Seasons 52 not your usual chain

I’ve heard Seasons 52 described as the healthy Houston’s (now Hillstone), and that’s pretty apt. The upscale chain, which recently added a link in Coral Gables, keeps the calorie counts under 475 and relies on marinades, wood-roasting and lots of fresh stocks and herbs for flavor.

The name derives from the fact that the menu changes four times a year, with weekly specials based on what’s in season. Additional options for conscious eaters include gluten-free, low-sodium, low-fat, vegetarian and vegan.

Lest you worry that this is tofu-and-bean-sprouts fare, remember that the recipes have been engineered for flavor by Darden, where some of the brightest brains in the corporate food world also cooked up Red Lobster, Bahama Breeze and Olive Garden.

Cracker-thin flat breads are a great way to stave off hunger pangs while studying the menu. The only-in-Miami Cuban sandwich with pork, pickles and tangy mustard sauce is a great treat and a sign of the other good things to come.

Salads are across-the-board fresh, crisp, well composed and gently dressed. Even a simple green one gets extra oomph from toasted pumpkin seeds, grape tomatoes and diced cucumber, while a fantastic arugula version hosts a rainbow of extras, including golden beets and pistachios.

Hearty, smoky buffalo chili is a satisfying choice, especially in nippy weather.

Cedar-planked salmon is a signature staple, and a fine tiger shrimp penne pasta with a lemon-spiked Parmesan and basil sauce lights up the table like a ray of sunshine.

A surprisingly great turkey skewer served over orzo alternates cubes of tender, juicy meat with red onion, red and yellow bell pepper and cremini mushrooms. Equally moist pork medallions are gorgeously charred and served over a creamy polenta with spinach and mushrooms alongside.

Our only flat-out failure was shrimp stuffed with a bready artichoke mixture that was overpowered by an unappealing dry spice blend. An otherwise pristine, skin-on trout fillet was coated in an off-putting, gelatinous citrus glaze.

Servers are mostly perky young things with lots of training but not necessarily much common sense. Ours seated us at a sidewalk-grazing table with our backs to Miracle Mile. When I said I’d prefer facing the street, she giggled and exclaimed, “Oh, so that’s why people always move when I put them in that chair.”

There’s an impressive, 100-plus bottle international wine list. With more than 75 available by the glass, we got to sample several unoaked whites and hearty reds that are reasonably priced and well-suited to the diverse menu.

Jewel-like desserts arrive as a “flight” alluringly displayed in square shot glasses. The buttery pecan pie was about as good as I have had, and the Meyer lemon pound cake was perfectly tart and tangy.

OK, quibbles: The decor is about as generic as an Office Depot catalogue with cherry-toned wood paneling dominating the look, and a flaming fire pit in the entrance creates the odd feeling that you are in a Vermont ski lodge rather than the tropics.

Foodwise, some of the hype is just that. Despite the menu touts, most ingredients are basic and hardly local, from Hawaiian pineapple and California goat cheese to Canadian mussels, farm-raised salmon and chicken from one of the country’s largest poultry producers.

No matter. If this is the future of affordable chain dining, sign me up for an occasional dip into restaurant food that tastes great and won’t have me digging for an expandable waist band.

Victoria Pesce Elliott reviews Miami-Dade restaurants. E-mail her at Follow her on Twitter @VictoriaPesceE and on her Facebook fan page.


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