Big business has come to Santa Monica.

Darden Restaurants, the world’s largest full-service restaurant company with more than 2,000 restaurants, including national brands the Olive Garden and Red Lobster, has opened its latest restaurant — Seasons 52 — in the heart of Downtown Santa Monica at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Broadway. And it’s a step above its more mainstream brethren.

The table was set last week for a media tasting for various writers, bloggers, some folks from KCRW, myself and my editor as well. With great enthusiasm, the staff of chefs, managers, and sommeliers showcased the seasonly-inspired menu, extensive wine list, and 10,000-square-foot floor space. I can imagine the Seasons 52 in Plano, Texas or Cincinnati, Ohio are consistently similar to the Santa Monica location. But with an ocean front view and locally-inspired menu, this latest installment is sure to stand out.

Executive Chef Timothy Kast spoke with excitement about having the opportunity to source fare from the Third Street Farmers’ Market. Pulling produce from the Farmers’ Market seems like a prerequisite for any new restaurant, but for a big chain to do so is nice to see.

Seasons 52 chegs use ceder planks to help enhance the flavor of salmon without adding any additional calories to the dish. (Photo courtesy Seasons 52)

Seasons 52 chegs use ceder planks to help enhance the flavor of salmon without adding any additional calories to the dish. (Photo courtesy Seasons 52)

The way Season 52 menu is set, fresh ingredients are paramount. One major highlight of the restaurant is every single dish is under 475 calories. For this reason alone the cooking staff has to be a little more creative than dousing your entrée in butter for instant flavor. In fact, Seasons 52’s cooks doesn’t use butter at all. Sorry Paula Dean. Wood-burning ovens and grills and citrus infusions are used to enhance the natural flavors of the food. Having a menu with a calorie count under the magic 475 does not play out as some sort of gimmick but rather a commitment to using fresh, quality ingredients.

And it works.

Seasons 52's roasted beet carpaccio. (Kevin Herrera kevinh@smdp.com)

Seasons 52′s roasted beet carpaccio. (Kevin Herrera kevinh@smdp.com)

The tasting started with roasted beet carpaccio, Sonoma chevre, quinoa timbale,  with blood orange vinaigrette — a dish influenced by local purveyors. The main entrée offered was a grilled char-crusted filet mignon and cedar plank roasted organic salmon — a dish that stayed true to Seasons 52 low-cal cooking techniques. Two dishes that personify the Seasons 52 menu. Don’t expect Cheesecake Factory-like portion sizes. Season 52 makes 475 go a long way, but it has its limitations as well.

Perhaps it was the seven glasses of wine talking, but the wine list at Seasons 52 is outstanding. To be fair they were smaller servings. But cheers to master sommelier George Miliotes for hand selecting an extensive and unique selection of wines. Two whites to note, one from Portugal, the other from Oregon. Both unoaked, they were a total departure from the standard, “buttery” Chardonnay many wine drinkers have come accustomed to. Unoaked wines get their flavors from the grapes and not the barrels, something befitting to Seasons 52 approach to how they cook their food.

Another wine that stood out was a fine Chianti that by no surprise paired great with the filet. Interestingly enough, the wine was poured out of a tetra box more commonly used for almond milk or coconut water. I can’t imagine tetra being conducive for cellar aging, but for a ready to drink red, it was very good.

So, with a straight face, if you want wine, I (as well as their master sommelier) would recommend the unoaked whites, and the red in the box.

Food and drink come together well at Seasons 52. Whether it is dinner for two or a party calling for a private conference room, the space is more than accommodating. The bar seats more than 70 as well, with a pianist for ambiance and an ocean view to boot.

Mitt Romney infamously once said, “Corporations are people too.” And as outrageous as that may sound, in some ways those words are true. Seasons 52 is a big brand name, but the passion of people crafting the menu, pouring the wine, and working the floor is what makes it tick, and what has ultimately made Seasons 52 a winning hand across the country.

 

Michael can be seen riding around town on his bike burning calories so he can eat more food, or on CityTV hosting his own show, “Tour de Feast.” To reach him visit his website at tourdefeast.net or follow him on Twitter @TourDeFeastSM.