TAMPA — Think about this: a chain concept with no deep fryers, a heavy reliance on seasonal and sustainable ingredients, a commitment to serving no dishes over 475 calories, with any number of subtle strategies for giving diners lots of flavor and drama without a lot of fat and calories.
Darden Restaurants — Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse, Capital Grille and more — has always had a strict imperative. Stay in the black, make stockholders happy by making customers happy. And historically, to make customers happy is to give them lots of food at a good price point, so that they perceive it to be a value.
Seasons 52, started in 2003, with 12 locations open or in the works for the next few months, is something different. With it, Darden, one of the world's largest casual dining restaurant operators, has decided it is good business to bear our overall health and well-being in mind.
Tampa's Seasons 52 opened in West- Shore Plaza last month, and the local food world, myself included, is atwitter. Having eaten at a Seasons 52 in Orlando, I can say that the Tampa location needs a bit more time to "season." Our outpost is incredibly service oriented, but sometimes less would be more. They will get their sea legs. And the piano bar will doubtless find the correct sound mix, but right now bursts of wobbly Elton John don't add favorably to the cacophony in the dining room.
It's packed. Lunch, dinner, they can't get more people in at the moment. There are those buzzer pagers, people camping out in the bar, a slightly imperious reservation mistress. But the dining room is gorgeous, with live palms reaching up to skylights, ledge- stone walls and rich cherry-toned woods, warm-lit sconces and a sleek exhibition kitchen. There's a gas fireplace near the entrance that slithers its orange flames through a bed of shattered blue-green glass. Mesmerizing.
Master sommelier George Miliotes has a stunning 60-by-the-glass, 100-by-the-bottle list that will blow your skirt up and give you something new to ponder. (Nice touch: Each glass is served by the bottle tableside, so you get to look at the label and kick the tires). Also, there are intensely flavorful shot-glass-sized desserts for $2.50. Turns out, unlike the rest of the restaurant world these days, there's a one-to-one ratio of diners to desserts served. Meaning 600 covers, 600 desserts sent out. No one has to kiss and tell, but at such a small financial and caloric outlay, some folks might be inclined to try two.
But this is all icing on the cake (the best ones are the chocolate peanut butter or a classic carrot cake). I eat out all the time and am routinely stunned by how absurdly much food is considered a "single serving." If you're not a nutritionist or just not paying attention, you may shovel in 1,500 calories and a whole lot of fat grams in a single restaurant meal. That's why we like to eat out (that, plus no dishes). It's more food than we would ever think to serve ourselves at home.
Printed on recycled paper using soy-based inks, Seasons 52's menu is smart. They've done away with the bread basket, but offer crisp, snappy flatbreads in punchy flavor profiles to start: grilled steak and crimini mushroom with Wisconsin blue cheese ($8.95), grilled chicken with sweet-tangy balsamic onions and roasted red peppers ($8.50), or even a plum tomato with fresh basil and roasted garlic ($7.75). They're a great sharable nibble, the crunchiness a substitute for all the fried appetizers we're accustomed to seeing.
They serve the tastiest edamame ($4.75) I've had in a while, the flavor due to a fascinating bowl of Japanese green tea salt that accessorizes the warm in-pod soybeans. These contrast nicely with spicy tandoori chicken skewers ($8.50) paired with both chutney and cucumber raita. The only appetizer I was suspicious of was the crab- and shrimp-stuffed mushrooms ($8.95). That was a terrine of a whole lot of creamy cheesiness to come in under 475 calories. But I looked it up online (all nutritional info is available at seasons52.com), and the claim is an amazing 326 calories, 15 fat grams. (Of course if you have appetizer, entree and dessert, you'll exceed 475 calories.)
As one might expect, there are lots of appetizer-sized and dinner-sized salads. The latter are especially good, with a nice presentation: Greens come in an open-ended glass cylinder that the server lifts up so the dressed greens can spread across the plate. A lemongrass salmon salad ($14.95, but for $5 more they will make it with certified organic Scottish salmon) and a Maui tuna crunch salad ($14.95) have a similar aesthetic. Lots of fresh greens, carefully dressed and with doodads like jicama, almonds and grilled pineapple to jazz them up, then just enough animal protein to bring it all together and satisfy.
People trying to eat a little less meat will appreciate the kitchen's use of the grill. On a veggie plate ($12.95), grilled tofu has just enough wood smoke to seem "meaty." On that same plate, thick slices of fennel spend time on the grill, same with one night's vegetable special, bright green broccoli with a rollicking Caesar dressing.
Seafood pasta dishes are usually caloric minefields laden with cream sauces employed to woo you. Seasons 52 has a tiger shrimp pasta ($16.95) that's lovely, a crowd of perfectly cooked veggies and sweet, plump shrimp given a lemon-basil sauce and a bit of Parmesan. It's rich, without the need for medical personnel standing by. Another successful dish brings grilled rainbow trout (one of the most highly recommended species on the Seafood Watch sustainability chart; $15.95) with new potatoes and other veggies and a broiled lemon. It's that lemon, caramelized, mellower and somehow different in tone, that gives the fish panache.
In a couple of visits I had a few dishes that were pleasant but unremarkable. But "remarkable" certainly characterizes my overall impression of Seasons 52. It's a strategy of "give the people what they want" — buzz, drama, a stylish dining room and pretty, contemporary food — with a subtle commitment to giving us what we need.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Read her dining blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection or the assessment.