Organic baby spinach salad

Seasons 52

I don’t like chain restaurants. They’re too often cavernous monuments to suburban disregard for land; havens for soulless corporate drinks rhyming with Smoka Smola and Crudweiser; and feature “themey” food that looks and sounds better than it can ever hope to taste. So it was with the theme of skepticism that I checked out a Seasons 52, perched in a giant mall parking lot in a suburban part of “suburbany” Orlando, Florida.

Normally the Seasons 52 sign would be beckoning to hungry Florida folk but I neglected to snap this photo until the sign had already been put to bed. From the outside, it’s an upscale and attractive building but about as unique looking as a PF Changs if the horse statues had galloped off. (Click the link to see what I mean). Despite this déjà Chu, I thought it was an inviting edifice outside and even though inside the dining room is cavernous, the appealing decor and soft warm lighting make it inviting too.
If a restaurant must have a theme, I can’t think of a better one than a seasonal menu, especially a seasonal vegetarian AND vegan menu.

But a menu is only as good as your servers ability to bring it to life and guide you to a better meal. And that’s exactly what I got in my server, Julian. Based on his recommendation, I started with an organic baby spinach salad for $6.90. The nice price.  The salad was fresh and filled with many layers of flavor: crisp red-skin pears, a nice bitterness from radicchio, creaminess from baby spinach, and a delicious sourness from Gorgonzola. And it was tossed with a baby bear portion of dressing: Not too little, not too much but juuuuust right. My only complaint is the cold and soggy pine nuts which had been sitting around too long in cold storage. If they had been toasted fresh to order instead, it would have added a nice crunch and temperature contrast to the cool salad.

The bread served with my salad was a wheaty masterpiece, hearty with a soft center contrasting with a grain coated crispy crust. As the conversation with Julian turned to wine, he turned to his General Manager, Reece, who happily discussed options and helped me navigate Seasons 52’s interesting wine menu with selections such as: Verdejo, Chenin Blanc and Moscato from interesting places such as: Veneto, South Africa and a Merlot from Slovenia.

I’d return to Seasons 52 fifty two times just to drink my way through their wine list but let’s be honest, the way I drink it would only take 3 or 4 visits. I began with a glass of Raats Family original Chenin Blanc Coastal ’10 $7.50/glass with a pour like I was friends with the bartender.

Usually $7.50 glasses of wine taste like an unoffensive yet only marginally interesting Trader Joe’s wine. Not this one. It had a nice complexity with lemon, grapefruit, pear, white flowers, wet grass and stones with a little earthy/dirtiness. The wine wasn’t the best pairing with the salad but the autumnal flavors of the salad did go decently with the earthy/dirty quality in the wine.

Too often restaurants serve their wines in thick rimmed cheap glasses with all the quality of a stemmed Dixie cup. My wine, however, came in an excellent thin rimmed wine glass from a European company called Stölzle Lausitz which enhanced the aromas, flavors and my enjoyment of the wine.

For my entree, I ordered the Farmers Market Vegetable Plate off the vegan menu which came with:

seasonal vegetables, grilled ponzu-glazed tofu and toasted cranberry-almond tabbouleh for $12.95. Another great price. Reece also encouraged me to try the harvest squash trio of grilled delicata, butternut and acorn squashes.
The Farmers Market Plate was big with more diversity than a Benetton ad: mushrooms, beets, carrots, red onion, asparagus, tofu and brussels (Bet you didn’t know the brussel is spelled with an s on the end) sprouts. The veggies were nicely prepared, slightly al dente, with a little firmness to them, except the yellow beets. They were a bit watery and the only miss on this dish. The squashes were also delicious.

It was a little like working with a whole fish when trying to separate flesh from the skin but each bite was a moist morsel of roasted sweetness. The almond tabbouleh had a nice crunch and grainy flavor with a firm texture and slight sweetness from the cranberries. The tofu was nicely firm and grilled with the tastes of sweet, salty and umami but
it would have been better with a crunchy cornmeal or breadcrumb coating outside to contrast with the soft chewy inside. Also, the ponzu glaze was pedestrian.

Two of the best items on the plate were the mushrooms which tasted meaty with a savory umami character and the carrots which were earthy with a hint of sweetness in the background.
Both the shrooms and carrots matched well with the reds Reece recommended I pit head to head. In this corner weighing in at $13.50, a 2009 Schug Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and the challenger for from the Rioja region of Spain, a $9.50 Sierra Cantabria Crianza.

The Schug started light and fruity with high acidity, yielding to a beef jerky/salted meat animal character and a cigar box woodiness with a long finish that had a hint of liquorice. The Crianza smelled like a fresh barrel sample in an Indian restaurant and had a rich mouth feel with high alcohol. It wasn’t as well balanced as the Schug and would have been better paired with a meat dish than my plate of veggies.

If I have room, I always order dessert. If I don’t have room, I sometimes order dessert. Seasons 52 makes it easy to not only order one dessert but many, by serving what their aptly named “mini indulgences” for $2.50 each.

I present Chocolate Peanut butter mousse on the left and a seasonal offering of pumpkin pie with ginger snap crust on the right. And the winner is…

Chocolate peanut butter mouse which tasted like a moist peanut butter cake. The pumpkin pie was a nice seasonal attempt but a little too creamy and would have benefited from a higher cake to cream ratio.

I’m still not a fan of chain restaurants BUT Seasons 52 gets it right in so many ways that with their service, their wines, the quality of their food and their prices, they’ve made me a believer. And with a theme of seasonality you know each time you go, there’s going to be something new and fresh waiting for you to sink your teeth into and that’s a theme I can return to again and again.

Seasons 52
463 East Altamonte Drive
Altamonte Springs, FL
(407) 767-1252

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Chardonnay and Miami Skyline

Area 31

When traveling for work, I’m in a new city every day of the week. Think George Clooney in Up in the Air without the sexual encounters. And after an exhausting day of planes, cabs and rent-a-car’s I appreciate it when the hotel restaurant is good enough to keep me on the property. Area 31 at the Epic Hotel in Miami Beach is one of those.
Located on the 16th floor of the Epic, you have the choice to dine indoors or alfresco; surrounded by Miami skyscrapers

and canals.

When the background music and conversation adds to a restaurant’s ambiance it enhances your dining experience. When it doesn’t, it’s as pleasant as listening to Steven Tyler sing the national anthem. Unfortunately, next to the dining space, Area 31 has a raucous outdoor bar where club music, loud conversations of Spanglish and smoking is de rigueur. Why does the smoke always drift toward the non-smokers?

The club vibe aside, the food from Executive Chef E. Michael Reidt is described as showcasing pristine, sustainable seafood from the restaurant’s namesake, fishing Area 31. I’m a sucker for culinary lagniappes. The meal starts with the worlds largest croutons which are a chewy way to provide a taste of of both white and raisin bread without risking cries of FOUL from the carb counting crowd. This crouton klatch is served with a dip of soffrito consisting of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, Provencal herbs and shallots.

I appreciate a chef who serves food which fits into the culinary culture of the restaurant, especially something I’ve never had like soffrito, but it suffered from too much tomato and not enough garlic, shallots and herbs.

At home I eat mostly vegetarian but when I’m on the road and especially in a place known for having great local and sustainable seafood, I have to try it. So I started with a small bite of wahoo crudo for $9. It is raw wahoo, garlic, olive oil, shallots and citrus powder – a mix of various citrus piths. The presentation was clean and fun with each glistening bite of wahoo skewered with a miniature bamboo harpoon.
The wahoo was meaty and substantial but did have a hint of fishiness. And like the tomato did to the soffrito, the citrus overwhelmed the wahoo adding an unwelcome bitterness. The same problem when you eat sushi doused in wasabi or siracha mayo and it’s all you can taste. This dish would be better if it were more ceviche-like topped with just citrus juice, no rind and a bit more shallot and garlic.

My next course was Florida corn soup for $11. Lump crab meat arrived in a bowl sprinkled with a dehydrated brown butter powder. Then Javier, my amiable server, poured a mixture of cream corn and rendered bacon over the top.

I don’t like bacon however I can’t call myself an OMNIVOROUS vegetarian if I’m not willing to try anything. And I’m glad I am because this is pork and seafood done right. Instead of an overwhelming salted pork flavor I’ve had in the past from dishes like prosciutto wrapped shrimp, in this dish it adds an extra dimension of richness and savoriness.

I chose a Flora Springs Napa Valley Chardonay ’09 to pair with my soup and entrée. It’s a mix of 50% French Oak aging and 50% stainless steel.

The creaminess of the corn matches well with wine’s roundness and buttery quality and the brininess of lump crab with the wines minerality. It’s a great pairing for this soup and a great setting to enjoy it.

For an entrée, I ordered yellow tail snapper with coconut rice, baby zucchini rounds, globe carrots, lump crab meat and a cilantro pesto for $27. Another great presentation, from the  bowl it was served in to table side pour of the cilantro pesto. But…

like the crudo, the snapper was a little fishy. As I experimented with different bites I discovered it was the skin that was adding the fishy funk and once removed it went away  but the fish was a still a little dry and chewy. This dish would be better with a richer and more substantial fish without the skin, replacing the lost crunch of the skin with some fried herbs, kicking up the flavor of the bland rice and adding rendered bacon. I’m kidding about the bacon…or am I?

For dessert I chose the Strawberry “Rock”. No. Not a wrestling doll combing the girlish innocence of the Strawberry Shortcake doll with Dwayne Johnson’s wrestling alter ego though that would be hilarious. If you smell what the Strawberry Rock is cooking? This strawberry rock is a dessert of macerated strawberries, tres leches cake and pistachio ice cream for $8

It was good but not great. The strawberry flavor comes nicely through but the strawberries could have been fresher. The dish has a nice variety of textures: hard, soft, crunchy, creamy but the strawberry rock tasted like cheap strawberry ice cream from Thriftys. The pistachio ice cream would be better with more creaminess such as in pistachio gelato. And pistachios roasted with sea salt would have added more interesting flavors than the candied pistachios. Overall, I’d give this dessert a pass.

I paired the dessert with a Kracher Auslese Burgenland Austria ’08 $15. It’s a viscous dessert wine with lots of orange flavor, orange rind, orange blossom and honey. It was a good wine and fantastic pairing with a dessert called Orange Rock. The strong orange flavor of the wine completely distracted from the strawberry flavor of the dessert. An orange liqueur like cointreau in the cake or an orange rind garnish might bring the dessert and wine better together but probably switching to a light berried dessert wine would be the best option.

Javier my server described Area 31 best when he said it’s, “food you can play with.” I appreciate that and even though some of the food you’d rather play with than eat, the knowledgeable and friendly service, the dedication to local and sustainable and it’s location are enough reasons to check out the Area.

Area 31
16th floor at EPIC Hotel
270 Biscayne Blvd. Way
Miami,FL 33131
305.424.5234

For more information about the author, please visit Brian von Dedenroth.

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