‘Tis the Season: Summer Springs Fresh Tastes at Seasons 52

Posted by on Jun 26, 2012 in Dining, Jacksonville | No Comments

Seasons 52 Summer TastingFor my faithful blog followers who like to keep score at home, we just passed the summer solstice, which for this writer means an invite to the seasonal “up-front” at Darden’s Seasons 52. And like the up-fronts you hear about in the advertising world, this event’s likewise chock-full of anticipation, fanfare and pampering. And anticipatory loosened belts.

Similar to the springtime “reveal,” the June 19 Summer Menu Launch in Jacksonville was one in a series of tastings at S52s throughout the US, streamed over the Web and featuring hosts Cliff Pleau, senior director of culinary, George Miliotes, master sommelier, and a kitchen-mounted webcam. Our table in the Napa Room joined audiences in Miami, Dallas, Atlanta and other locations, united via tweets (witty, snarky and otherwise) and a full-size tasting menu. We’ll walk through that momentarily.

Joining us in Jax were Chef Stephen Hicks, Managing Partner Sean Wiseman, Field Sales Manager Amy Drafts and a complement of uber-capable wait staff, who delivered beverages and plates with warmth and precision.

Enough setup – on to the food! Like I said before, this tasting was unlike the spring tasting in that each course was presented as a full meal, vs. a family-style sampling. So you had to work hard to turn off that childhood-honed inclination to clean your plate, if you knew what was good for you. Problematically, I always followed the rules growing up, and I’m a slow learner.

We began the night with a sampling of passed flatbreads—BBQ Chicken and Artichoke & Goat Cheese varieties. My clear-cut winner was the pollo, which featured plump, balsamic onions and scallions. If you’re a goat cheese fan, though, you wouldn’t be disappointed with the alternative. And a course entitled Cocktail Reception wouldn’t be proper without an appropriate libation—in our case, the Aveleda Vinho Verde, a crisp, summer Portuguese varietal from 2010-11. It was a welcome first impression for the palate.

Our hosts surprised us with two signature cocktails—a Watermelon Refresher and a Strawberry Lemon Euphoria. Each employed the talents of a different strain of Atlantico Rum, with wildly diverse flavor profiles. Let’s just say the Euphoria brought the tang, while his distant cousin was all about the chill. I favored the former.

Chilled Lobster & Shrimp Spring RollOur first course may afford me accusations of blasphemy from entrée purists, but the Chilled Lobster & Shrimp Spring Rolls handily won my Best of Class. Think jumbo, fresh spring rolls from a fine Thai establishment, served with a trio of colorful sauces—cool salsa verde, aromatic lemongrass and sweet-hot red chili. The lobster and shrimp were easily discernible by the naked eye, surrounded by a host of crisp veggies wrapped tight and ready for dunking. Given my penchant for sweet chili sauce on any food surface, it’s not hard to predict my favored accompaniment. Not to mention the wine pairing: the Hirsch #1 Gruner Veltliner, a ripe, lush Austrian white with a crowded yet light flavor profile.

Organic Arugula SaladSome of you know I’m almost a full-time vegetarian, so these veg-heavy courses were a welcome treat. The beets rolled on into Course Two, led by an Organic Arugula Salad with a potpourri of unlikely neighbors. Watermelon, grilled golden beets, goat cheese, jicama (which I still cannot say correctly) and toasted pistachios made for a chill yet tangy contradiction, with arugula in the middle to keep the warring flavors at bay. I still can’t say I’m a fan of beets, but I tried. Next up was the Summer Vegetarian Tasting, a sampler plate featuring a grains of life mixture (think quinoa), a soft taco, chili relleno, cedar roasted tofu and mango chutney. Normally, just give me a slab of the tofu and seat me in a corner, and leave me alone! This go-around, the chili relleno was the siren for my taste buds. Washing it all down was a Honig Sauvignon Blanc from Napa, with shades of mango and papaya and a pink grapefruit sneak attack.

Piedmontese All-Natural Bone-in Strip SteakOur third (main) course was a surf-and-turf theme, beginning with a Wild Alaskan Copper River Salmon. The filet was moist and almost three-dimensional, perched atop a golden foundation of corn risotto with jumbo asparagus, roasted pepper and dill sauce. It’s hard to believe the culinary chemists on the screen before us could make these entrees conform to the restaurant’s 475-calorie-or-less mandate, but they do it with every entrée, no matter the season. The second plate to arrive was welcomed by the prophetic Twitter tag of #thesteakiscoming, and this up-front fanfare was well-deserved: the Piedmontese All-Natural Bone-in Strip Steak. At 11 oz., and flanked by more jumbo asparagus, cremini mushrooms and Fingerling potatoes, I re-emphasize my previous calorie-related statement. The Piedmontese is naturally leaner than your run-of-the-farm steak, and the meat was full of flavor at every layer. There was a tad-bit more gristle than I would have liked from this cut, but that was a minor blemish on an otherwise superior-grade steak (which didn’t contribute to a superior waistline).

And lest I forget our main course wine pairings: a Chehalem INOX Chardonnay from Oregon and a Markham Cellar 1879, a blend of merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon with some explosive black cherry action.

Last but never least (unless you count the Fresh Fruit), the Mini-Indulgences rounded out our feast with a bevy of sugary temptations, including a summer fresh blueberry atop New York cheesecake, and a raspberry chocolate chip canoli. And of course old favorites such as Pecan Pie (the S52 best-selling MI) and Key Lime came to call but didn’t last long. Caron Streibich even offered our Fresh Fruit friend some welcome shelter. Hey – I took it for the team in the spring. Served with our shot-glass wonders was a Jam Jar Moscato from South Africa, which surely lived up to the Moscato M.O.

It’s not often I can say with confidence you can savor a special meal with a special someone (or someones), and the purveyor of that meal is a member of a multi-brand restaurant family. But Seasons 52 brings it: a unique chemistry of consistency and intimacy, for those special moments and special diets, too. You’ll find the Jacksonville franchise at the St. Johns Town Center, 5096 Big Island Drive. Call 904.645.5252 for reservations.

Want more pictures from Jay’s visit to Seasons 52? Visit his public photo gallery on Facebook to see it all in its Technicolor glory.