Main Course: Seasons 52

Can the South Coast Plaza newcomer balance calories and flavor?


Seasons 52 checks all the right boxes. It’s casual and inviting, with a full bar and an enterprising wine list. It has a wood-fired grill, serves familiar seasonal fare that stars local, organic, sustainable goods, and the prices are reasonable. One peek inside and there’s no doubt the formula appeals.

On my last visit, every stool and booth in the bar is occupied and we must mill about, awaiting a table, even though we have reservations. The small foyer starts to fill. Perky reception staffers hand out beepers, and continue to wave newcomers into the packed bar. They’re soon thwarted by the crowds and boomerang back to the SRO foyer.

Seconds before my patience frays, a hostess leads us to a booth not 10 feet from the check-in desk. Peering into the seemingly endless expanse of softly lit dining rooms, I see what looks like hundreds of diners. We hand our chardonnay to the smiling waitress to open, and she dutifully reports that the corkage fee is $15. We ask for suggestions that might complement the stunning wine. She wrinkles her pretty brow, then offers: “Everybody likes the flatbread.” We oblige and order the Rosemary and Parmesan Cheese Crispbread, and the Spicy Chipotle Shrimp Flatbread.

Poking out of a parchment-lined metal cone, the crispbread triangles strewn with Parmesan taste dry and dull, baked into flavorless oblivion. The shrimp flatbread fares better with juicier players—grilled pineapple, feta cheese, chopped shrimp, and roasted poblanos on a rectangular tortilla-thin base cut into petite wedges —but the sweet fruit dominates. Alas, it tastes little like the spicy, well-balanced version I enjoyed on an earlier visit when I was wowed to learn that the dish, like all others served here, weighs in at 475 calories or less.

Executive chef Tim Kast, under the aegis of culinary director Clifford Pleau, achieves such conscience-easing calorie counts by reducing fat and boosting flavor. It’s done with culinary gambits such as wood-fire roasting, portion control, and reduction sauces, while using fresh goods at their seasonal best, and accenting high-aroma players: lemons, mushrooms, herbs, spices, and peppers.

When assembled with care, the flatbreads are delectable and make a fine light lunch, shareable appetizer, or first course. The weekly specials usually include one, plus there’s a handful that kick off the regular menu. One week’s eggplant-spinach-Parmesan flatbread is good enough to be among the menu’s best dishes. Two salads with tempting descriptions fall flat. The entrée chopped salad with glazed duck, jicama, pineapple, and toasted almonds is short on star ingredients and long on greens, forcing a hunt through lettuces for every bite of good stuff, though the sesame dressing delivers. The same goes for a Greek salad with feta cheese, cucumbers, red onion, and kalamata olives. The best starter is the moist chicken skewers with warm Indian spices under a cooling raita-like yogurt sauce. It’s vibrant and complex.

The dozen entrées span the tried-and-true gamut for California fare: shellfish, fin fish, poultry, and a few nods to beef, pork, or last winter’s frequent special of venison chops. Plus, a token meatless choice such as grilled tofu with seasonal veggies. Salmon on a cedar plank is unexceptional, but deftly roasted to stay moist. Whole slender carrots are sweet support, but asparagus in December? I know it’s possible, but hardly seasonal.

Big, pudgy scallops come gorgeously caramelized, and each bite is silky-sweet, but there’s that asparagus again, this time beside pearl pasta infused with sun-dried tomato. Pork tenderloin lacks porky flavor and isn’t helped by a wan Dijon sauce. Oak-grilled filet mignon with mushrooms and Yukon gold potatoes screams for butter or stronger seasonings.

Unfailingly chipper and prompt, our young servers are well-trained but need more dining wisdom. Basic questions about scallop size, vegetable assortments, and sauce components send them off to the kitchen for answers. Queries about a wine list full of uncommon offerings stump them as well—if you want a comparison of two malbecs, good luck. I found the bar staff more conversant on wine.

In fact, the bar—when it isn’t packed—has its own charms, backlit by the aromatic open kitchen’s wood oven. Nightly music, sometimes with vocals and by solid performers, adds a note of improvisation to an experience that at times feels programmed. For example, you won’t order dessert here—your server will place a tiered carrier of several mini-indulgences on your table and use a penlight to describe each layered shot-glass parfait, suggesting you grab the ones you can’t resist (no more than 275 calories each!).

Though Seasons 52 is a 19-unit chain from the mighty Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, this is its first California outpost. Right now the restaurant is heralding all the hot culinary buzzwords, but what ends up on the plate doesn’t always deliver the bright, deep flavors expected of seasonal cuisine. If you’re going to count my calories, give me a small serving of remarkable, not multiple courses of unremarkable.

BEST DISHES
Featured flatbreads, tandoori chicken skewers, caramelized sea scallops, Key lime pie mini-indulgence.

PRICES
Lunch, $8 to $20; dinner, $8 to $26.

BEST TABLES
Bar booths, patio fire-pit tables.

CHAIN LINKS
Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and Capital Grille are corporate siblings in the Darden family.

 

South Coast Plaza
3333 Bristol Ave.
714-437-5252
seasons52.com 
One-and-a-Half Stars

 

Photograph by John Cizmas

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue.