Seasons 52’s time has come, say longtime restaurant partners

Chef Cliff Pleau at Seasons 52 Fresh Grill in North Naples. The new restaurant opens Oct. 10.

Chef Cliff Pleau at Seasons 52 Fresh Grill in North Naples. The new restaurant opens Oct. 10.

If you go

Seasons 52

When: Starting Oct. 10 the restaurant is open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Where: 8930 U.S. 41 N. (north of Vanderbilt Beach Road, next to the Mercato), Naples

Information and reservations: 594-8852

Something else: Piano music nightly from 6 p.m. to close by either Larry Maas, Paul Anton or Lee Michaels.

Chef Cliff Pleau and Master Sommelier George Miliotes talk about Seasons 52 Fresh Grill as a culture.

“The point of Seasons 52 is as much about influencing the industry,” said Pleau, the senior director of culinary for the nationwide brand. “We have a higher purpose.”

“Still, despite our success, nobody else has jumped into the segment,” says Miliotes, director of beverage and hospitality for Seasons 52, with a bemused shrug.

Pleau and Miliotes were in town for a few days at the end of September to help set up the latest Seasons 52 restaurant near the Mercato and train staff about the brand’s specific “culture” in preparation for an official opening Oct. 10.

That concept, developed by Florida-based Darden Restaurants — innovators of Olive Garden, the Capital Grille, and other successful chain brands — is built upon the cornerstones of freshness, seasonality, reasonable portioning and good health.

Management boasts that no dish on the menu exceeds 475 calories.

“The kitchen doesn’t have any fryers. You will never find any butter in there,” said Miliotes.

Based in Orlando, the two have worked together for more than 20 years, starting at California Grill, a Disney restaurant that introduced healthful, light California-style cuisine to the Wonderful World in 1994.

“Darden came to California Grill,” said Miliotes. “We all crossed paths at some time.”

“My cooking was going lighter and lighter,” said Pleau, whose prior resume included stints as chef de partie at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston and executive sous chef at the Boca Raton Resort on Florida’s east coast.

After some time in California learning the precepts of healthy cooking, he joined the Disney team and helped develop a number of its dining products and menus worldwide. At California Grill, Wine Spectator magazine tagged him as one of the “rising stars of American cuisine.”

“I wanted something bigger,” he remembers. “I wanted something nationwide creating a culture different from what’s out there.”

Drawing on his classic Ritz-Carlton training and his California-go-lightly evolution, Pleau and Darden crafted the dream of a place that combined both.

“We took the idea of fine dining and pushed it into a casual envelope,” he says. “It was a fusion of those two things — the formality and quality of the Ritz and drag it through the California image — this relaxed fit to fine dining.”

Originally, the name reflected a change of menus 52 weeks every year. They found guests didn’t like all that change, so they’ve adapted.

Now menu reworks are seasonal, although they say guests will find something new on the food and wine menus every week. Food products are organic when possible, fresh always, the chef says.

“We like to say now that the name refers to celebrating living well 52 weeks out of the year,” said Pleau.

The brand’s 17 restaurants (Naples will be the 18th) present basically the same menu and wine list, with some regionalized exceptions such as the Cuban flatbread in Coral Gables and the cheesesteak flatbread in Philly.

Flatbread is one of its signature items along with its Mini Indulgences desserts, small parfait-like servings of key lime pie, red velvet cake, pecan pie and more that guests order as a satisfying taster or in flights to share.

“That’s our culture,” says Chef Pleau, “sharing freshness.”

With 65 wines by the glass, the concept of sampling and sharing embraces all aspects of the restaurant’s operation. The healthy slant serves as a backdrop to an upbeat tempo that’s about intense flavor and satisfaction in each bite.

“You start with a blank plate and what you’ll put on it — don’t take out what’s bad,” Pleau explains. “Don’t think about deprivation. It’s a whole different mentality: Let’s not put a fryer in; let’s put a grill in.”

Hoping to appeal to a broad audience, the restaurant explores worldwide cuisines and international wines from little-heard-of vintners and places like Slovinia.

It also keeps its price point accessible — no lunch entrée over $15, few dinner entrees over $25. Wines run $7 to $18 per glass.

The 300-seat Naples restaurant has an organic rock-and-wood look and fire-grill motif similar to the rest of the freestanding stores in the chain. Service staff exudes a young energy that borders on fanaticism.

“I like working in a fun place, so why wouldn’t I make it a fun place to work,” says Miliotes.

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