Could a concept as enlightened as seasonal, healthful cooking possibly exist at the Cherry Hill Mall?
Yes, I know we're talking about the hallowed ground where the first climate-controlled indoor mall east of the Mississippi was born nearly half a century ago. I know we're talking about a town so thoroughly infested with big-box commercialism that any hopeful sprout of independently owned-restaurant spirit is often squashed by the cheesecake weight of the factory-size competition, which mesmerizes patrons into willing waits of an hour or more simply by giving out pretty blinky beepers to play with.
I'm as skeptical as you. But, hey, it actually says Seasons 52 right on the big marquee outside this latest addition to the landscape of shoppers' paradise. And 52 has got to be better than the usual four.
But, really - what does Darden Restaurants, the mega-feeder behind Red Lobster and Olive Garden, know about fresh food and fine dining?
Well, the latest branch of this BFC (Big Food Corporation), which also now owns Capital Grille, certainly knows how to make a good first impression, with a carefully calculated setting and a trendy concept. And this new Seasons was starting to work its persuasive magic as we settled into a booth in the handsomely trimmed Mission wood-and-layered-stone dining room. We inhaled the perfume of wood smoke from the kitchen's oak-fired grill and perused the impressive list of wines by the glass. I was even starting to bob to the surprisingly deft covers drifting over from the piano bar's main talent, Charlie Sleeth, when my eye caught the long planks of crispy flatbreads passing by. I'll want one of those.
And then our perky waitress upped the ambition ante one more notch with this tidbit: No item on Seasons 52's menu exceeds 475 calories.
With its grill and brick oven, the kitchen uses no butter, egg yolks, or oil, she said (incorrectly, because it does, in fact, use olive oil). This food is supposedly all about the freshest ingredients and innovative techniques, like the "silk" sauce used to baste the trout, which, according to our waitress, sort of tastes like butter but isn't butter: "It's magic."
It's so magical, apparently, that it is essentially invisible. Or at least I couldn't taste or see anything on the dry piece of trout that came to our table flavored more with the burn of its grill marks than anything else. I asked for a dish of silk on the side, and this veggie essence was essentially a yellowish liquid with a soupçon of salt.
I appreciate any restaurant's noble aspirations for healthful cooking. But when it comes to making its quasi-spa food taste palatable, this chain is hardly the mall version of Canyon Ranch.
I did like the tuna tartare, stylishly pressed with pumpkin seeds into three pillars of guacamole. The chicken-stuffed chile relleno was also satisfying in a simple Southwestern kind of way, even if the pico de gallo it sat on was full of unripe tomatoes.
But the big ravioli, its goat cheese filling blended with cottage cheese (but no egg), was a squishy pile of mush wrapped in a flimsy wonton noodle package over a sauce of chunky tomatoes and coarsely chopped garlic. The bland seafood-stuffed mushrooms, tucked into the divots of an escargot plate and topped with curls of shrimp, were sealed beneath broiled cheese so rubbery, it squeaked "low-fat" between my teeth.
The notion of "seasonal freshness" is used loosely here. The menu changes quarterly, with a list of biweekly specials, but they're often just variations on a theme with different proteins. One week's grilled bison special, with canned black beans, guacamole, and an ancho rub, turned into mahimahi "Matachica" the next, with ancho-rubbed fish served beneath canned beans and guacamole. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as these were two of my favorite dishes, despite a pureed corn sauce that was as thin and palely flavored as gruel.
Simply writing fresh all over the sign and menu and decorating the foyer with a water wall and fireplace doesn't make this restaurant any more attuned to the seasons than the next. In truth, there are enough frozen products, pink tomatoes, and prefab sauces used here that the label is really a stretch.
Even the essential building block of its best items - dough for the long, paper-thin flatbreads - arrives prepackaged and frozen. That doesn't mean they aren't addictively tasty when properly cooked, scattered with shavings of sirloin, mushrooms, and blue cheese; or with tiny shrimps, cubed pineapple, and tangy streaks of (premade) chipotle sauce. But execution is a nagging issue here, and many of those delicate breads came burnt to an unsavory brown.
A number of other promising items on this menu suffered a similar fate, especially the grilled meats, whose subtle seasonings were overwhelmed by the raw heat of the grill, which left the pork tenderloin, lamb chops, and filet mignon tasting more like char than anything else. The scallops were totally undercooked (but fine on the second try). A special entree salad of tuna Nicoise was a special disaster. The gray fish was splayed beside meager greens that were both underseasoned and wilted by the heat of grilled veggies, including an almost inedible fennel bulb that was still half raw.
Even the tap water was funky, with ice cubes that gave off a freezer-burn taste when crunched.
It's a good thing there are plenty of other things here to drink. In fact, an outstanding wine program is undoubtedly Seasons 52's best side, with 120 quality labels and more than 50 available by the glass. Seasons uses fine, thin-crystal stemware, and the servers, who present each bottle tableside before pouring, were impressively versed on the list, which has a New World focus.
It isn't often I get to sip a premier chardonnay like Mer Soleil by the glass, or some zippy South African whites from Mulderbosch, or a range of Selbach-Oster rieslings and pinot blanc, which offer both value and a match to the menu's exotic leanings. There are some big-ticket bottles, too, like Opus One ($250) or Sassicaia ($300), for a really big splurge.
But if you've seen the wire caddy of micro-desserts moving around the dining room, you know this place is more about "mini-indulgences" than anything else. If you actually tasted these premade, slim-size renditions of Rocky Road, carrot cake, and Key lime pie, though, you'll know they're more or less shot glasses of brightly layered fluff. The indulgence, like so much else here, is only in the name.