Seasons 52 wraps its health-conscious idea in comfort

On a Sunday-night visit to Seasons 52, which opened two months ago on the Country Club Plaza, the place was abuzz.

Our server, unprompted, mentioned the chain’s corporate connection.

“We’re part of the Darden group,” she said.

Those are the folks who bring you Olive Garden and Red Lobster (“I love Red Lobster,” She Who Is Not Easily Pleased told the server) in addition to the Capital Grille, the upper-crust, stratospherically priced steakhouse with a Plaza outpost two long blocks away.

With its warm-wood embrace and its stacked-stone and lighted-wine-bottle accents, Seasons 52 presents itself as a comfortable destination, not quite so clubby and pricey as Capital but certainly a few notches up the blue-blood spectrum from its more casual corporate cousins.

The concept is fresh, seasonal and calorie-conscious food in a wine-bar setting.

It’s nice to know that even a corporate chain can keep track of the calendar, but when servers are trained to make a big deal about how the menu changes every quarter and how a few up-to-the-minute dishes land on the list each week, it becomes less impressive.

Any number of our local independent chef-run restaurants operate that way — it goes with the finer-dining territory to change with the seasons and concentrate on what’s fresh.

The real draws, though, appear to be the setting and the cloak of healthy dining. The menu states it clearly: “every item less than 475 calories.”

Have one of these, one of those, an entree and one of the restaurant’s irresistible micro-desserts, and the calories add up, of course, but that’s your fault and not the restaurant’s. And who really keeps track anyway?

Truth is, over a couple of dinners at Seasons 52, we found it possible to have some good food and a good time.

At both meals, we tried one of the savory, rectangular flatbreads, a pizzalike starter that seemed kind of big for two of us at the start of a meal (we ate it all anyway) but just right for our table of six. That second night’s flatbread special used roasted eggplant atop the cheese, tomato sauce and a thin-crust base.

If I were eating alone at the bar, I’d take my 475-calorie chance on one of those, down it with a glass of wine and be gone (unless T.J. was at the piano-bar keyboard, serving up an edgy and surprising ballad, in which case I’d be inclined to linger).

At our first meal, a seasonal side dish of three grilled squashes caught my eye, and the plate showed off some sculptural invention along with its earthy tenderness.

The same cannot be said for the spicy chicken chile relleno, an appetizer that She Who ordered as her main dish. It looked a bit unappetizingly messy and had far less punch and flavor than it should have.

My curried red snapper, a weekly special, came slathered in sauce, and with its carrot slices and green beans, was far more satisfying.

At our dinner for six, we had a minor setback when the goat cheese ravioli starter came out with four on the plate rather than the half-dozen we’d been told. That led to some awkward knifing and passing, but with their light tomato and garlic surroundings, the raviolis went fast.

Our friend Mr. B., who knows a high-dollar commercial interior when he sees one, was disappointed to learn that the night’s grouper special was sold out, so he settled for the trout, which was fine if not exciting.

Another tablemate, the dynamic socializer I like to call Vitamin K, had the pork tenderloin, though she professes there’s nothing better than the pork she grills at home. She was impressed, as I was, by the tender and flavorful version served at Seasons 52.

I opted for the grilled venison chop, a lean but moist hunk of meat on the bone, which sat atop a lovely, saucy venison and mushroom stew. Call it a double deer — but I’d order it again in a minute.

We also were mostly satisfied by the roasted artichoke-stuffed shrimp, the caramelized sea scallops (cooked nicely tender) and the fine grilled filet mignon, which Mr. B’s daughter, the teen violinist, found much to her liking.

Keeping the calorie count down does mean some sacrifices. Side vegetables, though fresh, tend to be served naked, and in my experience a bit shy of al dente. If you like your baby carrots or green beans slathered in butter or sauce, you might find that the austere approach (even when described as “roasted”) leaves you a little unmoved or prompts some long-ago memories of a motherly urging to

eat your vegetables !

All that might seem negated by the dessert fest we got ourselves into.

The server brought out the usual rack full of varied small offerings — mousses, cakes, fruit and the like — each layered or lathered in a tallish shot glass. Our perky server noted that one might be 260 calories, another more or less. I chose the Meyer lemon special and around our table every one else picked something different. It’s a brilliantly seductive concept ($2.50 each). Sweet dreams.

So, yes, it’s a chain, and we worry about yet another corporate bigfoot on the Plaza as our local independent eateries struggle to hang on.

“I’d definitely come back,” said Mr. B. “It’s a pretty place,” my regular companion allowed.

So, as with everything else in life, we’ll try to keep them all in balance and hope that, like the seasons, all our favorite restaurants have a chance to turn, turn, turn.