Permit me to list all the reasons that until last week I ignored Seasons 52, the restaurant that opened in Market Fair late in 2014.
- It’s a chain restaurant, with 44 locations across the country.
- Its parent company is Darden, whose brands include Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse.
- It’s located in a mall – albeit a smallish, upscalish one.
- It boasts that no menu item is more than 475 calories. Diet mall food? Puh-leez.
- It boasts 52 wines by the glass. I mean, come on – quantity over quality?
- Its menu is all over the place. What one kitchen could produce excellent versions of banh mi, shrimp scampi, black bean tacos, Korean lettuce wraps, and venison stew?
Allow me to say, mea culpa.
I first became familiar with the brand from my work on the Zagat NJ guides, when the first Seasons 52 in the state, in the Cherry Hill mall, began garnering excellent scores. (Since then, one has opened in Menlo Park mall, and another is coming to Bridgewater Commons.) But even that wasn’t enough to turn my head.
What did was the deluge of unsolicited, unfailingly positive reports from Princeton-area folks that began pouring in. Everyone, from the most discriminating foodie to the least adventurous and pickiest of eaters, raved. One restaurant critic (I’m looking at you, Faith Bahadurian) even booked it for her family’s Thanksgiving dinner. In no time, snagging one of its 284 seats (with another 36 outside come spring) became difficult, both for lunch and dinner.
So when the folks at Seasons 52 offered to have me and a guest for lunch – and knowing that I wouldn’t be officially reviewing it – I accepted. Clearly (or you wouldn’t be reading this), I came away impressed, just like everyone else. Before I get into specifics, let me just offer this rebuttal to the above:
- It’s a chain, yes, but the most common comment on Yelp! is, “This doesn’t feel like a chain.”
- Darden is also parent to another well respected brand, Capital Grille, which Seasons 52 resembles in décor and ambiance – but with kinder, gentler price points.
- A mall location means there’s always free and convenient parking.
- Dishes are smartly conceived to minimize calorie-laden carbs. Flatbreads, for example have a lavash-like base rather than a focaccia base.
- Those 52 wines by the glass (which also change seasonally) are chosen by George Miliotes, one of fewer than 250 certified Master Sommeliers worldwide. And they’re only part of an impressive international list of 100 wines on the menu.
- While I wasn’t able to sample the breadth of the menu in one lunch, I was impressed by 100% of what I and my guest shared.
Now on to the specifics:
We started with the artichoke and goat cheese (Laura Chenel) flatbread ($9.95) with spinach, balsamic onions, and red peppers. As you can see, it’s big enough to share. The toppings were fresh and flavorful and the crisp, lavash-like base kept the dish light.
My guest still hasn’t stopped raving about the caramelized grilled sea scallops ($21.50/lunch; $22.50/dinner). These 6 (sometimes 7) big boys – beautifully grilled to bring out their inherent sweetness – are brushed with lemon butter; sit on a spread of loose, creamy leek risotto; and are accompanied by cubes of tender butternut squash and excellent asparagus. Interestingly, the menu lists broccolini, not asparagus (Seasons 52 restaurants nationwide serve the same menu), but the restaurant’s executive chef, James Petersen, told us that each chef has leeway to switch out ingredients. (A full profile of Petersen will appear in a later post.)
My entree choice, venison, is typically only on the dinner menu, but Chef Petersen put it on a special “winter pairing menu” at lunch that day. (That’s another call that Seasons 52 chefs – who are also partners – get to make.)
It’s a New Zealand venison chop plus venison ragout, with sweet potato mash, roasted peppers, and asparagus ($27). The chop (larger than it appears above) is juicy, well-seasoned, and was cooked rare, as ordered, but the star of the plate is the ragout, which has the depth of boeuf bourguignon while preserving the venison’s gaminess. It’s worth twice 475 calories! The dish paired beautifully with my wine choice: Casillero del Diablo carmenere ($8.50/glass; $34/bottle), one of two carmeneres on the menu. (Pretty impressive that a chain restaurant would have two, no?)
In keeping within the calorie limit, Seasons 52 has finessed dessert into “Signature Mini Indulgences.” Guests choose from among 7 choices, each the size of a double shot glass and costing a mere $2.75. This happens to be exactly the amount of dessert I require. I preferred my guest’s mocha macchiato parfait with caramel sauce to my lemon curd with blueberries, but I would like to try the others, which have flavors of key lime pie, pecan pie, carrot cake, chocolate and peanut butter, double fudge brownies and cannoli with raspberry sauce.
Not to mention returning for those Korean duck lettuce wraps and black bean tacos. Check out the full menu and more at: www.seasons52.com