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In the Kitchen: Seafood tops at Seasons 52

Darden's fresh grill concept emphasizes a lean protein-focused menu

 - Photo courtesy of Seasons 52
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 expansion.

"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 style.

"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 miso broth.

"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 appropriate seasonings."

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 vinaigrette.

"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, chemistry."

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 properly."

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 heat.

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 back-of-the-house staff.

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 best."


Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine


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