Let there be lite
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011
The flatbread makes a grand entrance, arriving as it does on a long paddle that creates a colorful stripe on our table as a waiter slides the starter into place. The sight of shrimp, pineapple, feta cheese and roasted poblano peppers atop a sheer crust is all the prompt my posse needs to dig in and pig out.
Except we don't overindulge. Like so much of the food at Seasons 52 - brought to Rockville (in April) and McLean (in June) by Darden Restaurants - this shared introduction has been designed by headquarters with our well-being in mind. If the menu is to be believed, no dish is more than 475 calories. Although there's no mistaking the crackery crust of the flatbread for a Neapolitan, no slice is left behind, either. And the toppings aren't just decorative, they're tasty.
Google the Orlando-based owners, and here's what you learn: Seasons 52 is from the same family of restaurants that gave us Olive Garden and Red Lobster. That might give the crowd that chases Michelin stars pause, but here's what meals at both area branches have taught me: 475 calories can be more filling, and more satisfying, than you think.
Season 52's buffalo chili comes packed with tender bites of meat, earthy black beans and gunpowder (make that poblano and chipotle chilies). A little dab of cilantro sour cream breaks up the darkness and tempers the heat. The restaurant also serves a respectable chile relleno, prepared with just a suggestion of cheese, stuffed with shredded grilled chicken and delivered on a field of salsa that doesn't stint on the fire. And that shrimp flatbread keeps good company with the other topping choices; they include thin-sliced plum tomato with roasted garlic, fresh basil and a veneer of Parmesan, and a salute to the region scattered with sweet crab, roasted red peppers and stripes of white Dijon sauce. Naturally, there are salads. Less pretty than the flatbreads, they impress more with their flavor combinations: pistachios, goat cheese and warm yellow beets with arugula in one version.
Before seating guests, Seasons 52 smartly steers them near or through its exhibition kitchens; the show of cooks chopping vegetables and flames dancing in ovens whets the appetite.
Both restaurants follow a common recipe: The menus are the same, right down to the seasonal specials. There's live music in the lounges, where the performers entertain from the middle of the bars. Rich with mahogany, the dining rooms in both markets take a design cue from Frank Lloyd Wright, while the sound levels in both (cover your ears, folks) suggest you're in the subway.
The portions are as generous as those in most mainstream restaurants, which brings out my Doubting Thomas. A server in McLean assures me that the big bird on my plate of barbecued chicken, which rests on garlicky, skin-on potatoes and green beans that retain their squeak, is under 475 calories. "There's no butter in the kitchen," she explains. "We don't have a deep fryer. And did you notice there's no bread" to introduce a meal? (I did, but that's my job.) I like everything about the entree, including its peppery barbecue sauce, but the industrial-tasting chicken. As is true in a lot of places, the main courses tend to be less enticing than the appetizers. That's certainly the case with the lamb chops glossed with red wine sauce, which could pass for an upgrade on United. The dish is pretty but also pretty flavorless.
Better luck is found in the rosy sliced pork tenderloin arranged with crisp asparagus and (not too much) soft polenta. A summer special of arctic char ("Looks like salmon, tastes like trout," says a server) brings a generous piece of grilled fish spread over lots of vegetables but what look like a few tablespoons of corn risotto. What advances the dish is its tomato sauce, light but sassy. How to stuff shrimp in a restaurant dedicated to shaving calories? Roasted artichokes, Japanese bread crumbs and basil to the rescue.
The dividers that carve up the expanse in both restaurants display wine bottles, a reminder that Seasons 52 can suggest something other than water to pair with your meal, never mind that the typical glass of vino adds 100 calories to the equation. Master sommelier George Miliotes created the list, a worldly collection that features 60 wines by the glass. I'm drawn to the small collection that diners are encouraged to taste "before they become famous," reads the menu.
The menus are stiff plastic; the servers are anything but. Unlike at so many corporate ventures, the crew at Seasons 52 comes across as genuine personalities rather than automatons repeating the company line. "I could use one of these about now," jests the server in McLean as she sets down my gimlet. It's not yet 6 o'clock on a Saturday night, but it feels as if all of Northern Virginia has descended on the 400-seat room. The very next night, a similar scene unfolds at the 310-seat Seasons 52 in Rockville. The gaggle of uniforms handle the traffic with the ease of veteran air traffic controllers. Meanwhile, the cooks get to hear any praise in person, since they, too, deliver dishes. "We do it all!" one cheerfully exclaims as he drops off dinner.
In an age of 24-hour food news and chef worship, whoever thought of involving the kitchen in the dining room deserves a big, (dare I say it?) fat bonus.
It's hard to say no to what Seasons 52 calls "miniature indulgences." Throughout the meal you've watched flights of small-scale desserts paraded through the restaurant, and now it's your turn to survey the attractions up close. Gathered in a sleek metal holder, each of the nine shot glasses is introduced by a waiter shining a pen light on it. Seasons 52 seemingly strips the guilt from dessert by shrinking the fun, although a little of the vertical Key lime tart or pecan pie can easily lead to "More, please." Not every miniature seduces; the plump blueberries best the dry cheesecake they garnish. And weight-watchers would do well to ask about the calorie counts in whatever mini they're mulling: the four-bite pecan pie, for instance, packs in 320 calories.
Darden Restaurants, which opened its first Seasons 52 in 2003, plans to add to its collection of 18 restaurants with six more this year and next. The company is expanding, so you don't have to.