If you’ve ever been charged with the mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving, then you know the evil trick. Wait until no one is looking, dump a whole stick of butter into the pot and then mash away. It’s easy, it’s delicious, and if anyone asks you the secret to your amazing potatoes, just respond, “I use Yukon golds. They’re so buttery.”
Such is the temptation faced by chefs every night. Every soup, every sauce, every salad can get a major flavor boost from fat, salt and all the other delicious hazards that some of us try to limit in our diets.
I can think of no local restaurant beyond the two locations of Seasons 52 that makes an explicit (and most welcome) promise to keep the diner’s health in mind. This small chain (owned by Darden Restaurants, the group responsible for Olive Garden, Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse) came onto the scene five years ago with the opening of its Dunwoody location. Buckhead soon followed, and both locations have been packed since. Consider this: Prime-time lunch reservations at the Perimeter Mall location are still snapped up two days in advance.
Many people — particularly those who take statins but nevertheless want a nice glass of wine with dinner — love this place. They call it their favorite, a fact that piques my curiosity something fierce. True I once had an expensive, meh lunch at the bar, but maybe I was missing the big picture of a night out at Seasons 52. I needed to investigate.
So, here it is, the big picture, painted in a fake impressionist style with broad streaks and splotches of color and little in the way of fine detail.
My wife and I meet in the vestibule of the Dunwoody location and like what we see: stacked stone walls, earth-toned furniture, attractive lighting, flames leaping from the grill in the open kitchen, a lineup of friendly hostesses waiting to take care of us. There’s a cool-jazz elegance here — a feeling like you get from that old Sade song you’re happy to hear again.
A superenthusiastic waitress sets us up with drinks. For my wife a California rose, presented with class and poured from the bottle at the table. For me, a martini shaken and set down with enough in the shaker for a second pour.
We check out the seasonal summer menu, which looks great. Are there all kinds of little heart symbols and numeric nutritional breakdowns all over it? Of course not. The message here is just relax and forget about the ol’ ticker for an evening, knowing you’ll eat healthfully enough. Can we hear the particulars? Sure, no problem. Our waitress is happy to provide them. Every entree is designed to be less than 475 calories. Patrons can have a glass of wine, an appetizer, an entree and a small dessert in a shot glass, and they get out without banking 1,000 calories.
You’re not setting your diet back. You don’t need another Lipitor. Forget the cardiac clock for an evening. Eat what you want.
And so we get our 1,000-calorie meals, drop about $100 for the two of us and enjoy our 90 minutes together. The yellowy light, low-level buzz and well-spaced tables have made for a comfortable meal.
Now here’s the big picture painted in more of a hyper-realist style.
That sweet waitress works in tandem with an equally eager waiter, though they seemingly never speak with each other. And so we are constantly interrupted and must explain that we already have water, and we have asked for our drinks but they’ve never come and, no, we haven’t ordered our entrees but want to and, yes again, this is our first time here.
The waitress eventually comes with a nearly empty bottle of the rose and explains that another is chilling. This wine tastes as if it has gone sour, so we decide to order another glass off the better-than-expected list broken down by varietal. Pinot blanc, grüner veltliner, viognier — all kinds of ABC (anything but chardonnay) whites, as my wife likes.
My strawberry-basil infusion martini ($11.15) brings an icy pink pour that tastes exactly of those little round-edged cardboard tins of frozen Bird’s Eye strawberries in syrup my mom used to buy for strawberry shortcake, but with a hard slap of alcohol. A basil left garnishing the glass provides zero flavor.
Our smoked salmon flatbread appetizer ($9.95) looks like cocktail party snackums and tastes of salty, lowest-quality smoked fish. A lively arugula salad ($7.60) sports golden beets, dollops of goat cheese and crumbled pistachios in a sweetish dressing. Decent.
Entrees tumble onto the table a mere seconds after the appetizers, and much apologizing and shuffling of plates ensues. BBQ chicken ($15.20) over stiff garlic mashed potatoes and corn salad brings a dense hillock of food to saw through. I’d be surprised if the chicken was not precooked and reheated on the grill; it’s got a firm, hamlike springiness and barely there grill marks under a slick of sweet barbecue sauce.
A busy-busy “farmers market vegetable plate” ($13.05) keeps my fork moving from baby carrots to grilled tofu, to corn, beets, red pepper, asparagus, broccoli, tabbouleh, tomatoes, most of it plain and unseasoned. I think truth in advertising demands this be called the “massive carbon footprint produce aisle at the 24-hour supermarket vegetable plate” rather than the “farmers market vegetable plate,” but whatever.
I begin to notice something about the cooking here: Much of that fire in the open kitchen is just for show (the flames literally leap behind the actual cooking area of the grill) and doesn’t translate into flavor.
I can’t help but think how good those vegetables would taste after five minutes in that showy wood-fired oven with a sprig of thyme, a garlic clove or two and a micro-spritz of olive oil.
The desserts — called mini-indulgences (all $2.50) and packed as tightly into their shot glasses as some of the patrons here in their Size 4 dresses — provide the best part of the meal. Little bites of mocha mousse and blueberry cheesecake awaken the palate, proving that tiny portions of real flavor can be more satisfying that big servings of filler.
A return visit at lunch reaffirms my impression that average ingredients and poor cooking technique keeps this menu from reaching any potential. Another of the signature flatbreads, this time the BLT ($8.35), has a chewy, cardboardy texture that does a poor job of highlighting the bacon and tomatoes dotting the surface. Mushrooms set in the cups of an escargot dish and topped with crab, shrimp and gratineed cheese ($9.20) would be a witty low-cal appetizer if the ingredients had any flavor.
Best of show is an entree of penne pasta ($17.35) tossed with tiger shrimp and so many vegetables you don’t notice the relatively small portion of pasta. Alas, once again, entrees arrived seconds after the appetizers with a profuse apology. When you’re charging nearly $20 for lunch entrees, this shouldn’t happen.
So which picture of Seasons 52 tells the story better: the impressionist one or the hyper-realist one?
Let’s look at the first:
Nice-looking place, good wine list, friendly staff. A menu you don’t have to parse for hidden dangers. A tasty little dessert you earn.
Now let’s look at the second:
Mostly lackluster food, clumsy service, moderately high prices.
Personally, I can see keeping this restaurant in mind for a business lunch near Perimeter Mall. Or, if I find myself stuck for the evening in Phoenix or Dallas in one of those parts of town where the dining choices are all high-end chains, I might end up at Seasons 52 instead of Macaroni Grill.
There comes a point in life when you know you have to eat mediocre food from time to time and just deal with it. If you don’t need to worry about it killing you, then all the better.SEASONS 52 (DUNWOODY LOCATION) 90 Perimeter Center West, Dunwoody, 770-671-0052 Food: Dishes prepared with health in mind but little skill Service: Friendly but very programmed; timing of courses was a major issue on both visits Best dishes: Shrimp pasta, desserts Vegetarian selections: Quite a few Credit cards: All major Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Friday-Saturday. Children: Not a problem, but the vibe is more business lunch during the day and adults night out in the evening Parking: Both valet and self parking in the asphalt sea Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Full Smoking: No smoking Noise level: Moderate Patio: Yes Takeout: Yes