The holidays always feel like one long, strange trip, sort of like the scene in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory where the group goes on a psychedelic boat ride. In my version, theres a gravy-soaked turkey feast at the onset, colorful lights and a barrage of buttery cookies throughout the journey, a waterfall of champagne near the end, and one big, decadent hangover breakfast upon arrival in a brand-new year.
And, even worse than falling into a river of chocolate or swelling into a giant blueberry, like the bad kids did in the 1971 movie, I make the horrifying discovery that I can't zip up my pants. Not one pair.
If there's any time of year to be self-conscious about dining out, it's right about now, when the promise of a fitter future sounds so appealing, the gyms are packed with fresh faces, and there are still enough months ahead to slim down for pool season.
Michele Laudig Cafe
2502 East Camelback Road
(at Biltmore Fashion Park)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Vegetable plate: $12.95
Turkey tenderloin skewer: $14.95
Fattening, high-calorie foods are most restaurants dirty little secret out in plain sight (ahh, ignorance sure is bliss for the dining public, and for my pork and foie gras-eating self included), but at Seasons 52, which opened at Biltmore Fashion Park last fall, it's a whole lot easier to stay on the diet bandwagon a little bit longer. This place serves simple, unpretentious American cuisine, with nothing on the entire menu topping out at more than 475 calories. The food isn't memorable, but that's not why you'd be eating here, anyway.
Owned by the same national restaurant group that has such places as Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and Capital Grille (which has a location next door here), Seasons 52 just debuted in Arizona and has a dozen and a half other spots across the country.
The atmosphere is as predictable as you'd expect from an upscale chain — patterned carpeting, stone walls, and lots of dark wood, with piped-in '70s easy-listening music by day and a live lounge singer who plays piano behind the bar at night. Dining here, I started to feel like I was in a generic hotel somewhere, until I remembered that I was, in fact, at the mall — same difference. Seasons 52 may not have much character, but it is comfortable, at least.
Along with the low-cal menu, which changes seasonally and includes a list of weekly specials, Seasons 52 offers specialty martinis, beer, and a Wine Spectator Award-winning list of 100 wines. If you're going to somehow blow your diet at Seasons 52, it will likely be on booze — calories aren't mentioned on the beverage menu.
Don't say I didn't warn you.
Several kinds of flatbread started things off with a mouthwatering twist.
Served on a long, narrow board, these were cracker-thin and crispy, less about substance and more about flavors. Garlic chicken flatbread was short on mozzarella, but bits of balsamic onions and roasted red peppers gave it pizzazz. Similarly, spicy chipotle shrimp flatbread didn't have many shrimp (and they were tiny, at that) but poblanos, grilled pineapple, and feta made it munchable.
Meanwhile, I'd heard good things about the stuffed mushrooms here, but the five meager bites, served on an escargot plate, were surprisingly bland (the creamy sauce should've been fragrant with Parmesan and roasted garlic), and didn't contain much crabmeat or shrimp. I'm wary of health food that tries to pass as comfort food — for good reason.
A Maple Leaf Farms duck chop salad, filled with jicama, dried cranberries, romaine, radicchio, and toasted almonds, would've been decent if the duck hadn't been overcooked. And guacamole and tomatillo salsa added zing to simple grilled, chipotle-glazed shrimp.
Main dishes were well prepared, for the most part. A skewer of grilled, tamarind-glazed turkey tenderloin chunks over a pile of vegetables and orzo pasta had a nice spicy kick, as did a trio of blackened fish tacos, served with an eye-opening chipotle sauce and tangy salsa verde. Grilled buffalo tenderloin was juicy and perfectly cooked, laid out in pink slices across a pile of potatoes, corn, and asparagus. A drizzle of creamy chipotle sauce gave the dish a pleasant bit of heat.
Some were a little too simple, though, like the farmers market vegetable plate, comprising roasted squash and pear with cranberry-flecked tabbouleh, an odd little piece of grilled tofu, and a pile of naked, barely cooked peppers, asparagus, carrots, broccoli, and mushrooms. It needed a sauce, a dip, or even just a dash of salt.
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I felt the same way about the caramelized sea scallops (not caramelized enough, in my book), served with flavorless pearl pasta and a boring jumble of asparagus. Sure, it's healthful, but it's just not something I'd go out for. The only reason to dine out for something like this is if youre too lazy to cook it at home, because there isn't much to it — protein and some veggies, and maybe a starch.
The most interesting part of dining at Seasons 52, I think, was the surprise at dessert time. Instead of getting a menu, you get a platter of "mini-indulgences" in small vessels not much bigger than a shot glass. After the server explains what they all are — and gives you a tiny spoon, whether you want dessert or not — you can pick one and eat it on the spot.
Rocky Road pudding, tangy key lime "pie," and Meyer lemon "pound cake," all served as parfaits, were pleasant little bites to bring a hint of a splurge to an otherwise straitlaced dining experience.
Will that be enough to bring me back here again? Sorry, but Im hoping for a more exciting 2011.