upscale-leaning restaurant where the plethora of dishes on the menu are capped at 475 calories. If you’re grappling with what that looks like, think two turkey corn dogs from Hot Dog on a Stick out in the mall, or one slice of BBQ chicken pizza from Sbarro.
What’s not to like about moderation and sacrifice? This is how skinny people eat. Small portions of salmon and lamb and steak. Mix in some vegetables, eschew most fats and rarely indulge in dessert.
Seasons 52 has you covered in the event you haven’t gotten on board with the slenderizing mindset – desserts are also capped at 475 calories, meaning they are served in cute little cups that look like thimbles. Think minuscule, only smaller.
If you’re Seasons 52 material, you’ll thank them for cutting down the portions, trimming back the fat, limiting the calories and sucking the fun out of the whole thing. After all, eating out, now that chains must post the nutritional values of each item, often adds up to eye-popping, guilt-inducing dining. That infamous bloomin’ onion at Outback is 1,948 calories and, this is not a typo, 160 grams of fat. Those shrimp nachos at Red Lobster are 1,290 calories and 78 grams of fat.
Seasons 52 is a reaction to these nutritional horror stories. It’s a boot camp and dressed-up deprivation center — with decent wines, of course.
During our first visit to Seasons 52, our adept and engaging server gave us a run-down of the concept, letting it be known that butter is not used in the cooking and there is no deep-frying on the premises. When she walked away, we spent five minutes silently trying to imagine life without butter.
Inside, Seasons 52 looks and feels like the chain that it is. With dark wood, an abundance of decorative details, moderately dim lighting, and an open kitchen, the room is cozy, well-appointed, somewhat fancy. But really, we could be sitting at any mall or airport in the United States. The live music, we decided initially, was a nice touch. Fifteen minutes later, we agreed the kitschy piano tunes were making us squirm. Still, the music was an upgrade from several months ago, when we found ourselves in the middle of a one-man “American Idol” (it was all kinds of pitchy, dawg).
Unlike the entertainment, the food is eminently mediocre, impossible to love and easy to forget. Despite the 475-calorie cap, there is no policing going on, so you are free to order appetizers and, of course, the servers strongly recommend the flatbread pizzas, which are attractively presented on a long rectangular plate that makes the portion seem hefty.
While the garlic pesto chicken flatbread was reasonably tasty, the steak and cremini mushroom version was exceptionally bland and the steak had clearly been precooked, leaving it dried out. We also ordered a serving of mussels. Oddly, the broth is served on the side, so we poured it over the mussels at the table. Without butter, we wondered how the sauce would hold up. It tasted like coconut milk, with a watery texture that lost its appeal before we finished eating the plump mussels.
During that same dinner, three of us ordered main dishes that simply didn’t hold up – for flavor, for cooking technique, for quality – at this level of dining and at this price point. The grilled shrimp with cavatappi pasta ($19.50) was the best of the bunch, mostly because the ample shrimp had a tasty sear that imparted additional flavor. The pasta was average and there was little seasoning or sauce to pull it together.
The lamb dish whetted my curiosity, for I wondered how they could pull off something rich and possibly decadent like this with a calorie limit. Thanks to a little bit of magical misdirection, the kitchen balanced the plating by stretching out the asparagus (overcooked and limp) across the plate, tucking the tiny serving of lamb on one end, then plunking down a dollop of mashed potatoes and a sweet balsamic reduction. It was a noble effort to trick the eye, but for $26.95, it added up to one of the dullest and skimpiest lamb dishes I can recall.
Then there was the cedar plank salmon, which is another bit of sleight of hand. You see, that thin piece of wood served with the salmon must mean quality and extra flavor. But this salmon was watery and its texture more mushy than meaty, suggesting it had been hurriedly thawed and then cooked. Flavor? Hardly any. The same goes for the carrots and asparagus.
The bill came to $96.19 for the three of us – and we liked one dish. On a previous visit, we spent $115.06 and, again, the only memorable thing we ate was an appetizer, spicy chicken chile relleno ($9.75). The maple chile roasted chicken ($17.95) with jus and root vegetables was a decent portion cooked properly. The thin slab of grilled trout that blanketed the plate was served with a small portion of carrots and looked very much like a Weight Watchers special. Was it healthy? Sure. But it was far from pleasing.
The desserts are the most oddly entertaining facet of the dining experience here. They are ridiculously small, of course, which only reminds us that all those normal-sized desserts we’ve been eating all these years are way more than 475 calories. The server brings the entire array of desserts to the table and you have the opportunity to grab one – or maybe three. I remember having two spoonfuls of something called pumpkin pie ($2.50) that tasted something like pumpkin pie.
If Seasons 52 is to thrive and prosper, it will be because of our collective lack of restraint and new-found admiration for a boot-camp approach.
If we can’t control our food cravings, we can eat at a place that sets the limits for us, taking away our butter, our fried foods and much of the joy that comes with eating as well.
If your experience mirrors mine, beware that you will likely spend $100 for dinner, drive home, stew about what just happened – then hunt through the fridge for something to eat.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.