July 24, 2014

Dining With Tolf

Surprise, Surprise

With its LightHouse Selections and Seasons 52, Darden shows why it’s a leader.

Robert W. Tolf | 6/1/2005
There were some serious surprises when I recently checked the status, programs and performance of a local Red Lobster, the pioneer provider of seafood to most of the country. Founded in Orlando in 1968 and netted in great schools into the giant Darden corporation, the company now has more than 1,300 restaurants, including Olive Garden and Smokey Bones BBQ and a national ranking as one of the country's 30 largest employers with 140,000 on the payroll. I was eager to observe changes since new captains took over the tiller, Clarence Otis Jr. as CEO and Drew Madsen as president and chief operating officer, navigating the wild waters of the multibillion-dollar casual-dining industry, the fastest-growing segment of the humongous restaurant business -- $283 billion in sales and 12 million employees in 2003.Waist Watcher: Seasons 52's jumbo shrimp cocktail contains 146 calories, 2 grams of carbs and 2 grams of fat -- not including the cocktail sauce.

The first surprise, a most pleasant one that's absolutely in tune with the time and the trends, was Red Lobster's LightHouse Selections special menu, for a diner to "stay on course," allowing for "indulgence without compromising taste or diet."

Starting with the suggested appetizer, the calorie, carbohydrate and fat contents are listed -- a $7.75 jumbo shrimp cocktail, for example, contains 146 calories, 2 grams of carbohydrates and 2 grams of fat -- add a "regular serving" of cocktail sauce at the cost of 35 calories and 9 grams of carbs.

You can order a dozen of those shrimp for a $12.99 dinner and add 230 calories, 3 grams of carbs and 4 grams of fat. A 1.25-pound market price live Maine lobster -- the tank is out front near the entrance -- has 145 calories, only a couple of grams of carbs and a single gram of fat. Rock lobster tail -- $24.99 worth -- has almost twice as many calories, 258, the same number of carbs but 3 grams of fat.

A pound of snow crab legs or 1.5 pounds of king crab legs have 262 calories and 490 calories, 0 carbs and 4.5 and 9 grams of fat, respectively. Dipping supplements include 68 calories of cocktail sauce with 17 grams of carbs and no fat or 100% pure melted butter for a whopping 183 calories and 21 grams of fat but 0 carbs. Stick with a simple lemon wedge if you're really serious -- it's only a couple of calories and a single gram of carbs with no fat.

And so it goes all across the menu to whole or half portions of rainbow trout, salmon and tilapia, broiled flounder and grilled chicken on a bed of rice pilaf or sautéed fresh broccoli, to the standard garden salad (52 calories, 9 grams of carbs and 2 grams of fat), plain baked potato (179 calories, 36 grams of carbs, 2 grams of fat and 4 grams of fiber) right down to their impossible-to-resist trademarked complimentary Cheddar Bay Biscuits. Each one of those not-so-little devils has a cost of 160 calories, 17 grams of carbs and 9 grams of fat!

After a trial run in the Orlando area, where Darden has tested its concepts ever since the first Red Lobster, Seasons 52 opened last January in Fort Lauderdale at the newly upgraded and reinvigorated Galleria Mall (2428 E. Sunrise Blvd., 954/537-1052). I was sufficiently impressed with Seasons 52 that I selected it as one of this year's Top Newcomers. Subsequent visits, noon and night, confirmed my excitement as I exhausted my portfolio of superlatives -- for the soups, the fabulous flatbreads and such salads as baby spinach with Comice pears, blue cheese and toasted pine nuts; cracked wheat and tabbouleh with chopped cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with pignoli nuts. Or one of the main plates, nine at noon, $8.75 to $15.75, and 16 at dinner, $8.75 to $21.75, the cost of the 6-ounce premium filet mignon with grilled criminis and cracked peppercorn sauce. An absolutely outstanding selection with fresh, fresh sides and a final surprise, $1.95 mini-desserts beautifully presented and perfect as the most fitting finisher to a most satisfying, if not sensational, meal.

Tags: Dining & Travel, Around Florida

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