To this day I lament the closing of the California Café at Arden Fair Mall.
For years I would describe it as “my favorite restaurant that I never go to.” It had a great vibe, comfortable ambience, cool bar, eclectic wine list, intelligent bartender and a seasonal, farm-fresh menu long before that was trendy. I just couldn’t get over the fact that it was located in a shopping center. I take partial blame for its demise nearly a decade ago; I should have frequented it more often.
Flash forward to 2013.
We’re just now climbing out of the depths of the downturn. Upscale retail, at least in our corner of the state, is one of the leading indicators showing consumer confidence is on the rise. “Foodie” is a badge worn with pride. And the moniker “farm to fork” is so hip that copyright battles may be looming.
So it makes all the sense in the world that a corporate family of restaurants, Darden, plopped a nationally recognized, high-end, healthy food outlet near the main pedestrian entryway at Arden Fair.
Opened in late January, Seasons 52 is recognized for its forward-thinking concept. Under the guidance of Executive Chef Clifford Pleau (based at the Orlando, Fla. headquarters), the restaurant’s menu is inspired by regional farmers’ markets year ‘round.
Like many other farm-fresh eateries in the region, the menu changes every four months. But Seasons 52, under the personal overview of local executive chef partner, Jeff Martell, takes this “eating fresh and healthy” inclination one step further. Neither butter dish nor deep fryer can be found in his kitchen. Not a single entree weighs in at more than 475 calories, and a three-course meal should log in at 1,500 calories or less.
However, Martell insists, eating a healthy fusion of American and Mediterranean food doesn’t mean eating bland.
“In place of butter, we use olive, garlic and lemon oils. There are no heavy sauces, but we feature lots of fresh tomatoes, mushrooms, homemade broths and organic greens,” Martell says. “And while we’re known for our vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and garlic-free menu items, there is still plenty for the meat eater and seafood lover.”
And it’s all about portion control.
“You’re not going to find a 22-ounce, fatty, rib eye steak or slice of prime rib here,” Martell says. “But we take pride in our savory and [portioned] servings of filet mignon, New York strip steak and lamb T-bone.”
As a member chef of the corporate family of Darden chain restaurants, which includes such local properties as Red Lobster, Olive Garden and the new Yard House at the Fountains in Roseville, Martell can’t simply visit a local farmers’ market each morning to gather his daily ingredients. Suppliers must be able to meet the demand of all regional Darden holdings. However, Martell notes, there is a growing Northern California presence in the company’s produce supply chain.
“With the number of regional Darden entities increasing, the use of California-based producers is becoming more prevalent,” Martell says. “We are getting our asparagus from Zuckerman’s and all of our organic lettuces from Taylor Farms.”
He also notes that while Executive Chef Pleau determines the “big picture” menu changes, there is still plenty of room for individual chef input.
“Chef Pleau makes a point of talking with each of us to see what is working in our restaurants and our regions,” Martell says. “Obviously, there are some major differences in regional tastes. Out here in California, we use a lot of Sea of Cortez halibut for our seafood dishes. In the Southeast, they use grouper. I don’t think people in Northern California are all that familiar with grouper.”
Since opening at its Arden Fair location, the 27th Seasons 52 in the country has been seeing a steady growth in business, especially for lunch and dinner walk-ins. According to Jeff Warren, local managing partner, business continues to increase by 5 to 10 percent each week.
“We’re more than meeting our early expectations; every week has been busier than the week before,” Martell says.
Because of my personal history with shopping mall-based, slow-food restaurants, I had to ask. “Why Arden Fair?”
Warren says it’s a blueprint for business that has worked well for Seasons 52 and other Darden properties in the past several years. He says Arden Fair’s foot traffic numbers looked good, but more importantly it was the location’s general proximity to everything else in the Sacramento area.
“It’s close to the city center, downtown government and office buildings, across the street from an active commerce center and sort of where the housing sprawl begins,” he explains. “It’s kind of the best of all worlds.”
Apparently, it’s an approach that’s working for the “sophisticated casual” Seasons 52 model. Before June of this year, three more will open in Santa Monica, Birmingham and Houston. And in 2014, 14 more locations are slated for completion.
Now that’s a consumer confidence indicator.
“The corporate folks like what they see, both in terms of what a consumer wants and real estate realities,” Warren says. “Our healthy, well-portioned menu has been overwhelmingly embraced by our customers. At the same time, on the business front, real estate rates are still very attractive. It’s a great time to get into long-term leases on great properties. We have a 25-year lease here.”
On Fair Oaks Boulevard, between El Camino Boulevard and Marconi Avenue sits the dormant and barely noticeable Hillside Shopping Center. Or what’s left of it.
Great food capitals of the world: Can you name them? Florence. Paris. Tokyo. Barcelona. Istanbul. Singapore. What do these destinations of culinary delights offer?