Dining on a Diet

Seasons 52 Surprises

A chain restaurant that's upscale and health-conscious wows with its wine and service (but, sadly, not its food).

By Katharine Shilcutt June 10, 2013

Seasons 52 is the "healthy," "seasonal" restaurant which recently opened in the brand-new Millenium High Street multi-use development on Westheimer between Mid Lane and Loop 610. The pitch is this: all of the menu items are under 470 calories (desserts are generally under 200) and the menu changes four times a year, with weekly seasonal specials offered at each location. It's a bold undertaking.

Seasons 52
4410 Westheimer

Although it's difficult to discern the restaurant's ownership on its website, the restaurant chain is run by Darden, which also counts Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Eddie V's, and Yard House among its portfolio of national chain restaurants.

The Capital Grille and Eddie V's are both terrific examples of well-run chains with great food and equally great service. Red Lobster and Olive Garden were both the "fancy" restaurants when I lived in Waco, where you'd find kids snacking on Cheddar Bay biscuits and unlimited breadsticks on prom night. Seasons 52—which has nearly 40 locations across the U.S.—could go either way.

"This looks like a fancy Cheddar's," muttered my friend Brandi as we were seated at Seasons 52 on a busy Thursday night. The upholstery on the booths, the carpet on the floors and the tiger-print fabric on the bar stools all suggested early-2000s cineplex chic. The faux stacked stone on the walls clashed with the gaudy fabric selections, and I was amused to see an autopiano squatting in the middle of the circular bar area, although I never heard it (nor an actual pianist) tinkling out any music. Instead, it just seemed to be in the way of the busy bartenders.

Things were looking a bit grim. And then our server, Raf, showed up. He handed us our menus, and I was surprised to find that Seasons 52's much-ballyhooed wine list, curated under the direction of master sommelier George Miliotes, was the real deal. Excellent choices abounded, from a slew of interesting Rieslings and unoaked whites to your typical big-spender wines like Cabs from Markham Cellars, Silver Oak, and Caymus.

When we couldn't decide, Raf swooped in with clear explanations and suggestions from the list. It was obvious he'd tasted the wines, too; he named off several of my own favorites (a Selbach-Oster Kabinett Riesling and a Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc) and spoke of them intelligently. When we still couldn't decide, he quickly ran to grab a few of his favorite bottles and poured us samples of several whites.

The service remained excellent throughout our meal, and I begrudgingly admitted that the carpets kept the noise level in the crowded restaurant nicely muted. I could have a conversation without shouting, an increasingly rare indulgence in upscale restaurants these days, where hard surfaces look pretty but amplify the volume of every mumble and every clatter.

I wish I could say that our food lived up to Raf's service and Miliotes's wine. The dishes are creative, I'll give Seasons 52 that. I liked the sound of curry-dusted lavash (a Mediterranean flatbread) with ahi tuna tartare, but both came across as rather bland. And the weekly specials sounded terrific: Copper River salmon with roasted asparagus and fingerling potatoes, a Texas-caught redfish with broccolini, green beans, and mashed sweet potatoes.

Both beautiful pieces of fish suffered the opposite problem as the tuna: each was aggressively overseasoned, yet perfectly cooked. It was a shame. My friend's fingerling potatoes had an odd, rubbery texture to them, and her asparagus hadn't been trimmed properly before being given only a cursory pass under a broiler. My mashed sweet potatoes were fine, but the broccolini was tough and could have benefitted—like the asparagus—from a longer roasting time and a dash of salt, or olive oil, or lemon, or anything else, really.

Dessert saved the day, though. A peanut butter and chocolate mousse on top of a bite of moist chocolate cake soothed my friend's savage inner beast (a beast that was still hungry, I might add) and my fruit cup was a lovely assortment of fresh pineapple, strawberries, mango, papaya, and blueberries. I was full after dinner, but I have a notoriously small appetite. My friend was still starving, despite what I thought were very ample portions—beware if you're of the latter persuasion.

Despite this, I came away surprised by how much I enjoyed Seasons 52. It's a mitzvah that someone, somewhere, sat down and designed a menu that doesn't require repeated perusal in order to find the few healthy items. And even though our dinners didn't fire on all cylinders, I appreciated that the healthy food Seasons 52 offers isn't the type of "healthy" junk you see on grocery store shelves—diet shakes or bars packed full of chemicals, or cheap rip-offs of unhealthy dishes—but rather honestly cooked food made with simple, straightforward ingredients. How nice is it to be able to sit down and dinner and know that no matter what you order that night, it's going to be good for you?

As we left, I took a moment to appreciate another kindness that Seasons 52 offers: no forced valet parking, although valet is available if you're so inclined. It made me wish I'd enjoyed the food more, but I may just end up here once again for that well-priced wine list. I've heard the flatbreads are actually quite good, and I can see enjoying one with a glass of Riesling at happy hour this summer. Maybe the pianist will come out to play next time, too.


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