Nov 5, 2011

Seasons 52 Preview

Restaurant: Seasons 52
Location: 340 Ward Pkwy (Plaza)
Food: Traditional American cuisine
Service: Traditional waitstaff
Atmosphere: Traditional upscale chain
Price: Apps $6-$12, Entrees $15-$26, Desserts $2.50
Rating: TBD

Seasons 52, the new restaurant opening in the old Eddie Bauer space on the Plaza, started off on the wrong foot with the people of Kansas City, electing, at first, to remodel some of the exterior of the building to something more contemporary and less Spanish-inspired than the rest of the Plaza’s iconic architecture. Understanding it to be a chain restaurant with several other locations across the country, I was surprised they actually heeded the cry of the annoyed plaza patrons and nixed the alterations.

Then in another surprising move, I got an invitation to a bloggers’ preview lunch of sorts, to come try the menu, meet the chef, their on-staff Master Sommelier and see the remodeled space.  Yes, it was complimentary, so I must disclose that up-front. But let me share with you my opinions. After all, that was the point of the whole thing.

The event took place at 11:30 last Saturday. We walked in and were immediately greeted by name (impressive), introduced to the managerial staff and handed champagne. I had my camera in tow and they advised that first we would be taken on a champagne tour and picture-taking was, indeed encouraged. Immediate impressions of the space were A) warm and comfortable, B) wholly unsurprising for a chain restaurant serving seasonally-inspired American fare. Reddish-hued wood, typically uninspired fabrics (and particularly tacky animal print-ish bar stool seat covers), but pleasant overall. And I did appreciate the "Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired" touches visible in their use of horizontal wood slats that created modern-looking walls between rooms. Gave the place a little character and needed freshness. The kitchen was moderately exposed, with gleaming stainless steel, white dishes and the lovely scent of a wood-burning grill wafting through the air. A nice touch.

There’s a big bar area to the left upon entering, plenty of seats around it (think Houston’s bar area but with much more space). Then a big dining room to the south of the east of the entrance and a big private room for business meetings (projector and screen built-in for those unlucky enough to get roped into a serious lunch meeting). Seasons 52 is definitely (and smartly) working hard to appeal to the business crowd and for a chain, that makes all the sense in the world. Straight back, behind the entrance and just outside the kitchen is the chef’s table, a private dining area for special reservations.

After our tour, my fellow bloggers and I were herded into the bar area, introduced to and toasted by the staff, and then ushered into the main dining room and seated together at a big table in the middle. I grinned as the waiter helped me with my chair and I looked across the table, covered in no fewer than six wine glasses per place-setting for our upcoming wine samplings. Wine is a major focus for Seasons 52, employing the services of Master Sommelier George Miliotes. Mr. Miliotes was present throughout the meal, effectively serving as our wine tour guide, explaining each of the pairings, what was to like about it, where it came from including specifically relevant tidbits about the vineyards and vintners themselves. His presences was a treat and I appreciated his straight-forward answer to my question for further information about biodynamic wine-making and its quizzical standards.

As I segue into my descriptions of the meal, I have to start out with what was, to me, a shocking and lovely revelation about the menu at Seasons 52: nothing is over 475 calories! I didn’t know that about their menu going into it and learning this blew my preconceived notions about their food out of the water. Standard chain-restaurant practice has conditioned me to anticipate massive portions of abominably fatty foods. Only 475 calories? This was impressive in principle alone. Would the food be able to stand up to our expectations of good taste, though?

We started with an amuse bouche (which diners at the Chef’s table will also be served) that I loved: an Asian-style soup spoon filled with a very simple but crafty pop of flavors: pico de gallo with a small flaked piece of trout that smelled of the smoky wood from the wood-burning grill, and a dollop of avocado mousse which our decidedly un-pretentious chef Cliff Pleau admitted to be “guacamole.” The ingredients and combination didn’t surprise me or knock my socks off, but it tasted great.

Following the amuse we jumped right into my favorite thing of the day, seafood. A cedar plank dressed with sprigs of thyme was topped with a glossy piece of organic salmon, a perfectly cooked scallop and a mixture of veggies including golden beets, carrot, asparagus, green beans, peppers and a ring of caramelized red onion. The entire plate was divine… sweet seafood and well-cooked veg all working together with light essences of cedar and thyme to accent each bite. This is the kind of food I wish I could eat a lot more often.

Somewhat oddly, we took a step back after the seafood course for salad. But it was an unctuous, hearty salad. A huge pile of baby arugula came perched in the middle of a white plate, contained by a transparent cylinder tower. After the plates were set before us, the servers removed the tower allowing the greens to relax and spread out, exposing the other ingredients including pistachios, mushrooms, shaved parmesan and wafting through the air was the luxurious scent of truffle oil, mixed into the dressing. I'm a total sucker for arugula and parmesan and, when applied appropriately, truffle. All worked together perfectly in this "meaty" tasting salad. I loved its substance and savory, earthy flavors and would most definitely order this upon return or recommend it to friends and (hah!) readers.

Next was a pasta course, two big goat cheese-filled ravioli in a pool of tomato broth, topped with lots of fresh basil and with fresh tomato on the side. The pasta was nice. Personally, I didn't feel goat cheese made the best of fillings, only because it's low in moisture and, to me, less-satisfying to devour than a more gooey cheese filling would have been. But I loved the simple, well-done tomato broth and overall clean presentation. (It would have been nice if my server hadn't sloppily laid this plate down, splashing the broth up onto the rim of the plate, though. Ruined the photo op.)

Then came the heartiest of the lunch plates, one item from their lunch "meat" menu and one from the dinner menu: Piedmontese sirloin steak and quail, respectively. Chef Pleau spent a good amount of time describing his relationship with the farmers in Nebraska who raise the Piedmontese steak for him. It was a good sell and the meat was truly delicious, as well as healthier and leaner than a lot of corn-fed beef. The quail, as quail tends to be, was miniscule. Cute, tiny little legs with about one good bite on each. Again, I liked it but was left exceedingly curious as to what the portion of meat would be if I ordered just that as my main meal.

The rest of the meat plate, though, left a little something to be desired. Each meat came with its own sauce. The sauce on the beef tasted like any plain old brown gravy I'd ever had, masking the flavor of the meat too much and reminding me of cafeteria food. And the bourbon chili glaze on the quail had little discernible flavor. It was somewhat sweet but I detected no bourbon or chili.

The sides on this plate ware brussels sprouts – one of my favorite vegetables – and a sweet potato mash. Again, they were lacking as compared to the rest of the food we'd eaten that day. The mash had a little sour cream in it and nothing else. Chef Pleau explained he doesn't believe in making them overly-sweet with things like marshmallows or a sugary topping like so many families do with their sweet potatoes at the holidays – great, me neither – but it was a bit of a cop out to just add some sour cream to smooth them out and then drop 'em on the plate. I'd like to see a chef challenge himself a little more to do something else with them aside from just not doing what everyone else does. They were bland and still a little too sweet. The roasted brussels weren't bad but they, too, were so simply prepared that unfortunately even my own home-cooked version outshone them. What really makes brussels sprouts special is when they get charred and have that extra depth of flavor added to their naturally earthy, peppery taste. Chef's comment was that everyone's mother overcooked brussels sprouts and ruined them for us when we were young. I don't think he did much better with them. They weren't overcooked, but left a lot to be desired. Overall, the food on this particular plate just wasn't of a high enough restaurant quality to make me want to order it on a return trip.

So then dessert. And here things got back on the right track. Seasons 52's desserts are a delectable assortment of little square shot glasses filled with all sorts of classic flavors like Key Lime Pie and Rocky Road. They were the perfect size (meaning reasonable) and at only $2.50 each, a truly smart idea. I'd contend that everyone wants a little dessert after their meal but so often we don't buy them at restaurants because they're too big to be eaten with a clear conscience or too pricey to be worth it. More places ought to rethink their dessert menus this way.

I don't have time and you don’t have the desire to read about all of the wine pairings. There was one for each course. The whites were decent, the reds were sublime. No doubt the wine menu has perfectly adequate options for whatever you're eating.

Overall, lasting impressions: Seasons 52 is a chain restaurant that doesn't run from being one. It capitalizes on accepting that fact. I think they know they're catering a little more to a business and out-of-town crowd than the locals. I appreciate the healthy menu selections and found a lot of what I ate to be quite good. It's not the type of place I look forward to visiting, personally, but I can't knock it for doing what it does. It'll probably do just fine. And I appreciated the free meal. Thanks for the preview, Seasons 52.

Rating: TBD (I don't rate special events like this as I feel it's not a true representation of the typical diner's experience. Perhaps sometime in the future on my own dime.)

Seasons 52 on Urbanspoon
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