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In the Kitchen: Seafood tops at Seasons 52
Darden's fresh grill concept emphasizes a lean protein-focused menu
By Joan M. Lang
July 01, 2007
The menu at Seasons 52 is blessed with many seafood
specialties, which stands to reason. The concept is positioned
as a "casually sophisticated fresh grill and wine bar" with
seasonally inspired menus, with no single item exceeding 475
calories. Seasons 52 is owned by Darden Restaurants, parent of
Olive Garden and Red Lobster. With seven units currently in
operation, the 4-year-old concept is gearing up for
"Fresh seafood is integral to every part of our mission,"
says Clifford Pleau, director of culinary development and
executive chef for Seasons 52, who has been with the company
since long before the first unit opened in Orlando, Fla. "When
we set the bar at 475 calories, we really had to look at where
we wanted our calories to come from. That speaks to fresh fish,
especially in spring and summer, with all its lightness,
freshness and flavor.
Pleau brings plenty of experience with seasonal fresh menus
to the task. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in
Hyde Park, N.Y., Pleau has worked for such luxury hotels as
Ritz-Carlton and the Boca Raton Resort & Club, and was on
the opening team at Euro Disney. He returned to the United
States to work at Bradley Ogden's Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur,
Calif., where he dealt directly with farmers and suppliers and
shopped daily at the Marin Farmers Market.
That cooking-by-the-seasons approach also influences the
menu at Seasons 52, which was the product of more than 10 years
of research. "Fine-dining chefs were able to do this kind of
cooking, but we knew there had to be a way to bring it to the
rest of the nation," says Pleau, who initially worked with a
nutritionist to validate his lighter, Mediterranean cooking
"By the time I got to Seasons 52 I had already dropped the
oil down in my cooking significantly," he recalls. "Fat is not
flavor, it only transitions flavor by coating the mouth. Using
less fat actually allows you to taste more of the food's
natural flavor. That was our secret finding."
The other strategy is to emphasize lean proteins and plenty
of fresh produce. And that's where seafood fits in so
beautifully. Fish or shellfish comprises 50 percent of the menu
mix on entrées, as many as eight different selections in the
spring and summer. In addition, seafood features prominently in
appetizers, salads and flatbreads. The two top-selling entrées
are Cedar Planked Roasted Salmon and Jumbo Shrimp Stuffed with
Lump Crab, followed by filet mignon in the No. 3 slot.
"We strive for a balance of fish species that provide
different flavors and textures, and which are interesting but
still approachable," says Pleau.
In addition to finfish like salmon, tuna and striped bass,
he likes to have what he calls a "skin fish," something light
and flaky that has no scales, such as trout or Arctic char.
Mussels are featured in the colder months, and colossal lump
crabmeat (used in a salad and as a stuffing for shrimp, among
other things) is considered a specialty of the house.
Seafood preparations are simple but flavorful, in order not
to compete with the fresh, natural flavor of the product. This
summer's menu features two new dishes that reflect that style:
halibut served on a corn risotto with red pepper sauce and
fresh herbs, garnished with grilled lemons; and black cod
seared in a dry pan, glazed with ponzu (soy-citrus sauce) and
served over a vegetable stir-fry with brown jasmine rice and
"These are the kind of simple, rustic but flavorful ways we
like to work with all of our menu items," says Pleau. "We don't
torture the fish or subject it to crusts and complicated
sauces. But we do provide flavor, with the wood grill and
For instance, the Cedar Planked Roasted Salmon is rubbed
with mustard and a bit of malt vinegar before cooking. "They
blend with the natural fats in the fish during the cooking
process, and the mouth does the rest of the mixing. It's all
about chemistry," says Pleau.
Another flavor chemistry example: A new spin on shrimp
cocktail that takes advantage of the grill's ability to bring
out flavor through caramelizing. The shrimp are flavored with a
bit of cumin-lime-honey vinaigrette, then grilled, chilled and
plated with arugula and corn salad and additional
"Flavor is added at every step," notes Pleau. "You've got
the sweetness of caramelized shrimp protein and honey, the zip
of lime, the zip of cumin, the earthiness of arugula. Again,
Seafood is a challenge in the back of the house, where
quarterly training guides cover every wrinkle and nuance of
preparation. Take sautéing, which requires both split-second
timing and patience to perfect. "I tell them to leave a
particular fish in the pan for 3 minutes and leave it alone,"
he explains. "If you keep moving it around, it will not brown
And it's cooked only three-quarters of the way through on
one side to account for carryover cooking once the fish is off
The guides are also used to train the service staff. "We
call it the hook, line and sinker approach to salesmanship,"
says Pleau. "Customers want to know what they are buying, what
it comes with and what makes it special, so we have provided
servers with a story for every menu item. In the case of Copper
River salmon, we tell them that it's a rich, wild fish from
Alaska; that it's served with corn on the cob and a simple dill
sauce; and that it has an extremely limited season."
Simply written and posted on three computers in the prep
area and three in the service area, the training guides are
available at all times to both the front-of-the-house and
Seasons 52's Purchasing Director Mike Karppe, who is
responsible for seafood and all other products at the concept,
works closely with Darden when it makes sense.
"They have an amazing QA team," says Pleau of Darden's
resources, "and they've put a tremendous amount of energy into
sourcing sustainable seafood of the highest possible quality.
We all have the same goal: fresh or farmed, go after the
Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth,