Restaurant Review - Seasons 52: Chain reaction

Feigning a low-cal revolution

I have seen the future, and it is Seasons 52.

The Buckhead restaurant is one of two locations in Atlanta, the other being at Perimeter Mall. The chain is owned by Darden Restaurants, which also owns Olive Garden and Red Lobster, but the concept at Seasons 52 is a vast departure from traditional chains. The food here is both healthy and, supposedly, seasonal. Seasons 52 has taken the most marketable qualities from spa cuisine and chef-driven cooking and fit them rather comfortably into the confines of a generic chain-dining experience. It had to happen eventually, and there's a brilliance to the whole concept that is unavoidable. If you look on OpenTable.com, the online reservation site that Seasons 52 and most other Atlanta restaurants use, both locations of Seasons 52 appear on the top-five "most reserved" list, beating out the Buckhead Life and Concentrics behemoths with ease.

The brilliance lies in the feel-good selling points paired with bland, safe mediocrity that makes people feel comfortable.

The place looks like a very nice Holiday Inn restaurant – wood tones, large indoor plants and booths upholstered in mottled abstract fabric, like the ugliest '80s La-Z-Boy recliner. In the evening, you can choose to sit in the bar, or "wine bar" area, where a piano player croons from behind the bar, singing easy-listening favorites.

When your server arrives, he or she will be all too happy to explain the concept. Every time I've been, I've listened to the same speech from a variety of servers, and either these guys are professional actors or they really are true believers – the enthusiasm is dangerously high. "Every dish has 475 calories or less, and the menu changes four times yearly to keep the ingredients fresh and seasonal." You can almost hear the fluttering pages of a corporate training manual.

OK, so even if the service and atmosphere have a slightly canned feeling, I'm all for the fresh and seasonal thing, no matter who's pushing it on me.

Speaking of pushing, you will no doubt be pushed toward the flatbread appetizer, a paper-thin, long bread that is perfect for sharing. Go for the ones with bright flavors and contrasts – a recent special flatbread, with artichokes and goat cheese, was the best thing I had in all my visits. The crunchy bread supported the medley of tangy and creamy perfectly. On the other hand, the grilled steak and cremini mushroom version from the regular menu was surprisingly bland, the steak sliced so thin so as to be practically nonexistent, the creminis almost completely flavorless.

I had the same experience with steak in a lunchtime steak sandwich. Served with caramelized onions and mushrooms with blue cheese, the whole thing tasted of nothing but salt, the ingredients completely indistinguishable. It reminded me of those sandwiches fast-food restaurants come up with when they decide they need to offer something other than a burger. It was even served on that fake-tasting focaccia bread.

And blandness is my main complaint with most of the food here. Cedar plank salmon is cooked through and barely seasoned. Trout also has all the flavor cooked out of it. Both come with a medley of roasted carrots and woody asparagus, a strange choice of vegetable for a restaurant that claims seasonality. Asparagus might be seasonal right now somewhere in the world, but not in this hemisphere.

What bothers me most about all this blandness is that it supports the notion that healthy food has to be boring. Seasons 52 does offer a few inventive things that add flavor without adding calories – the grilled lemon that comes on the side of many dishes is a perfect example, or the ultra-thin pasta that makes up the goat-cheese ravioli appetizer (which, it must be said, is saved from blandness only if you eat the whole roasted garlic cloves in every bite).

But where are the calories in fresh herbs? Or properly cooked fish? The whole menu is a nod to foodie culture without the most important component: flavor. Even the sesame-crusted tuna over noodles was almost totally tasteless, the advertised miso, mushrooms and bok choy making for slight textural variances but not asserting themselves in any real way. I was kind of impressed – how do they do it? Sesame, miso and tuna are not flavors that are easy to keep quiet, but somehow it happened.

Desserts are presented in tiny glasses and lovingly referred to as "mini indulgences." The idea is cute, and honestly, I wish more places would offer these tiny portions of the sweet stuff, as it's usually all I want at the end of a meal. Here, the low-calorie approach is more in portion control than restraint with ingredients, and as a result, this is the place where the chain aesthetic really comes through. Choices such as strawberry mango cheesecake and rocky road parfait are crowd-pleasing goo fests with no subtlety. They taste fine for mass-market, mass-appeal desserts.

I applaud Seasons 52 for doing something different, and I think the days when a restaurant can be disregarded simply because it is a chain are gone. Its attempt to appeal to more savvy consumers who want better ingredients and healthier choices is obviously working. But this is only the first step toward decent mass-marketed food in a restaurant setting. Fancy mushrooms and better-than-Velveeta cheeses are all well and good, but don't be fooled. This is a revolution in marketing, not in eating.