For Seasons 52, Healthy Respect

Like the food it serves, the Darden upscale chain remains as fresh as the day it opened.

I’ve been to the original Seasons 52 location on Sand Lake Road many times since it opened in 2003, and I’ve always wondered how the food at this upper-scale chain from the Darden folks managed to impress me every time. How do you get such good food out of a restaurant with 22 national locations?

Chalk it up to culinary director Clifford Pleau, who develops the menu for the entire brand. A West Coast boy, Pleau is no stranger to Orlando, having opened Disney’s California Grille at the Contemporary Resort in 1994 as executive chef, where he first worked with George Miliotes, Seasons’ acclaimed master sommelier.

“You don’t have to give up anything to eat healthy,” Pleau says, referring to his kitchens, where “No butter, No cream’’ is the mantra (except in the mini-indulgence desserts, but teeny glasses of carrot cake and chocolate mousse don’t count, surely). Every dish contains less than 475 calories, accomplished by serving reasonably sized portions and using cooking methods like slow caramelization of vegetables and mesquite and oak-fired grilling. There are even low-sodium, gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan menus for those requiring same.

“I don’t use the ‘d’ word,” Pleau says. “It’s not a diet location. But, oh, by the way . . . it’s good for you.”

Pleau calls himself a forager, searching for new suppliers with sound growing practices for his menus, which vary regionally and seasonally. He sources naturally low-calorie Piedmontese beef from Nebraska, asparagus from a small farm in Michigan and prize pecans from south-central Texas.

It was hard to get a table at Sand Lake back in 2003 (I always recommended that people just head for the bar and eat there), and, unfortunately for my hectic schedule, impossible to get now. So, since the menus are the same, I headed for Altamonte Springs. Opened in 2005, the slightly less crowded location is smaller than Sand Lake, but shares its stone and wood, California Craftsman styling, with the simple geometry and warmth of a Frank Lloyd Wright design. Off to one side is the very popular bar, wooden cubbyholes filled with some of the 60-plus wines available. Service is crisp (arrive for your reservation and there’s barely time for a breath at the hostess desk before you are seated) and the wait staff is obviously well-versed in what’s on the menu. 

And even now, what a pleasant menu. Simplifying how they cook the mostly organic ingredients means each line chef has to be very aware of ways to highlight the flavors. The sushi-grade seared Ahi tuna ($11.85) presents a fan of superb quality, deep red fish, the meaty taste contrasted with tangy ribbons of lightly pickled cucumber salad and splendid triangles of toasted sesame crisp. A couple of these and a glass of Chenin blanc might be the perfect date starter. The tandoori chicken skewers appetizer ($8.60) didn’t quite have the complex flavors of a true Indian tandoor creation, but the heat of the tender chicken slices sneaks up on you, so keep the cucumber and yogurt raita sauce ready to cool the palate.

The wood grill does its job on caramelized sea scallops ($20.95), a half-dozen smoky and sweet scallops served with roasted asparagus spears and a pearl pasta accented with mushrooms and halved grape tomatoes. Use the charred lemon half liberally. Wood-roasted pork tenderloin ($17.10) must be carefully tended to reach this level of flavor and texture, the pink slices resting on bright broccoli, deep-flavored cremini mushrooms and a somewhat disappointing herb polenta. Maybe I missed the butter after all.

New locations are popping up constantly, from California to New York, and chef Pleau has to be some kind of magician to keep the quality this high. However he does it, I’m enjoying the show.

Drinks with dinner:

The wine list shepherded by George Miliotes is both substantial and adventurous. With 22 varietals available, you’re bound to find something new to try. Seasons was serving moscato long before its recent popularity, and you’ll have a hard time finding a hefty Spanish Monastrell or a crisp Argentinian Torrontes on many other lists.

Seasons 52
463 E. Altamonte Drive, Altamonte Springs
7700 Sand Lake Road  Orlando
Entrees: $11-$27

Categories: Dining