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Chef’s Secrets: Seasons 52

Before you walk into the Seasons 52 Restaurant, conveniently located at Keystone at the Crossing, you should know one thing: They don’t have butter in the restaurant.

“It’s not like we use it sparingly. We don’t have butter in the restaurant,” confides Executive Chef Bill Erath, who unabashedly offers this fact without blinking an eye. In fact, he’s proud of the ingredient’s omission.

“That’s like in every chef’s back pocket. Throw some more fat in there it will taste great. But to me there’s a responsibility,” says Erath who hails from Indianapolis and trained under the watchful eye of Seasons 52’s corporate culinary director Clifford Pleau.

Every item served on the Seasons 52 menu is less than 475 calories – but your taste buds won’t know the difference. “With us the biggest difference in how we approach flavor is how we prepare it – how we cook it as opposed to what we add to it.”

Erath achieves an intense depth-of-flavor in each of his dishes by employing cooking techniques such as wood-fire grilling, brick-oven cooking, and carmelization to let the ingredient’s natural flavors shine through. This fact is evident the moment you walk through the front door and are greeted with the sensual aromas of oak wood and mesquite charcoal crackling just a few feet away.

The atmosphere at Seasons 52 is drop-in casual, always busy but never raucous, with an open kitchen that feeds energy into the room. More often, those rooms are filled by the buttoned up white collar crowd, interspersed with the ladies who lunch – both groups keenly aware of what they are putting into their bodies. The result is sophisticated, understated elegance – not painfully hip.

The same can be said for the menu – which boasts everything from a succulent Piedmonte steak perfumed by smoke and served over a bed of creamy corn risotto to their take on the proverbial Caprese salad.

In this appetizer, the chef mimics fried mozzarella by toasting panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) ahead of time, which are then sprinkled over the cheese before being slid into a brick oven and warmed. Afterwards, the baked mozzarella rests on the ripest tomatoes in town which are left to luxuriate in the restaurant’s signature marinade made of sherry vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, and a basil pesto.

Each dish is indicative of the chef’s passion for letting the product do the work, using only high-quality, seasonal ingredients when possible. Hence the name Seasons 52: “Seasons” since the menu is changed with the solstice and “52” because the side bar portion of the menu changes every week.“It’s pretty cool to work for a restaurant that changes the way we think about dining out,” says Erath.

Inspired by the farm-to-fork movement, Erath not only has an aggressive commitment to freshness, but tries to use local, sustainable, organic, and all-natural products whenever possible. “Right now we can get really great asparagus so we’re going to.”

For example when the restaurant can’t get local tomatoes, they outsource from Cal Organics located near the Mohave Desert where they sublease fields, says Erath, easily rattling off from memory where his lettuce, chicken, and beef are sourced. “For us we actually go out and visit the farms where our product is from. They know that one of our people will come out and visit them any time of the year; and if it’s not right, they lose their account right there on the spot.” The result is a safer and more consistent product that just so happens to be good for you.

Take, for instance, the confidently simple cedar plank Sockeye salmon.
Preparation for this dish can be traced back to the Native Americans who once roamed the Pacific Northwest. “They’d catch a piece of salmon and actually plank the cedar and then cook it over an open fire,” Erath points out. So if it ain’t broken why fix it?

Instead of spear fishing, Erath has a good fish monger. “Know your supplier. Because a lot of places are going for the cheapest salmon and some of those farms are modifying the genetics to get a better yield. But where you really get into trouble is the feed that the salmon are getting. Mother nature intended for salmon to have an all-natural seafood diet.”

Erath then adds a few modern day twists by soaking a cedar plank (about 3/8 of an inch thick) the day before, and bathing it in a mustard marinade that morning. Then like all good red-blooded Americans, Erath fires up the grill and cooks the fish on indirect heat. Your plank should smolder and burn around the edges. “You get that grilled, smoky undertone. That’s the real secret,” says Erath as a grin spreads across his face.

The end result showcases the natural richness of the salmon kissed by smoke and accompanied by a seductive array of seasonal produce. Any delicate fish such as a Chilean seabass or Arctic Char will work with this recipe. Just remember: the denser the fish, the more resistant it will be to the smoke.

The portions are small compared to Hoosier standards, but Erath says Americans simply have a skewed perception of value. “When I’m cooking for my family at home, I don’t take a 16-inch oval platter and mound it up there. So why do we expect that when we go to a restaurant?”

Instead, realistic portion sizes make way for the diner to indulge in more appetizers. Try the lobster and shrimp spring roll filled with lightly blanched carrots, snow peas, red peppers, and shitake mushrooms accompanied by a lemon curry; tomatillo; and sweet and spicy red chili sauces.

Or the not-to-be-missed Portabella mushroom flatbread with truffle cream sauce and a balsamic drizzle. Instead of being cloyingly sweet, the vinegar is reduced and carmelized which intensifies the natural sugars without all the calories.

And feel free to clean your plate. Even the mashed potatoes are guilt free but packed with a punch of which even Paula Deen would be proud. Instead of cream, the chef uses 2% milk, non-fat sour cream, and roasted garlic to enhance the spuds.

Wash it all down with a glass of wine selected by the 152nd Master Sommelier in the world, George Miliotes.

“I love the feeling our customers get to feel when they walk out the front door. It’s like a breath of fresh air. You’ve relaxed, you’ve indulged yourself, but you don’t feel bad about it. You haven’t ruined your evening,” Erath says.

And if all that doesn’t make you feel guilt free this will: Once a week Seasons 52 makes a big bulk edible donation to the food pantry Second Helpings which then splits up the food and disperses it to the hungry – quite possibly changing our community one meal at a time.

(If you have a recipe for which you’d like us to find the chef’s secret, e-mail Heather at: heathermacwilliams@yahoo.com.

Be sure to visit her cooking website: heathershautecuisine.com)

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