The Post-Millennium Chains of Middlesex County New Jersey explores the brave new world beyond Olive Garden and Red Lobster that’s thriving just west of Staten Island.
The shtick: All “seasonally-inspired” dishes are under 475 calories. You might see lamb or asparagus in spring, for instance.
The signatures: Cedar plank roasted salmon, flatbreads.
The new Bloomin’ Onion: Unfortunately, nothing is fried. The lump crab, roasted shrimp & spinach stuffed mushrooms do come with a parmesan-panko crust, at least.
My second experience with Seasons 52 has given me a better grip on the chain’s M.O., not that it’s hard to grasp (think anti-Applebee’s). Just a few months ago this new branch sprung up in the Menlo Park Mall’s parking lot down by the ’80s, vaguely art deco sign. Menlo Park is no King of Prussia. Reservations are available through Open Table, making it the classiest Darden brand by far, and you’ll need them on the weekend. Even with reservations, it’s likely you will still have time for a drink at the bar before your table is ready–just like a real city restaurant. There is a piano player in the bar where booths are first come first serve. I mean literally behind the circular bar there’s a guy pounding out Stevie Wonder or taking requests while servers scurry around picking up trays of rosy Strawberry Basil Fusions (strawberry-infused Prairie Organic Vodka, agave nectar and basil) and Pomegranate Margarita Martinis that are neither margarita nor martini.
Do note the Prairie Mule. Moscow Mule variations are very in at chains and probably the biggest crossover drink of the year, I’m guessing because they’re really just a gingery vodka soda in a cooler cup. Brooklyn-chic shops like West Elm and the ecommerce arm of Food52, which I always want to call Seasons 52, both sell the copper mugs.
This is exactly how I imagined my party of four appeared. Exactly. The advertised “casually-sophisticated adult ambiance that feels inviting” is no joke. Warm wood is inter-cut with stone mosaic walls, high ceilings are crisscrossed with rafters that evoke an upscale ranch, and open shelves of wine act as room dividers. The epitome of a grown-up restaurant.
After a few stops in New Jersey to see if anyone carried the Times-approved 2009 Haut-Medoc Bordeaux (Wegmans, of all places, came through) I had to order a glass of 2010 Chateau de Parenchère Bordeaux just because there was a Bordeaux on the menu at all. Never mind that it was the wrong vintage and region. I’d also made a Costco trip that inspired me to buy a huge jug of Woodbridge cabernet sauvignon as a gift for one half of my double date because they live in neighboring Woodbridge, NJ (duh).
Chilled lobster & shrimp spring roll and blackened steak & blue cheese flatbread with cremini mushrooms, spinach, caramelized onions.
The food is what would happen if Cooking Light came to life as a restaurant, except that everything is plated in a slightly nicer manner than you might bother with at home–most dishes are presented with some sort of flourish like table-side saucing–and your portions are meted out, no seconds because you were left unsatisfied. Proteins are modest and bolstered by other on-trend components and lots of adjectives are applied to make perfectly fine, but never quite delicious food sound more craveable.
Hence, the Plainfield farm turkey skewer, grilled vegetable-farro pilaf with zinfandel bbq glaze. Farro not rice, glaze not sauce, zinfandel not wine, and the metal rod (shown in this much prettier publicity shot) is pulled from the poultry cubes in front of your eyes.
The steak salad comes trapped in a clear plastic ring mold, half-a-foot high. After being lifted up by a server, the leaves tumble out to join the fingerling potatoes, charred onions and medium-rare slices of meat. I could not even tell you what the dressing was since the point is shaving calories, not creating lush memories for life.
The best part might be the dessert course a.k.a. mini indulgences. Normally, who cares about sweets at chains, but it’s hard to ignore the selection that’s placed on the table–especially since each flavor is highlighted with a penlight as its being described. I guess someone has to run and grab another glass of goop if more than one person wants the same thing?
Yeah, this is a pecan pie. If you’ve ever wondered what mini indulgence you would be, here’s a quiz for you. I’m a Rocky Road because I’m a “quintessential chocoholic,” thanks for asking. Buzzfeed, Seasons 52 is not.
Seasons 52 * 217 Lafayette Ave., Edison, NJ