Restaurant Review: Seasons 52 — Heavy hitter brings light fare to Tampa

Every plate of food at Seasons 52 clocks in at under 475 calories, a surprisingly reasonable goal that more restaurants — especially chains — would do well to emulate. Better yet, the menu changes four times a year to reflect the growing season, theoretically allowing the restaurant to focus on better ingredients that don’t have to be shipped from around the world to satisfy a strict corporate formula. It’s refreshing to find such an admirable schtick in a chain restaurant, especially executed as well as it is here.

Of course, the people behind Seasons 52 — the Darden restaurant group in Orlando, which also owns Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Capital Grille — are clever enough to leverage that same schtick to subtly influence diners into leaving more money on the table than at more mundane fine-dining joints. More on that later, though. First, let’s give the food its due.

When they see the understated 475-calorie promise at the top of Seasons 52’s menu, most people automatically prepare for the possibility of low-cal disappointment. When the appetizers hit the table, however, that quickly fades. The portions are bigger than you expect, generous even, often combined with powerful flavors and enough luxury to banish diet food fears.

Like a massive chile relleno stuffed with hunks of tender chicken, pockets of goat cheese and spinach. The pepper itself is the star, adding a huge amount of green heat to a stuffing accented by cumin and the fresh pico on the side. There’s also a thin layer of cheese melted on top of it all, easily enough to quell any immediate thoughts of fat deprivation. A few bites of the powerful and tasty relleno and you’ll realize you’re not missing a thing.

Same with mushrooms stuffed with shellfish, a dish that’s often overpowered by cream, cheese and breadcrumbs. Here, there’s still a thick blanket of parmesan, but the rest of the mass comes from a bounty of sweet crab and simply seasoned shrimp on top of the tender ’shrooms. Seasons 52’s lamb gyro flatbread special is cracker thin — crust is where the calories are — but that’s just a vehicle for well-seasoned meat, creamy feta and tzatziki sauce that is scattered but far from scant.

All the starters do what you’d expect from a well-executed light menu, concentrating on strong, fresh combinations. Seasons 52 should do more of the same when it comes to the entrees.

The restaurant specializes in grilled proteins (the flame adds flavor, and less fat is used in cooking), combined with utterly simple sides. That works great in a surprisingly hefty piece of cedar-plank salmon that has soaked the wood smoke into its naturally rich flesh. With a side of roasted potatoes and big spears of crisp asparagus, it’s a great plate of food that expresses the fresh flavors of the ingredients.

But pork loin tinged with pink in the center tasted drab by comparison, even when scooped up with the puddle of creamy polenta underneath the slices. The tender, rosy chops in the rack of lamb are also served relatively bare — refreshing, compared to the chaos of overpowering seasonings that usually coats restaurant lamb — but still, kind of bland. I start to feel teased a bit by the flavorful starters. No matter how well-cooked these entrees are — and they are expertly prepared — there’s not much to them.

Then the desserts arrive and I’m reminded how much I like Seasons 52’s philosophy. The restaurant’s final course is served in something a little bigger than a tall shot glass, stuffed with anything from key lime pie layered with graham crust to peanut butter and chocolate creme, eight different options carried to the table in a decorative rack. One dessert shot is the perfect size for the end of a good meal.

Which brings me back to Seasons 52’s subtly clever use of its concept. When a typical couple goes to a typical fine-dining restaurant, they usually share an appetizer, order separate entrees and — maybe — share a dessert. But when you know that the plates are lighter than you’re used to, why not order a couple of apps? Even with the extra plate of food, you’ll likely feel less full than you usually do by the end of the meal, so you might consider dessert. No need to wait for another menu, or for the waiter to recite the list, he brings the desserts right to the table, with instant gratification once you’ve chosen your favorite. I suspect that Seasons 52 averages higher amounts spent per person than at similar restaurants.

But who cares? The prices are eminently reasonable, with no app over $10, few entrees over $20, and dessert shots an easy sell at a mere $2.50. And it’s tasty, healthy and better for the environment. Throw in an amazing wine list loaded with reasonably-priced gems (chosen by Darden Master Sommelier George Miliotes), a gorgeous atmosphere and exceptionally efficient service, and you might believe that Seasons 52 deserves a few extra bucks for its trouble.

Those damn chains get you every time with their good food and smart ideas.

Seasons 52

3.5 stars

Westshore Plaza, 204 N Westshore Blvd., Tampa, 813- 286-1152 or

Ever since my first meal at a Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion, I decided to forgo my preconceived notions about chain restaurants. Well, high-end chain restaurants, at least. Fine dining can be refined and replicated, and may even be the better for it in some instances. There’s no need to cater to the lowest common denominator when prices reach a certain level, and chains are usually much better at training and educating staff than independent restaurants. Add a clever hook, and I’m just as easily impressed as the average diner, to my independent restaurant-loving chagrin.

And the new Seasons 52 at Westchase Mall has a very clever hook. Hooks, really.

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