Seasons 52

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The Seasons 52 that exists today, in the original location on Restaurant Row Orlando and in eight other locations around the southeast, is not exactly the restaurant that it started out to be. But most of the changes have been for the best.

No, there is no butter in the kitchen or anywhere else in the restaurant. But then neither are there rolls nor yeasty hunks of bread to slather it on.
This is Seasons 52, the prototype for a new concept from Darden Restaurants, from whence Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Bahama Breeze and Smoky Bones came. To say that it is different from anything else Darden has done doesn’t go quite far enough. Seasons 52 is innovative on a number of levels, and if it succeeds as a chain – and we’ll discuss that in a moment – it could change the way dine out.

There have been a number of misconceptions about what Seasons 52 is. The name is one of the sources of confusion: it is meant to conjure the notion that instead of four there are 52 seasons of the year, because, culinarily speaking, food items come into season every week somewhere in the world. And to exploit that phenomenon, Seasons 52’s menu changes weekly.

That doesn’t, however, necessarily mean that if you go in one week and find a dish you absolutely love – something that is entirely possible – you won’t see it two or three weeks later when you return. You may see the same dish, but the salmon that came from the northeast last time might now come from the northwest. Or maybe it’s just the tomatoes from that salad that have different points of origin. You may not notice a thing, or you may find you prefer one item over another.

Another misconception is that Seasons 52 is a health food restaurant. It’s true that every item on the menu is engineered to be nutritionally balanced and have fewer than 475 calories. And fried is considered a dirty word. But to call it a health food restaurant conjures images of bran muffins and tofu bean cakes. This is hardly the place where you’ll see people wearing earth shoes and hemp vests.

Then there is the notion that this was somehow supposed to be a chainable California Grill. That stems from the team of George Miliotes and Clifford Pleau, who guided the Disney World restaurant to its reputation as one of the best restaurants in Florida. Miliotes is again the manager extraordinaire, whose devotion for fine wines has been put to great use with a phenomenal global wine list (with no fewer than 56 selections available by the glass), and Pleau assumes the helm of executive chef, assisted by Toni Robertson, formerly of Sonona Mission Inn and Spa in California. But this is not California Grill.
But then there is that char crusted pork tenderloin ($14.75) on the menu. It was served with creamy corn polenta, roasted mushrooms and a cabernet jus that looked and tasted for all the world like Pleau’s signature dish from CG. And if it had been reimagined to fit into Seasons’ mission, it didn’t lack in taste or substance. It was, as it always has been, a favorite.

I also liked the oak grilled ruby trout ($14.75), which anywhere else might have been brushed with butter while grilling to give it extra flavor and moistness, but the butterflied fillet was fine by itself, a full-flavored fish with a mouth-filling texture. It was served with wild rice, simple slices of tomatoes that burst with flavor, and broccolini.

Simplicity was the key for the grilled jumbo sea scallops ($17.95), big, thick discs of tenderness, served with orzo, and grilled asparagus. And lest you think a kitchen counting calories would never feature a juicy steak, the grilled filet mignon ($19.75) will convince you otherwise. It was a meltingly tender hunk of meat, seemingly larger than its advertized six ounces, and coated with a tamarind glaze. This, by the way, was the most expensive item on the menu.
And while the bread basket has been banished, there are some breads of a sort. There are a number of flatbread appetizers, not quite crackers, not quite pizzas. My guest and I had the spicy firecracker shrimp flatbread ($9.75), topped with chili peppers and caramelized mozzarella. It was not light on the spice.
Other appetizers included a large bowl of Prince Edward Island black mussels ($8.50), steamed in chardonnay and flavored with shallots, which made a modest broth; and a rather ho-hum presentation of tamarind glazed chicken breast skewers ($7.25), although the pineapple salsa that accompanied them was wonderful.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more satisfying salad than the one of Early Girl and Sungold tomatoes ($5.75) topped with pleasantly bitter watercress and sprinkled with salty blue cheese crumbles.

Instead of going sugar-free on the desserts, although there might be one or two so promoted, the tray features an array of “mini indulgences,” shooter-sized shot glasses all sorts of goodies for $1.95 each. I especially liked the bing cherries jubilee and the carrot cake with rum raisin sauce.
The dining room exudes warmth with its dark woods, stone, comfortable booths and mood-setting lighting. There are a couple of large trees in the center of the room that look as though they’d rather be outside, but otherwise it’s a lovely ambience.

Service was superior. Menu knowledge was first-rate and the staff all carried themselves with professionalism. Another innovation that Seasons 52 is using is handheld devices that allow the servers to take orders electronically and send them instantaneously to the kitchen. It also allows credit cards to be processed right at the table – or curbside if you call in for takeout. There are still some kinks to work out, such as when buttons are accidentally punched and phantom orders sit on the pick-up counter, but they’re eventually figure it out.

The remaining question is whether Seasons 52, which has become instantly popular and is crowded most evenings with people willing to wait an hour or more, can work as a multi-unit chain. It would seemed to me you would have to clone Miliotes and Pleau, because certainly their mark is one this prototype. But they’ve also shown themselves to be masters of training, and if they can find the right people, die-hard foodies who share their passion for excellence in whatever they do, then there will be a Seasons for everyone.