When the subject is low-fat food, people tend to say one thing and then do another. They might say they want low-fat food, but when it comes time to order in a restaurant, they get the burger with fries—and dessert, too. The rare restaurants that have specialized in low-fat food or even tried to offer low-fat items haven’t exactly profited. Remember Larry North’s well-intentioned, short-lived NorthSouth restaurant in the Quadrangle? No? And when’s the last time you ordered a McLean burger?
With low fat, the wiser path is to keep it on the down low. That’s how they’re doing it at Darden Restaurants, the Florida-based chain that opened the 13th branch of Seasons 52 in Plano in October. Seasons 52 is its venture into foodie-ism, which also happens to have a menu on which no item exceeds 475 calories. But that’s not the first thing you’d know about the place. The company promotes the chain’s other features: its fresh produce, seasonal ingredients, splendid wine list. And, by the way, none of these dishes has more than 475 calories. It’s funny that a restaurant would need to soft sell the low-fat deal, but we don’t like our self-indulgent dining experiences to be ruined by reminders that we might not be that bright about the way we eat.
As parent to chains such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster, Darden seems like an unlikely agent in the mission to make low-fat restaurant food a success. But you need only walk in and try to get a table without a reservation to realize that mission has been accomplished. Weekend nights are booked days in advance.
The ambience does not feel low fat. It’s a big, classy place appointed with loads of natural materials, inside and out. The sleek exterior is clad in sedimentary stone. Very Frank Lloyd Wright. Inside, it is dark, glamorous, and masculine, with warm woods and shelves of colorful glass objects that create peekaboo walls. The colors are all caramel and mahogany and spice, and that includes framed racks of actual spices used as decoration, a look inspired by Spice Market in New York. (You can see the same thing at Bistro Babusan in the Shops at Fairview.) Overall, the atmosphere clones Hillstone (formerly Houston’s), right down to the piano situated in the middle of the bar.
Channeling Houston’s has a lot to do with Seasons 52’s success. So does the address, right on Legacy, where its handsome outdoor patio equipped with a blazing fire pit winks at passing drivers on their way to and from the Tollway. The value of the location becomes doubly obvious when you compare it to nearby Coast Global Seafood, hidden from view and therefore languishing, despite its elegant decor and similar style of food.
Seasons 52’s menu is smart and well organized, broken into categories, with only half a dozen items each, making it easy to comprehend. It has selections you don’t see everywhere else, like grilled turkey tenderloin on a skewer. And it’s craftily written, with mouth-watering descriptions. That turkey skewer, for example, comes with “vegetables, mushrooms, and tamarind glaze over warm orzo salad.” Mmmm, warm orzo salad sounds good, doesn’t it?
And it is good. Seasons 52 does a great job. You don’t get a sense of denial. The seared scallops are like the seared scallops you find at nearly every other restaurant, with a browned crust around the edges. There’s just a little less buttery sauce; subtract 200 calories. Before you get too giddy, consider that, though each dish is 475 calories or less, you’re probably not going to limit yourself to one dish. But still, if you want to, you can get out of there fairly leanly.
The cuisine is kind of an Asian-Mediterranean-Italian-Californian-Latin melange of popular dishes. That means edamame next to a Greek salad next to penne pasta. Flatbreads are a big deal. So much so that they get their own category. They were narrow and a foot long, making them visually satisfying, a flatbread that went on for miles. No sense of denial here, no sirree. Served on a rectangular board, they were cut into handy triangles for sharing. They made a good starter because they were light. The crust was of the cracker variety but slightly chewy and pliable, best eaten quickly, straight from the oven, but not so good for taking home. Toppings were judiciously applied: light but with enough stuff that you don’t feel cheated. On the seasonal menu, the steak with mushroom, spinach, and blue cheese was especially chunky. Bolsa still wins the flatbread contest in Dallas, but in any future flatbread discussion, Seasons 52 could be cited without shame. And did I mention under 475?
Every category had an ostentatious brand name or source to reinforce the seasonal-sustainable-on-trend theme, such as the Fieldale Farms all-natural chicken or the Earthbound Farms field lettuce. They’re not sourcing locally; Earthbound Farms is in California. But Earthbound Farms is organic, and that’s a significant overture. That chicken, by the way, came with some neat, off-the-beaten-path sides: golden beets, broccoli, and wild rice.
My table of three liked the roasted artichoke-stuffed shrimp with steamed vegetables, not just because the shrimp had a bodacious chew, nor because the roasted artichokes had a surprisingly decadent richness, but because even the vegetables were thoughtful, with baby green beans and carrots that weren’t cooked to mush.
Most filet mignons are created equal, but the one at Seasons 52 was an eye-catcher, with its charred black crust and deep crimson center. The kitchen dressed it up by lining up the components on a long rectangular plate: steak on the left, potatoes holding down the middle, and spears of tender-crisp asparagus, their tips pointing off the plate like arrows.
Spicy chicken chiles rellenos was listed, oddly, as an appetizer but felt more like a small plate. Add a few vegetable sides, and you could call it a meal. It bears mentioning because it wasn’t a typical Tex-Mex version, and it was extremely good. The pepper still had some body, and the filling consisted of goat cheese and spinach. It’s a treat to find a chile relleno that hasn’t been stuffed with meat and gloppy cheese and then cooked to oblivion. The only dish we tried that hinted at virtue was the goat cheese ravioli. The pasta pocket was large and a bit joyless, with not much flavor from its roasted garlic, sweet basil, or light tomato broth.
The wine list is serious business that incorporates smaller labels, including the kind of boutiquey wines you’d expect to find at a chef-driven bistro. The company has George Miliotes, a master sommelier who swaps out bottles, so the list is not static.
The only part of the menu that annoyed was dessert, a contrivance called “mini indulgences.” Basically, it’s various flavored puddings crammed into shot glasses whose impractical size and shape make it hard to dig them out. Maybe that’s the point. If you have to work for your sweets, you burn more calories. If they called them “puddings,” nobody would bother with them, but instead they give them an exotic name and offer them in multiple flavors and display them in a wacky rack that they parade, constantly, throughout the restaurant. Of course, this is all very calculated, and most people love them, because it’s fun to pick a few flavors. Oh, did I mention they’re under 475 calories?
Get contact information for Seasons 52.