Seasons 52 and Freddy's Lobster + Clams

Freddy's fried food? Or Seasons 52's healthy choice? Our critic's surprising answer.

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What could Freddy’s Lobster + Clams and Seasons 52 possibly have in common?

Nothing. The two new restaurants offer a contrast in what diners want these days, both from a nutritional and atmospheric standpoint. Freddy’s, a New England-style seafood shack, offers a feast of fried foods. Seasons 52, with menu items of 475 calories or less, doesn’t have a deep fryer in the house.

Freddy’s is independently owned by Jeff Heineman, a local chef whose adjacent Grapeseed American Bistro & Wine Bar has won accolades since opening 11 years ago. Seasons 52 is owned by Darden, the world’s largest full-service restaurant company, whose holdings include Red Lobster, Olive Garden and The Capital Grille.

I went to Heineman’s place with high hopes, and to Seasons 52 with low expectations. After three meals at each, boy, was I surprised.

Heineman has nailed the aura of a New England roadside joint, even if Freddy’s is in suburban Maryland. Bright red stools, a wall of kitschy signs and a thatched roof with illuminated plastic lobsters make for an inviting bar, along with “Freddy’s Booze Book,” an impressive selection of beer, wine and cocktails.

In the dining room, nets and lobster traps hover over the booths, and picnic tables and benches invite families and groups to share. A 450-gallon lobster tank trucked down from Martha’s Vineyard spans the back of the restaurant.

It’s fun and informal, with a regionally authentic menu carefully researched by Heineman. As far as I know, there aren’t any other places in Bethesda serving clear Rhode Island-style clam chowder, or lobster stew with blueberry muffins. Fans of whole belly clams will be happy to find them here, in platters and on rolls.

No doubt about it, this was a fabulous idea. Unfortunately, some of the food isn’t fabulous to match.

With dishes that are almost entirely fried (whole belly clams, clam strips, fish and chips, shrimp, calamari), the kitchen better be darn good at it. But every dish I tried needed longer in the fryer. I like my fried foods with more crunch and color. As for the french fries served alongside, they’re thin, wispy and not always hot.

I wasn’t fond of that clear Rhode Island-style clam chowder either. Mine didn’t have much in it except broth. And Freddy’s version of Rhode Island’s spicy fried calamari was lackluster, with a tangle of oily peppers that were mostly sweet, rather than a bold mix that included hot ones.

Meanwhile, the whoopie pie had an off flavor, perhaps partly because it was served too cold; the chocolate cake rounds and cream filling tasted heavy and pasty. It was not a happy ending.

That said, the kitchen can be trusted with anything made with lobster. The lobster eggs—deviled eggs filled with chopped lobster, egg yolk, mustard and paprika and topped with a lemony drizzle—are terrific. It’s hard to go wrong with a combination of cream and lobster, and Freddy’s lobster stew—a bisque with big chunks of lobster meat—is a case in point. And the $14 lobster rolls—whether served warm with butter or cold with mayo—are piled high, with sweet meat tumbling from their top-split buns. My preference is the cold version, served on a toasted roll. (Make sure the kitchen toasts it, as the staff doesn’t always take the time.)

You get a lot of lobster for the money, although I would have to agree with some of the complaints on Yelp.com about the cost of a meal here, given the informality and paper plates. Order a cup of soup, a fried platter and a couple of beers, and you’re looking at close to $50 a person, including tax and tip.

When I’m looking for a fried fix, I’ll go elsewhere. But when I’m nostalgic for that summer vacation in Maine, I’ll be happy to drop into Freddy’s for a beer and a lobster roll.

My first visit to Seasons 52 got off to a rocky start. Our table wasn’t ready—despite a reservation—and we were handed a light-up buzzer. I hate those things. In my mind, they signal a long wait for a mediocre chain dinner.

So it was a surprise when the meal that followed was not only better than anticipated, but really good.

The chain specializes in flatbread appetizers. Made with long, crispy Lavosh crackers, they’re addictive and not to be missed. This location’s chef, Benjamin Erjavec, formerly of Baltimore’s Oceanaire restaurant, has fashioned a flavor-packed Maryland version with crab, Old Bay-seasoned onions, roasted red peppers, Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses, and a Dijon-mayo drizzle. And the simple plum-tomato flatbread, topped with fresh basil, roasted garlic and melted Parmesan, will make you swear off regular pizza.

Restaurant salads often have assembly problems—too much dressing, too few of the signature ingredients, listless lettuce. Not so at Seasons 52. The restaurant cleverly brings its main-course salads to the table in clear, plastic cylinders. The waitstaff lifts the bottomless cylinder off the plate and—voilà—the salad spills onto the dish. I really liked the lemongrass salmon salad: Dressed with a zesty cumin-lime vinaigrette, it came with a chunk of salmon speared on a lemongrass stalk.

The Mediterranean shrimp salad had equally lively and top-notch ingredients, including garbanzo beans, roasted red peppers, cucumbers and feta. Even a side salad with arugula, goat cheese, grilled golden beets, toasted pistachios and cranberries had a good balance of ingredients and dressing with just the right zip.

Fish dishes are often a good bet here, whether the meaty grilled rainbow trout or the caramelized sea scallops served over tomato-mushroom pearl pasta. They come with a grilled lemon half, a simple but ingenious addition that allows for easy squeezing and warm, smoky juice.

For lunch, don’t miss the buffalo burger; cooked perfectly to the requested medium rare, it came topped with guacamole, roasted pepper salsa and spicy sour cream.

Not everything here is rave-worthy, though. The cedar-planked salmon was overcooked; the grouper special was nothing special; and a goat-cheese ravioli appetizer consisted of one leaden ravioli swimming in a vapid tomato broth.

For dessert, eight “mini indulgences” arrive en masse in shot glasses. I especially liked the just-tart-enough key lime pie and the mocha macchiato, constructed of chocolate cake, caramel sauce and mocha and vanilla mousses. But you probably can’t go wrong with any of them, particularly since they’re all around 250 calories.

The savory dishes promise to be under 475. A word about that: Some of the portions seem too generous to be that low-calorie, and one nutritionist who ate there was skeptical. But Erjavec says every dish is weighed or measured before going out. Many are prepared on the wood-fired grill; there’s no deep or pan frying, no butter or heavy cream, he says.

I’d eat the buffalo burger again regardless of its calories. Plus, the restaurant offers many nice and unexpected touches to bring you back: a warm, stunning setting with gold, rust and green upholstered booths; mahogany woodwork and shelves decorated with wine bottles and colorful vases; valet parking at both lunch and dinner; witty touches, including waitstaff with business cards (although some are a little too eager and involved in the meal).

The restaurant changes its menu every season, and Erjavec says the fall dishes will be out by mid-September. I’m looking forward to them. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m hooked on this chain gang.

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