Sneak Preview: Seasons 52
Is it possible to melt the icy heart of the city’s biggest St. Johns Town Center grinch? With a CHAIN restaurant? All I can say is, if Seasons 52 is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.
Foodies, environmentalists, locavores, those that are health conscious and generally introspective people all have a list of grievances with chain restaurants. Foodies hate chains because the food is one-note, soulless, smothered in canned cheese sauce and fake bacon (fakon!®), overcooked, over-seasoned and low quality. Environmentalists and locavores alike hate chains because the supply chain is inefficient, food travels over long stretches of the earth, local farmers are cut out of the supply chain and they put tone-deaf things on the menu like Chilean Sea Bass. (I’m glaring in your direction, Morton’s.) The health conscious and introspective folks hate the chains because getting nutrition information is like pulling teeth and once you get it, it puts you off Bloomin’ Onions for life. The Cheesecake Factory has a meatless bowtie pasta on the (don’t say effing… don’t say effing..) CHILDREN’S MENU that is 1800 calories. (Source) Couple these Town Center sins with no trolley, parking that could make a nun curse a blue streak, sparse public bathrooms, no food court, NO ICEES and, well… let’s just say it takes a damn good sale at JoAnn’s to make me head that far south.
What if we could tap our forks together and wish really hard for something better? Could we imagine a chain that has mindful ingredient sourcing, delicious nutritionally responsible food, a killer wine list, a seasonal menu, spot-on preparation, environmental decency, female waitstaff who aren’t dressed like they just got off the Rock of Love bus, creative seasoning AND an absolutely squeal-inducing free valet? At the Town Center? Yes, Virginia, there evidently IS a Santa Claus and he’s probably at the live piano bar at Seasons 52 tonight. You’ll barely recognize him this year because his bowlful of jelly was wiped out by entrees under 470 calories.
The Seasons 52 concept is clean, fresh, delicious and above all, mindful. The Arts & Crafts inspired space is open, beautiful and clean while considering the customer’s every possible need. Spaces are divided to accommodate almost any size group and serve almost any function. Large screens for presentations, thick sliding glass doors and windows, expanding and contracting table setups and sound systems make it the space perfect for any gathering. Best of all, there’s no charge for the large room usage or the A/V club amenities. Customers only pay food and beverage.
Of course, all of this is a moot point if the food and beverage isn’t worth the trip. I’m here to tell you – IT IS. As the resident Town Center grinch, I went into our media preview very, very skeptically. Owned and operated by the Darden Restaurant Group behemoth, parent company of Red Lobster, Bahama Breeze, Capital Grille and God deliver us, the Olive Garden (among others), Seasons 52 reeled me in first with their menu. No items over 470 calories. SEASONAL menu. No deep fryers in the building. No butter. (!) Shot-glass desserts. I was intrigued. But, could they pull it off?
First we tried the flatbreads, Artichoke & Goat cheese with Leaf Spinach, Balsamic Onions and Roasted Peppers as well as Chipotle Shrimp with Roasted Poblanos, Grilled Pineapple and Feta Cheese.
Appetizer – Chipotle Strimp with Roasted Poblanos, Grilled Pineapple and Feta Cheese
I was very impressed by this dish because they didn’t back off on the spices. When someone orders a dish that has two hot peppers in the name, they aren’t looking for it to taste like McCormick’s taco seasoning. This thing had a kick and the shrimp had that pretty little snap that said they were fresh. This is a great way to kick off a meal.
Amuse – Lumbo Lump Crab and Haas Avocado
A tasty little bite that the menu description didn’t do justice. There was a salsa under this that blew my socks off. Very tasty!
Fish Course – Organic Salmon and Lemongrass Sea Scallop Roasted on a Cedar Plank
Extremely fresh-tasting seafood minimally prepared. I know you’re still in your head with the “no butter” statement above. I was skeptical too, but I’m telling you – I didn’t miss it. This dish really got down to the nuts and bolts of what your brain tells you seafood IS. The best thing a chef can do is get out of their own way and let the food speak. This is a rare and beautiful commodity in a chain restaurant and Seasons 52 really succeeded here.
Salad Course – Salinas Organic Field Greens with Oak-Grilled Mushrooms Toasted Pistachios and Truffle Dressing
I didn’t catch the photo before they presented this. It’s brought to your table in a plastic cylinder on the plate and released into the wild by your server at point-of-service. Very cute. At the very least it seems to be a practical way to forestall wilting while in transit. The flavor combinations were spot-on and the greens were very fresh and crispy. I love nuts on salads and was delighted to find pistachios, which you don’t get very often at restaurants because they can be persnickety after leaving their shells.
Pasta – Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli with Roasted Garlic Basil and Light Tomato Broth
You can’t go wrong with goat cheese and pasta – ever. This dish really jumped out and got me because it’s so rare to see a chiffonade at a big restaurant here, the tomatoes were absolutely awesome and the broth was so light that it was more of a scent experience than a taste experience. Beautiful, delicate and perfectly executed.
Meat Course – Mesquite-grilled Lamb T-Bone Chop and Manchester Farms All Natural Quail, Mashed Sweet Potatoes and Bourbon-Chili Glaze, Brussels Sprouts
I see you there, wrinkling your nose at those sprouts. I’m going to give you the old Southern grits line – if you don’t like them, it’s ’cause you ain’t had ‘em done right yet, son. The secret to good sprouts is not overcooking them. I loved them. The quail was perfect. It’s a lot of work for a little meat, but the flavor is magnificent – like the taste of chicken gizzards or livers with the buttery softness of well prepared braised chicken. Now… the lamb…
All chefs reading this, please take note – THIS IS WHAT MEDIUM RARE LOOKS LIKE.
I’ll stop yelling now. Because I watched the prep, I know that these were seared off on the grill then finished in the oven. However, if I hadn’t seen it, I would have thought they had been prepared sous vide and then marked. Tender, perfectly cooked, absolutely consistent inside and flavorful. For 460 calories, you get three of those little badboys on the regular menu. One of the few suggestions I had for my dinner partner, Jeff Carcara, Senior Director of Operations for the chain, was to have portion size listed on the Nutrition Information page on the website. Hopefully that will be amended soon, but I can say without a doubt that the portions aren’t tiny and the flavor is out of this world.
With flavors like German Chocolate Cake, Key Lime, Meyer Lemon Pound Cake, Pecan Pie, Pumpkin Pie and Red Velvet Cake, you’d think these little buggers would cost you an extra hour at the gym. However, each of these gems will set you back only 180-330 calories and only 50 for the fruit choice. I had the Mocha Macciato flavor and it was like a tiny tiramisu bomb. Four or five generously rich bites that satisfy your dessert cravings, but don’t leave you needing to unbutton your chinos. Like the rest of the menu, many flavors are seasonally available so you can look forward to Eggnog in the near future. (nom!)
Apps – Chartogne-Taillet Cuvee Sainte Anne, Champagne MV
Amuse – Aveleda Vinho Verde, Portugal 2009
Fish – Mer Soleil Chardonnay, Central Coast 2008
Salad – Sinskey Pinot Noir, Carneros 2007
Pasta – Retromarcia, Chianti Classic 2009 (A true food-loving Chianti – highly recommended)
Alto Moncayo Garnacha, Campo de Borja 2009
De Toren Fusion V, Stellenbosch 2007
Dessert – Selbach-Oster Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Auslese, Mosel 2010
The Riesling absolutely knocked my socks off. If you love a good, sweet, powerful Riesling, do not walk, RUN to try this.
As much thought and care has been put into the wine and liquor choices as the rest of the menu. We had a real knockout selection and I was floored to see a giant glass vat of vodka being infused with fresh oranges at the bar. They’ve gone the extra mile to bring small batch, adventurous wines into the mix to truly complement the food. George Miliotes is one of only 180 Master Sommeliers in the world and he’s brought in over 100 selections with 52 or more being available by the glass. Our pairings were spot-on so if I were you I’d ask my server for the best pairings with my food.
Many true food lovers are put off by chains. We all want to support local businesses. But, at least in Seasons 52, we can vote with our wallets. Chains will continue to provide what people want to buy. This restaurant is an excellent example of how consumer demand can bend and shape what large-scale businesses peddle to us. Next time you’re tempted to spend big bucks just to get a “sure thing” like Ruth’s Chris, Morton’s, Chart House or even sister-company Capital Grille, consider Seasons 52. Too often, especially in business situations, we go with chains because they can accommodate food preferences and needs while providing nutrition information. Maybe you go because they can handle a large group or because Mom & Dad are more comfortable with a chain. THAT is the night to try Seasons 52. Vote with your wallet and tell these chains that we want local, sustainable, fresh, thoughtful food that doesn’t damage our bodies. Undoubtedly, one could find flaws with Seasons 52, but I can tell you that Jeff Carcara, Senior Director of Operations, spent our meal together feverishly jotting down the local purveyors I talked about. They WANT to do right and they are trying. I can’t help but love this place dearly for that.
I’m never going to abandon my favorite local restaurants, but Seasons 52 gives me a choice I have desperately needed as a calorie conscious person. I can go here and know how many calories I’ve consumed. The number of local restaurants providing nutrition information as of October 2011 is zero. Seasons 52 is a place I can feel good about supporting – all of the good a chain can bring with very little of the bad.
Seasons 52 is located at 5096 Big Island Drive at the St. Johns Town Center. You can contact them at 645.5252 or visit the website. I highly recommend it.
Special thanks to Jeff Carcara, the staff of Seasons 52 and Bonnie Upright for a lovely evening.
::This article is not intended to be an objective review – it is coverage of a media event where attendees were identified as media representatives and dined as guests of Seasons 52.::
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