By most measures, it was a typical spring Wednesday, cool with drizzle. But in the parking lot of Seasons 52, the latest high-profile franchise to populate the Fashion Mall, the buzz resembled a VIP gala. Orange pylons blocked the better portion of the parking spaces, and valets sprinted to fetch keys. Inside, nearly every seat in the place was taken. Clearly something special, some of-the-moment trend, had drawn out this many diners on such a dreary day.
That trend, it turns out, is seasonal eats, a nod both backward to the legendary New York restaurant The Four Seasons (which pioneered quarterly changing menus) and forward to the growing movement toward sustainable, locavore cuisine—even at national chains. Seasons 52 couples seasonality with a fairly strict commitment to healthfulness, using only “natural cooking techniques” and “oil with control,” according to its website. Butter-lovers, beware! There’s none in the house. With its relatively pared-down selection of dishes and restrained portions, Seasons 52 is practically the antithesis to parent company Darden Restaurants’ other gut-busting eateries, Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse.
“Every menu item is less than 475 calories,” our waiter intoned, a bit chagrined, before nearly insisting we order one of the restaurant’s “custom” flatbreads as a starter. We didn’t disobey, and crisp, pizza-like wedges topped with thinly sliced steak, mushrooms, and bleu cheese with the vague provenance of “Wisconsin” gave us something tasty to munch on while we took in the place. At the center of the round bar, rimmed with vintage shaded lamps, a lounge singer crooned perfectly earnest renditions of “Only the Lonely” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” A Cubs game played over her shoulder. Despite being conceived in Orlando, the rustic ledgestone–and–Hungarian-wood exterior and the warm glow of natural light from windows at the rear of the restaurant seemed more a pristine take on the American Southwest—definitely calming environs for dinner.
Glancing back at the menu to choose our entrees, we noticed the phrase “Farmers Market” before several offerings. But which farmers market was this? None of the ones here were yet selling snap peas, and the yuzu that commonly flavors ponzu sauce,here a seasoning for tofu, isn’t even indigenous to North America. The menu strains to mention local producers, but not a leaf of produce comes from Indiana. One salad boasts Earthbound Farm arugula, which any attentive grocery shopper would recognize as the largest producer of prewashed organic salad greens in the country, available at most megamarts from coast to coast.
Wood-roasted pork tenderloin was perfectly tender and slightly pink. But blanched florets of broccoli and dense mushrooms with no caramelized edges made for bland filler. Without butter or cream, the extra rosemary and astringent garlic in a side of polenta completely overwhelmed the palate. A similar dissonance of flavors plagued the swordfish noodle bowl, which had a good amount of meaty swordfish and blanched baby bok choy but an achingly pale miso broth.
The best items were those that required the least smoke and mirrors to lower the calorie count. On another visit, light lunch entrees such as fish tacos with both guacamole and kicky chipotle sour cream actually felt like a composed dish, not diet food. A roasted poblano pepper stuffed with chicken and goat cheese also hit the spot, especially with sweet roasted-corn cakes on the side. Goat-cheese ravioli garnished with crunchy peppers and asparagus packed plenty of flavor. And “Mini Indulgences,” Seasons 52’s wry nudge to get dessert, tasted like intense versions of more familiar sweets, especially a chocolate peanut-butter mousse with a roasted undertone, and a wee Meyer lemon pound cake. We ordered several and passed them around with demitasse spoons. We’d had a meal without butter. We figured we deserved this.
8650 Keystone Crossing, 846-5252, seasons52.com; HOURS Sunday–Thursday 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m.; Friday 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m.–11 p.m.
This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue.