I know what season I'm living through right now: the time to cast away stones. Well, at least one stone — around 15 pounds, according to a British friend of mine who still uses the archaic reference when talking about body weight. Losing a stone of my own mass is my New Year's resolution. It was also my 2011 resolution, and I failed miserably. I didn't lose a pebble.
This year, though, I've found a new inspiration for heading on down to the stoned soul picnic. From the Book of Ecclesiastes to the lyrics of the Byrds to the Country Club Plaza comes the clubby new Seasons 52 Fresh | Grill. The restaurant serves an impressive variety of dishes — each of them less than 475 calories, according to the parent company, the menu and every server. I believe it, but without a nutritionist as a dining companion, I have to take the dietary claims of this popular chain at face value.
Seasons 52 is the creation of Florida-based Darden Restaurants Inc., the company that also owns the Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants. I was craving those feather-light Red Lobster cheesy biscuits on my first visit to the Plaza's Seasons 52. I had ordered a salad for lunch and would have loved a roll or biscuit with that jumble of greens. When I voiced this desire, the server clucked her tongue at me.
"If you had bread with this dish," she said, "it wouldn't be under 475 calories."
I wanted to snap back that I would rather have a biscuit than all that vinaigrette dressing, but who wants to argue with someone more concerned with my health than I am? She spoke with the same kind of authority as my mother, although my mother would cast a wary eye at the showy presentation of the entrée salads at Seasons 52. My "Maple Leaf Farms Sesame Duck Chop Salad" was brought to the table inside a clear plastic cylinder. At the moment the plate was set before me, the server pulled up the plastic tube and released the salad into a tidy heap.
Yes, it's a silly theatrical flourish, but some levity is needed to balance out all of this restaurant's good intentions. On a different visit, I asked our waiter for a suggestion on a good starter for several people to share. His response? "The edamame is particularly healthy." Edamame? That's way more healthy than I want to be. I'd eat a whole basket of Red Lobster biscuits before I'd touch one steamed soybean.
But I'm in the minority. Many diners today do want healthy alternatives to the steaks and baked potatoes or barbecued brisket and fries that remain Kansas City's signature dishes. And Seasons 52 takes its role very, very seriously. I believe this restaurant is the only venue in town that offers separate menus for almost every possible lifestyle choice and allergy limitation. There's a vegan menu, a vegetarian menu, a gluten-free menu, a garlic-free menu, a lactose-free menu and a list of low-sodium offerings. All that's missing is a menu dedicated to chronic complainers, which would allow me to finally dine with my sister-in-law.
On the night I dined with four friends — each somewhat fussy on his or her own terms — there was one vegetarian in the group who was delighted to have so many meatless options. Two others at the table had been told that portions at Seasons 52 were ridiculously small (not true) and wondered if they should order more than one entrée so they wouldn't be hungry later. Luckily, we had a bright, attentive server to dispel myths, offer suggestions and deliver a mercifully brief version of the Seasons 52 spiel (the menu changes frequently with creative daily specials and rotating dishes and blah blah blah). He was polished and charming.
Seasons 52 is a restaurant that requires polish and charm. The tasteful dining rooms give the impression that this isn't just a fancy restaurant but an expensive one. The lighting is low and sexy, the music subtle, the ambience as gracious as any of the Plaza's most upscale venues (the Raphael Hotel's Chaz on the Plaza, for example). But the prices are surprisingly reasonable, not modest but very fair. I've paid far more for much less satisfaction in Kansas City.
I don't know how much creative freedom chef Garey Hiles has in his kitchen — this is a corporate restaurant — but I've enjoyed almost every dish I've tasted here, including a vegetable plate (which can be ordered as either an entrée or a first course) that I applaud for its cleverness: a beautifully composed arrangement of warm and cool delicacies, including an amber roasted Bosc pear, deliciously smoky cubes of ponzu-glazed grilled tofu, butternut squash, and a dollop of tabbouleh sprinkled with almonds and cranberries. The vegetarian in our party shared this with us before taking on a fine, filling bowl of ravioli pillows stuffed with goat cheese, sweet basil and roasted garlic.
The cedar-plank-roasted salmon is offered in two incarnations: a farm-raised hunk from Chile or, for a $6 surcharge, a wild-caught organic version. We tasted the latter, which was particularly delicious. (But I'm always a sucker for a Dijon marinade.) The grilled, caramelized sea scallops were divine — not the most generous portion but ample enough to satisfy the most size-conscious member of my party. It came with fresh asparagus and pearl pasta with tomatoes and mushrooms.
I was happy that night with my dinner: small but sumptuously tender slices of roasted pork tenderloin perched on a mound of soft polenta dappled with crimini mushrooms. I nearly convinced myself that I could eat smaller, healthier portions like this every night, but then decided that I couldn't.
The Seasons 52 dessert concept is brilliant. I'm one of those people who just wants a bite of something sweet after a good meal. I don't need a big slab of chocolate-cream pie to feel complete. (No, wait — sometimes I do.) The little shot glasses offered as finales at Seasons 52 are filled with a variety of pretty layered concoctions: some with a creamy mousse or soft cheesecake, perhaps with bits of carrot cake, or — in the case of the Rocky Road version — miniature marshmallows. They go fast, but they're effective (and less than 275 calories) at staving off an aggressive sweet tooth. We tasted the mocha macchiato, the raspberry-cheesecake creation, the chocolate-peanut-butter mousse, and a couple of others before putting down our spoons and declaring ourselves comfortably full.
Later that night — at about 3 a.m. — I woke up longing for another couple of those shot-glass desserts. I drifted back to sleep, dreaming of meals packing more — many more — than 475 calories. I'm thrilled that Seasons 52 is on the Plaza, offering something besides the buttery grilled steaks at Ruth's Chris Steak House or the hefty bowls of pasta at Brio Tuscan Grille. But could I really become a regular here? Maybe next season.