‘Tis the ‘Season’ for Fresh & Healthy: Darden’s Seasons 52 at SJTC

Posted by on Oct 22, 2011 in Dining, Jacksonville | No Comments

Seasons 52 JacksonvilleWhen I say “roadside restaurant off busy highway,” if you’re from these parts, I suspect you immediately find visions of Waffle House’s “scattered, smothered, covered” hashbrown goodness wafting through your mind (better that than your stomach).

That’s the old Jacksonville, though. Now we have JTB and the St. Johns Town Center, and all the happening, glam and gleaming eating places are within an imaginary short exit ramp from westbound SR 202. At one in particular, Seasons 52, you can kiss your hashbrowns good-bye.

An upscale “fresh grill” concept from Orlando-based Darden Restaurants—whose portfolio includes The Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Bahama Breeze, Longhorn Steakhouse and the nearby Capital Grille—Seasons saunters into the Northeast Florida market October 24. And I can tell you, it’s unlike any dining spot I’ve encountered in my 14 years of stalking First Coast eateries (with a knife and fork, of course).

But first, a disclaimer’s in order. I’m very familiar with Seasons. I grew up in south Orlando, Darden’s corporate home, and every February my mother and I enjoy our joint birthday dinner at Seasons’ founding/flagship home on Sand Lake Road in O-town. We have a good relationship – Seasons and I (well, Mom and I, too).

So I was delighted to garner an invite for Seasons’ Jacksonville incarnation at an Oct. 14 food-blogger tasting and tour. I love seeing morsels of “home” (read: Orlando) arrive in my “new home” (read: Jax), just like when UCF-spawned Tijuana Flats opened its first local space. It tells me that Jax has arrived.

When you arrive, you’re smacked up face-first with extreme architectural fit and finish, the likes of which you won’t see frequently in Duval. Before your stomach can cry in protest, your eyes feast on mahogany accents, amber sconces, staggered stone walls, exposed-beam ceilings and a bevy of indirect lighting that is ample and “just right.” They call it “casual sophistication,” but everything being relative, it’s downright “upscale” and “put on a sportcoat and a button-down, Tex.”

Seasons 52 Jacksonville, Sonoma RoomOur attentive welcome team quickly offered each arriving guest a flute of Chartogne-Taillet Cuvee Sainte Anne Champagne, then whisked us away on a tour of the various dining rooms and piano bar. It became obvious during the tour that S52 is courting the “special-occasion” market in a big way – rehearsal dinners, retirement parties, anniversaries, birthdays, corporate retreats, etc. Not so much in a quiet, intimate Matthew’s sort of way, but important gatherings with important people to celebrate “big deals.” With big checks to match, no doubt. From flip-down multimedia screens to soundproof thresholds and zoned climate control, you’ve got refined versatility at every turn … or as I call it, the BMW 5-series of restaurants … for a capacity of about 390 diners.

The bar area is dark, almost Old World, and a showcase for the restaurant’s award-winning international wine list. You’ll find 23 varietals here and quite a few native to S52, as selected by master sommelier George Miliotes. You’ll also see colorful cylinders of fruit-infused vodkas and a live piano player, performing seven nights a week.

Throughout the tour our welcome team brought along provisions. Flatbread Exhibit No. 1: Artichoke & Goat Cheese with Leaf Spinach, Balsamic Onions and Roasted Peppers. Tasty and crisp, with just a little more goat cheese flavor than I would have liked. The Chipotle Shrimp rendition restored my faith in balanced flatbreads, with roasted poblano peppers, grilled pineapple and feta cheese goodness. But alas, to save real estate for our sit-down feast to come, I half-heartedly held out my palm in a vertical fashion (vs. the horizontal “yes, please, more” fashion).

Eventually we found our way to the head table in the main dining room, where each diner was greeted by a personalized place setting and at least seven empty wine glasses, ready for action. Each of our six courses was professionally choreographed and narrated by our welcome team, including sommelier George; Jeff Carcara, senior director of operations; Cliff Pleau, master chef and senior director of culinary; Steven Hicks, executive chef; and Sean Wiseman, managing partner. It’s obvious they practiced.

One thing to note before I dig in, literally: each course at Seasons is engineering to set you back on the elliptical no more than 45 minutes (or 475 calories, by my imprecise calculations). Plus menus rotate by season, with slight variations week to week. So if you’re a creature of habit who craves “the usual,” or a linebacker, S52 may not be for you.

Table course No. 1, the Jumbo Lump Crab and Haas Avocado, was served in an S52-emblazoned spoon, the type you might use to shovel clear soup at the Asian superbuffet. It was fresh as can be and a powerful fusion of creamy avocado concealing flaky crab.

Next up was an Organic Salmon and Lemongrass Sea Scallop roasted on a cedar plank. The portion was fulfilling and fresh, with the scallop on his skewer looking to pole-vault over the salmon, off the plank and back to his buddies. The roasted veggies resting on the plank gave a crisp foil to the moist salmon steak.

Moving ever closer to the main event, our welcome team next arrived to deposit clear cylinders of multicolored greens onto our plates, soon revealing Salinas Organic Field Greens with Oak-Grilled Mushrooms, Toasted Pistachios and Truffle Dressing. Crunchy and tangy all at once, I vacuumed up this selection before some of my neighboring diners could locate their salad fork (rest assured, I DID use my fork).

Earning kudos as co-leading entrée for the evening was the Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli with Roasted Garlic Basil and Light Tomato Broth. The presentation was enticing, with yellow and green peaks rising above a carmelized canyon of cheese at the plate’s base. Unfortunately, I’m not a huge goat cheese aficionado, but I took care of business just fine.

Seasons 52 Jacksonville - Lamb

At this point, our chef produced a 2-foot stalk of Brussels Sprouts, as a prelude to the “protein” course to come, the Mesquite-Grilled Lamb T-Bone Chop and Manchester Farms All Natural Quail with Mashed Sweet Potatoes and Bourbon-Chili Glaze. Note that the preceding description did in no way include the offending vegetable. I was had. Apparently veggies such as the BS (my oh-so-appropriate shorthand for these little cabbage bombs) don’t always make the menu descriptions. As we say in the PR biz, full disclosure, please!
Now back to the main protein course. The lamb chop was succulent and full of flavor over the mashed sweet potato foundation. Even the quail had a kick in a supporting-cast kind of way (not the main act, but worthy of being on stage). And know this: when bourbon-chili glaze comes knocking, I’ll come a’gobbling.So, back to the BS stalk. Our chef sought me out when he sensed my trepidation, and I picked a fresh spout from the stalk to maintain my shaky “I’m not afraid” façade. If there was a waiting dog under the table, I have no doubt he would have refused my handout, too. But let it be known that the BS are very FRESH, and I’m sure to some discriminating diners on some other planet, tasty.

At this point, you may be asking yourself why I haven’t been commenting about the wine pairings. The fact is, I liked them all. And until I page beyond the Introduction to “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine Pairings,” I do not feel qualified to go beyond the, “yup, tasty” level of commentary.

Seasons 52 Jacksonville - Mini-Indulgence CarouselOne area, however, where I feel “hell, yeah” qualified to comment is with sweet things. At S52, those come in the form of Mini Indulgences, which are individual servings of classic desserts, served in shot glasses. This may be a means to keep even these sweet treats under the 475-calorie threshold, and it’s an effective strategy. Our caretakers offered carousels of the colorful spoon-fed desserts. My favorite was the Belgian Chocolate Rocky Road, with marshmallows and chocolate chunks layered in a mousse-like consistency. Other high achievers include the Pumpkin Pie with Ginger Snap Crust and Cookies & Cream. I have to wonder in a “high-volume-consumption” market like Jacksonville, if full-size desserts would be welcomed additions to the menu. Consider the treats you’d clear hurdles for to make it to dessert Meccas like bb’s, Biscotti’s or The French Pantry. Those would be icing on the proverbial cake.

After all was said and done (and digested), it’s an easy claim to make that Seasons 52 will be a unique experience for many homegrown Jacksonville diners. Upscale, refined, fresh and “special,” S52 joins a small coterie of First Coast establishments, such as Matthew’s, Salt, Bistro Aix and Augustine Grille, that are wonderful backdrops to celebrate the milestones of life – feasts for the senses as much as for the palate. Or a shot of sweetness and a glass of vino after a harrowing day of holiday shopping next door. Heck – finishing your holiday shopping IS a milestone of life in and of itself.

Seasons 52 opens Monday, Oct. 24 at 5096 Big Island Drive. Call 904.645.5252 or visit seasons52.com for reservations. And trust me, don’t try to make your own exit ramp trying to get there. The Gate Parkway exit off JTB will serve you just fine.

View my Facebook photo gallery on Seasons 52