My Huffington readers are well aware that I abhor anything calling itself healthy, low-calorie or no-calorie, grass-fed, locally-sourced, even organic and low-fat or non-fat... none of that stuff really matters to me, who more appreciates great tastes, splendid flavors, authentic well-sourced ingredients prepared with loving care by someone who 'knows how.' (For confirmation of my somewhat-heretical concept, read the current cover story by Dr. Oz in TIME, "What To Eat Now.") Yet I found myself enjoying, appreciating and consuming a vast array of 'healthy' dishes in the course of several visits to the newly-opened Seasons 52 (10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City,(310) 277-5252, at the entrance to the Westfield Mall) replacing Houston's there. The new restaurant has been completely rebuilt into a stunning entity which, I predict, will quickly become a huge favorite of all Californians who welcome 'healthy' foods with flavor to spare.
Yes, Seasons 52 is a chain which doesn't behave like one. They are part of the massive Darden organization (think Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouses and the upscale Capital Grilles.) About a decade ago, Darden head Clarence Otis came to his Corporate Chef Clifford Pleau and Master Sommelier George Miliotes (one of 180 such masters worldwide) with an interesting proposition: let's create a chain which emphasizes all of the things which I mentioned disparagingly above... and do it so well that everyone will understand what we intend. The results have been so well-received that it has grown mightily, with 23 of them thus far around the country: The one at South Coast Plaza is prospering. San Diego just opened, and the next will open in Santa Monica shortly.
Corporate Chef Clifford Pleau & Master Sommelier George Miliotes fill me in on details.
Cedar plank salmon is one of the delicious entrees being served here.
Do I have to eat my words? Well, yes, in a way. The 8,500 sq. ft. indoor-outdoor restaurant is now open for lunch and dinner daily, and Chef Clifford told me that they spent the last year evolving the menu here:
We celebrate the farmer's market harvest of each season 52 weeks a year, thus the name, using cooking techniques such as wood-fire grilling, brick-oven cooking and roasting which ensures flavorful, healthful fare. None of the dishes we serve are more than 475 calories, and that includes the mini-indulgence desserts. There is no butter used anywhere, and we don't have a freezer except for ice cream. And no bread is served at the tables except our flatbreads.
He listed for me some of the artisan local sources for their seasonal savory and sweet dishes but I was not really interested in hearing them. George, the all-knowing wine expert whom I knew from my story on his Capital Grille wine-tastings, said that the wine list here will have an international flair, with more than 2,000 bottles, including 52 by the glass. He has many well-known names, but I was more interested in the wines from lesser-known regions. They carry my favorites, Justin and Laetitia, in their Orlando home base and hopefully will include them here. Of course they have an extensive cocktail list (it's de rigeur these days); I tasted the pomegranate margarita martini for research purposes. Wow.
Spicy shrimp flatbread is one of the several flatbreads being offered.
When I tell you that this place is stunning, I am not exaggerating. It is divided into five sections... a circular piano bar which features nightly entertainment starting at 6 p.m. provided by Charlie Sleeth, a casually sophisticated indoor dining area, inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, textured with autumn stone-and-Honduran mahogany wood accents, two private dining rooms, and a Chef's Table (my favorite) overlooking the open kitchen, and a dynamic 'living environment' patio with three sections. There are fire pits and a tranquil waterfall there. I noted the soft designer lighting which enhances the contemporary appeal. That patio features something they call 'The Living Wall,' which can actually be seen from Santa Monica Blvd. below, 112 feet of aesthetically-pleasing biodiversity composed of 36 wall modules of dense, shade-tolerant plants, ground covers, aromatic herbs, ferns and grasses. 'The Chef's Garden' next to the entrance is contained in an indoor glass-walled space and showcases 140 plants, including a dozen herbs. 'The Herb Garden' is contained in long narrow planters and grows Italian parsley, spearmint, chocolate mint, basils and more. You have to see it to understand what I'm raving about.
Autumn seasonal vegetables illustrate their devotion to locally-grown products.
But, as always, it comes down to the food... and here I was equally stunned. They brought in the talented Jessica Koine to be executive chef, and she told me that the menus will be highly seasonal, changing four times a year.
"Today we are offering a roasted Pacific King salmon ($21.95) served on a cedar plank with roasted carrots, fresh asparagus and roasted potatoes, and an 11-oz. all-natural Piedmontese bone-in strip steak ($29.50) with roasted asparagus, roasted potatoes and cremini mushrooms on our opening menu," she said. (I noted that you can order the salmon as certified organic for a $6 surcharge, and recommend that you don't.) "I have access every day to those on-site edible plants throughout the restaurant's gardens," she laughingly explained. "How many chefs can walk a few feet and pick up so many herbs and plants?" As she spoke, I was busy consuming a custom flatbread (not a pizza) topped with spicy chipotle shrimp ($11.95). Another flatbread at the table was covered with artichoke and goat cheese, with leaf spinach, balsamic onions and roasted peppers ($11.75).
We went on to enjoy a grilled jumbo shrimp penne pasta ($19.50) with spinach and mushrooms, while my companion was eating wood-roasted pork tenderloin ($19.95) with soft herb polenta, cremini mushrooms, broccoli and shallot-dijon glaze. Others at the table were relishing mesquite-grilled garlic shrimp ($21.25) with Spanish saffron risotto, roasted tomato broth and crispy chorizo. My favorite entrée was the grilled lamb T-bone chops ($28.95) with roasted asparagus and truffled mashed potatoes.
A chicken taco was superbly tasty and reasonably priced.
The chef's table overlooks the open kitchen. Seating for two to 12 is offered here.
The menu was replete with appetizers in all price ranges, from a bowl of beef chili (with black beans) for $7.50 to a spicy chicken chile relleno ($11.25); think seared ahi tuna to goat cheese ravioli. Small salads are in the $9.50 range and entree-sized salads are $14.50 to $18.25. Those signature mini-indulgence desserts (each $2.75) such as Ghiradelli chocolate rocky road to pecan pie with vanilla mousse finish the meal nicely. I was delighted to see that Fiji water was the bottled water of choice, only the best for their customers. Stephen Judge, President of Season 52, told me that they are prepared to serve special menu requests, such as low-sodium, vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free.
Juicy local quail are one of the favorite entrees here, grilled beautifully and served nicely.
Mini-indugence desserts are priced at $2.75 each. Go for several.
Seasons 52 is a forward-thinking restaurant concept which, to my mind, is exactly right 'for these times.' I think it offers its diners something new to experience each time they visit. I know I will be back many times for that discovery. (Just don't pay a $6 surcharge for 'organic' salmon.)
They are open for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, and open 'til 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for 12 monthly issues) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.