(Dec. 29) This is a test. It’s only a test. For the next 52 weeks, customers at Seasons 52 restaurant, Orlando, Fla., will find new items on the menu every week — depending on what’s freshest for the season. Thus the name Seasons 52.

If the test restaurant succeeds, Darden Restaurants Inc., which opened the fresh grill and wine bar in February, will build a few more in other markets.

Darden, the world’s largest casual dining restaurant company, with more than 1,200 restaurants under several banners, researched and developed the concept for 10 years, says Deborah Robison, manager of public relations.

Seasons 52 also is classified as a casual dining establishment. The price of sandwiches starts at $7.50, and the most expensive entree, filet mignon, is $19.95. But the ambiance puts it at the upper end of casual dining, Robison says.

The distinctive characteristics of the restaurant are the extensive wine list (60-65 selections available by the glass and 100-110 sold by the bottle), live piano music, a patio that overlooks a lake and the contemporary architecture and design.

That’s for starters.

THE BIG IDEA

Seasons 52, which is open only for dinner, makes its biggest distinction with the menu. Not only is each item seasonal and fresh, but nothing has more than 475 calories, Robison says.

That fact is noted on the menu, but if guests have further nutrition questions about any item, the servers can look it up on the handheld computer with which they take orders.

The grand plan for the concept began a decade ago with proprietary research. “But we also looked at publicly available data,” Robison says. Statistics reveal that in the past 15 years, health club memberships have doubled. In the past five years, sales of jogging and running shoes have doubled.

“These are indicators that consumers are thinking about and behaving differently when it comes to maintaining their health and living a fit and active lifestyle,” she says. “When we talked to (consumers) about food, what we were hearing was there was an interest in fresh, seasonal food, grilled food and bolder flavors. So that also was considered in the development of the concept.”

The restaurant is performing well. “We’re very pleased with how guests have embraced the concept and seem to enjoy the lighter preparations,” she says. But Darden is not ready to draw conclusions. If the concept continues to succeed, they could open six to eight more restaurants and still call it “the test phase.”

KITCHEN LEADERSHIP

A year before the restaurant opened, executive chef Cliff Pleau showed up for work with a menu in his hand. “Menu styling has been in my heart and mind for years,” he says.

The menu changed every week after that until the restaurant finally opened.

Pleau’s restaurant experience in California, where he was close to many produce growers, and his experience with Disney World, Orlando, and Disneyland Hotel in Paris, prepared him for his Seasons 52 adventure.

He already had contacts to help source produce, much of which he buys direct from California growers. He also works with area vendors and has a guy who works for him as a “forager” to find interesting, fresh items.

The fact that Seasons 52 is a Darden restaurant also helps. The company has a Total Quality department with field representatives who inspect farms for sound growing practices.

But not all produce comes from the U.S. Though he was skeptical about buying peaches from South America or asparagus from Peru, Pleau changed his mind when he learned how the farms are set up and their extensive aqueduct system, he says.

While the main menu changes once a season, many items change every week. The menu is printed in house to keep up with all the changes, Pleau says.

The soup changes every week, as does the vegetable that goes with the entree, the salad ingredients and the accompaniments.

Pleau regularly features turkey with chutney. Depending on the season, he may make the chutney with rhubarb, apricots, peaches, nectarines or pears, he says.

For a few weeks in October, he worked with a gravenstein apple variety from California. “When you take the box top off the apples, it smells like a cider mill. I grate (the apples) and make a slaw with celery root. It’s much like Waldorf salad,” he says.

He also likes to change the variety of sweet corn with the season. Brentwood and elwood varieties are two of his favorites.

He loves to find ways to turn guests on to produce they normally wouldn’t eat. Golden beets are one. He likes to slice them and lay them on a plate with citrus dressing on top and salad on top of that. Or he likes to roast them. “I’ve had beet haters tell me they love them,” he says.

While avoiding fat to keep things on the lighter side, he likes to add flavor with garlic and spices.

He thinks of Seasons 52 as a produce restaurant. When vegetarians or vegans come in and explain what they can and can’t eat, expecting to get a reaction from him, he tells them, “You’ve come to the right place.” He believes the restaurant is the right place for everyone’s diet.