Seasons 52 Scores

Its butter-deficient, low-calorie cuisine sounds like Paula Deen's private hell

Seasons 52 is the latest ambitious, gimmicky, out-of-state chain to open in OC after True Food Kitchen. Where True Food aligned itself with a new-age wellness guru of Oprah-like influence, Seasons 52 opts for an even-more-novel concept: All meals are 475 calories or lower.

How do they do it? For starters, no Fryolators and no butter—a notion to shock Paula Deen into having a heart attack or, actually, protect her from one. Portion control is also part of the equation, but not as much as you think. Some plates can rival Claim Jumper in enormity.

Of the entrées, the scale is tipped heavily to the vegetable. Steamed or grilled, you’ll find the asparagus, haricot verts and sharp-tipped carrots bite with the requisite snap, but because the plainly steamed asparagus tastes like plainly steamed asparagus and the carrots like carrots, you will wonder why you bothered to go out when you are perfectly capable of steaming your own vegetables at home—and for less money.

Some dishes, such as the grilled rainbow trout, become a reminder of what’s missing—or, more accurately, of what the restaurant is depriving you. Butter, you realize all too quickly, accounts for a lot of flavor. And now that you’ve been denied it, you want it more than ever. You’ll also crave a French fry like a meth fiend in rehab. Or maybe a greasy deep-fried taco dorado—something other than this obviously good-for-you spa food.

If you end up feeling this way, it’s likely you’ve chosen the wrong Seasons 52 dish. And there are a few to avoid. For one, skip that trout dish and the breast of quail. As tempting as the four grilled medallions of the game bird may look, you might find yourself driving on autopilot to the nearest Popeye’s drive-through afterward.

Seasons 52 is best when it does everything it can to hide its m.o. And on most dishes, it does it well. The char-kissed sea scallops—framed by criss-crossed spears of asparagus, with chewy pellets of pearl pasta anchoring the center—has something the trout lacked: a sauce. It’s lightly citrusy and barely there, but it’s a sauce nonetheless—just the thing to bring the dish some unity.

A slight cheat on the no-butter rule transforms the appetizer of Dungeness crab and shrimp-stuffed mushroom caps into something as decadent as the dimpled escargot serving plates suggest. The loophole? Monterey jack cheese, an essential ingredient that’s all too ready to melt and surrender its butterfat. It enriches the dish like butter does to the French delicacy it aims to emulate. The kitchen knows this full well. Why else would it provide a piece of bread if not to sop up the pooling cheese grease?

Another appetizer, the spicy shrimp chipotle flat bread, has so much going on with its neatly arranged rows of grilled pineapple, feta, roasted poblano peppers and the well-cooked crustacean that it renders any calorie counting moot. Still, it’s clear where they’re shaving off a few calories: The crust is as thin as a sheet of paper, cut into triangles small enough to maintain its structural integrity.

And then there’s the Maui Tuna Crunch Salad, which overcompensates in flavor and presentation. It arrives with a miso vinaigrette electrifying an arugula and jicama mix that begins its life trapped inside an acrylic cylinder. When the dish is placed in front of you, your server removes the container, letting the salad tumble out to join the rest of the plate, which includes squares of seared tuna drizzled with a puzzling Peking duck-appropriate hoisin sauce and a side of tuna tartare squatting on top of mango salsa and sprinkled coconut.

You’ll see a lot of salads here, even when you order the buffalo burger. Along with other sandwiches, the burger only shows up at lunch. The meat’s as lean as you’d expect, and it’s served without the slightest suggestion of a French fry. But the sandwich is slathered in guacamole, a spicy sour cream and perky salsa, all as a sort of a flavor insurance policy against your junk-food-addled appetites.

On the surface, the restaurant looks as corporate as those dark dens peddling steaks sputtering in butter. It almost feels like an upscale Chili’s. The servers give out business cards and are assisted by a computer system that keeps track of who ordered what at your table. Every plate is delivered without so much as an “Okay, who had the chicken?”

But even if you think the fixed-calorie idea is only good for those 100-calorie snack packs, you’ll probably still like the way they do dessert. It’s not that it’s particularly great. From Key lime pie to carrot cake, you’ve eaten these classics before—and probably better renditions. But with its self-imposed calorie cap, Seasons 52 has stuffed just enough of each confection into shot glasses and priced them at a manageable $2.75 a pop.

Not ordering more than you need becomes a test of will. You should know, however, that no one is going to stop you from trying all eight varieties. Once you’re in the door, all Seasons 52 is gonna count is the bill.

Seasons 52 at South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol Ave., Ste. 2802, Costa Mesa, (714) 437-5252; www.seasons52.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $50-$75, food only. Full bar.

 

This review appeared in print as "Paula Deen’s Private Hell: Seasons 52 mostly scores with its butter-deficient, low-calorie cuisine."

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