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August 26, 2014

Recreation and Relaxation at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort

Andrew Rossi

While Part One focused on an overview of Disney's Vero Beach Resort, we will now start to delve into all that the resort has to offer. The resort is really one that caters to all types of vacationers, from those who are looking to stay constantly active to those that just want to relax. It is the type of vacation destination that allows you to do as much (or as little) as you like.

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Enjoying the Sun and Surf on the Beach:
One of the most alluring aspects of Disney's Vero Beach Resort is its location on Florida's Atlantic coastline. No matter where you are at the resort, you are just a short walk away from the beach. Beach chairs and umbrellas are available for rent, but resort guests are also allowed to bring their own chairs. For those looking to play on the waves, boogie boards, sailboats, jet skis, kayaks, and banana boats are all available for rent at the beach as well.

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Playing by the Pool:
For those that would rather spend their time by the pool than on the beach, the resort offers plenty of space to lounge and relax. The pool area has numerous lounge chairs available, but there is more to do here than just soak up the sun.

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Dominating the pool area is the "Pirate's Plunge," this 163-foot water slide spirals around the pool's signature lighthouse and can be enjoyed by all members of the family. Keep an eye out for the "Pool Games" on the recreation schedule because this is where, amongst other activities, children and adults alike can be timed coming down the slide to see who can get from top to bottom the fastest.

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Adjacent to the water slide is the Tiger Lily Play Area. This is a special splash zone for children where they can play on a pirate ship complete with water cannons and their own miniature water slide.

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For those kids that want to play out of the water, there is also a nearby playground.

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The kids can also keep themselves entertained in the air condition of the nearby Blinkers Arcade.

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In this same area, guests can also find Port Holes, a nine-hole miniature golf course themed to Peter Pan. While not up to the same quality as Fantasia Gardens or Winter Summerland at Disney World, this course is still fun and entertaining. Plus, a round of golf for non-DVC Members is just $2 and only $1 for DVC Members.

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As guests make their way around the course they have to navigate around ships wheels, treasure chests, and shark fins. A couple of the holes are actually quite challenging.

If you are looking for a little more activity in your day, the pool area is also where you can also find the Anchors A-Weigh fitness center, which features a good variety of exercise equipment.

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Rentals:
One final component of the pool area is Eb and Flo's Rentals. This is where guests can visit for any of their recreational needs. A good number of the rentals available are actually complimentary. Among these are shuffleboard (which can be played on the adjacent court), tennis racquets, basketballs and footballs, as well as bocce and croquet. These latter two can be played on the resort's beautiful sports lawn right in front of the Inn.

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This lawn is actually named Lasorda Field after former Dodger's manager Tommy Lasorda. It is yet another way the resort pays homage to the history of Vero Beach, which form many years served as the home of Dodger's Spring Training.

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Eb and Flo's is also where you can rent bicycles. At just $5 an hour for DVC Members and $7 for non-Members, bicycles are a great way of getting out and seeing some of the area surrounding the resort. There are actually a few bike trails that are located near the resort that take you along the Indian River and allow you to enjoy more of the natural beauty of the area.

Eb and Flo's also has a variety of board games available to rent. These are complimentary and can be brought back to the guest rooms to play. If you are looking for DVD and Blu-Ray rentals, these are available (and also complimentary) at the Island Grove Packing Co. in the resort's lobby.

The Lake Side:
Just across the street from the resort is additional recreational area for guests to enjoy. Situated around a beautiful lake, this area is accessible via a tunnel than runs beneath the street.

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With most guests enjoying the beach or the pool, this area may go unnoticed by many but actually has a lot to offer. This is where you will find the resort's tennis and basketball courts as well as areas for beach volleyball and soccer.

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Around the lake guests can also find the Treasure Trail. This is a quiet nature trail that allows guests to enjoy the natural beauty of the area. Throughout the trail there are a number of signs that point out the various flora and fauna native to the area.

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The Spa:
If you want to pamper yourself while on vacation, then The Spa at Disney's Vero Beach Resort is the place for you. The spa is located right inside the Inn adjacent to the lobby. Featuring everything from messages and facials to manicures and pedicures, the spa takes relaxation to a whole new level.

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Organized Activities and Excursions:
Disney's Vero Beach Resort features a variety programs that are great for all members of the family. For kids, there are a number of organized activities just for them. Among these are the Disney Discovery Club, which is for children ages 4 to 12 and allows them to take part in scavenger hunts, arts and crafts, outdoor activities, and other fun programs. For older kids there is the Teen Geo Challenge, where teens ages 13 to 19 learn new skills on a resort-wide scavenger hunt using GPS technology. There are also TeeNightz where teens ages 13 to 19 gather for a night of sports, games, and trivia around the campfire.

For the entire family there are adventures that take place both at the resort and the surrounding areas. Fishing Fundamentals allows guests to learn the basics of fresh water fishing at the resort's private lake. The Lagoon Adventure takes guests to the nearby Environmental Learning Center at the Indian River Lagoon for a hands-on interactive experience. Here guests will have the opportunity to catch and release a number of different native fish and get up close encounters with other native wildlife. The Kayak Adventure also takes guests to the Indian River Lagoon for an afternoon paddling around the lagoon's waterways and small islands. There is also the Pelican Island Bike Tour that allows guests ages twelve and up to explore the nation's first wildlife refuge along with a naturalist who will help identifying the many plants and birds native to the area.

If you are visiting the resort from May to October there is also the Turtle Outing. This special excursion allows guests to learn more about sea turtles and get an up-close view of them during nesting season. Turtle Troop is a similar experience just for kids ages 7 to15 where they learn about sea turtles as they walk on the beach, identify tracks, and discuss nesting behaviors.

The resort's recreational offerings even continue into the night with a campfire every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evening. Ingredients for S'mores are available for purchase.

The Surrounding Area:
With so much to do at the resort many guests may just opt to stay there, but the surround area offers even more to see and do. Nature lovers can enjoy the beauty of Sebastian Inlet State Park, the Sebastian River Preserve, and the McKee Botanical Gardens. For those looking to do a little shopping there is the nearby Indian River Mall (which also features an AMC Movie Theater) as well as the Outlets at Vero Beach. The surrounding area also features a number of both private and public golf courses as well as a wide variety of restaurants.

With so many different activities and excursions available both at the resort and the surrounding areas, Disney's Vero Beach Resort offers something for everyone. Whether you are visiting the resort following a trip to Disney World and just need to relax and wind down or maybe a stay at Vero Beach is your vacation, there is more than enough to do that will keep all members of the family entertained. No matter what you do while visiting, one thing you can expect from Disney's Vero Beach Resort is that the service and quality are up to the high standards you would expect from any other Disney resort.

See past blog entries by guest blogger Andrew Rossi here.

June 13, 2014

Exotic Flavors Abound at Sanaa

Andrew Rossi

Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge has, for a long time, been one of my favorite resorts. It is a resort whose theming and attention to detail are second to none. Emphasizing traditional African architecture and art, Animal Kingdom Lodge has a certain grandeur and majesty that make it truly special and this is only enhanced by the sprawling savannah sitting just outside. Taken as a whole, Animal Kingdom Lodge has a level of authenticity unmatched by the other Disney resorts.

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A stay at this resort offers Guests not only rest and relaxation, but also the opportunity to be immersed in African culture. A major part of this culture is the uniqueness of African cuisine. The Animal Kingdom Lodge opened with two highly popular restaurants, Boma and Jiko. With the addition of the Disney Vacation Club at Kidani Village came yet another dining option, Sanaa. While Sanaa may not receive the same notoriety as Boma or Jiko, it offers a truly unique dining experience. In Swahili Sanaa means "work of art," and after dining here it is easy to see why that name is so appropriate.

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Overview:
As soon as one enters the lobby of Kidani Village your eyes are greeted with a spectacular sight. Although not on as massive a scale as Jambo House, the lobby of Kidani Village sets the tone for the rest of the resort. From its high-vaulted thatched roof ceiling and huge window overlooking the savannah to its colorful light fixtures, intricately carved furniture, and traditional works of African art, the level of detail is astounding.

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Sanaa is located just down the stairs from the main lobby and overlooks the resort's African savannah. The Animal Kingdom Lodge as a whole has a certain adventurous and exotic quality about it, as though you are journeying through a wild and unknown land. Likewise, Sanaa offers diners a culinary adventure (and one that is certainly not for the faint of heart). It is also a restaurant that offers something for all the senses, with sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that all contributed to immersing Guests into African culture.

Atmosphere:
From the moment Guests enter Sanaa it is easy to feel as though you have stepped into a work of art. The décor could be considered "modern African," combining more abstract elements with more traditional and ethnic works of African art. The restaurant has a very natural, organic feel and a color scheme that relies heavily on earth tones.

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This natural feel is enhanced by columns designed to look like the trunks of trees and a ceiling covered with large leaves.

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Holding true to its ethnic theming, other columns throughout the dining room are meant to look like colorful beads featuring a variety of different colors and patterns while still others feature more intricate wood carvings.

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Meanwhile the walls of the restaurant are covered with various works of African art, ranging from practical pieces such as ceramic jars, woven baskets, and cooking utensils to more elaborate works including carefully detailed animals made of colorful beads.

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Even the light fixtures are works of art; some of the larger ones are made from ceramic pots and baskets while others have a more modern touch featuring beads and colored glass.

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Also, be sure to listen carefully. While the music playing may not be loud (and might not even be noticed if the restaurant is crowded), the traditional African rhythms add even more to the authenticity of the restaurant. Overall, the impact of the décor is one of awe and wonder at the unique beauty and craftsmanship of African art.

With so much to look at and absorb inside the restaurant, it is almost possible to forget that there is a savannah with wild animals sitting just outside the windows. In fact, the savannah is really not the main attraction of the restaurant but rather serves to enhance the authenticity, and immersion of the dining experience.

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I would go as far as to say that Sanaa would be just as appealing even if it was not overlooking the savannah, although it does make for a more special dining experience when you can see animals such as wildebeest and zebra walking by.

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It is surprising how close these animals can actually come to the windows. At the same time, unless you have a table right by one of the windows, the view onto the savannah is just another part of the décor rather than the essential aspect of the restaurant.

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The Menu:
Sanaa's menu highlights "the art of African cooking with Indian flavors," and thus presents a different spin on African cuisine compared with that of Boma or Jiko. The menu features many non-traditional items and is definitely for more daring diners who like to try new things. One of the most striking elements about Sanaa is the wide variety of flavors found in its dishes. All of these flavors are thanks to the number of spices that played an important role in the histories and cultures of both Africa and Asia. The restaurant's menu acknowledges this importance noting that "Spices didn't just make merchants rich across the globe, it established vast empires, revealed entire continents to Europeans, and tipped the balance of world power."

The menus for lunch and dinner have some differences. For appetizer offerings, both menus include the Indian Style Bread Service with a choice of three breads and three accompaniments ($9.99) or all nine accompaniments with the three breads ($11.99). Other appetizers include Chana Tikki ($6.99), which are spiced chickpea cakes with tomato chutney, Lamb Kefta Sliders ($8.99) topped with goat cheese, piquante peppers and pickled shallots, Potato and Pea Samosas ($8.49) with a choice of tamarind or mango chutney, Tomato Soup ($6.49) with paneer cheese, and a Sampler for Two ($15.99) that includes the Potato and Pea Samosas, Lamb Kefta Sliders, and a choice of Chana Tikki or Soup. Appetizers found only on the dinner menu are the Peri Peri Shrimp ($11.99) served with cucumber, apples, and cilantro and the Goan Style Crab Cakes ($12.49) topped with tamarind yogurt.

Both the lunch and dinner menus include a pair of entrees that offer diners a sampling of items. First is the Slow Cooked in Gravy, Simple, and Well Seasoned ($22.99) that offers a choice of two of the following served with either Basmati Rice or Five-Grain Pilaf: Butter Chicken, Spicy Durban Chicken or Shrimp, Beef Short Ribs, or Sustainable Fish with Goan Curry. There is also the Vegetarian Sampler ($16.99) that offers a choice of two of the following served with either Basmati Rice or Five-Grain Pilaf: Paneer Tikka, Seasonal Vegetable Wat, Seasonal Greens and Tomatoes, Lentil Dhal, or Chana Masala.

The lunch menu also includes a number of sandwiches such as Tandoori Shrimp ($15.99) served open-faced on naan bread with minted greens, tomato, onion, and cucumber raita, Tandoori Chicken ($15.99) prepared the same way, Grilled Lamb Kefta ($13.99) served on a naan bun with tamarind and cucumber raita, the Sanaa Burger ($13.99) served on a naan bun and topped with goat cheese and spiced mustard sauce, and a Roasted Turkey Sandwich ($13.99) served on ciabatta with avocado, smoked bacon, pickled red onion, and lemon mayonnaise.

The dinner menu replaces these sandwiches with a variety of entrees including Tandoori Chicken ($19.99), Tandoori Lamb ($19.99), and Tandoori Shrimp ($21.99) baked in tandoor ovens and served with seasonal slaw and coriander khichdi. There is also a Lamb Shank ($24.99) braised with tamarind and served with coriander pilaf and a wild mushroom sauce as well as the Grilled New York Strip ($29.99) served with Indian-style roasted potatoes, seasonal vegetables, and tomato-date chutney.

For my lunch I decided upon the Grilled Lamb Kefta. It should be noted that, even though the menu lists this item as served on a naan bun, they can also prepare the dish served open-faced on freshly baked naan bread. This was the option that I chose for my meal and it is definitely the type of sandwich you are going to need to eat with a fork and knife.

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As with every dish at Sanaa, the amount of flavor is astounding. Kefta is an Indiana-style meatloaf in which the lamb meat is mixed with a variety of spices. As a result, the lamb kefta itself has a major kick and it is reliant upon the other flavors and ingredients in the sandwich to counterbalance it and cool it down. While the tamarind sauce adds an additional zing of spiciness, the cucumber raita provides a cool contrast (similar in taste to tzatziki sauce that is common in Greek cuisine). The lamb is served over a bed of greens that includes a hint of mint. While this might seem like an odd combination, the mint actually lends a light and refreshing flavor that compliments the other flavors very well. It is amazing that so many varied flavors can combine so well together in a way that no one flavor overpowers any of the others.

For dessert I decided upon the Tanzanian Chocolate Mousse ($5.99). In contrast to your typical chocolate mousse, however, this one had a hint of Kenyan coffee. The mousse itself was very rich and creamy, although I was expecting a little more of a coffee flavor. The mousse was a darker semi-sweet chocolate and came served atop caramel sauce garnished with sea salt. While the caramel provided additional sweetness to the dessert, the sea salt provided a contrasting flavor that still paired very well with both the caramel and chocolate.

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Dining at Sanaa truly offers an adventure for your taste buds and, if you are someone who has simpler tastes, this may not necessarily be the restaurant for you. However, if you are looking for a unique culinary experience, the menu offers a chance to experience flavors that contrast and complement each other in ways one does not usually encounter.

Service:
I was very impressed by the service at Sanaa. With a menu that has so many unfamiliar and unconventional items, my server was extremely helpful in going through and providing descriptions of almost every dish, even explaining which selections were spicier and which were milder in flavor. My server also assisted by pointing out some of his favorite items as well as the restaurant's more popular choices. I found all the servers in the restaurant to be very friendly and conversational. Even though the restaurant was a little crowded, the servers still took time with their Guests. It was clear that they all truly cared about the Guest's dining experience and wanted to provide the best service possible.

Dining on a Budget:
Overall, the prices at Sanaa are very reasonable, especially for lunch. It is a great option for those looking to experience African cuisine but at a much cheaper price than Animal Kingdom Lodge's other dining options at Boma and Jiko. With sandwiches ranging in price from $13.99 to $15.99, Sanaa offers diners a high-quality meal full of flavor for a very affordable price. One possible option for those looking to save even more money would be only ordering appetizers. The menu features a wide assortment of different appetizers and, from what I saw, the portion sizes were all very good. The Indian Style Bread Service can be a meal unto itself whether choosing either the three breads and three accompaniments for $9.99 or all nine accompaniments for $11.99. The Sampler for Two for $15.99 is another good appetizer option that offers a number of options including the Potato and Pea Samosas, Lamb Kefta Sliders, and a choice of Chana Tikki or Soup. For a little more money, the Slow Cooked in Gravy, Simple, and Well Seasoned entree for $22.99 is a great option for those who want to experience a number of different African flavors and a sampling of dishes.

Sanaa is on the Disney Dining Plan and is one table service credit for both lunch and dinner. The restaurant also participates in Tables in Wonderland and offers a 20% discount for members. In addition, Disney Vacation Club Members and Annual Passholders receive 10% off both lunch and dinner while Disney Visa Card Members can get 10% off lunch only.

The Overall Experience:
As someone who likes to experiment with new and different dining experiences and try different types of food I would not normally eat, I was extremely impressed with Sanaa because it opened my eyes to a completely new type of cuisine and all sorts of new flavors to which I am not accustomed. However, it is for this same reason that I would caution anyone who wants to try this restaurant. If you are not the type of person who likes strong flavors and has more simple tastes this is definitely not the restaurant for you. But, if you are like me and have an adventurous spirit when it comes to dining, you will definitely be rewarded. Sanaa is one of Disney's hidden gems. Because it is located at a resort rather than at one of the theme parks it is typically going to be less crowded and less well-known, but the secret is starting to get out. Whereas in the past you could go at almost any time without a reservation and get seated right away, I would now definitely recommend making reservations in advance. Sanaa offers a dining experience that is totally unique and unlike anything else in Disney World, combining the beauty of African art, the majesty of an open savannah complete with wild animals, and the exotic flavors of African cuisine. All of this helps Sanaa live up to its name. It is truly a work of art.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Sanaa and post your own too!

April 30, 2014

Discover a "Place of Delight" at Yak and Yeti Restaurant

Andrew Rossi

Animal Kingdom is a park that prides itself on creating a completely immersive experience for its Guests. The attention to detail throughout the park makes you really feel as though you are travelling to faraway lands in Asia and Africa. From the architectural designs of its buildings to the tiniest bits of theming, Animal Kingdom is truly a sight to behold. This high degree of immersion is present no matter where you visit in the park. Whether it be the attractions, animal walking trails, shops, or restaurants, every location has its own unique story to tell. One such location is the Yak and Yeti Restaurant. In Sanskrit, Anandapur means "place of delight." Located within this tiny village in Asia, the Yak and Yeti Restaurant can certainly be considered a "place of delight" for your taste buds.

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Overview:
While Yak and Yeti is an original dining location that can be found nowhere else except for at Animal Kingdom, it is operated by a company that has a variety of other restaurant concepts around Disney World and the country. Landry's Restaurants is responsible for such other dining locations as Rainforest Café and T-Rex, but the dining experience offered at Yak and Yeti is certainly different from these other two restaurants. Yak and Yeti has its own unique back story, which helps you become more immersed in the setting the restaurant provides and connects it with the theming of the rest of Asia and Animal Kingdom as a whole. To provide just a brief description of the restaurant's story (which is conveniently located on the backside of the menus), the village of Anandapur sits on a highly traveled road to India upon which journey many travelers, pilgrims, and traders. In the village, a merchant named Arjun decided to convert his home into the Yak and Yeti hotel, which would cater to wealthier adventurers. Its décor and furniture are "an amalgamation of mismatched artifacts Arjun has collected through his years of travel in Southeast Asia," and located at the center of the hotel is the Yak and Yeti Restaurant.

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Atmosphere:
One of the things that Yak and Yeti does so well is really immerse you in its story. From the moment you set foot inside the restaurant, you really feel as though you are entering into someone's home. This is aided by dividing the restaurant into a series of smaller dining rooms, each with its own unique color scheme, light fixtures, and furniture. If you are put off by the over-the-top theming and generally loud nature of Rainforest Café and T-Rex, this Landry's restaurant is nothing like either of those two. While it still has tremendous theming, the overall feel of Yak and Yeti is much more quiet and subdued but no less immersive.

The restaurant certainly has an exotic feel, but at the same time its theming of being a house converted into a hotel and restaurant makes it warm and inviting. As soon as you enter the restaurant the story begins to unfold. While your eyes may immediately be drawn to the large suite of armor, you might also notice some suitcases on the floor on either side.

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The podium where you check-in not only contains a very outdated looking cash register, but if you look closely on the wall behind you can also spot keys to the various hotel rooms.

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The first dining room you enter has the grandest appearance, dominated by imposing suits of armor as well as its high ceiling and strands of lights suspended from above.

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As in most houses or hotels, there is a staircase that takes Guests to the second floor, its rich, dark wood giving it a very antique feel.

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Atop the staircase is a grand chandelier, one of a number of pieces that help give the restaurant a more upscale feel. This is clearly the house of someone who is very well to do.

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Throughout the other rooms there are little touches that lend a homier and more intimate feel to the restaurant, such as curtain, mismatched furniture, and area rugs.

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Of course, the main attribute of the restaurant's theming are all the statues, vases, urns, pots, tapestries, and other knick knacks that the hotel proprietor has collected on his journeys through Asia.

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Every room has something different to offer. While the bigger pieces quickly grab your attention, there are also shelves and cabinets full of smaller items that may go unnoticed by many Guests.

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Black and white photos and paintings also help to give the theming a more personal touch.

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Of course, being at Animal Kingdom, animals also have a large presence as you meander through the various rooms.

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As with the rest of Animal Kingdom, Yak and Yeti's tremendous theming and attention to detail help to transport Guests to another time and place. No matter where in the restaurant you are dining, you are completely immersed in the story and Guests are encouraged to get up and walk around to explore even more.

The Menu:
The menu at Yak and Yeti takes it inspiration from its atmosphere and surroundings. Offering dishes with an Asian flare, there are several items on the menu that are a little more on the exotic side. Don't let that frighten you, however, since the menu has such a variety of options that there is something for almost everyone, even those who are less adventurous.

Among the appetizers are Seared Ahi Tuna ($11.99), sesame-encrusted and served with wasabi aioli and sweet chili slaw, Thai Chili Chicken Wings ($9.49) tossed in a sweet Thai chili sauce with spicy Asian pickled cucumbers, Pork Pot Stickers ($8.99) prepared either pan seared or steamed and accompanied by soy lime dipping sauce, Wok-Fried Green Beans ($8.49) with a sweet Thai chili dipping sauce, Pork Egg Rolls ($8.99) with a chili plum dipping sauce, Lettuce Cups for Two ($13.99) filled with minced chicken breast, chopped vegetables, and a maple tamarind sauce, and the Dim Sum Basket for Two ($13.99) featuring pork pot stickers, shrimp siu mai, cha su bao, and pork sie mai steamed on a banana leaf with soy lime dipping sauce.

There are a number of entrée choices, ranging from the exotic to the more traditional. These include the Seared Miso Salmon ($24.99) served with jasmine rice, baby bok choy, and a shiitake mushroom stir-fry, Crispy Mahi Mahi ($24.99) served with a Cantonese sweet and sour sauce, jasmine rice, and stir-fried vegetables, Duck with Anandapur Glaze ($24.99) topped with an orange wasabi glaze accompanied by jasmine rice and stir-fried vegetables, Tempura Shrimp ($19.99) with a chili plum sauce, coconut-ginger rice, and stir fried vegetables, Malaysian Seafood Curry ($22.99) featuring mahi mahi, scallops, clams, mussels, shrimp, zucchini, and tomatoes in a red curry coconut broth with jasmine rice, Lo Mein with either Chicken ($18.99), Shrimp ($19.99), or as a combo ($19.99).

More traditional items include the Baby Back Ribs ($26.99) with a hoisin BBQ sauce, chicken fried rice, and a sweet chili slaw, or the Kobe Beef Burger ($18.99) topped with sesame-soy sauce, mayonnaise, and a choice of shiitake mushrooms, scallion compote, or Asian slaw. There is also Bourbon Chicken ($18.99) with tempura chicken, carrots, green onions, and a sweet bourbon sauce with jasmine or brown rice, Maple Tamarind Chicken ($19.99) with an Indonesian tamarind glaze, coconut ginger rice, baby bok choy, and a shiitake mushroom stir fry, Shaoxing Steak and Shrimp ($26.99) combining skirt steak with tempura-battered shrimp served with jasmine rice, stir-fried vegetables, and chili plum dipping sauce, Stir-Fried Beef and Broccoli ($19.99) with either jasmine or brown rice, Sweet and Sour Chicken or Pork ($18.99) accompanied by bell peppers, pineapple, and served with jasmine or brown rice, and Crispy Honey Chicken ($18.99) with broccoli, carrots, and jasmine or brown rice.

You will definitely want to save room for Yak and Yeti's signature dessert, the Fried Wontons ($8.99), filled with cream cheese and skewered with fresh pineapple. There is also Chocolate Cake ($6.99) topped with a raspberry sauce Mango Pie ($6.99) with a shortbread cookie crust, fresh whipped cream, and raspberry sauce, and New York Cheesecake ($6.99) with a mango and strawberry coulis and fresh whipped cream.

For my meal I decided on the Maple Tamarind Chicken. Tamarind is an ingredient that is quite common in Southeast Asian cuisine and it provided a definite kick to the glaze that topped the chicken. However, the distinct flavor of the tamarind was countered by the sweetness of the maple, which helped to balance each other out and make the glaze not too overpowering while still providing a very nice flavor for the chicken.

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I have never had bok choy before, so I was not really sure what to expect. Sometimes referred to as "Chinese cabbage," I did not find the bok choy to have much flavor. I far preferred the shiitake mushroom stir fry, and this is from someone who is not necessarily a big mushroom fan. The mushrooms were prepared perfectly so they were not too soft and their flavor really matched well with that of the chicken and its glaze. Finally, there was the coconut ginger rice, which I had been very intrigued by when reading the menu. The rice actually had really good flavor, although the ginger was a little bit more noticeable than the coconut. My only complaint was that the rice was a little on the dry side. Overall, however, this was a very tasty and flavorful entrée.

For dessert there was no hesitation when I ordered the Fried Wontons, which I had heard from many is a dessert that is not to be missed. Having finally gotten to try it myself, I would say that this dessert alone is worth making a trip to Yak and Yeti. Light and flaky on the outside, with a smooth cream cheese center, the wontons were amazing in and of themselves. But it did not end there.

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The wontons were accompanied by fresh pineapple and strawberries, which added a light and refreshing component to an otherwise rich dessert. What truly made the dessert, however, was a deliciously sweet honey-vanilla sauce that came drizzled over the top and was perfect for dipping the fruit in. Alongside all of this was a scoop of vanilla ice cream, which added yet another component to the dessert. While its $8.99 price tag may seem a little steep for a dessert, it is absolutely worth it in terms of both quality and size. This is a dessert that can easily be split amongst two or three people.

Service:
Since Yak and Yeti is not a Disney-owned restaurant, the service can be a little less predictable. Going from experience I have had dining at other Landry's locations at Downtown Disney, I have had some servers who have been fantastic and others who were less than stellar. Unfortunately, my server at Yak and Yeti fell into the latter category. Throughout the course of the meal, my server just seemed to be uninterested. He was very much just going through the motions; he took my order, brought out my drink, my food, my check at the end of the meal and that was about it. I would like to point out that I saw servers at other tables having very good interactions with their Guests, joking around with them and telling them about different aspects of the restaurant. A girl at the table next to me had a food allergy and the chef personally came out and told her that he could prepare a full course meal (appetizer, entrée, and dessert) that would accommodate her allergy. It was just unfortunate that my server was not up to the high standards you expect when dining at Disney World.

Dining on a Budget:
The prices at Yak and Yeti are fairly economical by Disney standards. While there are certainly some items that are more on the expensive side, there are also some bargains to be found as well. Items like the Tempura Shrimp for $19.99, Chicken Lo Mein for $18.99, or Sweet and Sour Chicken or Pork for $18.99 are all less-expensive options. Not only that, but all the portion sizes are very generous, so you definitely get what you pay for. If this is still a little too pricey for you, there is always the Anandapur Local Foods Café located right next store that features menu items very similar to Yak and Yeti. This counter service restaurant features dishes such as Beef Lo Mein, Honey Chicken, Mandarin Chicken Salad, and Sweet and Sour Chicken ranging in price from $8.99 to $10.99. It is a great option if you are looking for a quicker meal at an affordable price.

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Despite not being operated by Disney, Yak and Yeti does participate in the Disney Dining Plan and is worth one table service credit for both lunch and dinner. While it does not accept Tables in Wonderland, it does offer both Annual Passholders and Disney Vacation Club Members a 10% discount. If you visit Disney World often, or live in an area where there are Landry's restaurants, you may want to consider enrolling in the Landry's Select Club. For a one-time fee of $25 you will earn one point for each dollar you spend and once you reach 250 points will receive a $25 reward. In addition, you receive a $25 reward for enrolling that you can use on your next meal and an additional $25 reward each year on your birthday.

The Overall Experience:
Yak and Yeti is a very unique dining experience that truly immerses you in its story through incredible theming and attention to detail. The restaurant's exotic feel is carried throughout its atmosphere and onto the menu as well with a wide array of Asian-inspired dishes. Beef, pork, chicken, or seafood, there is something for everyone and the portion sizes make this restaurant a good value for your money. With so few sit down dining options available at Animal Kingdom, Yak and Yeti is definitely worth a try. It is a restaurant that offers a relaxing escape from the hustle and bustle of the theme park crowds, but at the same time it still allows you to continue to be immersed in the same intricate detail and storytelling that you find around the rest of Animal Kingdom.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Yak and Yeti and post your own too!

April 2, 2014

Dining Takes a Good Turn at the Garden Grill

Andrew Rossi

Despite the countless times I have visited Epcot's Land pavilion, the Garden Grill Restaurant was one of the few Epcot dining locations to which I have never been. Many a time, when walking past to go ride Soarin' or Living with the Land, I have commented on how this was a restaurant that I really wanted to try. However, for one reason or another, I continually put it off. This might have been due to the fact that there are so many restaurants at Epcot which I really enjoy or the simple fact that the Garden Grill is only open for dinner and its limited operating hours make reservations a little harder to come by. Whatever the reason, I finally decided to give the Garden Grill a try and I went in not really knowing what to expect. I knew that the dining room rotated, dinner was served family-style, and that it was a character dining experience, but that was about it. After having finally dined there, I can say that the Garden Grill surpassed my expectations and might actually be my new top location when it comes to character dining.

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Overview:
The Land pavilion has always had a restaurant in the current location of the Garden Grill, but it has gone through a series of iterations. When the pavilion opened in 1982, the restaurant was known as The Good Turn and remained that way until 1986. From 1986 through 1993 the restaurant was named The Land Grill Room. Along with the name change, the restaurant has changed in other ways as well. Most noticeably, the restaurant did not always feature characters, meals were not always served family-style, and for a good portion of its history the restaurant was open for both lunch and dinner. One thing that has stayed consistent throughout the restaurant's history, however, is its rotating dining room. In fact, the Garden Grill is the only rotating restaurant in all of Disney World.

Atmosphere:
As noted above, one of the things that makes the Garden Grill so unique is that it is a rotating restaurant. Throughout the course of your meal, the restaurant slowly moves around in a counter-clockwise motion to allow diners to have a bird's eye view of the Living with the Land boat ride below.

Passing by the rainforest scene, there is not much to see as the lush vegetation dominates most of the view. If you look closely, you might be able to catch a glimse of the waterfall through the foliage.

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However, the plants and trees give way as the dining room rotates towards the desert and the American prairie, passing by a series of large rock formations.

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The view then opens up to reveal the open grasslands below, complete with a family of buffalo animatronics.

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Next comes the classic American farmhouse, which even allows diners to catch a glimpse through the windows into the house's second floor. Overall, it provides a unique perspective of Living with the Land, especially for someone who has ridden the ride many times.

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The dining room is split into lower and upper levels to offer all Guests a good view as they rotate. The lower level is comprised of semi-circular booths that face outward.

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Meanwhile, the upper level is composed of tables and chairs positioned high enough so that their view is not inhibited by those Guests sitting on the lower level.

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Of the two, I would give the edge to the tables on the lower level in terms of having the better view, but anyone is more than welcome to go and stand along the railing to look down on the boat ride below as the restaurant passes by.

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Of course, not all of the entire circuit the dining room makes overlooks the boat ride and at these points the walls are adorned with detailed painted murals depicting lush plants, trees, ferns, and flowers. If you look carefully, you might even be able to spot a very well-hidden Mickey.

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Another major component of the Garden Grill is its characters. Mickey, Pluto, Chip, and Dale are all present and leisurely make their way around to each of the tables. This is an area where I felt the Garden Grill really excelled when compared with other character dining experiences. I felt as though we had some really good character interactions during our meal and they offered us plenty of time to take pictures and play around with them. Each one of the characters also came to our table multiple times throughout the course of our meal. This is quite a contrast to other character dining where the characters seem very rushed and briefly stop by your table for a quick picture before moving on. If you are dining with children who really love meeting Disney characters, the Garden Grill is a fantastic option. It also allows you to see Mickey in his farmer outfit, which you cannot find him in anywhere else.

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Overall, the Garden Grill provides a casual and relaxing setting. Its atmosphere relies more on the sights of the boat ride below rather than anything in the actual dining room to help set the feel and the restaurant's characters adds an additional level of whimsy and fun to the dining experience. With the sounds coming from the boat ride below, it is not really a quiet restaurant but this is also not exactly the type of place you would go if looking for an intimate and romantic night out. The Garden Grill is a restaurant that definitely appeals to families, but even bigger kids will enjoy the scenic views and fun character interactions they have during their meal.

The Menu:
The Garden Grill features a pre-fixe menu offering an appetizer, entrée, and dessert all served family-style. The meal begins with a fresh Farmer's Salad. The salad included an assortment of vegetables such as onions, peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes along with hard boiled eggs and bacon bits. It is referenced on the menu as a "Harvest-Inspired" salad, which means that its contents can change depending upon what is in season. It is a very light and healthy way to start the meal and a good reminder of the fresh produce being grown in the greenhouses at the Land pavilion.

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After the salad comes the main course platter that includes an assortment of the three entrees of turkey, fish, and beef, each of which come with their own accompaniments. The turkey is served with a lemon-caper sauce, which we chose to have served on the side. I was very intrigued by this sauce and was surprised by how well it paired with the turkey. The turkey itself was juicy and tender, but the flavor of the lemon and capers really added a light and refreshing flavor that was a nice departure from your typical gravy. Along with the turkey was an artisan bread pudding, which was basically your traditional-style stuffing. There was nothing really noteworthy about this side dish, but you can't go wrong pairing turkey with stuffing.

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Next was the sustainable fish of the day, which in this case was Mahi Mahi that came topped with a roasted tomato and pepper compote. Mahi Mahi is a very mild-flavored fish and I found this preparation of it to be just a little on the dry side. However, the tomato and pepper compote provided a tremendous amount of flavor and just the right amount of spiciness to give the fish a much-needed kick. The fish was served atop fresh garden vegetables that included a mixture of zucchini and squash.

The last entrée item on the platter was a char-grilled filet of beef that came topped with a red wine butter. For me, this was the part of the main entrée that really stole the show. The beef was so moist and tender with hardly any fat and the red wine butter provided even more rich flavor that complimented the beef extremely well. While the first portion of beef we received was a little more on the rare side, one of the members of our party requested some that was cooked well-done and this was quickly brought out to her. Along with the beef came a generous portion of buttermilk mashed potatoes which were just the perfect consistency, smooth and fluffy.

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Of course, since this family-style meal is all-you-care-to-eat, there is no shortage as to the amount of food you can get. Rather than bringing you out an entirely new platter, however, the server will simply ask you what you would like more of and then bring out additional plates with those items.

After all this food, there was still dessert to be had. The dessert was a freshly baked harvest fruit cobbler that came topped with vanilla bean whipped cream. The types of berries included in the cobbler can change depending on what is in season, but this one was blueberry. The dessert came served piping hot, the ooey-gooeyness of the berries and the light, fluffy cake combining perfectly with one another. The only thing I wish was that this dessert had been topped with vanilla ice cream. Despite this, the whipped cream served on top was so smooth and provided a nice refreshing flavor to the dessert.

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Overall, the entire meal is one which is very much inspired by the Land pavilion, its greenhouses, and the boat ride that passes just below the restaurant.

Service:
Sometimes at restaurants where the meals are served family-style there is a tendency for each course to be brought out in rapid succession, making your meal feel very rushed. I was glad to see that this was not the case at the Garden Grill and the meal progressed at a calm and relaxing pace. I also found the service to be very attentive. Our server was constantly checking in with our table to see if there was anything that we needed and whether she could bring us any more food. In addition, when we were having trouble locating the hidden Mickey on the dining room's mural she got out a laser pointer to show us exactly where it was.

I would also include all the characters as a part of the service. While at other character dining locations you sometimes feel as though the characters are rushing from one table to another, at the Garden Grill we were able to have some great interactions with Mickey and the gang. Each character spent a good amount of time at our table and we were able to get multiple pictures with each of them. This in particular is one element of the Garden Grill that really helps to separate it from other character dining locations.

Dining on a Budget:
This is one thing that is a little difficult to do at the Garden Grill. Combining the all-you-care-to-eat nature of the menu along with the restaurant's characters makes this dining experience a little pricey. The price for adults can range anywhere between $37 and $41 depending on whether it is off season or peak season while the children's price ranges between $18 and $20. At the same time, however, these prices are comparable to a character dining experience like dinner at the Crystal Palace at Magic Kingdom and less expensive than Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary. But, like as previously stated, the character interactions that you will have here are better than these other locations. If you have children that really enjoy meeting the Disney characters, then the Garden Grill is definitely worth the price and that's on top of the high quality food as well.

The Garden Grill is on the Disney Dining Plan and is worth one table service credit, making it a really good value for your money. The restaurant also participates in Tables in Wonderland, allowing members to receive their 20% discount. However, there are no additional discounts for Annual Passholders or Disney Vacation Club Members.

The Overall Experience:
This was my first time dining at the Garden Grill and the restaurant exceeded my expectations in every way. I am not usually one who does character dining experiences, but I really enjoyed the interactions I had and great photos I got with Mickey, Pluto, Chip, and Dale. In addition, the unique aspect of the dining room rotating and offering great views of the Living with the Land boat ride below help to make the dining experience even more memorable. On top of all this, the food features a wide assortment that offers a little something for everyone; served family style and all-you-care-to-eat, you will definitely not leave this restaurant hungry. While it might be a little on the more expensive side, I felt as though I completely got my money's worth when dining here between the restaurant's unique atmosphere and quality food offerings. If you are looking for a fun dining experience for the entire family then the Garden Grill is definitely worth a try.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of the Garden Grill and post your own too!

January 21, 2014

Earl of Sandwich: A Simple Meal Fit For Royalty

Andrew Rossi

One of the great things about dining at Disney World is that there are no shortage of options, even if you are just looking for a quick bit to eat. While many of Disney's full service restaurants garner great popularity and acclaim, there are also numerous compelling counter service options to be found as well. Just because you may not have the time to devote to a sit-down meal, or even if you are dining on a more stringent budget, does not mean that you have to suffer in terms of the quality food that you are receiving. While some of these locations feature the staple burgers, hot dogs, and pizza, there is such a great variety of food to be found at counter service restaurants across the parks, resorts, and Downtown Disney.

One of my favorite counter service restaurants at Disney World is actually found at Downtown Disney. The irony of this restaurant is that it is not actually Disney-owned, but part of a chain that has locations all across the United States. Nevertheless, when it comes to counter service dining, there are not too many locations at Disney World that can match Earl of Sandwich.

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Located at the Downtown Disney Marketplace, Earl of Sandwich offers great variety of sandwiches, wraps, and salads at a very reasonable price; it comes as no surprise that the restaurant is always packed with people. The Earl of Sandwich alone is a worth a visit to Downtown Disney and, if you do not feel like waiting maybe an hour or more for a table at one of the full service restaurants, offers a great alternative for both lunch and dinner.

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Overview:
The story of the invention of the sandwich helps provide the back-story for the Earl of Sandwich restaurant. John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, was commander of the British navy, a noted explorer, as well as someone who greatly enjoyed gambling and card games. As the story goes, Montagu was so busy that he had very little time for food and came up with the idea (possibly while playing a game of cards) of putting meat between two slices of bread for a quick and easy meal that could be eaten on the run. As a result, in 1762, the sandwich was named in honor of its inventor. Now, nearly 250 years later, the Earl of Sandwich restaurant continues this tradition and boasts that it is home to "The World's Greatest Hot Sandwich." The Earl of Sandwich's illustrious history and tradition is set forth in the restaurant's official charter and aptly describes the restaurant's premise and objective:

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Atmosphere:
Earl of Sandwich has become extremely popular and is always crowded no matter what time of day you go, but especially during the peak dining times. For this reason, seating (or lack thereof) can become a real issue. The restaurant offers both indoor and outdoor seating, but it can sometimes be difficult to find a table. This can clearly be seen on extremely hot or colder days because people do not want to eat outside and there is not enough indoor seating to handle everyone. The seating area inside is not very big and the tables are packed very tightly together. Combined with the large crowds, this makes it a little loud inside the restaurant. If you are looking for a quieter dining experience, it is probably best to find a table outside.

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All that being said, there are several aspects of Earl of Sandwich's atmosphere that are very appealing. The restaurant's high ceilings give it a much-needed open feel (especially with the tables being so close together) and the light fixtures, book shelves, faux fireplace, and fresh-cut flowers on every table give a little touch of refinement to what is an otherwise very causal and laid-back environment.

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The classical music playing in the background is also a nice added touch, even though it can be somewhat difficult to hear at times. All this helps to give the restaurant a little taste of 1762; you can almost feel as though you are sitting in John Montagu's parlor waiting to play a game of cards.

An aspect of the atmosphere that probably goes unnoticed by most guests is the Earl of Sandwich Historical Society. Located around the corner from where you place your order, the Historical Society is a full wall that features maps, pictures, paintings, and other information about the history of John Montagu.

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Here you can find, among other things, a portrait of the Earl of Sandwich as well as the family coat of arms. It really helps to give the restaurant a level of detail and history that goes beyond what you would typically expect to find in a counter service restaurant.

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The Menu:
One of the things that stands out most about the menu at Earl of Sandwich is the sheer number of options. Each of their sandwiches are $5.99, are made to order, and served on one of their fresh artisan loafs. The menu includes The Original 1762, with fresh roasted beef, cheddar, and a creamy horseradish sauce, The Earl's Club, featuring roast turkey, smoked bacon, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, and sandwich sauce, the All American, topped with roast turkey, buttermilk ranch, cranberries, cheddar cheese, lettuce, and tomato, the Italian, which includes salami, capicola, roasted ham, mortadella, mozzarella, tomato and a zesty Italian dressing , The Full Montagu, featuring roast beef and turkey with sharp cheddar and Swiss cheese, romaine lettuce, tomato and the Earl's mustard sauce, Cannonballs, with meatballs, mozzarella parmesan cheese, and marinara sauce, the Tuna Melt, featuring albacore tuna salad and Swiss cheese, the Chipotle Chicken Avocado, topped with grilled chicken, bacon, cheddar, avocade, lettuce and chipotle sauce, the Hawaiian BBQ, featuring roasted ham, grilled chicken, Hawaiian BBQ sauce, Swiss cheese, and fresh pineapple, the Ham and Swiss, topped with roasted ham with Swiss cheese and the Earl's mustard sauce, the Holiday Turkey, complete with turkey, stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce, the Caprese, topped with mozzarella, tomatoes, fresh basil, and balsamic vinaigrette, the Caribbean Jerk Chicken, with grilled chicken, roasted red and banana peppers, and a spicy jerk sauce, and the Best BLT, featuring smoked bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, and seasoned mayonnaise.

The menu does not stop with sandwiches, but also includes an array of wraps, all of which are $5.99 as well. Among these are the Buffalo Chicken, with grilled chicken, cheddar, romaine, tomato, buffalo sauce, and ranch dressing, Chicken, Bacon & Avocado, topped with grilled chicken, bacon, romaine, avocado, bacon, tomato, cucumber, and balsamic vinaigrette, the Baja Chicken, featuring grilled chicken, cheddar, romaine, tomato, fajita seasoning, chipotle seasoning, and balsamic vinaigrette, the BBQ Ranch Chicken, which includes grilled chicken, cheddar, romaine, cilantro, tomato, crispy onions, BBQ sauce, and ranch dressing, the Thai, with grilled chicken, romaine, Chinese cabbage mix, sweet chili sauce, and Thai peanut dressing, the Chicken Caesar, topped with grilled chicken, parmesan, romaine, croutons, and Caesar dressing, and the Spicy Tuna, which includes albacore tuna salad, romaine, tomato, kalamata olives, pepperoncini peppers, chipotle sauce, and balsamic vinaigrette.

For those looking for something a little on the lighter side, there are also a number of salads available, which are also $5.99. These include The Earl's Cobb, topped with grilled chicken, smoked bacon, Swiss and cheddar cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, cranberries and ranch dressing, the Baja Chicken, featuring romaine, grilled chicken, cheddar, cilantro, avocado, tomato, roasted corn, black beans, tortilla strips, and a red wine vinaigrette, the Chicken Caesar, with grilled chicken, field greens and romaine lettuce, parmesan cheese, croutons, classic Caesar dressing, the Chicken, Berry and Almond, featuring spinach, grilled chicken, fresh strawberries, fresh blueberries, almonds, and balsamic vinaigrette, the Greek, which includes romaine lettuce, grilled chicken, feta, tomato, kalamata olives, pepperoncini peppers, and a zesty Italian dressing, the Asian, featuring romaine, grilled chicken, Chinese cabbage, mandarin oranges, almonds, wontons and an Asian dressing, the BBQ Chicken, which includes field greens, grilled chicken, cheddar, cilantro, tomato, crispy onions, BBQ sauce and ranch dressing, and the Thai Chicken, with field greens, grilled chicken, Chinese cabbage, sweet chili sauce, wontons, and a Thai peanut dressing.

There are also various side items available for purchase, including potato salad ($1.99), pasta salad ($2.29), the coleslaw ($1.99), and potato chips ($1.29). It is really a menu that offers something for everyone and the hardest part is really deciding what you want to order.

Despite all the variety on the menu, I have a small number of mainstays that I gravitate to each visit. This time I decided on The Original 1762, with fresh roast beef, cheddar, and a creamy horseradish sauce. I think the best place to start talking about the sandwiches is the bread because this is really what makes them so special. While bread alone does necessarily not make a sandwich, it can certainly break a sandwich. At Earl of Sandwich, however, is a highlight unto itself. Every sandwich is made to order so you know it is always going to be fresh and hot. The bread is perfectly toasted so it is slightly crispy on the outside but still soft and warm on the inside. The bread is so good that I could just go there, order some toasted bread, and be completely satisfied.

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There have been times that I ordered The Original and the roast beef was a little too rare for my liking, but most of the time it is cooked absolutely perfectly with just a slight hint of pinkish color. For those of you who might be scared away by the horseradish sauce, it is not too strong at all and really serves compliment the roast beef rather than being too overpowering. The horseradish helps add to the flavor of the sandwich and gives it just a little bit of a kick, making it something more unique than your standard roast beef sandwich.

Along with the sandwich I chose a side of potato salad. The light and refreshing flavor of the potato salad provided a perfect complement to the heartier flavor of The Original. The potatoes were red-skinned and were cooked just right so as to be not too soft and mushy nor too hard. The potato salad did have a strong mayonnaise base, but also featured a slight hint of dill to provide some extra flavor. While the potato salad did not have the same "wow" factor as the sandwich, it was still a good accompaniment for the meal.

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Dessert at Earl of Sandwich is definitely something that should not be overlooked. Even though the sandwiches can be very filling, it is worth saving room for dessert. Like the rest of the menu, there are a good number of dessert offerings to choose from, ranging from fresh baked chocolate chip cookies ($1.99) to brownie bites ($3.99), brownie sandwiches ($2.49), cupcakes ($2.49), bread pudding ($2.49), strawberry shortcake ($2.99), and even ice cream sandwiches ($3.29).

My favorite dessert by far is the Peanut Butter-Filled Brownie Sandwich. The one word I could come up with to describe this dessert is heavenly. The brownie is extremely moist and also has chocolate chunks throughout that gave it added texture and flavor. The peanut butter filling is extremely smooth, sweet, and creamy; the combination of peanut butter and chocolate is just perfect. This is a very rich and heavy dessert and is easily big enough to be split by two people (but it is so good that you may just want to eat the entire thing yourself).

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Service:
Like with every quick service dining location, the Earl of Sandwich is able to serve a large number of guests in a small amount of time. Because the restaurant is so crowded, this efficiency takes on an even greater importance. Guests place their order at one end of the counter and are then given a pager to let them know when their food is ready. Everyone then makes their way down to the other end of the counter to pay. The service is often so fast that, by the time you pay for your meal, your pager is already vibrating to let you know to go pick up my order.

The service at Earl of Sandwich is so quick in part because they have so many people working behind the counter. The only problem I noticed was that they sometimes resorted to yelling as a way of keeping the guests moving in line. While it seemed that they were doing this in order to serve as many people as possible, it was unfortunate that it came at the expense of their interaction with the guests. I have seen other quick service locations throughout Disney World that are able to provide speedy service but still have Cast Members who are able to interact with guests in a way that is both pleasant and personable. This might be due to the fact that Earl of Sandwich is not a Disney-owned restaurant.

Dining on a Budget:
When it comes to dining on a budget, there are not too many places in Disney World that are better than Earl of Sandwich; it may be the best value on all Disney property. The prices are all very reasonable, the food is great, and the portion sizes are big. With sandwiches, wraps, and salads all just $5.99, this is cheaper than most of the offerings found at other counter service locations across the parks and resorts. When you also take into account that side items are just around $2.00 and desserts range between $2.00 and $3.00, you can have a whole meal for a very reasonable price. If you are dining on a budget, Earl of Sandwich is definitely the place to go.

It is also worth mentioning that Earl of Sandwich is on the Disney Dining Plan and worth one counter service credit.

The Overall Experience:
One of the reasons why I like Earl of Sandwich so much is consistency. All the times that I have been there I have never been disappointed. I always know my sandwich is going to be hot and fresh, the portion size is going to be big, and the price is going to be reasonable. This is the recipe for success that has made Earl of Sandwich so popular. The quality of food is definitely worth having to wait in what can often be a long line. Even though it is a chain restaurant, Earl of Sandwich has become synonymous with Downtown Disney. Next time you are looking for somewhere to eat at Downtown Disney, and you do not feel like waiting a long time for a table at one of the sit down restaurants, definitely consider giving Earl of Sandwich a try. Its cuisine may be simple (just sandwiches, salads, and wraps), but its quality is top notch and the prices are extremely affordable. After you try it once, you will want to go back again and again.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Earl of Sandwich and post your own too!

November 13, 2013

Experience the Exotic Flavors of Africa at Jiko

Andrew Rossi

A visit to Animal Kingdom Lodge is a truly immersive experience. This resort, quite possibly better than any other at Disney World, completely transports Guests to an entirely different world. While its open savannah with its array of animals gets much of the attention, Animal Kingdom Lodge has so much more to offer. The resort is truly a celebration of African culture and this is reflected as soon as Guests enter into the awe-inspiring lobby. The architectural design of the Jambo House lobby reflects the detail of African craftsmanship, with its thatched ceilings and intricate wood carvings. Meanwhile, the large windows help to highlight the African-inspired landscape of the savannah just outside. Throughout the lobby are numerous examples of African art, including masks, headdresses, paintings, pottery, and carvings, all of which lend an even greater sense of immersion.

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Of course, no cultural experience would be complete without showcasing the cuisine and Animal Kingdom Lodge delivers with three tremendous full service restaurants. With Sanaa at Kidani Village and Boma and Jiko at Jambo House, visitors to Animal Kingdom Lodge have no shortage of dining options to choose from. Each of these restaurants provides their own unique twist on African cuisine and has something different to offer, but it is Jiko that stands out as the resort's Signature dining option.

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Overview:
Jiko is the Swahili word for "cooking place," making it an apt name for this restaurant. Being one of Disney's Signature restaurants, Jiko offers a truly unique and memorable dining experience. Just as Animal Kingdom as a whole seeks to immerse Guests into African culture, Jiko highlights various aspects of African cuisine while also providing its own unique spin by blending in elements of Indian and Mediterranean flavors. In addition to its cuisine, Jiko has received notoriety for its vast array of African wines. Combined, this helps to make Jiko one of Disney's most exotic dining experiences, showcasing African flavors made with the freshest ingredients.

Being a Signature dining location, you know that you can expect the highest quality in all facets of the dining experience. This Signature status also means that Jiko features a dress code. Men are encouraged to wear khakis, slacks, jeans, dress shorts, and collared shirts. Sport coats are optional. For women it is suggested that they wear capris, skirts, dresses, jeans, dress shorts. There are also certain articles of clothing that are not allowed in the dining room, such as tank tops, swimwear, hats, cut-off or torn clothing. Jiko's Signature status also helps to make it a very popular dining destination. As such, reservations are highly recommended and should be made well in advance.

Atmosphere:
Jiko is a completely immersive experience and it really all begins with the restaurant's color palette. As soon as you enter the dining room, your eyes will immediately be drawn to the bold, blue ceiling overhead.

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Standing out in stark contrast to the deep blue are dozens of bird-like structures suspended from the ceiling, which are also a sign of good luck.

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The restaurant's effective use of color continues down to the walls, which can feature warm red, orange, yellow, and gold tones. Throughout the course of your meal the lighting and coloring on the walls will actually change to mimic an African sunset. The effect is subtle, but beautifully done.

The restaurant features some other striking characteristics. Upon entering, Guests are first greeted by a wall of wine, with the bottles held in very unique display racks. At Jiko, its wines play as important a role as its cuisine in introducing Guests to the flavors of Africa. In fact, Jiko features the largest selection of African wines at any restaurant outside of the continent.

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As you progress from the Jiko's bar area to the main dining room, the restaurant's floor-to-ceiling windows really become evident.

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These massive windows overlook a beautiful water feature strewn with boulders and also offer tremendous sunsets views. The windows likewise help to bring a little of the outdoors into the restaurant, as the natural environment is such an important aspect of African life.

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Another unique feature of Jiko is its open kitchen. Here you can watch as chefs prepare appetizers utilizing two large and colors wood-burning ovens.

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One of the great features of this open kitchen is that it is surrounded by a counter where Guests can sit to enjoy their meal. This is where I had the opportunity to dine while I was here and it makes for a very memorable experience. There is no added cost for sitting at this counter and it allows for Guests to observe and converse with the chefs as they prepare various dishes.

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The décor of the restaurant is very subtle with a few themed elements, such as the columns which are adorned with gold rings. The rings represent the neck rings worn by women of the Ndebele tribe of South Africa, which are a symbol of beauty and wealth.

Overall, Jiko's décor is one that relies more on color, lighting, and texture rather than decoration, but it still distinctly African in look and feel. It is a restaurant that has a simple elegance about it that help make it the perfect destination for a romantic night out. It's quiet and intimate setting combined with its beautifully exotic feel help make Jiko one of the most unique dining experiences in Disney World.

The Menu:
Just as Jiko's atmosphere goes a long way in immersing Guests into the culture of Africa, the restaurant's menu plays an equally important role. It is a menu that is constantly changing depending upon what ingredients are fresh and in season yet always highlights the unique flavors, tastes, and ingredients of African cuisine.

The menu features an array of appetizers including the Grilled Wild Boar Tenderloin ($17.00) with pap, chakalaka, white truffle oil, and cilantro, South African Vetkoek ($12.00), which are three house-made Naan pastries filled with herb-braised rabbit, coconut-egg curry, and vegetable curry, Inguday Tibs in Brik ($10.00) featuring mushrooms, spinach, and cheese in crispy filo with a curry vinaigrette, Fire Roasted Oysters on Half Shell ($17.00) with lemon butter, house-made hot sauce, horseradish, and smoked tatsoi, the Taste of Africa ($9.00) including an assortment of African inspired dips with pappadam, poppy seed lavosh, and house-made naan, and an Artisanal Cheese Selection ($15.00).

Also available as appetizers are a selection of flatbreads baked in the restaurant's wood-burning ovens. These include Roxanne's Kitfo Leb Leb ($13.00) topped with beef carpacio, feta cheese, pistachio-basil pesto, berbere, and tomatoes, KG's Peri-Peri Roasted Chicken ($10.00) topped with lime chakalaka, lamb chopper cheese, and pickled sweet bell peppers, and the Roasted Cauliflower ($10.00) topped with masala, roasted cipollini onions, lamb chopper cheese, and mitmita gremolata. There are also a few soups and salads to choose from such as the "Mozambique-Style" Tomato Salad ($15.00) with heirloom tomatoes, peaches, avocado, mache, arugula, and feta cheese, the Jiko Salad ($15.00) with heirloom spiced melon, rockett, mizuna, peppered chevre, and a blackberry vinaigrette, and the Taktouka Tomato Soup ($10.00) featuring vine-ripened tomatoes, peppers, and purple haze grilled cheese.

The entrée choices feature everything from seafood to chicken to beef and even vegetarian options. While some of the ingredients may seem a little exotic, the servers are very helpful in explaining each of the dishes if you have questions. One may think that African cuisine is very spicy, while this is true of some of the dishes, there are others that are not.
Among the entrée offerings are the Spicy Botswana-Style Beef Short Rib ($42.00) served with cassava-potato puree, sambal, mushrooms and fava beans, "Nigeria-Style" Pan-Roasted Whole Local Sea Bass ($46.00) accompanied by sweet potatoes, red sauce, and chili pepper pickle, West African "Jerked Scallops" ($35.00) with basmati rice, red quinoa, baby rainbow carrots, and coconut curry sauce, Curry-Rubbed Lamb Loin ($37.00) with cauliflower puree, eggplant-artichoke zaalouk, and olive-walnut tapenade, Seared Barbarie Duck Breast ($40.00) accompanied by potato and spinach masala, royal trumpet mushrooms, and port emulsion, Oak-Grilled Filet Mignon ($45.00) served with an ancient grain pilaf, heirloom pole beans, and South African red wine sauce, Tagine Chicken ($34.00) with preserved lemon, artichokes, olives, cinnamon couscous, harissa, and saffron jus, and a "Braai Pie" ($29.00), a pastry filled with squash, sunchokes, carrots, garbonzo beans, and wilted greens.

If you still have room for dessert, the choices include a Milk Tart ($11.00) with gooseberry jam and goat's milk balsamic ice cream, Kenyan Coffee Creme Brulee ($9.00), Cheesecake ($9.00) with white chocolate, toasted coconut, mango sauce, and pineapple chile sorbet, the Chocolate and Tea Safari ($10.00) featuring a Tanzanian chocolate cake, free form "kit kat," and green tea ice cream , and the Cinnamon-Chocolate Flourless Cake ($10.00) with sesame crisp, chocolate sauce and herb-citrus salad.

I decided to start my meal with the Taste of Africa ($9.00). This appetizer came with an assortment of three different types of breads and four sauces for dipping. The first type of bread was pappadam, a thin, crisp Indian bread made from lentil flour. Next was poppy seed lavash, a thin, crispy flatbread. Finally there was naan, a slightly thicker oven-baked flatbread of Eastern Indian origin. The sauces were bhuna masala, a curry consisting of tomato, coconut, tamarind, and chili peppers, sagh dahl, made with lentils, spinach, garlic, and chilis, Moroccan chermoula, with a mixture of herbs, oil, lemon juice, garlic, cumin, and salt, and kalamata hummus, made from mashed chickpeas, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and olives.

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With each of the breads having different consistencies and textures and each of the sauces varying in degrees of spiciness, this appetizer made for a lot of different combinations. It was a great way for being able to sample a wide variety of different African flavors.

For my entrée I had heard many people rave about Jiko's Oak-Grilled Filet Mignon ($45.00). However, whereas the dish is now served with an ancient grain pilaf, it had for a long time been accompanied by macaroni and cheese. When I inquired about this to my server he commented that it is still a common request and they would be more than happy to prepare the dish that way.

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The filet was extremely tender and juicy, just slightly seasoned so that the spices did not overpower the steak but rather helped to enhance its flavor. Topping the filet was a red wine sauce, made from an African wine reduction, which provided a slight sweetness that paired perfectly with the steak and provided a contrast to the spices it was seasoned with. Finally, the macaroni and cheese was incredible. It might seem like an odd accompaniment for a filet, but the two paired together extremely well. Rich and creamy, the macaroni and cheese also absorbed some of the juice from the steak and blended well with the red wine sauce. Overall, this was an extremely flavorful dish. While Jiko's menu may have many items that appeal to more adventurous diners, this filet is something that can be enjoyed by everyone.

Service:
Just as a Signature restaurant offers the utmost in terms of high-quality food, drink, and atmosphere, the service is likewise some of the best to be found in any Disney dining locations. The service at Jiko was certainly on par with that I have received at other Signature dining locations across property. From the moment I was seated my server was extremely attentive to my needs. Being my first time dining at Jiko, I was very appreciative that my server took time to explain many of the items on the menu, giving recommendations on those dishes that were a little more on the spicy side and those that were less so. With a menu featuring so many ingredients that many people may be unfamiliar with, it was very helpful to have someone explaining how each dish was prepared. Aided by the fact that severs at Signature restaurants usually have fewer tables that they are waiting upon, my server was always checking in to see if I needed anything and to make sure all the food was to my liking. There were also little touches throughout the meal that helped make the dining experience special. This started with a hot towel being brought out prior to the start of the meal to wash my hands, a small sample of a salmon cake appetizer the chefs had just prepared, and a complimentary pistachio cookie following the meal. It is all these things that help separate the service at Signature dining locations.

Dining on a Budget:
Being a Signature restaurant, dining on a budget is something that is a little difficult to do at Jiko. However, although the menu is a little pricey, you are absolutely getting what you pay for in terms of quality. If you are going to splurge for on a meal while visiting Disney World, this would be one of the dining locations to do it at. That being said, if you are looking for a more economical experience at Jiko the best bet would be to try one of the restaurant's flatbreads. Ranging in price from $10 to $13, these flatbreads are a good-sized portion and could easily be paired with another appetizer or a dessert to make for a relatively inexpensive meal. Another thing to keep in mind if you are really in the mood for African cuisine (but at a cheaper price) is one of the Animal Kingdom Lodge's other dining options, Sanaa. Located at Kidani Village, this restaurant still offers similar exotic African flavors to those found at Jiko but in a slightly more casual setting and with more affordable prices.

Jiko is on the Disney Dining Plan, but as a Signature restaurant is worth two table service credits. The restaurant does participate in Tables in Wonderland, giving members a 20% discount. However, there are no additional discounts for Annual Passholders or Disney Vacation Club Members.

The Overall Experience:
Animal Kingdom Lodge has always been among my favorite Disney resorts thanks to its tremendous theming and attention to detail. As soon as you set foot into the lobby, you become completely immersed in African culture and it is easy to forget that you are in the middle of Disney World. Animal Kingdom Lodge is also home to some of the most unique and exotic dining experiences on property. I have always been a big fan of Boma and Sanaa, but now after finally trying Jiko I can safely add this to my list of must-do Disney dining locations. Combining the exotic elegance of the restaurant's atmosphere with the exotic flavors and tastes of Africa, Jiko is a culinary adventure the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else at Disney World. While it might be a little more on the expensive side, this is one Signature restaurant that is definitely worth the price.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Jiko and post your own too!

October 9, 2013

Experience a World of Flavors at Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival

Andrew Rossi

Epcot's International Food and Wine Festival has returned for its 18th year. As always, the Food and Wine Festival features a variety of events and demonstration in addition to the popular marketplaces scattered around World Showcase. One of the most enjoyable things about the festival is that it allows you to sample the cuisines of many different countries that you do not normally get to experience. The festival is a dream come true for the adventurous eater, allowing one to encounter new ingredients, flavors, and dishes both exotic and unique. With so much to see and do, you could easily spend a whole day (or more) enjoying all the festival has to offer. To start off, here are just a few tips to maximize your time and get the most out of your Food and Wine experience.

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Saturdays and Sundays are the busiest days of the week at the Food and Wine Festival, when many of the locals come to enjoy the event. This results in greater crowds and congestion along the World Showcase promenade and much longer lines at the food stands. It is best to avoid the weekends. If you can, try to visit Monday through Thursday when the lighter crowds make the festival much more enjoyable. In the same vein, World Showcase opens at eleven o'clock and this is definitely the best time to head over to sample the various festival marketplaces. Most guests tend to spend the morning in Future World and then make their way to the back of the park in the afternoon, resulting in larger crowds and longer lines as the day progresses.

Just as with everything at Disney World, it helps to plan ahead when attending the Food and Wine Festival. If you just walk up to every booth and order what sounds good you will end up spending way too much money. Almost every dish offered at the festival sounds, smells, and looks really good, but there will be some dishes that stand out to you more than others. It is better to see what every stand has to offer and then decide on the dishes you want to try most. Although the portion sizes of the food may seem small, they can be filling and after having just three or four different dishes you can easily find yourself starting to get full. Do not rush and get a lot of food from the first few stands you visit and, if traveling with someone else, you may want to consider sharing dishes, which also allows you to sample an even greater variety.

This year's 46-day festival features over twenty-five ethnic marketplaces and more than 220 food and beverage menu items. In addition to returning favorites such as Ireland, Australia, and Argentina (just to name a few), this year's festival marketplaces also include the return of Brazil as well as a brand-new Scotland booth marketplace. Here are some of the highlights.

Argentina is consistently one of the most popular of the festival marketplaces. Distinguished by its bright yellow color, this marketplace is also marked by the amazing aromas of the food being prepared inside.

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The Grilled Beef Skewer with Chimichurri Sauce and Boniato Purée is one of my must-have items at the festival each year. The chimichurri sauce has a very strong and distinctive flavor (like a slightly spicy pesto) and definitely gives the dish a bit of a kick. The boniato puree, on the other hand, is milder and has the texture, consistency, and flavor of mashed potatoes. The beef itself is tender and juicy, its flavor really enhanced by the chimichurri. While its $5.00 cost makes it more expensive than many other dishes at the festival, it is a high-quality dish that is certainly worth the price.

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Australia is a marketplace whose menu has gone through some changes over the years, but this year's offerings might be some of the best it has ever featured.

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A new dish to the festival this year is the Garlic Shrimp with Roasted Tomatoes, Lemon Myrtle and Rapini. This dish features three generously sized shrimp and tremendous flavor. If you are a fan of garlic, you will certainly love this dish. Contrasting the garlic-flavored shrimp is the rapini. Also known as broccoli rabe, this vegetable has a distinct and slightly bitter flavor, but one that matches very well with the shrimp. For $4.50 it is definitely a good portion size and packs a serious amount of flavor.

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South Korea was introduced to the festival just a few year ago and since its inception has been a big success. This year's marketplace features a new offering in addition to a returning favorite.

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The Kimchi Dog with Spicy Mustard Sauce is new to the festival this year. The kimchi dog itself is a little spicy, but not overwhelmingly so, and the mustard sauce provides another added kick. Countering this, however, is a light and refreshing coleslaw which provides a nice mild contrast. While the portion size may not be the largest, this is still a good value at $3.75 and is certainly something unique among the festival offerings.

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Africa is the new name of the marketplace which in previous years has been South Africa. With the name change comes some new flavor as well.

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The Berbere Style Beef with Onions, Jalapeños, Tomato, Okra and Pap is certainly not a dish for the faint of heart; it is definitely one of the spicier dishes at the festival this year. This dish can be likened to a spicy stew or a gumbo, and one with a great amount of flavor. All of this spiciness, however, is in contrast to the pap which has a flavor and consistency very similar to grits and helps provide some balance to the dish with its mild flavor. With a very generous portion size, this is one dish that is good to share and its $4.25 price also makes it a great value.

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Florida Local is the marketplace that highlights the various tastes and flavors of the host state, relying on locally-grown products and featuring an assortment of in-state wines and beers.

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It is here that you can find the Florida Grass Fed Beef Slider with Monterey Jack and Sweet & Hot Pickles. The beef slider was surprisingly juicy and the Monterey jack cheese provided just enough of a kick. I am not usually a fan of pickles, but their sweetness adds some nice extra taste that contrasts that of the beef and cheese. While not anything fancy or exotic, this is a good dish for those who may be a little less adventurous and for $3.75 definitely worth the price.

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New Zealand is a marketplace that typically has some intriguing choices and this year's festival is no different.

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I am not usually a fan of mussels, but the Gratinated Green Lip Mussels with Garlic and Herbs looked absolutely fantastic (not to mention that it seemed as though everybody at the marketplace was ordering them). This is another dish with a tremendous amount of flavor, with the garlic and herbs really enhancing the taste of the mussels. The mussels themselves were cooked to they were perfectly tender while the coating of bread crumbs on top added some additional flavor and texture to the dish. With three good-sized mussels, this is definitely a great value at $3.00.

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Belgium has always been the place at the festival to find waffles and this year the marketplace features three to choose from.

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When you think of waffles, one topped with beef might not be the first thing that comes to mind but that is exactly what is featured in the Potato and Leek Waffle with Braised Beef. This is such a unique and flavorful dish. To start, the waffle itself is so soft and fluffy with the potato giving it just a slightly heavier consistency. Meanwhile, the braised beef is so tender and flavorful and it actually pairs extremely well with the waffle. Overall, this is probably my favorite dish at the festival thus far and its generous portion size is definitely worth its $4.00 price.

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Desserts & Champagne is a great marketplace to end your journey around World Showcase, providing a selection of smaller-sized dessert offerings.

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There are two choices that are standouts to me at this marketplace. The first is the Hazelnut Chocolate Cheesecake. Don't let the portion size fool you. Although it appears small in size, it is definitely a rich and filling dessert. Surprisingly, the flavor of the hazelnut is not as prominent as one might expect and the dessert had more of a chocolaty taste. For $1.75, this is a great conclusion to you Food and Wine adventures.

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The second intriguing option is the Frozen S'mores. This frozen drink is a kicked-up version of a refreshing chocolate smoothie. Coming topped with marshmallows, chocolate shavings, and graham crackers, this is a drink that you might also need a spoon to enjoy. It is also very sweet and it's portion size just large enough. The prefect refreshment on a hot Florida day, this dessert is certinaly worth its $3.00 price tag.

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Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival continues through November 11. If you have never experienced the festivities before, it is definitely worth a visit. Be sure to come hungry!

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You can further examine all the marketplaces and menus this year's Festival has to offer here.

See how others are rating the various Festival marketplace offerings here.

If you have been to the Food & Wine Festival this year, you can take part in the survey as well by clicking here.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

September 6, 2013

Carthay Circle Restaurant: The Glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Age Meets the History and Heritage of Disney

Andrew Rossi

Disney's California Adventure has undergone a dramatic transformation since the park first opened in 2001. Attractions like Tower of Terror, Toy Story Midway Mania, and Ariel's Undersea Adventure all opened after the park's initial opening, not to mention the nighttime spectacular World of Color, and the highly anticipated Carsland that opened in 2012. With all these changes, Disney Imagineers also wanted to recreate the park's entrance in a way that was better-themed and more immersive. California Adventure's original main entrance, known as Sunshine Plaza, was designed to make it feel as if Guests were stepping into a postcard of California. This included giant letters spelling out "California," a scaled replica of the Golden Gate Bridge, and massive murals depicting the state's vast mountain ranges.

With the new Buena Vista Street, instead of depicting California as it is today Guests are transported to Los Angeles of the 1920s, the time when Walt Disney first arrived. Now much more similar to Main Street USA at Disneyland, Buena Vista Street includes an array of shopping, dining, and entertainment. Guests can hop aboard the Red Car Trolley as it takes them past stores such as Oswald's Gas & Oil, Elias and Company Department Store, Mortimer's Market, and the Fiddler, Fifer and Practical Café and Bakery. The crown jewel of Buena Vista Street, however, is a replica of the Carthay Circle Theater; it has become to California Adventure what Sleeping Beauty Castle is at Disneyland or Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom.

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Inside this beautiful building you will find an equally incredible dining experience, the Carthay Circle Restaurant.

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Overview:
The Carthay Circle Theater was one of the most famous movie palaces of Hollywood's Golden Age. Opened in 1926, the theater saw the premiere of movies such as "Romeo and Juliet" in 1936 and "Gone with the Wind" in 1939. The theater, however, also has a very deep connection with Walt Disney and was the sight of the premiere of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in 1937 and "Fantasia" in 1940.

The theater was designed in a Spanish Colonial-Revival style with white-washed concrete and a high bell tower that could be seen from miles around. When the theater first opened The Architect and Engineer praised the Carthay Circle as "simple, massive, and dignified, the building stands out for its intrinsic beauty," while the Pacific Coast Architect called it "a theater masked as a cathedral." Unfortunately, the original Carthay Circle Theater was demolished in 1969 but replicas can be found at two locations. The first is a smaller-scale façade found at Disney's Hollywood Studios on Sunset Boulevard that houses a gift shop called Once Upon a Time. California Adventure's Carthay Circle Theater, while still slightly smaller than the 1926 original, is a much closer and grander recreation and has become one of the main icons of the park.

Open for lunch and dinner, the Carthay Circle Restaurant is located on the building's upper floor with a lounge on the lower level. The restaurant is the equivalent of a Signature dining location at Disney World in terms of atmosphere, menu, and pricing. There is, however, no dress code for this restaurant. Reservations are strongly encouraged but, unlike at Disney World, can only be made sixty days in advance.

The Carthay Circle Restaurant also offers a World of Color Dining Package. This is something that has changed rather recently. The current dining package offers Guests a prix fixe meal allows you a choice of appetizer, entrée, and dessert from a select menu while also receiving access to a preferred viewing area for World of Color. If you want to have the peace of mind knowing that you have a guaranteed spot for the show without the need of getting there an hour or more in advance, this is definitely something I recommend. The viewing area is located in the very center, not nearly as crowded as the other viewing locations, and you are asked to arrive just fifteen to twenty minutes ahead of time. If partaking in the dining package for lunch you will receive a ticket for the first showing of World of Color while dining for dinner will get you a ticket for the second showing. With a cost of $39 for lunch and $59 for dinner, I would highly recommend dining here for lunch if you are looking to do the dining package. We did, and I felt it was definitely worth the price.

Atmosphere:
The Carthay Circle Restaurant completely immerses you in the romance and glamour of Hollywood's Golden Age. This begins as soon as you enter. The lower level of the Carthay Circle is a lounge where you can relax and enjoy a cocktail in an upscale setting. This is the perfect place to wait for a table to be available in the restaurant upstairs or even if you are just looking for a quiet escape from the theme park crowds outside.

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Ascending the stairs or taking to the elevator up to the second level, Guests make their way down a short hallway before entering the restaurant's grand main dining room. With the dining room's high ceilings, wood-paneled walls, and chandeliers, there is certainly a high degree of refinement and elegance to the restaurant.

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The restaurant has a certain romance and glamour to it that is distinctly "Hollywood." Dining here really makes you feel as though you have been transported to another time and place, back to Hollywood's Golden Age. It is no stretch to imagine Walt Disney himself and other famous celebrities of the time dining at a restaurant similar to this.

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Along the walls of the main dining room are also cabinets that showcase numerous bottles of wine featured on the restaurant's extensive wine list.

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Off of the main dining room are smaller dining areas each of which provide slightly different feels while still maintaining the restaurant's upscale atmosphere.

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There are even two outdoor terraces where Guests can enjoy their meals with stunning views of Buena Vista Street. It is also a great vantage point from which to watch the park's afternoon parade.

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The open kitchen is also a nice touch.

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What makes the restaurant so special, however, are the numerous photographs, paintings, and other pictures that adorn the walls. If you are a fan of Disney history, like myself, then you will most certainly appreciate the wide array of photographs of Walt found throughout the dining room.

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There are also many pictures showing the Carthay Circle during its heyday, including photographs from the premier of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

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If the scenes painted on the ceiling look familiar, it is because they pay homage to the landscapes and background art of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

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All these images and photographs really make dining at the Carthay Circle restaurant feel as though you are experiencing part of Walt's history. In this way, it is really the perfect fit for California Adventure and especially Buena Vista Street. It is a testament not only to the restaurant's beauty and elegance, but also its tremendous theming and attention to detail.

The Menu:
The Carthay Circle Restaurant is open for both lunch and dinner and each has menus that are somewhat different. The appetizers for both, however, are essentially the same. Among these are the Carthay Signature Fried Biscuits ($12.00) which come stuffed with white cheddar, bacon, and jalapeno, Fire Cracker Duck Wings ($14.00) with a soy, lime, and chili sauce, Warm California Asparagus ($16.00) accompanied by prosciutto, asiago and a truffle poached egg vinaigrette, Pacific Ono Ceviche ($16.00), and Ginger Pork Pot Stickers ($14.00) accented with lemon grass and a mango voodoo sauce. The dinner menu also includes a Sauteed Crab Cake ($17.00) topped with a lemon vinaigrette. Both lunch and dinner menus also include a Seasonal Soup ($11.00) with a tomato broth, asparagus, spring leeks, lemon roasted chicken, and basil, as well as a Carthay Green Salad ($12.00) with jicama, cucumber, cilantro, and an orange white balsamic vinaigrette, which are the only two appetizer offerings on both the lunch and dinner World of Color Dining Package menus.

For lunch, the entrées include the Carthay Strawberry Chicken Salad ($22.00) with bacon, avocado, and cherry tomatoes in a fresh strawberry and thyme vinaigrette, an Angus Beef Arugula Salad ($23.00) with a cabernet vinaigrette, Rigatoni Pasta with Roasted Chicken ($25.00) mixed with pancetta, summer peas, and spinach, Sauteed Short Rib Raviolis ($27.00), Skuna Bay Salmon ($30.00) served on a fresh golden tomato salsa with avocado and cucumber relish, a Mediterranean Grilled Eggplant Sandwich ($20.00) with sauteed artichoke bottoms, marinated tomatoes, roasted garlic, and melted reserve cheese, and the Carthay Angus Burger ($22.00) topped with cheddar cheese, black pepper bacon, and grilled onions. All of these entrée items are also available on the lunch World of Color Dining Package menu as well.

For dinner, the Sauteed Short Rib Raviolis, Rigatoni Pasta with Roasted Chicken, and Skuna Bay Salmon all remain and are joined by a Summer Garden Vegetable Risotto ($34.00) with coastal mushrooms, truffle butter, and English pea coulis, Sauteed Shrimp ($30.00) with summer corn, zucchini, applewood smoked bacon, and basil pesto, a Grilled Angus Rib-Eye ($44.00) topped with a sauteed mushroom ragu, red flame grapes, and blue cheese, and a Western Cut Pork Chop ($37.00) with fingerling potatoes, string beans and summer peaches. Again, all these entrées are available on the dinner World of Color Dining Package menu.

The dessert options are the same for both lunch and dinner and among these are a Warm Rocky Road Brownie ($11.00),Toasted Lemon Pound Cake ($12.00), Chocolate Decadent Layer Cake ($12.00), and Warm Hand Crafted California Strawberry Rhubarb Pie ($12.00). Of these, just the Chocolate Layer Cake and Lemon Pound Cake are on both of the World of Color Dining Package menus.

Doing the World of Color Dining Package, my appetizer selection was limited but I decided on the Seasonal Soup. This soup really surprised me. While it might look fairly plain and simple, it has tremendous flavor. Light and refreshing in taste, this soup is the perfect way to start your meal without being too filling. It is a soup where all its flavors blend together very well, relying heavily on fresh vegetables with its tomato broth, asparagus, and spring leeks. For me, however, the real highlight of the soup was its use of basil. I am not someone who usually cares a lot for basil, but in this soup it was such an essential component that really added to the freshness and made the flavor pop. At the same time, I did not feel as though the basil overpowered the other flavors. While the soup also features lemon roasted chicken, it was in more of a complimentary role rather than being the main feature.

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As my entrée I chose the Sauteed Short Rib Raviolis. Again, this was a dish of tremendous flavor. Just as with the soup, this was also a dish that was both light and refreshing. Served atop a medley of fresh vegetables, the raviolis were cooked perfectly al dente. The idea of serving beef short rib inside raviolis was unique, but in this dish is executed perfectly so that the flavor of the short rib is still very noticeable. Accompanying the raviolis was a red pepper and cabernet jus. This sauce packed a ton of flavor and had just a slight spiciness that paired perfectly with the more mild raviolis and vegetables. My only wish is that there had been a little more of the jus since it really added some great flavor to the dish.

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Finally, for dessert I went with the Chocolate Decadent Layer Cake. Whereas the rest of the meal had been comprised of light and refreshing flavors, this cake was extremely rich. Decadent is definitely the perfect word to describe this dessert. While the slice of cake may not appear big, it was extremely filling. The cake came topped with a generous portion of whipped cream and served with a raspberry sauce, both of which provided a lighter and refreshing contrast to the chocolaty cake. Overall, this was a great way to end a fantastic meal.

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Service:
This was the only aspect of the Carthay Circle Restaurant in which I was slightly disappointed. I actually found the service to be a little on the slow side. While I am not one who wants to be rushed during my meal, I felt that this went a little too far. It started when we first arrived at the restaurant and were waiting in the lounge for quite some time before being brought up to our table even though we had a reservation and the restaurant was not even crowded. Upon being seated, we then went a good while before our server even approached our table and then even longer to get our drinks delivered. Once we had finally placed our orders, however, the meal did progress at a better pace. While our server was not the most personable or conversational, she did frequently check in with our table to make sure everything was to our liking. Overall, the service was not bad, but it is not the same caliber of service that I would expect from a comparable dining experience at Disney World.

Dining on a Budget:
While the Carthay Circle Restaurant is a little pricey, if you are visiting Disney's California Adventure I highly recommend splurging and spending a little extra to dine here. If you are planning on doing the World of Color Dining Package, I strongly recommend doing it at lunch as opposed to dinner. During the lunchtime hours it is much easier to get your money's worth on the dining package as opposed to dinner (lunch is $39 while dinner is $59). For example, my lunch of the Seasonal Soup ($11.00) and Short Rib Raviolis ($27.00) almost covers the entire cost of the dining package. Meaning that, in theory, I got the Chocolate Layer Cake ($12.00 on the regular menu) for just $1. Not to mention that the dining package also includes your choice of soft drink or coffee. On the lunch dining package, no matter what entrée you select, every combination of appetizer, entrée, and dessert more than covers the cost. This becomes much more difficult at dinner where only selecting the Grilled Angus Rib-Eye ($44.00) or Western Cut Pork Chop ($37.00) would allow you to equal the dining package's cost of $59 when combined with appetizer and dessert.

The Overall Experience:
I was extremely impressed with the Carthay Circle Restaurant. Not only does it completely immerse you with its grandeur and beauty which helps transport you back to Hollywood's Gold Age, but it also really helps to showcase Disney's history and heritage. When you combine this with a menu featuring an array of high-quality offerings, I would consider the Carthay Circle Restaurant a "must do" on any Disneyland vacation. I also highly recommend the World of Color Dining Package (for lunch). Not only do you get a fantastic meal, but the reserved viewing area is right in the very center and gives you the peace of mind knowing that you are guaranteed a spot to watch the show without having to arrive an hour or more ahead of time. Really, the addition of the Carthay Circle Restaurant is representative of the overall transformation that Disney's California Adventure has made over the past few years. It has become a truly beautiful theme park, featuring great attractions combined with immersive and detailed theming. It is a theme park that is truly worthy of the Disney name.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of the Carthay Circle Restaurant and post your own too!

August 18, 2013

Experience the Whimsy and Charm of the Boardwalk at Flying Fish Cafe

Andrew Rossi

Disney's Boardwalk Resort brings the charm of turn-of-the-century Atlantic City to life transporting Guests to a bygone area. When it was constructed in 1870, Atlantic City's boardwalk was the first in the United States and it played a major role in ushering in the city's golden era in the early 20th century. During this time, Atlantic City became one of the country's premiere vacation destinations featuring elegant hotels, vibrant nightlife, and world-class restaurants.

Disney's Boardwalk effectively recreates this setting not only with a distinct look and feel found in the resort's architecture and décor but also with its nightly entertainment on the boardwalk and wide array of dining options. When it comes to dining, Disney's Boardwalk offers something for everyone whether it be just grabbing a pastry from the Boardwalk Bakery, enjoying a game at the ESPN Club, or sampling the Greek-inspired cuisine of Cat Cora's Kouzzina. The crown jewel of the Boardwalk's restaurants, however, is the Flying Fish Café.

Flying_Fish_Signage

Overview:
Open only for dinner, the Flying Fish Café holds true to its namesake and is best known for its fresh seafood. Being a Signature dining location, you know that you can expect the highest quality in all facets of the dining experience. However, as opposed to the more elegant and formal atmospheres of many other Signature restaurant's, Flying Fish Café is still able to deliver a unique and memorable dining experience without sacrificing its whimsy and charm.

Flying_Fish_Boardwalk

In addition to being a Signature restaurant, the Flying Fish Café also features two special offerings. First is the Chef's Tasting Wine Dinner. Here Guests take a seat at the chef's counter, directly in front of the onstage kitchen, and are able to interact with the restaurant's culinary team as they prepare the evening's meal. This five-course prix fixe menu changes daily and is available just twice an evening (5:45 and 8:15) Sundays through Thursdays. The second unique experience is Dining with a Disney Imagineer. This four-course meal offers Guests one-of-a-kind insights into the design, theming, and history of the Disney parks and resorts. Both of these experiences are incredibly popular and reservations should thus be made well in advance.

Like all other Disney Signature dining locations, Flying Fish Café features a dress code. Men are encouraged to wear khakis, slacks, jeans, dress shorts, and collared shirts. Sport coats are optional. For women it is suggested that they wear capris, skirts, dresses, jeans, dress shorts. There are also certain articles of clothing that are not allowed in the dining room, such as tank tops, swimwear, hats, cut-off or torn clothing.

Atmosphere:
The Flying Fish Café continues the turn-of-the-century boardwalk feel of the rest of the resort, but does so in a playful and whimsical way. The flying fish that give the restaurant its name are literally flying from parachutes hanging from the ceiling.

Flying_Fish_Parachutes

The overall theme of the restaurant is that of an old-fashioned boardwalk amusement park; Coney Island is a picture that immediately comes to mind. However, this theme is presented in a way that is tasteful and subdued with a slightly upscale feel.

In addition to the parachuting fish, there is a large ferris wheel along the back wall of the dining room.

Flying_Fish_Ferris_Wheel

There is even one section of the restaurant that gives you the feel of dining inside of a circus tent.

Flying_Fish_Circus_Tent

The amusement park theme is best seen in a beautiful mural that stretches along the top of the dining room wall. Here you can find images of wooden rollercoasters, a fun house, steeplechase horses, swings, and people enjoying amusement park treats like popcorn and cotton candy.

Flying_Fish_Mural1

This beautiful piece of art really goes a long way in solidifying the restaurant's theme.

Flying_Fish_Mural2

Also, be sure to take note of the restaurant's beautifully painted ceiling creating the illusion of a blue sky filled with white fluffy clouds.

Flying_Fish_Ceiling

While the dining room may appear a little narrow at first glance, it stretches a long way back and the restaurant's high ceilings also contribute to give the dining room an open feel. Also assisting with this are a large number of windows that line the dining room and offer scenic views of the Boardwalk's courtyard gardens.

Flying_Fish_Dining_Room

The restaurant also features an open kitchen which allows diners to see their meals being prepared. The counter directly in front of the kitchen is for those Guests enjoying the Chef's Tasting Wine Dinner.

Flying_Fish_Kitchen

Overall, I found Flying Fish to be one of the better-themed Signature restaurants that I have dined at. Not only does the restaurant do an effective job of carrying through the resort's theme from the boardwalk outside, it does so in a way that is not too over-the-top; you are still getting that more upscale feel that you would expect from a Signature dining location.
That being said, I do think that Flying Fish, because of its unique theming and atmosphere, is one of the more family-friendly Signature restaurants that I have dined at. In fact, I did notice many more families dining here than I typically see at other Signature dining locations.

The Menu:
Holding true to its namesake, the Flying Fish Café specializes in seafood. The restaurant's menu, however, is fairly diverse and features a wide variety of flavors and ingredients giving its dishes a more exotic flare. While there are several mainstays on the menu that the restaurant is known for, a good portion is constantly changing depending on the time of year and what ingredients are fresh. The following reflects the menu when I visited Flying Fish in mid-July.

Appetizers include Chardonnay-Steamed Canadian Cove Mussels ($18.00), Yellowfin Tuna Tartare and Crispy Tempura Tuna-Vegetable Sushi Roll ($18.00), Vegetarian Sushi Roll ($12.00), Crispy Maine Coast Jonah Crab Cake ($17.00) with roasted red pepper coulis and chile rémoulade, Crispy Sesame and Togarashi-Scented Calamari ($15.00) served with an Asian dipping sauce, Worldly Artisanal Cheeses ($18.00) featuring tasting portions of five different cheeses, and the Signature Flying Fish Cafe Appetizer Duo ($16.00) combining the jonah crab cake and caesar salad.

There are also a number of soups and salads available including the Chef's Special Thunder Appetizer ($13.00) with roasted beets, goat cheese, spiced pecans, oranges, and a pecan-truffle blood orange vinaigrette, Sherry-Laced She Crab Crema ($11.00), a Sweet Bibb and Red Oak Salad ($11.00) with pears, gorgonzola cheese, radishes, candied walnuts, and a walnut oil vinaigrette, Caesar Salad ($11.00), and Mozzarella di Bufala alla Caprese ($15.00).

The entrees may seem a little complex with all the various ingredients, but I found the servers very helpful in explaining the dishes. Among these are the Oak Grilled Swordfish ($34.00) served with wilted field greens, braised leeks, maitake mushrooms, and an Idaho potato torta with a tarragon butter sauce, California Asparagus and Mushroom Riccia Pasta ($26.00) topped with forest mushrooms, jumbo asparagus, arugula, porcini, and crispy shiitake mushrooms, Idaho Potato-Wrapped Red Snapper ($36.00) served over a rich leek fondue with a red wine butter reduction, Oak-Grilled Faroe Islands Salmon ($36.00) accompanied by arugula and red watercress, cucumbers, heirloom radishes, and tiny turnips with a vermouth, dill, caper and butter emulsion, Oak-Grilled Maine Diver Scallops ($35.00) served with Mediterranean vegetables and a mascarpone-laced risotto, Trio of Heritage Berkshire-Kurobuta Pork Tenderloin ($34.00) featuring grilled tenderloin, slow-cooked belly, and braised shoulder with a mushroom ragout and a corn goat cheese "pudding," the Char-Crusted Angus New York Strip Steak ($43.00) served alongside fingerling potatoes, red Bermuda onions, young carrots, and topped with a classic sauce foyot, and finally the Signature Flying Fish Cafe Entree Duo ($47.00) that combines the strip steak and potato-wrapped red snapper.

There are also several delectable side dishes to choose from including Grilled California Jumbo Asparagus ($12.00), Smoked Bacon and Garlic-Laced Rainbow Chard ($6.00), Leek, Fontina, and Truffle-Laced Mac and Cheese ($10.00), Creamy Risotto di Carnarolli ($8.00), Aged Gruyere and Parmigiano Potato Gratin ($8.00), and Herb-Roasted Mushrooms ($9.00).

If you still have room for dessert, there are several options which pay tribute to the restaurant's Boardwalk influence. The best example of this is the Trio of Concession Sweets ($9.00) featuring popcorn mousse and caramel corn, cherry-limeade popsicle, strawberry-raspberry "hot dog," and pound cake fries. There is also the Caramelized Banana Napoleon ($8.00), FFC Summer Sundae ($8.00) with cinnamon ice cream and cherry sorbet, candied almonds, and cherry compote, the "Nuts About Chocolate Indulgence" ($8.00) with a caramel, chocolate, and hazelnut praline mousse, a candied pecan and butterscotch-laced blondie, chocolate sorbet, and candied almonds, Cashew-Crusted Blueberry Goat Cheesecake ($8.00), and Peach Creme Brulee ($7.00).

For my meal I chose the Idaho Potato-Wrapped Red Snapper ($36.00), which my server described as one of the restaurant's signature and most popular entrees. The snapper comes served over a leek fondue and is accompanied by a red wine-cassis butter reduction. While the idea of fish wrapped in potatoes was very appealing, I was a little hesitant to order this dish because I was unsure of the leek fondue. I first asked if I could get something else substituted for the leeks, but my server assured me that this was an essential part to the dish and encouraged me to give it a try. I am so glad that I took his advice because the leeks were phenomenal.

Flying_Fish_Snapper

Red snapper is not a strongly flavored fish, so it really relies on its accompaniments to enhance its flavor. The fish itself was perfectly moist and fell apart at the touch of a fork. The potatoes that wrapped the snapper were thinly cut and slightly crispy in texture, which provided a nice contrast to the softer fish. The leeks, while having a similar look and consistency, did not have as bold or prominent a flavor as onions and certainly did not overwhelm the other flavors of the dish. On the contrary, I felt that the leeks paired perfectly with the mildly-flavored snapper. Finally, the red wine-cassis butter reduction was the real star of the dish, providing a tremendous, and ever-so-slightly sweet, flavor that really helped tie the whole dish together.

As a side dish I decided to try Aged Gruyere and Parmigiano Potato Gratin ($8.00). Even though this was a side dish, it was really a highlight of the meal. I was amazed by how much flavor was packed into these potatoes. The gooey cheesiness of the potatoes certainly made for a rich and filling dish. It is definitely large enough to split between two or three people.

Flying_Fish_Potatoes

These potatoes really highlighted one of the things that I enjoyed most about the Flying Fish menu: the tremendous variety and combinations of flavors in each of the dishes. This is something that helps differentiate a Signature restaurant; they rely on a wide array of ingredients and flavors that help take common dishes and give them a more exotic and unique twist. Everything on the menu is truly of the highest quality.

Service:
Another benefit of Signature restaurants is the attentiveness of the servers. As a general rule, servers at Signature restaurants typically have fewer tables to wait upon and can thus devote more time to your needs. I found my server to be extremely helpful. With a menu featuring such a wide variety of ingredients and flavors, I relied heavily on my server to describe the various dishes and provide recommendations as to his personal favorites. Throughout the course of my meal, my server was constantly checking-in to makes sure everything was to my liking and ensuring that I did not need anything else. While not necessarily conversational, I found my server to be very dedicated. You could tell he clearly cared about providing the best service possible.

Another aspect of the service at Signature restaurants that I greatly enjoy is the pace of the meal. Here, you never really feel rushed and the meal progresses at a calm and relaxed pace that lets you fully enjoy the atmosphere and the food.

Dining on a Budget:
This is something that is difficult to do at Flying Fish Cafe. Unfortunately, while a Signature restaurant offers the best of the best in terms of atmosphere, location, food, and service, you are also paying for that high quality. The price of an appetizer here would be the equivalent of an entrée at some other Disney restaurants. If you are looking to splurge a little on a meal during your vacation this would be one of the restaurants to do it at because you certainly get what you pay for. That being said, if you choose to eat at Flying Fish, or any other Signature restaurant, there are a couple of ways to keep the bill low. First, don't order any alcohol. Beer and wine can often run up a bill, so you may want to consider a glass of water or soda. Second, share an appetizer rather than getting one just for yourself. Not only does this save money, but it also prevents you from filling up before your entrée arrives. Finally, skip or share dessert. The entrees are certainly big and filling enough that you do not really need to have a dessert all to yourself, which would also help to keep the cost of your meal down.

Flying Fish Cafe is on the Disney Dining Plan, but as a Signature restaurant it is worth two table service credits. If you are a Tables in Wonderland member, this is definitely a good restaurant to take advantage of its 20% discount. However, there are no additional discounts for Annual Passholders or Disney Vacation Club Members.

The Overall Experience:
I have always been a fan of Disney's Boardwalk. With its immersive theming and attention to detail, nightly entertainment, and various dining options, you really feel as if you have been transported to another time and place. The Flying Fish Café fits in perfectly with the Boardwalk's turn-of-the-century feel. What I liked most about the restaurant is that it has more charm and whimsy than you would typically expect from a Signature dining location. With its well-themed, slightly upscale, and more family-friendly atmosphere, the Flying Fish Café is not nearly as formal or elegant as some of Disney's other Signature restaurants, but I think this helps add to its appeal. It is a restaurant that is quintessentially Disney, but in a more subtle and subdued way.

It is not just the atmosphere, but everything about Flying Fish Café is of the highest quality. If you are a seafood lover, you will certainly not be disappointed with the restaurant's menu that features a wide array flavorful and exotic dishes.While it might be a little pricey, you are most certainly getting what you pay for in every aspect of the dining experience.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Flying Fish Cafe and post your own too!

April 13, 2013

Le Cellier on a Budget? It Can Be Done!

Andrew Rossi

Le Cellier, nestled inconspicuously in Epcot's Canada pavilion, is probably one of the most acclaimed and highly recommended restaurants in Disney World. Getting reservations here for both lunch and dinner can be quite a challenge no matter what time of year you are visiting. There is good reason for the restaurant's popularity and why many people consider Le Cellier their favorite dining location in all of Disney World. Everything about the restaurant is of the highest quality, from the service to the menu to the ingredients used in preparing the dishes, and it delivers all of these things on a consistent basis.

Le Cellier Sign

For this reason, it was not too surprising when Le Cellier was made one of Disney's Signature dining locations. With it new status came major changes to the menu and I was very intrigued to see if the dining experience as a whole would be taken to a new level. Of course, with becoming a Signature restaurant, the prices on Le Cellier's menu (which were not too economical to begin with) reflect this as well. While these higher prices may dissuade some guests from dining here, I went to Le Cellier recently to see if it was possible to dine here on a budget.

Overview:
One of the great things about World Showcase at Epcot is that it allows you to be completely immersed in cultures that are completely different from our own, experiencing the sights, sounds, and tastes of eleven different nations. Each pavilion has their own unique offerings of attractions, shops, and restaurants that help give us insight into what life is like in these different nations. The Canada pavilion may be the most beautiful and visually stunning in all of World Showcase. The first things that catches the eye is the Victorian-style Hotel du Canada, inspired by the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa.

Canada Pavilion Exterior

The landscaping is likewise absolutely breathtaking with beautifully colorful grounds reminiscent of Victoria's Butchart Gardens.

Canada Pavilion Gardens

The pavilion also pays homage to the Canadian Rockies with a boulder-strewn stream and thirty-foot waterfall.

Canada Pavilion Rockies

Just as the pavilion's exterior captures the beauty of the Canadian landscape, Le Cellier offers an equally immersive experience into Canadian cuisine. It is a restaurant which offers an elegant and intimate escape and, during the course of a meal, makes one forget that you are actually dining in the middle of the theme park.

Atmosphere:
The great difficulty in getting reservations at Le Cellier is not only due to its incredible popularity, but also because of its size. Le Cellier is probably the smallest of all the sit-down restaurants at Epcot with exception of Monsieur Paul, but this adds to its allure with the small size creating a very intimate atmosphere.

Le Cellier Dining Room2

If you are expecting any drastic changes to the atmosphere now that the restaurant is a Signature dining location, there aren't any. The décor of the restaurant is the same as it has always been: simple and subtle, but elegant. True to its name, the restaurant is meant to feel as though you are dining in a wine cellar.

Le Cellier Dining Room3

Although the theming may not be extreme, it still has many little details that contribute to your sense of immersion, not the least of which are numerous beer and wine bottles scattered around the dining room.

Le Cellier Wine

The stone and dark-wood paneled walls, the faux candle light fixtures, and faux fireplace all lend to the authentic wine cellar atmosphere.

Le Cellier Lighting

The restaurant does not have any windows and so the dining area is somewhat dark and enclosed, but large mirrors on all of the walls give the sense that the restaurant is much bigger than it actually is. Due to its small space, the tables in the dining area are somewhat close together, but the restaurant is not loud at all even if all the tables are filled.

With its refined and intimate feel, Le Cellier is a great dining location for a romantic night out, but at the same time it is not so upscale that you should hesitate going if you have children.

The Menu:
Here is where there has been the biggest transformation in Le Cellier becoming a Signature dining location. Gone are the separate menus for lunch and dinner. Gone also are the prix fixe options that were offered for lunch and dinner enabling you to get an appetizer, entrée, and dessert for $29.99 for lunch and $36.99 for dinner. While there are several favorites that are still present on the menu, there are others that have been removed completely. You will also notice an increase in some of the prices as well. As was the case before, the menu highlights the varied cuisine of Canada's different provinces. However, with the restaurant's new Signature status it can be expected that the menu offerings will change a little more frequently depending on the season and what ingredients are most fresh. The following reflects the menu when I most recently dined there in the beginning of March.

For appetizers the offerings include Wagyu Beef Carpaccio ($14.00) with capers, radish, frisee, Flagship Reserve cheddar, and lemon oil, Cedar Creek Clams ($16.00) with Blanche de Chambly, chorizo, and lemons, a Fall Fig Salad ($12.00) with duck prosciutto, blue cheese, and soft boiled eggs, Seared Scallops ($14.00) with butternut squash, red pepper jam, and pickled mushrooms, an Heirloom Tomato Salad ($12.00) with mozzarella and watermelon, a Lobster Chopped Salad ($16.00) featuring mixed field greens, avocado, tomatoes, and eggs, the Steakhouse Caesar Salad ($10.00) featuring pretzel croutons, an Assortment of Artisanal Cheese ($14.00), and Le Cellier's signature Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup ($9.00).

Being a steakhouse, steaks are the prominently featured entrees on the menu. Among these are the Le Cellier Mushroom Filet Mignon ($43.00) with wild mushroom risotto and white truffle butter sauce, the Grilled Bone-in Ribeye ($46.00) with herb-parmesan potato wedges and roasted garlic butter, the Grilled Waygu Short Rib ($34.00) with stone ground grits, charred corn, baby fennel, roasted tomatoes, and chipotle sauce, and the Canadian Prime New York Strip ($44.00) with potato pavé, wilted spinach, and vin rouge reduction.

Other entrées include the Yellow Tail Snapper ($35.00) with roasted eggplant, royal trumpets, baby spinach, ponzu, and lotus root chips, a Lamb Rack ($42.00) with roasted eggplant, pattypan squash, tomatoes, romano beans, and smoked tomato reduction, Kurobuta Pork ($38.00) with baby spinach, wild mushrooms, fried cheddar cheese pasta, and smoked tomato reduction, and a Roasted Free-Range Chicken ($34.00) with marble potatoes, spring onion, spicy chicken sausage, and roasted shallot butter.

If you are looking for something additional to go along with you meal there are also an assortment of side dishes available. Among these are Poutine Fries ($8.00) topped with Canadian cheddar, truffle salt, and red wine reduction, Creamed Spinach ($7.00), Roasted Marble Potatoes ($8.00) with garlic, thyme, and rosemary, Lobster Macaroni and Cheese ($10.00), Cauliflower Gratineé ($8.00) with parmesan and herbs, and Sautéed Mushrooms ($8.00) with herb butter.

Finally, you can finish off your meal with one of Le Cellier's delectable desserts such as the Neopolitan Cappuccino Cake ($10.00) with cappuccino mousse and a caramel pretzel on top of chocolate cake, Pistachio Cake ($10.00) with pistachio cream cheese and pickled watermelon rind, Maple Crème Brûlée ($7.00), White Chocolate Cheesecake ($10.00) with citrus shortbread cookies and seasonal berries, Strawberry Panna Cotta ($9.00), and a Strawberry and Rhubarb Sorbet ($8.00).

There was little hesitation about how I was going to start my meal. No meal at Le Cellier is complete without having the Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup. Ever since the first time I dined here it has been my favorite item on the entire menu. What makes the soup so special is its incredible flavor. It is extremely rich and creamy, very thick, and very filling. The predominant flavor of the soup is the cheddar cheese, but there is also a slight hint of beer that adds an extra little kick. There is also the taste of smoked bacon, but this is just enough to enhance the overall flavor of the soup rather than being overpowering. The flavors of the cheddar cheese, Moosehead beer, and smoked bacon blend together in a way that creates a soup unmatched by any other.

Cheddar Cheese Soup

Served alongside the soup was an assortment of bread highlighting the various provinces of Canada. There is a sourdough roll representing the Yukon territory, a multi-grain roll for the various grain producing provinces, and pretzel bread for Ontario, which holds the second largest Oktoberfest in the world each year. Each bread offers a different taste and texture and pairs perfectly with the hearty soup. The pretzel bread is my personal favorite.

Le Cellier Bread

After starting my meal with such a filling appetizer, from past experience I have found that I am not usually able to eat much of my entrée. Therefore, I decided to order the Lobster Macaroni and Cheese. Although just a side item, my server ensured me that it would probably be enough when combined with the soup and the bread. The portion size turned out to be more than large enough because this was another heavy, filling dish. While mac and cheese might not seem like a fit at a fancy steakhouse, this is unlike any other you have ever had. The dish's flavor is what really sets it apart. Rich and creamy, it uses a lighter flavored mascarpone cheese rather than a sharp cheddar and this pairs extremely well with the lobster. I was impressed with the large chunks of lobster present throughout the dish and it seemed as though you got a bit of lobster in almost every bite. Overall, this was a very high quality dish and was more than enough to be an entrée unto itself.

Lobster Mac and Cheese

Service:
The service at Le Cellier has always been of very high quality. Because of the restaurant's smaller size, it means that the servers are able to pay an even greater amount of attention to each table. It seemed as though my server was always coming by the table to make sure everything was okay and to see if anything was needed. I found my server to be very friendly and helpful. He pointed out some of the more popular items on the menu, his own personal favorites, and also offered suggestions as to which wines might be the best for certain dishes. One thing I enjoy about the service at Le Cellier is that, although they are very efficient and attentive, the meal still progresses at a relaxed pace. Even though the restaurant is extremely popular, I did not feel as though they were trying to rush me through my meal in order to get the tables turned-over quickly. This pace of service allows you to enjoy the meal much more and really appreciate the high quality of the restaurant. However, these are all things that the servers at Le Cellier have always done. Now that the restaurant is Signature I did not find that the service had really changed nor was it taken to a new level.

Dining on a Budget:
I set out to see if it would be possible to dine on a budget at Le Cellier and I am pleased to say that it can be done. My total bill, including tax and gratuity, came to $23.41. Not only that, but I left the restaurant feeling completely satisfied. The combination of the Cheddar Cheese Soup, bread, and Lobster Macaroni and Cheese was more than enough food. The moral of the story is that, even when at a Signature restaurant, you can dine on a budget if you are willing to think a little out of the box. My best suggestion would be a combination of a couple of appetizers, an appetizer and a side item like the Lobster Macaroni and Cheese or the Poutine Fries, or an appetizer and a dessert. Another way to save money is to not order any alcohol, which can really run up your bill. Instead, consider a soft drink or a glass of water as a way of saving money. I had worried that becoming a Signature restaurant would put Le Cellier out of many people's price range. However, it is still possible to dine there and have a fantastic, high quality meal at an affordable price. Of course, if you are willing to splurge on one restaurant during your vacation this would definitely be one to do it at.

Le Cellier is on the Disney Dining Plan. However, as a Signature restaurant, it is now two table service credits for both lunch and dinner. The restaurant also participates in Tables in Wonderland, which allows members to recieve their 20% discount. There are no additional discounts for Annual Passholders or Disney Vacation Club members, however.

The Overall Experience:
One of the main ways that restaurants become successful is to deliver a high quality product and to do so consistently. This is especially true at Le Cellier. It comes as no surprise that the restaurant is one of the most popular in all of Disney World. In all the times of have dined there I have never been disappointed. Guests go to Le Cellier with very high expectations and yet the restaurant delivers time after time; not only does it meet these expectations, but it continues to find ways to exceed them. This is why it is really not surprising that Le Cellier is now a Signature restaurant.

Even with its new Signature status and higher prices, I highly recommend Le Cellier as one of my "must do" Disney restaurants. If you have not experienced this restaurant yet, it is definitely worth trying and you do not necessarily need to spend a ton of money to do so. As soon as you have dined there once, you will want to keep going back again and again. However, be advised that reservations are a must and should be booked as far in advance as possible. If you cannot get a reservation, be persistent because you never know when there will be changes or cancellations. All this effort will be worth it because the experience of Le Cellier can best be summed up as Disney dining at its very best.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Le Cellier and post your own too!

March 10, 2013

Citricos: A Touch of the Mediterranean at the Grand Floridian

Andrew Rossi

Elegance, refinement, charm. These are all word that come to mind when thinking of the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. Its beauty and grandeur make it one of the premiere resorts in all of Walt Disney World while its striking Victorian architecture and décor make it one of the most recognizable.

GF Lobby

For these reasons, the Grand Floridian is held to a higher standard and every aspect of the resort must live up to the lofty expectations of its visitors. It comes as no surprise that the resort's restaurants are among the most respected in all of Disney World. The Grand Floridian alone features three Signature dining locations, quite a feat considering that there are only about a dozen of these Signature restaurants in all of Disney World. Known for requiring two credits when on the dining plan, Disney defines its Signature restaurants as "providing unparalleled cuisine served in elegant and relaxed surroundings." The restaurants at the Grand Floridian certainly live up to this billing and one such dining location is Citricos.

Citricos Signage

Overview:
As soon as you set foot into the magnificent lobby of the Grand Floridian you feel as though you have been transported to another time and place. If you are fortunate enough to walk through the lobby as the resort's jazz band is playing it is easy to get lost in all the splendor and forget that you are in Disney World just a short monorail ride away from the Magic Kingdom.

GF Jazz Band

With its high ceilings, chandeliers, and elegant Victorian décor it is plain to see why the resort is referred to by many simply as "The Grand." This refined atmosphere is carried throughout the resort, from the Guest rooms to the newly renovated spa to the manicured courtyard and gardens and of course the restaurants. Each restaurant offers something a little different. There are the whimsical character experiences at 1900 Park Fare, the beautiful waterfront views of Narcoossee's, and the opulence of Victorian and Albert's. Citricos also keeps with the upscale feel of the rest of the resort. However, with a menu that highlights American cuisine with a Mediterranean flare, the dining experience at Citricos reflects that with a much different feel than anywhere else at the Grand Floridian.

Atmosphere:
Citricos presents a stark contrast to the rest of the Grand Floridian. Rather than dining in a refined Victorian setting, guests here enter into a more sleek and modern space with a Mediterranean feel.

Citricos Dining Room

The Mediterranean influence can be seen as soon as one sets foot into the restaurant in the intricately tiled floor. Overall, however, the theming of the restaurant is more subtle and subdued.

Citricos Entrance

In addition, the creams and whites of the rest of the resort give way to a much warmer color palette of yellow, green, and blue.

Citricos Table

The more modern touches can be seen in the designs on the upholstery, carpeting, and the light fixtures.

Citricos Lighting

It is not necessarily modern like what you would see at the Contemporary Resort, but a more classic-modern that really stands out in relation to the rest of the resort.

Citricos Dining Room2

The dining room is open and spacious. It is a very large dining room with high ceilings and an open floor plan that allows tables to be nicely spread out so that you were not right on top of the table next to you. One of the best features is the huge floor-to-ceiling windows that offer tremendous views into the courtyard.

Citricos Windows

Another nice touch is the show kitchen where you can see the chefs preparing your meal.

Citricos Kitchen

The overall feel of the dining room is definitely upscale, but it is not as refined or elegant as some other Signature restaurants I have dined at. I think this is one of the great allures of Citricos in that it provides a quiet and upscale atmosphere but one that is still comfortable and relaxing. It is a restaurant that provides a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the theme parks and is a great option for a romantic night out.

The Menu:
As is the case with Disney's Signature restaurants, the menu at Citricos is constantly changing based upon the time of year and what ingredients are fresh. There are, however, some favorites that remain constant. The restaurant's cuisine is described as American with a Mediterranean flare, taking inspiration from dishes from Italy, France, and Spain. In addition to its food offerings, Citricos' menu also features an award-winning wine list that includes one of the largest selections of wines in all of Disney World.

For appetizers the menu features a variety of dishes including Sautéed Shrimp ($14.00) with lemon, white wine, tomatoes, and feta cheese, Arancini ($10.00), which are crispy risotto balls with mushrooms and asiago cheese topped with tomato coulis, the Cheese Course Trio ($14.00) that includes cheeses from Spain and France, and Panadas ($12.00), which features spiced and slow-cooked beef in crisp phyllo with a tamarind sauce.

For soups there is the Zuppa de Tres Cavolfiore ($11.00), a cauliflower soup, while salads include the Charcuterie ($15.00) with serrano ham, prosciutto, chorizo, romano cheese, dates, pickled fennel, and almonds, Artisanal Greens and Heirloom Apples ($14.00) topped with a balsamic-orange honey emulsion with pickled red pearl onions, dates, spiced pistachios, and valdeon cheese, and the Winter Greens and Blood Orange-Braised Beets Salad ($13.00) with red watercress, winter greens, and arugula mixed with a bacon-sherry vinaigrette, blood orange braised beets and a warm goat cheese sauce.

The entrees are definitely more on the gourmet side and feature some more exotic ingredients and flavors. There is the Oak-Grilled Swordfish ($38.00) served with citrus cous cous, head-on shrimp, escargot, mussels, and harissa, Berkshire Pork Two Ways ($35.00) with both rotisserie pork tenderloin and roasted pork belly accompanied by hominy-cheddar puree and brussel sprouts, Pan-Roasted Airline Chicken Breast ($33.00) with creamy goat cheese polenta, an apple cider chicken demi glaze, sweet potato ribbons, and root spinach, Madeira-Braised Short Ribs ($43.00) with trofie pasta, wild mushroom ragout, and truffle creme fraiche, Braised Veal Shank ($53.00) with carrot-potato mash, roasted vegetables, and toasted citrus gremolata, Pan-Seared Florida Black Grouper ($38.00) with pappardelle pasta, chorizo, taggiasca olives, marinated sun dried tomatoes, white wine and aglio e olio, Oak-Grilled Filet of Beef ($43.00) served with roasted pearl onions, rainbow carrots, micro celery, barley risotto, and a cabernet demi glaze, and the Seared Tofu ($28.00) accompanied by a zucchini and eggplant ratatouille, roasted mushrooms, lentils, and sun-dried tomato puree.

Finally, the menu also features some delectable desserts including Lemon-Scented Cheesecake ($9.00), a Warm Chocolate-Banana Torte ($11.00) served with vanilla ice cream, a Tasting of Gelato ($9.00) featuring Italian vanilla bean, cappuccino, and raspberry, Tropical Fruit Creme Brulee ($10.00) with mango and assorted berries, and Tiramisu ($11.00).

My meal started with the Arancini appetizer. These fried rice balls are a common Italian dish that I have had at several restaurants in the past, but nowhere near as good as the ones at Citricos. The arancini were perfectly prepared so they golden and crispy on the outside but still moist on the inside. Despite their small size, they were packed with flavor, with the mushrooms and asiago cheese blending together perfectly. The arancini were served atop a tomato coulis. I wish there had been a little more of this sauce since it provided a lighter, refreshing contrast to the creamy richness of the rice balls. While the portion size might not appear large, it is actually a very filling appetizer that can actually be split between two people.

Arancini

For an entrée I decided on the Madeira-Braised Short Ribs, which came highly recommended by my server. This was a dish that was just bursting with flavor and you could tell that the short rib had been marinating for a very long time. The short rib itself was so extremely tender that it fell apart upon the touch of a fork. The wild mushroom ragout added even more flavor to the dish that complimented the flavor of the short rib very well. I am not the biggest fan of mushrooms, but they worked very well in this dish. The trofie pasta was very unique. Served al dente, the pasta provided a nice contrast in texture and absorbed the flavors from the short rib and mushroom ragout.

Short Rib

For dessert I could not pass up the opportunity to try one of Citricos' signature dishes, the Warm Chocolate-Banana Torte. I think decadent is probably the best word to describe this dessert. It is so rich that you will definitely want to split it amongst two or more people, especially at the end of a big meal. The combination of chocolate and banana is perfect, with neither flavor overpowering the other. With its sweet, warm, and gooey center, the torte is accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream which provides a light and refreshing contrast. It was a great way to end what was a very high-quality meal.

Chocolate Banana Torte

Service:
This is an area in which Disney's Signature dining locations usually excel and Citricos was no different. I would even go so far as to say that my server at Citricos was one of the best I have had at any Disney restaurant. My server was just a genuinely nice person. Extremely personable, she was very easy to talk with. What was also nice about this particular server was that, even though it was a more upscale restaurant, we were still able to have fun and joke around with her. As is the case with Signature restaurants, the servers usually have fewer tables to worry about and thus can give you their undivided attention throughout the course of your meal. Our server was constantly checking in on us to make sure we were enjoying are meals and seeing if we needed anything else. We also received a visit from one of the restaurant's managers who we had a good conversation with. You could clearly tell that all the Cast Members here really care about providing the best dining experience possible for guests.

Dining on a Budget:
This is something that is difficult to do at Citricos. Unfortunately, while a Signature restaurant offers the best of the best in terms of atmosphere, location, food, and service, you are also paying for that high quality. The price of an appetizer here would be the equivalent of an entrée at some other Disney restaurants. If you are looking to splurge a little on a meal during your vacation this would be one of the restaurants to do it at because you certainly get what you pay for. That being said, if you choose to eat at Citricos, or any other Signature restaurant, there are a couple of ways to keep the bill low. First, don't order any alcohol. Beer and wine can often run up a bill, so you may want to consider a glass of water or soda. Second, share an appetizer rather than getting one just for yourself. Not only does this save money, but it also prevents you from filling up before your entrée arrives. Finally, skip or share dessert. The entrees are certainly big and filling enough that you do not really need to have a dessert all to yourself, which would also help to keep the cost of your meal down.

Citricos is on the Disney Dining Plan, but as a Signature restaurant it is worth two table service credits. If you are a Tables in Wonderland member, this is definitely a good restaurant to take advantage of its 20% discount. However, there are no additional discounts for Annual Passholders or Disney Vacation Club Members.

The Overall Experience:
Whenever you dine at a Signature restaurant your expectations are always going to be higher based solely upon the dining location's "signature" status. I am pleased to say that Citricos not only met, but exceeded my expectations. It is definitely one of the best meals that I have had at any restaurant in all of Disney World. All of the dishes were full of flavor, used the freshest ingredients, and were beautifully presented. The restaurant itself provides a nice contrast to the rest of the Grand Floridian. While still continuing the resort's upscale feel, it does so in a much different way. With its modern, Mediterranean-inspired atmosphere, Citricos provides a calm, quiet, and relaxing setting in which to enjoy your meal. While it is a restaurant definitely geared more toward adults, it is not so refined and formal that you should be scared away if dining with children. While the prices may be expensive, you are definitely getting what you pay for. Everything about Citricos is of the highest quality, from the food, to the atmosphere, to the service. It is certainly a restaurant not to be missed.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Citricos and post your own too!

December 21, 2012

Food, Fun, and Family at Ohana

Andrew Rossi

Disney's Polynesian has always been one of my favorite resorts with its South Seas charm, prime location close to the Magic Kingdom, and its great food. In fact, there are several appealing dining options and even if you are not staying at the Polynesian it is still definitely worth a visit just to try one of these restaurants. The Kona Café is widely known for its Tonga Toast and Macadamia Pineapple Pancakes for breakfast, but also offers lunch and dinner menus featuring South Seas and Hawaiian-inspired cuisine. Captain Cook's may only be a counter service restaurant but it also features some unique offerings that you cannot find at other resort quick-service locations. Not to be overlooked, the Spirit of Aloha Polynesian Luau offers an all-you-care-to-eat feast paired with traditional music and entertainment.
Lastly, there is the restaurant that may receive more hype than any other in Disney World: Ohana.

Ohana Signage

Among friends and family, people continue to tell me how Ohana is one of their favorite restaurants in all of Disney World and that they go there every time they visit. It comes as no surprise that resevrations for Ohana are some of the hardest to come by amongst all Disney dining locations. For these reasons, the bar is always set very high when dining at Ohana and yet the restaurant continues to live up to these expectations time and time again. Ohana is definitely a restaurant not to be missed and it offers a dining experience unlike any other.

Overview:
In Hawaiian the word "ohana" means family and that is a central theme for what the dining experience here is all about. Both breakfast and dinner (the restaurant is not open for lunch) are served family-style and are all-you-care-to-eat. While this restaurant will certainly appeal to everyone, it is especially good for those families with children. Breakfast features the characters Lilo, Stitch, Mickey, and Pluto who visit each table for pictures and autographs. Although dinner is character-free, it does feature live entertainment and other activities for kids to participate in. Disney is a company which prides itself in providing something for every member of the family, whether boy or girl, old or young. Walt Disney himself once said, "The important thing is family. If you can keep the family together, that's what we hope to do." Ohana is a restaurant which truly lives up to this Disney legacy, offering an experience that helps to bring families together to have a good time and enjoy a good meal.

Atmosphere:
In keeping with the family-oriented nature of the restaurant, Ohana has a laid-back and casual atmosphere. It is no surprise that the restaurant has a South Seas flare, but in a way that is more subtle and subdued in its island décor rather than over-the-top. While it does feature carved tiki statues and thatched roofs, the rest of the restaurant's décor is fairly simple.

Tiki1

Tiki2

That being said, Ohana has a certain exotic quality and an authenticity that makes you feel as though you are dining in some faraway Polynesian locale. One of the most notable features of the restaurant is the open fire pit where you are able to watch the chefs grilling the various meat skewers that will be served for your main course.

Ohana Grill1

The fire, smoke, and amazing aroma coming from the grill provide some added flare to the dining experience.

Ohana Grill2

Ohana Grill3

Overall the restaurant has a very open feel, thanks in large part to the fact that it is basically just one large dining room. Also adding to this sense of openness are the large windows along the perimeter of the restaurant that afford spectacular views of the resort's pool area and beyond to the Seven Seas Lagoon and even a distant glimpse of the Magic Kingdom.

Ohana Dining Room1

The windows let in plenty of light, but as you move to tables further away from them the restaurant takes on a slightly darker feel (as is also the case once the sun goes down). Whenever I go I always try to request a table by the window because the view is definitely one of the main allures of the restaurant's atmosphere.

Another important component of Ohana's authentic South Seas feel is its live entertainment. Throughout the night an entertainer wanders through the restaurant singing and playing songs on his/her ukulele, teaching guests different Hawaiian words and phrases, and playing games with the children such as limbo and coconut races. I felt that this entertainment really gave the restaurant a more festive atmosphere and allowed for the kids to have some fun during the meal. It should be noted, however, that because of all the singing and activities going on during the course of the meal the restaurant can get a little noisy, especially when it is very crowded. If you are looking for a quiet and romantic night out this might not be the best restaurant for you, but if you are looking to have a good time with your entire family then Ohana is a great option.

The Menu:
Before talking about the food I would first like to sound this warning: whenever dining at Ohana the most important thing you should remember is to PACE YOURSELF. I can best describe dinner at Ohana in three ways: it features a prix fixe menu including a salad, appetizers, entrée, and dessert; the food is served family style and is all-you-care-to-eat; and you will most definitely get a lot of food.

The meal starts with Welcome Bread. It was served warm and soft and was very light in texture. The bread had a slight flavor of coconut and pineapple, but this was not too strong. There was enough flavor, however, that you do not even need to put any butter on the bread. As a bread lover I think I could have eaten a whole loaf myself, but it is important to know that there is still a lot more food to come.

Welcome Bread

Along with the Welcome Bread was a Mixed Greens Salad with Honey-Lime Dressing. The salad was very fresh and the dressing was light and very flavorful. The flavors of the honey and lime complimented each other extremely well in a way that was neither too sweet nor too sour. It was a very refreshing way to start the meal.

Ohana Salad

Next came the appetizer that included Pork Dumplings with a sweet-and-sour sauce as well as Honey-Coriander Chicken Wings. Of the two, the dumplings were definitely my favorite. They were served slightly crispy on the edges but still soft on the inside and the pork filling was seasoned just enough to give the dumplings an added little kick. The sweet-and-sour sauce that topped the dumplings provided even extra flavor and complimented them very well.

Ohana Dumplings

The chicken wings were also very good, but I think they would have been even better if they had been served crispy, as I found them to be a little too soft in texture for my personal taste. The sauce that topped the wings was mild and had a slightly sweet flavor, which provided a good contrast to the slight spiciness of the Pork Dumplings. The wings also came topped with sesame seeds that a little extra texture without really impacting the flavor of the wings.

Ohana Chicken Wings

Then came the entrée. By this point the amount of food was just staggering and it seemed as though it just kept coming with no end in sight. First came Noodles that were tossed in a teriyaki sauce along with Stir-Fried Vegetables. The noodles were actually one of my favorite parts of the meal and had a surprisingly sweet flavor. The light taste and texture of the noodles served as a perfect accompaniment to the rest of the entrée.

Ohana Noodles

The vegetables likewise went along very well with the rest of the main course, but were served a little too undercooked and crisp for my liking.

Ohana Broccoli

The main feature of the entrée is the meat skewers which have been cooked over the open fire. They included Chicken, Pork Loin, and Sirloin Steak. Along with these skewers also came Grilled Peel-and-Eat Shrimp. Each of the skewered items was grilled to perfection and slightly charred just enough to add some extra flavor to the meat. The chicken, pork, and steak were also very tender and not fatty at all. Each of these grilled items was very flavorful and well-seasoned. They had enough flavor on their own that I did not even use any of the dipping sauces that were provided. While the grilled meats each had a little kick, it was the shrimp that were by far the spiciest of all. Even though the shrimp were really good and had a lot of flavor, I would have enjoyed them even more if they did not come served with the shells on them.

Ohana Entree

Overall, what I most enjoyed about the meal was that it offered a wide variety of different flavors that both complimented and contrasted each other very well. There was a good balance of both sweet and spicy flavors along with some items that were light in flavor and texture while others were stronger and heavier in taste.

As if that was not enough food, then came the dessert which is considered one of Ohana's signature items: Bread Pudding a la mode with a Banana-Caramel Sauce. This is why it is very important to save some room while you are eating your appetizers and main course because this dessert is one not to be missed. The bread pudding is extremely sweet and rich in flavor and is also very filling (just in case you are not full enough already). There was just enough banana flavor to notice that it was there, but not so much that it overpowered everything else; the sauce definitely tasted more strongly of caramel than banana. The vanilla ice cream served on top was very refreshing and complimented the bread pudding and banana-caramel sauce very well.

Ohana Bread Pudding

Even though the bread pudding was very good, I could not help but compare it to the bread pudding at Raglan Road. Having partaken of both bread puddings I would give the slight edge to Raglan Road in large part due to the fact that it is made fresh when you order it and is served piping hot. At Ohana, I could tell that they must have prepared a large batch of bread pudding in advance in order to be able to serve it quickly. At the same time, however, Ohana presents a different spin on bread pudding with its banana-caramel sauce that makes it unique from that of Raglan Road.

Service:
My only complaint about Ohana is that the meal can sometimes be too fast-paced. There have been times where everything just felt very rushed and you hardly had time to finish one course before the next course was brought out. Adding to this is the fact that the servers kept bringing out the additional courses of food without clearing the previous courses, which meant that the table quickly became cluttered with a wide assortment of dishes. The fast pace of the meal is most likely due to the vast popularity of the restaurant. The servers need to bring out the food quickly so they can get the tables turned over quickly in order to get more parties seated. Even though the meal is extremely good, it is nice to have some time to relax between courses rather than getting bombarded with one thing right after another.

That being said, I have dined there other times where this was not the case, but I often find myself having to tell the servers that we are in no rush and just want to relax and enjoy our meal. I have had servers who have been very good about not bringing out the next course until we have said we were ready. Also, I found the servers to be very attentive and are continually bringing over more food. As soon as a bowl of noodles or vegetables becomes empty, they are right there with another bowl. The servers actually give you so much food when they initially bring out the entrees that there is often little need for second helpings.

Dining on a Budget:
Ohana is not cheap. However, I still believe that you get good value for your money based on the quality of food and the amount of food that you get. If you are not necessarily a big eater or if family-style/buffet meals do not really appeal to you, then you might get better value for your money somewhere else. Ohana's price fluctuates depending on whether it is a peak or off-peak time of year. During peak season the price for dinner is $42.59 compared with $36.20 during the less busy times of year. Even at these prices, dinner at Ohana is comparable in price to many of the dinner buffets found on property, such as Chef Mickey's or Crystal Palace, but it does offer a dining experience which is far more unique and exciting than those found in these other restaurants. Therefore, while it may not be the best choice if you are looking to save some money, it does offer you a good bang-for-your-buck.

Ohana is on the Disney Dining Plan and is worth one table service credit for both breakfast and dinner, making it a very good value if you are on the dining plan. The restaurant also participates in Tables in Wonderland, offering members a 20% discount. However, there are no discounts for Disney Vacation Club members or Annual Passholders.

The Overall Experience:
Ohana has become one of my favorite restaurants in all of Disney World. Once you get past the fast-paced nature of the meal, everything else about the dining experience is top-notch. An "experience" is truly an apt word to describe Ohana because it is more than just a restaurant, but rather a little taste of the South Seas in the middle of Florida. The atmosphere, complete with live music and entertainment, and vast amounts of food combine to create a level of authenticity and immersion that is what you come to expect when dining at a Disney restaurant and one that is truly unique in all of Disney World. As its name suggests, Ohana is a great restaurant for the entire family where you can go not only for an exceptional meal, but also to have fun.

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Ohana and post your own too!

November 12, 2012

Raglan Road: A Little Bit of Ireland in the Middle of Disney World

Andrew Rossi

Ever since all of the clubs on Pleasure Island closed their doors for the last time, the area has become somewhat forgotten and overlooked by the many guests visiting Downtown Disney. However, Raglan Road proves that there is still some life left here and offers a dining and entertainment experience geared more towards adults. With its pub-like atmosphere featuring live music and step dancing Monday thru Thursday from 7pm to midnight as well as Friday and Saturday from 8pm to 1am, dining at Raglan Road is about more than just the food and offers a setting where adults can relax and have a good time at night. Whether just stopping by the bar for a pint or having a full meal, Raglan Road offers a fun and lively dining experience that is just like a little bit of Ireland in the middle of Disney World.

RaglanRoad Signage

Overview:
The name Raglan Road actually comes from an Irish song which combines Patrick Kavanagh's poem "Dark Haired Miriam Ran Away" with the traditional Irish tune "The Dawning of the Day." Since it was first recorded in the 1960s, "Raglan Road" has become an extremely popular song performed by many famous Irish singers, including Van Morrison and Bono. With a name based on an Irish song, it comes as no surprise that Irish music is a theme carried throughout the restaurant. Equally as interesting as the origins of the restaurant's name is the resume of its head chef, who has cooked for many famous celebrities including Queen Elizabeth and U2.

Raglan Road Exterior

Raglan Road offers a true, authentic Irish experience rather than one that is idealized or cliché (you will not find any shamrocks or leprechauns here) and even the restaurant's logo is based on a traditional Irish motif. The logo is a symbol is known as a triskele and is composed of three interlocking spirals representing the ancient Celtic concept of the interrelation between earth, water, and sky. This is but one example of the level of authenticity prevalent throughout the restaurant.

Raglan Road Logo

Atmosphere:
As soon as you step inside Raglan Road you feel as though you have been transported to Ireland thanks to a high degree of detail and theming you expect from restaurants at Disney World (although it should be noted that Raglan Road is not owned by Disney but is a third-party establishment). One of the most notable features when you enter is the massive bar, which is 130 years old and was actually transported to Florida from Ireland.The antique quality of the bar helps set the tone for the rest of the restaurant's old-world feel. Even though the restaurant opened in 2005, it feels much older than that.

Raglan Road Bar

Although the main dining room is a large, open space, it has a rather dark and intimate feel due to its stained glass windows and dark-wood tables, chairs, wall panels, and floor.

Raglan Road Stained Glass

At the center of this main dining area is a raised platform used at night by the step dancer and along one of the walls by the fireplace is a small stage where the live band performs.

Raglan Road Dining Room1

Off to the sides of the central dining area are two additional dining rooms. Although these rooms have windows that allow for more natural light, the wood-paneled walls help maintain the cozy, pub-like feel throughout the restaurant.

Raglan Road Dining Room2

Raglan Road Seating

For those of you that like to dine al fresco, Raglan Road does offer an outside seating area as well, although you do not really get the same authentic Irish experience as you do when eating inside.

Raglan Road Outdoor Seating

Overall, the restaurant has a very casual, laid-back feel, but this does not come at the expense of great details in the décor. The prevailing theme that is carried throughout the restaurant is Irish music, with the walls adorned with paintings, portraits, and pictures of various Irish bands and singers. Adding to the authenticity are large glass cabinets filled with a plethora of musical memorabilia ranging from records to sheet music to fiddles, banjos, and other instruments. While this musical theming is not over the top, there is just enough to give the restaurant a cohesive feel and also gives it a more immersive quality.

Raglan Road Music Theming1

Raglan Road Music Theming2

It should be noted that depending on what time of day you choose to dine at Raglan Road you will encounter an entirely different type of atmosphere. If you are looking for a more quiet meal I would definitely recommend going for lunch as you can normally walk in without having a reservation and have the restaurant largely to yourself. Dinner offers a louder and much more raucous, party-like atmosphere, especially with the live entertainment and the bar packed with patrons. If dining here with children lunch would definitely be the way to go, while dinner offers a good alternative for adults who want to have a night out on their own.

The Menu:
I think I could best describe the menu at Raglan Road as traditional Irish cuisine with a contemporary twist. While the menu features many classic Irish favorites, some are presented in a new way and there are other items featured that are a little less conventional (and many which are cleverly named). It should be noted that Raglan Road features a slightly different menu for both lunch and dinner and while there are some items that are found on both, there are others that are exclusive to either one or the other.

The appetizers for both lunch and dinner are the same and feature a wide variety of options. If you are in the mood for seafood there are the Mighty Mussels ($10.00) featuring a half pound of fresh mussels in a coconut infused curry broth, Salmon Swoon ($13.00), which is smoked salmon served with capers, shallots and créme fraiche, Kiss Before Shrimp ($13.00) with pan seared shrimp in a garlic and chili lemon butter sauce with sliced baguette, the Scallop Forest ($15.00) with Georges Bank scallops in a golden batter served with citrus lime dipping sauce and sweet chili jam, Calamari City ($12.00) featuring fried calamari and mixed tempura vegetables served with a spicy remoulade, and Smokie City ($13.00), a smoked haddock and Dubliner cheese dip with potatoes, tomatoes, and crostinis.

Other non-seafood appetizers include Mixed Green Salad ($5.00) with tomato, carrots, cucumbers, and balsamic vinaigrette, Tart Art ($10.00), an asparagus and goat cheese tart with garden peas, leeks and lemon oil dressed arugula, Crock o' Pate ($10.00), which is a crock of rustic chicken liver pate served with an apricot chutney, Heaven on Earth ($14.00) featuring baby back ribs tossed in a Guinness glaze, Nom Nom Wings ($10.00), sweet 'n spicy wings tossed in a honey, chili flake, soy and ginger sauce, and Dalkey Duo Sausages ($11.00) featuring battered cocktail sausages with a mustard dipping sauce.

Exclusive to the lunch menu are a wide variety of sandwiches such as the Prosciutto & Chicken Sambo ($15.00) with chicken breast, crispy prosciutto, Dubliner cheese, lettuce, tomato, and herb aioli, the Steak Sanger ($16.00) with tender grilled steak served open-faced with basil grilled vegetables and herb aioli, the Portobello Beauty ($15.00) featuring a grilled Portobello mushroom topped with Dubliner cheese and tomato chutney, the Lobster Club ($16.00), a lobster and avocado salad with crispy prosciutto, watercress, and citrus herb mayonnaise, Beefy Brisket ($15.00) served on a multigrain roll with caramelized onions and horseradish sauce, Gammon and Egg ($14.00) with thinly sliced gammon and fried egg on buttered toast, and the Burger 'r' Way ($15.00) which is available for both lunch and dinner topped with bacon, tomato chutney, and Dubliner vintage cheddar.

If you are looking for some lighter faire, both the lunch and dinner menus feature an assortment of salads such as the Cashel Castle ($14.00) with crumbled blue cheese, caramelized pecans, grape tomatoes, raspberries, prosciutto crisps, crostinis, and raspberry vinaigrette, the Hail Caesar ($12.00) topped with prosciutto crisps, grape tomatoes, croutons, and shaved Parmesan, the Citrus Salmon Salad ($17.00) with mixed greens, carrots, red onions, and toasted almonds in an herb citrus dressing, the SSS Beefy ($15.00) featuring seared beef with mixed greens tossed in balsamic dressing with roasted tomato, crispy onions, and a horseradish cream, the Vegetarian Goat ($15.00) with oven roasted vegetables tossed in a white balsamic and lemon oil dressing with goat cheese, and the Vroom Salad ($12.00) featuring gluten free quinoa grains with cider vinegar, marinated beans, sweet and sour carrots, watercress, and a honey mustard dressing.

Among the entrée choices available for both lunch and dinner are the Raglan Road Risotto ($15.00) with shitake mushrooms, garden peas, shaved parmesan, and rocket lettuce, Keen Eye for Shepherd's Pie ($18.00), Fish & Chips ($19.00), Pie in the Sky ($18.00), a chicken and wild mushroom pie, Kevin's Heavenly Ham ($22.00) served with cabbage and an apple potato cake, Salmon of Knowledge ($25.00) topped with smoked salmon and a maple glaze, King Cod ($25.00) crusted with lemon and parsley with leak fondue, butter beans, and a citrus white wine sauce, Cluck Curry ($19.00) featuring chicken breast in curry broth with onions, peppers, leeks, and steamed almond rice, Lambo Italiano ($22.00), a slow-braised lamb ragout served over rigatoni with tomatoes and fresh basil, Beefy Murray ($18.00), a beef curry pie with spinach, potatoes, mushrooms, and apple chutney, Sod the Stew ($17.00), which is a traditional beef stew infused with a hint of Guinness, Bangers and Booz ($18.00), featuring a Guinness and onion banger on mash potatoes topped with caramelized onions, and Pork Vienna ($20.00), a breaded and seared pork schnitzel with fried egg and chips.

Those entrees available exclusively for dinner are Lambo ($26.00), a lamb shank braised in rosemary jus with mashed potatoes, leeks, shiitake mushrooms, and baby carrots, the Mighty Mixed Grill ($28.00) featuring a lamb chop, Guinness banger, sirloin steak, black pudding, chicken drumstick and bacon, Pork Supreme ($25.00) grilled with colcannon potatoes, a port cider jus, and an apple chutney, Braised Beef ($25.00) with horseradish mashed potatoes, roasted carrots, and parsnips, Serious Steak ($27.00), a 10 ounce sirloin topped with an Irish whiskey marmalade glaze served with mashed potatoes and topped with crispy fried onion strings, It's Not Bleedin' Chowder ($25.00) featuring fresh cuts of seafood and potatoes in a white wine infused cream broth, and Mammy's Roast Chicken ($20.00),a lemon-thyme roasted half chicken with mashed potatoes and red wine sauce.

You will definitely want to save room for dessert as the menu features some delectable options including a Strawberry & Apple Crumble ($8.50) with fresh strawberries and apples in a tart with berry compote and vanilla bean ice cream, Ger's Bread & Butter Pudding ($8.50), a Bailey's Brulé Tart ($8.50), Trifle Sinful ($8.50), which is a kitchen baked Swiss roll with Gran Marnier, berries, custard and cream, Moore Market Street ($8.50), a fresh fruit basket with natural yogurt and a honey drizzle, and the Dunbrody Kiss ($8.50), which the menu describes a "Chocolate. Add chocolate. Then add some more."

With such an expansive menu it took me a while to decide what I wanted. I chose to start my meal with the Heaven on Earth appetizer. These were unlike any other baby back ribs that I have ever had. The distinguishing feature of the ribs themselves is that they are so light and are served slightly crispy. They are also extremely tender and not fatty at all; as you are eating them the meat falls right off the bone. What really takes the ribs to the next level is the Guinness sauce which, like the ribs, is also very light and also slightly sweet in flavor. There is a definite hint of Guinness but it is not overpowering. This dish is a perfect way to start a meal because it is fairly light and not filling if splitting amongst a group. However, the portion size is large enough that it could be a meal unto itself.

Heaven on Earth

For my entrée I went with the Fish & Chips. Being from New England where seafood is abundant, I have tried many different versions of Fish & Chips, but I can say that the ones at Raglan Road are some of the best I have ever tasted. The batter is very light in flavor with just the slightest hint of beer so that it is noticeable but does not take away from or overpower the flavor of the fish. The fish was perfectly fried so that the batter was crispy (but not overly so) on the outside and the fish was still light and flaky on the inside. The chips (fries) were thick-cut but I would have preferred it if they had been served a little more crispy. Also, there is no need to add salt to the fries as they came served with enough salt already on them. The tartar sauce that accompanies the fish is freshly made, very creamy, thick and rich in flavor, providing the perfect complement to the light-tasting fish.

Fish and Chips

For dessert I wanted to try something a little different so I decided on the Bailey's Brulee Tart, an Irish spin on the traditional crème brulee. When it was served it looked more like a slice of cheesecake than crème brulee. The custard is far thicker and a little firmer than what you would typically find in crème brulee, but it still comes topped with the traditional layer of caramelized sugar. This is a very light, smooth, and creamy dessert and, while it has a slight hint of Bailey's flavor, it is not too overpowering. I am not usually a big fan of crème brulee, but I thought this dessert was very good.

Bailey Brulee Torte

No review of Raglan Road would be complete without talking about my favorite dessert in all of Disney World, Ger's Bread & Butter Pudding. If you are a fan of bread pudding (and even if you are not) this is definitely a dessert that you need to try. It is unlike any other bread pudding that I have ever had. First of all the dessert is absolutely huge. It comes served piping hot in a large coffee mug accompanied by butterscotch and vanilla sauces which you can add on top to suit your own taste. Both of the sauces compliment the flavor of the bread pudding extremely well while at the same time enhancing its flavor and adding a little sweetness to the dessert. This dessert is extremely rich and very filling, but you will definitely savor each and every bite.

Bread and Butter Pudding

Service:
In keeping with the pub-like atmosphere of the restaurant, I found the service to be very laid back and casual, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. My server was very conversational, and not just limited to offering advice about different items on the menu. I was wearing a Washington Nationals baseball cap and we struck up a conversation about baseball and Washington DC. I did notice that all the servers in the restaurant really try to push the alcohol, especially the numerous types of Irish beer they offer. This is due primarily to the pub-like nature of the restaurant. Overall, the meal progressed at a relaxed and leisurely pace, not too slow but just enough time between courses to digest. If you are looking for a quick meal, however, this may not necessarily be the best place for you.

Dining on a Budget:
Raglan Road is fairly reasonably priced by Disney standards. If you are looking to save some money I would definitely recommend going to Raglan Road for lunch instead of dinner as there are many sandwiches that make for a more affordable meal. The numerous salad selections on the menu are another inexpensive option as well if dining on a budget. Having been to Raglan Road many times I can safely say that many of the appetizers are large enough to be meals unto themselves. You could order the Heaven on Earth appetizer along with Ger's Bread and Butter Pudding for dessert and have a reasonably priced meal that will certainly not leave you hungry.

If you are in the mood for Irish fare, but do not want the expense of a sit-down restaurant, I highly recommend Cooke's of Dublin. This counter service restaurant adjacent to Raglan Road features some items, such as Fish & Chips, found on Raglan Road's menu at a more affordable price (although also a smaller portion size). It is a great option if you are looking for a quick bite to eat while visiting Downtown Disney.

Raglan Road is on the Disney Dining Plan and is one table service credit for both lunch and dinner. The restaurant does participate in Tables in Wonderland with members receiving its 20% discount.

The Overall Experience:
Raglan Road has quickly become one of my favorite restaurants at Downtown Disney because it offers a dining experience that is truly authentic and immersive. Everything about the restaurant, from its pub-like atmosphere to the live entertainment at night to the traditional Irish foods found on the menu, all make you feel as though you have been transported to Ireland. The restaurant offers everything you would expect when dining at Disney, a well detailed décor with subtle yet immersive theming, great food in terms of both quantity and quality, and extremely friendly service.

I highly recommend this restaurant for everyone, but especially for those adults who may be looking for a night out on their own away from the kids. Nighttime at Raglan Road offers a fun and exciting atmosphere where adults can relax, have a good time, and enjoy a good drink and a good meal. This is also a great restaurant for anyone looking to try food that is a little different from what we are normally used to eating, a little taste of Ireland in the middle of Disney World.

RELATED LINK:
Mom and the Magic at Raglan Road

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Raglan Road and post your own too!

August 26, 2012

Ama Ama: Aulani's Signature Dining Experience

Andrew Rossi

In my last entry I talked about the various dining options available at Disney's Aulani resort in Ko Olina, Hawaii. Of all the restaurants at the resort, however, there is one that stands above the rest. If you were to only dine at one restaurant at Aulani, Ama Ama would be the one not to miss. The restaurant is to Aulani what California Grill is to the Contemporary or Yachtsman Steakhouse is to the Yacht Club resort, a fine dining experience that offers unparalleled service, atmosphere, and cuisine. At Aulani, Ama Ama provides a dining experience unlike any other and one that is truly unforgettable.

Ama_Ama_Signage

Overview:
One of the greatest attributes of Aulani is its breathtaking location. Sitting right on the beach and overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the resort highlights the natural beauty of its surroundings.

View_from_Above

Aulani is also a resort meant to celebrate Hawaiian culture, history, and traditions. Ama Ama does both of these, showcasing the island's natural beauty and its unique culture. While Hawaiian heritage plays an important role in the restaurant's theming, it does so in more subtle ways. This starts with the restaurant's name as the ʻamaʻama is a tasty local fish immortalized in popular Hawaiian songs. Ama Ama celebrates not only the fish, but also the fishing settlements along the coast dating back to the 12th century. A very distinctive cuisine also plays an important role in Hawaiian culture and at Ama Ama the gourmet chefs use fresh local ingredients and island flavors to create dishes that combine both traditional and contemporary elements. What truly makes this restaurant special, however, is its location which helps make it a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience.

Atmosphere:
Location, location, location. At Ama Ama this is what takes precedence above all else. Situated right on the beach, the restaurant is designed to highlight the beautiful view.

Ama_Ama_Exterior

Ama_Ama_Exterior2

What makes the dining room so unique is that it is open-air, which maximizes the views of the nearby ocean and allows you to enjoy the practically perfect Hawaiian weather.

Ama_Ama_Seating1

Ama_Ama_Seating2

Ama_Ama_Seating3

Ama_Ama_Seating4

Every table in the restaurant is positioned in a way to offer diners an optimal view. It is said a picture is worth a thousand words, and these pictures of Ama Ama do not even do it justice.

Ocean_View

Ocean_View2

Ocean_View3

With an atmosphere that relies primarily on its tremendous views and location, there are few decorative elements and details inside. However, although very minimalist in style, the restaurant is not without a backstory. According to legend Auntie and Uncle (who are the fictional family incorporated in much of Aulani's lore) have a beach house with roots which go back to the 1800s. The original house was part of a fishing village and was added to over time as the family grew. Thus, each room represents a different generation and has a slightly different feel, going from the traditional to the more modern.

Throughout the restaurant there is subtle theming that pays homage to Hawaii's fishing heritage. For example, in one part of the dining room you can notice fishing nets draped from the ceiling rafters.

Ama_Ama_Ceiling

The restaurant also has a degree of refinement. In fact, just like when dining at a Signature restaurant in Disney World, there is a dress code. Men are asked to wear khakis, slacks, dress shorts, and collared shirts; for ladies capri pants, skirts, dresses, and dress shorts are acceptable. Those clothing items not permitted in the restaurant include tank tops, swimwear, men's hats, cut-off pants, and torn clothing.

This more refined feel is set as soon as you set foot inside Ama Ama. Diners enter the restaurant through a glass-enclosed entryway with a modern-looking light fixture.

Ama_Ama_Entrance

Ama_Ama_Lighting

The first element of the dining room that greets you is a beautiful fountain and reflecting pool.

Ama_Ama_Water_Feature

Ama_Ama_Water_Feature2

There is even live entertainment for guests to enjoy during the course of their meal.

Entertainment

The dining room's overall upscale feel makes it geared more toward adults rather than families with small children. The restaurant's low lighting makes for a more romantic dining experience. Still, I found the overall atmosphere to be very calm and relaxing. Whether enjoying a beautiful Hawaiian sunset or dining under the stars, Ama Ama's atmosphere is absolutely awe inspiring; simply put, it is paradise.

The Menu:
Matching the restaurant's refined and upscale atmosphere is a gourmet menu that highlights traditional Hawaiian flavors and ingredients with a contemporary flare. While the menu rotates to highlight seasonal ingredients, the dinner menu focuses primarily on sustainable seafood as well as steak and pasta dishes.

For starters there is a Big Eye Tuna and Sea Asparagus Poke Martini ($18.00) that is finished tableside. Other appetizers offerings include the Hamakua Mushroom Tart ($16.00), the Ama Ama Seafood Platter ($26.00) featuring sustainable catch ceviche, crab legs, jumbo shrimp, and Goose Point oysters, the Ama Ama Chopped Salad ($18.00) with crispy wanton strips, bacon, avocado, and a house-made ranch dressing, Island Field Greens ($12.00) with a paypaya vinaigrette, Kahuku Corn Chowder ($12.00), and Maui Onion Soup Au Gratin ($12.00).

For entrees the menu is very diverse. For those in the mood for seafood there is the Hawaiian Sustainable Catch (market price) prepared either pan seared or grilled, topped with your choice of lemon-caper brown butter or tomato-ogo, and served with island vegetables and potato puree. There is also a Seafood Paella ($37.00).

For steaks the menu features a Grilled New York Strip Loin ($41.00) topped with a shallot-red wine sauce and served with potato puree and farmer's market vegetables and a Grilled Angus Filet of Beef ($49.00) creamed swiss chard and soufflé potatoes.

There is also a Cider-Maple Roasted Chicken Breast ($33.00) accompanied by gnocchi, maitake mushrooms, broccoli florrets, and baby carrots, Rack of Lamb ($46.00) served with roasted root vegetables, potato gratin and topped with a garlic-lemon thyme jus, and for vegetarians a Local Spring Vegetable Pasta ($27.00) with a basil pesto and toasted garlic bread crumbs.

If you want additional side items there are also a variety of options including Asparagus Gratin ($8.00), Hamakua Mushrooms ($9.00), Sauteed Broccoli ($7.00), Souffle Potatoes ($8.00), Potato Puree ($8.00), and Brown Rice ($4.00).

You might also want to save room for dessert as there are some delectable choices such as the Coconut Panna Cotta with chilled passion fruit broth, Liliko`i Meringue Mousse with caramelized bananas, Hawaiian Chocolate Cake with Ka'u coffee cream and caramel, Floating Island with guava, strawberry, and lychee sorbet, and Pineapple Tarte Tatin with caramel cream. All desserts are $10.00.

When we sat at our table we were first brought some fresh multi-grain rolls. This was a great way to start the meal as the rolls were served warm, crusty on the outside, and soft on the inside. Along with the bread was brought butter and two different types of Hawaiian salt to help add a little extra flavor.

Bread_Service

For an appetizer our sever strongly recommended the Maui Onion Soup Au Gratin ($12.00). I was a little hesitant about spending that much for soup, but decided to give it a try. The size of the soup itself made it worth the price as it was more than enough to split with another member of my party. In taste, the soup was very similar to a standard French Onion Soup. One thing that I did notice about the soup, and it might have to do with using Maui onions, was that it had a slightly sweeter flavor than a regular French Onion soup. The soup also came topped with a generous amount of cheese and I would not hesitate to say that this was one of the best onion soups I have had anywhere.

Onion_Soup

For an entrée I decided on the Rack of Lamb ($46.00) served with roasted root vegetables, potato gratin and topped with a garlic-lemon thyme jus. The lamb itself was so tender with just a little bit of fat that added a little extra flavor. It was grilled perfectly so that it was slightly charred on the outside but once you cut into it, it was still juicy and moist. The garlic-lemon thyme jus that topped the lamb really complimented it very well. I actually found the sauce to be fairly mild and light in flavor so as to enhance the taste of the lamb without being too overpowering .

Lamb

I was a little disappointed with the root vegetables. To start, they were not cooked very well so they were on the crisp side. Also, some of the vegetables also had very strong, distinctive flavors. I was not exactly sure what types of vegetables they were, I definitely noticed some onion and squash, but in appearance it looked kind of like a ratatouille. The real star of the meal was the potato gratin. Not only were the potatoes cheesy and creamy in flavor, but they came wrapped in a flaky pastry crust.

Overall, this was a very high-quality meal. The dishes featured a great combination of a variety of flavors and utilized fresh, native ingredients. In addition, the presentation was exquisite. In sum, the meal was everything you would expect from a Signature Disney restaurant.

Service:
One thing that was very impressive about Ama Ama was the number of servers the restaurant had. The sever-to-guest ratio was such that each server only had a couple of tables to wait on at a time. This meant that the servers could be very attentive to their guests. Indeed, throughout the course of the meal my server was continually checking in on our table to make sure we were enjoying everything; he was able to take his time with us rather than having to rush around from table to table.

Not only was my server was also extremely helpful and informative when it came to the menu, but he was also a great source of knowledge about the resort and the surrounding area. With dishes using so many local Hawaiian ingredients, he took time to explain the various dishes and offer recommendations. He also asked us about our plans and what we were going to see and do on the island, giving us some local insider tips and advice. Overall, the meal progressed at a very relaxed pace that really allowed you to fully enjoy your food as well as the beautiful setting in which you were dining.

Dining on a Budget:
Ama Ama is not the type of restaurant that you can really dine on a budget, but if you are staying at Aulani it is definitely worth the splurge. How many times are you going to have the opportunity to dine in a restaurant like this? One possible way to save a little money is the Ama Ama Menu for Two. For $115 this includes an Appetizer Sampler, a Bone-In Rib Eye Steak For Two served with potato puree, hamakua mushrooms, and broccoli with you choice of shallot-red wine or béarnaise sauce, and Hawaiian Chocolate Cake for dessert.

Ama Ama is also open for breakfast and lunch, which allows you to experience the same beautiful atmosphere and breathtaking views as dinner but with a menu that is slightly less expensive.

The Overall Experience:
I really do not think that my words can truly do justice to Ama Ama. Like the rest of Aulani, this restaurant takes advantage of the natural beauty of the resort's location. Aulani has everything you would want from a Hawaiian vacation; it is quiet, relaxing, visually stunning, and completely immerses you into the culture, history, and traditions of the Hawaiian Islands. Ama Ama does all of these things as well. While its location is the true highlight of the dining experience, the subtle details of the restaurant's décor and its locally-inspired menu of both traditional and contemporary Hawaiian cuisine should not be overlooked. Dining here is an experience unlike any other I have had at any restaurant Disney or otherwise. To sum it all up, at Ama Ama you truly feel as though you are dining in paradise.

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

June 1, 2012

A Blast From The Past: Dining at the 50's Prime Time Cafe

Andrew Rossi

Disney's Hollywood Studios may be the smallest of all the theme parks, but it is home to two of the best-themed restaurants in all of Walt Disney World. One of the best parts about dining in Disney World is that you can eat at places that you cannot experience anywhere else. This holds especially true for the Sci-Fi Dine-In and the 50's Prime Time Café, restaurants that are uniquely Disney and offer dining experiences unlike anything you may have had before. These two restaurants are really great examples of Disney storytelling at its best, featuring themes that are embellished with the most minute of details to create an atmosphere and experience which is truly immersive. While both restaurants will take you back in time, they transport you to totally different worlds, worlds in which theming and detail are just as important as the food when it comes to your dining experience.

Prime Time Sign

Prime Time Exterior

Overview:
The 50's Prime Time Café is a nostalgic tour back to the 1950s, a time of classic television sitcoms such as "I Love Lucy," "Leave It To Beaver," and "Father Knows Best." In fact, a meal at 50's Prime Time makes you feel as though you have stepped right into one of these television shows. This is a restaurant where everyone is treated like family. While Mom is back in the kitchen preparing your lunch or dinner, you are waited on by an "Aunt" or "Uncle" and are introduced to the rest of your "Cousins" (your fellow diners) who are sitting at the tables next to you.

While you are invited to be comfortable and make yourself at home, there are also some rules that everyone is expected to follow, such as not putting your elbows on the table or making sure to eat all your vegetables. Your Aunt or Uncle will make sure that you follow these rules and there is a good amount of fun and gentle-ribbing that goes on during the course of your meal. Depending on how strict they are, you may also be forced to set the table before you get your food. For this reason, the 50's Prime Time Café is more than your typical restaurant, but rather an experience that makes you an active participant.

Atmosphere:
Attention to detail is something that Disney is known for and it is clearly evident throughout the 50's Prime Time Café. From the minute you step in the main entrance you feel as though you have set foot in a typical 1950's home. The waiting area and bar have the look of a large living room, complete with wood-paneled walls, bookshelves cluttered with various knick knacks, brightly-colored sofas and love seats, and of course numerous retro-looking black and white televisions playing scenes from classic 1950's sitcoms.

Prime Time Waiting Area

Prime Time Waiting Area2

Prime Time Bar

Entering the main dining area, you move from the living room to the kitchen and once again are treated to a completely immersive and authentic 1950's atmosphere. The restaurant's décor features an astonishing amount of little details, with everything from kitchen appliances such as toasters, blenders, pots, and pans to various vintage clocks, storage canisters and containers, tea pots, colorful glassware, and many decorative items featuring roosters or advertising Coca Cola.

Prime Time Table1

Knick Knacks

50s Decor

One of my favorite parts of the décor were the numerous cookie jars coming in all shapes, sizes, and designs, including one that looked like a dog house.

Dog House Cookie Jar

Just as in the waiting area, the dining rooms feature black and white televisions broadcasting scenes from classic shows such as "Father Knows Best," "Leave It To Beaver," and the original "Mickey Mouse Club." All these details really make you feel as though you are eating in a 1950's kitchen, and it is really fun for people who grew up in the fifties to spot different items that they had in their own home.

Television

This at-home feel gives the 50's Prime Time a very fun, casual, and laid back atmosphere. It is definitely a great restaurant for the entire family (with little kids especially liking the fact that they can watch television throughout their entire meal). Adding to this atmosphere is the tremendous amount of bright and vibrant colors found throughout the restaurant. The main dining area is divided into a series of smaller rooms, with each of these rooms having a different feel in terms of color and decoration. As you move from room to room you encounter various changes in wall paper, curtains, counter tops, and light fixtures, all of which make you feel as though you are moving through different rooms of a house (except in this case all the rooms happen to be kitchens).

Prime Time Table2

Overall the atmosphere of the restaurant can be appreciated on different levels by different guests. For kids it is fun to see how things were in the past and how different they are from today while for adults the atmosphere helps to brings back memories of their own childhoods.

The Menu:
While the 50's Prime Time Café may not feature a menu of gourmet delicacies, it can give you a good, old-fashioned, home-cooked meal that is "just like Mom used to make."

One of the fun aspects of the menu is that different items are named for different members of the family. For example, among the appetizer offerings there is Aunt Annie's Seafood Salad ($9.99) featuring lump blue crab, bay scallops, and shrimp tossed in citrus vinaigrette and served on seasonal greens as well as Cousin Amy's Iceberg Lettuce Wedge ($5.49) with blue cheese dressing, bacon, and chives. Other appetizers include the Chicken Noodle Soup ($6.49) which includes a hearty mixture of chicken, vegetables, and egg noodles, the Blue Claw Crab Cake ($9.49) served with succotash, chili sauce, and crispy onions, and Beer Battered Onion Rings for Two ($8.49).

The entrée items are all very familiar, with nothing really flashy or exotic, but all the dishes are in keeping with the restaurant's theme. The entrée selections remain the same for both lunch and dinner and include a Grilled Boneless Pork Loin ($20.99) glazed with peppered mushroom gravy with mashed potatoes and green beans, Cousin Barry's Olive Oil Poached Salmon ($19.99) served with sweet peas, brown rice pilaf, and a dill cream sauce, Caesar Salad served with your choice of chicken ($13.49) or salmon ($15.49), Aunt Liz's Golden Fried Chicken ($16.99) served with mashed potatoes, chicken gravy and southern greens, Spaghetti and "Meatballs" ($15.99) featuring multigrain spaghetti and vegetarian meatballs with Dad's marinara sauce, Dad's Traditional Meatloaf ($14.99) with a blend of beef and pork and topped with tomato glaze, served with mashed potatoes, and green beans, Mom's Old Fashioned Pot Roast ($17.99) served with mashed potatoes, carrots, celery and onions, and Grandma's Chicken Pot Pie ($17.99) featuring a creamy cheese mixture of chicken, mushrooms, carrots, celery, onions, and peas topped with a flaky pastry. For those guests having a little difficulty deciding there is the Sampling of Mom's Favorite Recipes ($19.99) that includes the Fried Chicken, Pot Roast, and Traditional Meatloaf with all the fixings.

Be sure to eat all your vegetables because there are some delectable desserts available such as Dad's Brownie Sundae ($5.99) topped with hot fudge and caramel sauce, No Sugar Added Cheesecake ($5.49) topped with fresh whipped cream and strawberry sauce, a Seasonal Cobbler ($5.49) that can also be served ala mode ($7.49), 50's Boston Cream Parfait ($5.49) with layers of chocolate fudge, vanilla cream, and pound cake topped with whipped cream, and S'mores ($4.79).

For an appetizer I decided on the Beer Battered Onion Rings, which in my opinion were some of the best I have had anywhere in Disney World. The onion rings were fried perfectly with a nice golden brown color and were not overly crispy. There was a slight beer flavor to the batter, but it was just enough to add a little extra taste rather than being overpowering. What really adds to the onion rings is the horseradish sauce that accompanies it, providing an extra little kick. The flavor of the horseradish complimented the onion and beer batter extremely well and it was not so strong that it dominated everything. This may be a simple and common appetizer found at many other restaurants or even prepared in your own home, but it is executed perfectly in taste, texture, and flavor and comes in a huge portion that can easily be shared by three or four people.

Onion Rings

Whenever dining at the 50's Prime Time, my mainstay entrée has always been Dad's Traditional Meatloaf, but this time I decided to try something different and opted for Grandma's Chicken Pot Pie. Again, while the menu features many traditional, home-style meals that may not jump out at you as being anything special, you are still getting the same type of quality food that you get from any other Disney restaurant.

The chicken pot pie was very rich and creamy with big pieces of chicken and vegetables. There was also a slight hint of cheese that really added extra flavor to the dish and helped give a little bit of a new twist to a traditional dish. I liked the fact that there were large pieces of chicken breast rather than having the chicken cut up into small, bite-sized pieces. The vegetables, which included mushrooms, carrots, celery, peas, and onions, were cooked just right so that they were not too hard and not too soft. I would have liked the vegetables more, however, if there had been more carrots and onions and less celery. That being said, I am not usually a celery fan, but I did feel as though the celery added a little extra flavor and texture to the dish. The pie crust was very light and flaky, also featuring a hint of cheese for added flavor, and really helped make the meal stand out as something more than your typical chicken pot pie.

Chicken Pot Pie

For dessert I decided to try the S'mores, which presents a new spin on a campfire favorite. The marshmallows are toasted to a nice golden brown and not burnt at all. The dessert is very chocolaty, featuring a layer of chocolate between the marshmallows and the graham crackers in addition to being drizzled over the top. The graham crackers were a little softer than what I expected and I would have really liked it if there had been a layer on top as well like traditional s'mores. Nevertheless, this was still a simple, but tasty, dessert and a fun way to end the meal.

Smores

Service:
I would argue that more so than any other restaurant in Disney World, the service at 50's Prime Time Café can truly make or break your dining experience. This is really a restaurant where the service is just as important as the food. Even if the food is great, if you have a lackluster server it takes away from the overall impact of the restaurant and you leave feeling a little disappointed. On the whole, I have mostly had great experiences at 50's Prime Time. There are some servers who are really over-the-top and truly go above-and-beyond with the theming. I have seen servers not only yelling at guests to take their elbows off the table and embarrassing them in front of the other guests but also putting children (and sometimes adults) in time-out and having them stand in the corner of the room facing the wall. I have been force-fed vegetables by one of my servers when I didn't finish them and another time a server brought me a very "special" dessert because I had not finished my string beans.

String Bean Dessert

At the other end of the spectrum there are some servers who are more laid back and low-key and, although it seems funny to say, they are just too nice. While these servers still provide good service, they do not help create the same sense of immersion that you get when you have a server who is going all-out. Overall, it is the service, especially the really enthusiastic and passionate cast members, that makes this restaurant truly special.

Dining on a Budget:
The 50's Prime Time Café is actually fairly affordable by Disney standards. Entrée selections such as Aunt Liz's Golden Fried Chicken for $16.99, Dad's Traditional Meatloaf for $14.99, and Mom's Old Fashioned Pot Roast for $17.99 are all very reasonable for the large portion size you receive. The best value on the menu is probably the Sampling of Mom's Favorite Recipes for $19.99 that features all three and is absolutely huge. What you have to also factor into the prices is that you are getting so much more in terms of the overall dining experience (the service and atmosphere of the restaurant). Dining at 50's Prime Time is about more than just the food.

If you are looking for an even cheaper option, the restaurant also features a bar at which you can sit and order off the regular menu. One possibility for a quick and fairly cheap meal for two people would be to sit at the bar and order a couple of appetizers. The Beer Battered Onion Rings could easily serve two for $7.99 and the menu features several other affordable appetizer options as well. If you are still hungry, consider splitting a dessert, such as Dad's Brownie Sundae, which is absolutely huge and also a good value at $5.99.

The 50's Prime Time Café is on the Disney Dining Plan and is worth one table service credit for both lunch and dinner. The restaurant does participate in Tables in Wonderland with members receiving its 20% discount. However, neither Annual Passholders nor Disney Vacation Club members receive discounts here.

The Overall Experience:
When it comes to theming and creating an overall sense of immersion, the 50's Prime Time Café is one of my favorite restaurants in all of Disney World. It is a dining experience unlike any other. While the food may be a far cry from gourmet, it is still of a very high quality. But, this is a restaurant where the food may not even be the most important aspect. An extremely dedicated and passionate group of cast members who deliver service that is both fun and entertaining, great attention to the smallest of details in the decor, and a unique back-story all combine to make dining at 50's Prime Time truly unforgettable. I highly recommend this restaurant for everyone, but especially families traveling with children because not only do you get a good, old-fashion, home-cooked meal at an affordable price but in doing so you will also have a lot of fun.

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of 50's Prime Time Cafe and post your own too!

April 22, 2012

Experience the Flavors and Beauty of the Pacific Northwest at Artist Point

Andrew Rossi

When it comes to an overall sense of grandeur, there are few places at Disney World that match the majestic beauty of Wilderness Lodge. I would go so far as to argue that no resort at Disney World goes as far as in being able to transport guests to another time and place and make them feel as though they are no longer in the middle of Florida. Inspired by the Great American Northwest National Park lodges from the turn of the 20th century, the theme of harmony with nature is prevalent throughout.

Resort Exterior.jpg

The resort's decor and artifacts pay homage to ancient Native American cultures as well as the pioneering spirit of early American explorers, with the seven-story lobby (built from 85 loads of Lodgepole Pine) and 82-foot-tall fireplace helping to make resort one of the most visually stunning on property.

Wilderness Lodge Lobby

Overall, the resort is what I would consider rustic-elegant and it is only fitting that it features a restaurant worthy of this dignified and impressive setting. Artist Point is one of Disney's Signature Dining Locations and, while it may not have the same notoriety as say a Yachtsman Steakhouse or California Grill, this restaurant offers guests one of the finest dining experiences in all of Disney World.

Signage

Overview:
Artist Point, like the rest of Wilderness Lodge, draws its inspiration from the National Park lodges of the Pacific Northwest, an area which encompasses Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia; everything about the restaurant, from its décor to its menu focusing on seafood, sirloins and game to its award winning wine list featuring 131 selections, is reflective of this region.

Artist Point is one of two full service restaurants at Wilderness Lodge, along with the Whispering Canyon Café, but the two could not be more different (you can see my review of Whispering Canyon Café here). Artist Point presents a sharp contrast to the raucous, laid-back, family friendly Whispering Canyon. This is a restaurant that is all about refinement, as reflected in its Signature status. In fact, Artist Point is one of just 16 Signature dining locations in all of Disney World, restaurants that are considered the cream of the crop amongst the numerous dining experiences to be found across property.

One of the marks of the more elegant and refined atmosphere found at Signature restaurants is a dress code. The dress code for Signature restaurants is as follows (as stated on the Disney World website). Men are encouraged to wear khakis, slacks, jeans, dress shorts, and collared shirts. Sport coats are optional. For women it is suggested that they wear capris, skirts, dresses, jeans, dress shorts. There are also certain articles of clothing that are not allowed in the dining room, such as tank tops, swimwear, hats, cut-off or torn clothing. Also, while t-shirts are allowed, the policy is that anything with offensive language or graphics is not acceptable.

Disney defines its Signature restaurants as dining experiences that "provide unparalleled cuisine served in elegant and relaxed settings," and this certainly holds true for Artist Point. It is a restaurant that offers everything you would expect from Disney in terms of atmosphere, food, and service, but elevates it to a whole new level.

Atmosphere:
The sheer impressiveness and sense of grandeur that you get when you enter the lobby of Wilderness Lodge is carried through to Artist Point. Everything about this restaurant is on a large scale, from its high vaulted ceilings, ornate iron lanterns suspended from massive timber columns, immense windows offering beautiful views of Bay Lake and the resort's Silver Creek Falls, and its breathtaking murals and paintings.

Dining Room

Ceiling

Lighting

Artist Point is indeed an apt name for the restaurant because its artwork really makes the atmosphere stand out. The restaurant's menu actually presents some background information on the various paintings that are present throughout the dining room. The most striking of the artworks are the massive murals inspired by the work of Thomas Moran.

Mural1

In 1871, Ferdinand Hayden, director of the United States Geological Survey, invited Moran to join his expedition team into the Yellowstone region. During forty days in the wilderness, Moran visually documented over thirty different sites and produced a diary of the expedition's progress and daily activities. His sketches captured the nation's attention and helped inspire Congress to establish the Yellowstone region as the first national park in 1872. The mural in the dining room comes from Moran's sketch of the Green River area of Wyoming.

Mural2

In addition, the dining room also features five six-foot by six-foot paintings inspired by the works of Albert Bierstadt. In 1859, Bierstadt was given the tremendous opportunity of accompanying General Lander on an expedition to survey a wagon route to the Pacific, a route that would eventually become known as the Oregon Trail, and was responsible for sketching much of the natural beauty encountered during the expedition.

Painting1

Painting2

Painting3

Painting4

The various artwork found around the dining room really adds to the beauty of the restaurant, but it also helps to solidify the Pacific Northwest theming and pays homage to the resort's National Park inspiration.

One of the other features of Artist Point's atmosphere is its large windows that offer breathtaking views of the resort's grounds. I dined here at night so there was not really much to see, but if you happen to dine here while it is still light out you will be treated to views of Bay Lake, the resort's pool area, and the forested landscaping. The windows really bring the outdoors in, which helps to solidify the rustic feel, in addition to giving the dining room an openness and airiness that is aided by the restaurant's high cathedral ceilings.This is an example of the view you could have from your table:

View.jpg

The restaurant's openness is also evident in the sheer size of the dining room. This allows for the tables to not be placed right on top of each other, which helps make the dining experience both more quiet and private. Indeed, this is a restaurant that, despite its grand scale, actually has a very intimate feel. This is the perfect dining location for adults looking for a romantic getaway. The restaurant's refined, upscale feel combined with its immersive Pacific Northwest theme make it a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the theme parks.

The Menu:
One of the marks of a Signature dining location is that their menus change more frequently than most other restaurants in Disney World. The reason for this is that the menus at Signature restaurants reflect what ingredients a fresh and in season at that particular time of year. The one constant with the menu at Artist Point is that it is going to reflect the flavors of the Pacific Northwest. The offerings I describe here reflect what was on the menu when I dined here in early March.

One thing that impressed me most about the menu at Artist Point was the great variety of ingredients used in their dishes. This is definitely a restaurant for the more exotic and adventureous diners, as evidenced first by the appetizer offerings. Among the appetizers featured on the menu were a Smokey Portobello Soup with Roasted Shiitakes and Chive Oil ($10.00), Kettle-Steamed Copper Ale Penn Cove Mussels ($14.00), a Mixed Field Greens Salad ($11.00) with shaved Asian pear, sunflower seed granola, smokey blue cheese, and a champagne vinaigrette, Salt-Roasted Heirloom Beets ($13.00) with truffled chèvre, cider-poached pink lady apples, spiced walnuts, and a mulled wine vinaigrette, a Beef Noodle Bowl ($14.00) in a fragrant oxtail broth, Penn Cove Roasted Oysters with Dungeness Crab Ceviche ($13.00), and a Selection of Artisanal Cheeses ($14.00) including smokey blue cheese, reypenaer, and humboldt fog with seasonal garnishes and walnut toast.

Like the appetizers, the entrée offerings are reflective of the great outdoors of the Pacific Northwest and it all starts with the house specialty, the Cedar Plank-Roasted King Salmon ($35.00) accompanied by autumn squash, root vegetables, baby sprouts, and spice cider reduction. Among the other seafood options on the menu are a Wild-Caught Jumbo Prawn and Crab "Hot Pot" with Mussels ($32.00) with crispy pork, jasmine rice, and a spiced Thai coconut broth, Seared Diver Scallops ($33.00) with parmigiano-reggiano butternut squash risotto, toasted pumpkin seeds, and balsamic vinegar, and Seared Pacific Swordfish ($34.00) with black trumpet mushroom hash, salsify, and a meyer lemon emulsion.

The entrée selections from land include a Pan-Seared All-Natural Airline Chicken ($29.00) with pumpkin fettuccine, Swiss chard, pumpkin seed pesto, and cranberry jam, a Herb-Roasted Veal "Tomahawk" Chop ($46.00) with hunter-style foraged mushrooms, Yukon gold potato smear, and a veal glaze, Grilled Certified Hand-Cut Black Angus Beef Tenderloin ($42.00) served with fried macaroni & cheese, smoked fennel, roasted carrots, poblano ketchup, and chimichurri paint, a Char-Grilled Buffalo Strip Loin ($43.00) with purple potato purée, hazelnut cauliflower polonaise, onion marmalade, and a blackberry pinot noir reduction, and for vegetarians there is the House-Made Sweet Potato Gnocchi ($28.00) served with wild mushrooms, spinach, caper butter, and drunken goat cheese.

You might also want to save room for dessert as the menu features several delectable options. The restaurant's signature dessert is the Artist Point Cobbler ($11.00) with seasonal berries and house-made black raspberry ice cream. There is also the Warm Chocolate Cake ($11.00) featuring warm valrhona chocolate with Grand Marnier chantilly and berry seltzer, a Baked Apple Upside-Down Cake ($10.00) with sweet-and-sour caramel sauce and brown sugar ice cream, and a Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée ($10.00) with a chocolate-hazelnut biscotti.

For my meal I decided to be adventurous and try something completely new to me. Buffalo is not a dish common to many menus, especially at Disney World. I figured that this was a rare opportunity that I should not pass up and decided to try the Char-Grilled Buffalo Strip Loin. My server recommended that I order the buffalo cooked medium, which would give it a pink color throughout but also accentuate the tenderness and juiciness of the steak. While the buffalo had a slightly stronger, more gamey flavor than beef, if I had not been told it was buffalo then I probably would not have even realized what it was. When you think of buffalo you picture the big, burly animal and would probably imagine the meat to be a little tough, but I was surprised at just how tender the meat was. Buffalo naturally has a more reddish color than beef, so even if you were to order it well-done you could still expect the meat to have a pinkish color. I was very happy that I ordered the steak medium because it really helped bring out the full flavor of the buffalo.

Buffalo

One of the things that impressed me most about the dish was the tremendous amount of flavors that it encompassed. Each of the accompaniments to the buffalo had its own distinct flavor and yet they all blended together perfectly. No one flavor really dominated the others, but instead they seemed to enhance and bring out the best in each other, giving the dish a level of complexity that really separated it from the types of dishes found in non-Signature restaurants. The most unique accompaniment had to be the purple potato puree. While it may have an odd appearance, it had the consistency of smooth mashed potatoes and lent a creamy and subtle sweetness to the dish. The hazelnut cauliflower polonaise presented a definite contrast in texture, but I was also surprised with how well the hazelnut paired with not only the cauliflower but the buffalo as well.

Like the potato puree, the onion marmalade also had a slight sweetness to it, but the real star accompaniment was the blackberry pinot noir reduction. The sauce provided more of a fruity flavor as opposed to that of wine, which presented a perfect compliment to the slight gaminess of the buffalo. My only complaint was that there was not more of the sauce to go along with the generous portion of meat. I think the best way I can sum up this dish in just a couple of words is high quality; everything about it, from the ingredients to the flavors to the presentation, left a lasting impression.

For dessert I decided to try what is considered the restaurant's signature dessert, the Artist Point Cobbler. This dessert usually comes topped with house-made black raspberry ice cream, but I chose just to have some vanilla ice cream on the side instead. The picture of this dessert does not really do it justice, with the berries on top just a garnish that hides the real treat underneath. First, there is the light, flakey crust and beneath that lies the ooey gooey berry goodness that makes the dessert truly special. The berries included rasberries, blackberries, and blueberries and really had the consistency, texture, and flavor that you would expect from the filling of something like a blueberry pie.

Cobbler

Overall this is a very simple dessert, one that can easily be made at home on your own, but its execution was top notch. The cobbler comes served warm and the fruity flavor of the berries combines perfectly with the crust and the vanilla ice cream. This is not an overly sweet dessert and that I why I felt that the vanilla ice cream (as opposed to the raspberry) was a better compliment providing some added sweetness and creaminess to counter the slight tartness of the berries.

Service:
In my past experiences at Signature dining locations I have been completely blown away by the attentive service that I have received. The servers at Signature restaurants generally have fewer tables to wait upon and can therefore pay much closer attention to the guests that they are serving. While I found the service at Artist Point to be very good, it was not necessarily great; there was nothing about my server that really stood out as being special. With a menu that contains so many different, exotic ingredients and flavors I was expecting the sever to give an in-depth explanation of some of the dishes, instead she briefly mentioned what some of the restaurant's more popular items were. My server was certainly very nice and quite pleasant, checking in frequently to make sure I was enjoying every part of my meal, but I did not feel as though her service stood out from anything I would receive at a non-Signature restaurant.

One thing I greatly enjoyed about the service was the pacing of the meal. While not slow by any means, the meal progressed at a leisurely, relaxing pace that really allows you to enjoy not only all the flavors of the meal, taking time to digest between courses, but also the beauty of the atmosphere.

Dining on a Budget:
Another mark of Signature dining locations are their priciness. It is very difficult to dine on a budget when going to one of these restaurants. That being said, you are truly getting what you pay for in terms of the high quality food, atmosphere, and service you receive. If you are looking for a place to splurge on a meal and have a truly memorable experience, then Artist Point and the other Signature restaurants across Disney World are definitely worth a try. However, I certainly would not want to eat at a Signature restaurant every night of my vacation because the cost would be far too high.

Artist Point is on the Disney Dining Plan, but as a Signature restaurant it is worth two table service credits. One way you can save some money at Artist Point is with a discount. The restaurant does participate in Tables in Wonderland and thus members receive its 20% discount. In addition, Annual Passholders can receive at 10% discount although there is no discount for Disney Vacation Club members.

The Overall Experience:
Being my first time dining at Artist Point I was extremely impressed. This is certainly a restaurant that lives up to it Signature status. From the beauty and grandeur of the dining room to the intricate blending of ingredients and flavors in its dishes, Artist Point is one of the more elegant restaurants that I have dined at in all of Disney World. While a menu that is more on the exotic side may not make it appealing to everyone, if you are willing to go a little outside the box and try new things then you will not be disappointed. Artist Point's menu is definitely one of the more unique of the many Disney restaurants that I have dined at, but that is one thing that makes it so appealing. Even though it is certainly not a cheap meal by any means, I left feeling as though I had gotten my money's worth. It is truly a quality dining experience in every aspect and one which I look forward to returning to in the future.

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Artist Point and post your own too!

January 19, 2012

An Exotic Dining Adventure at Restaurant Marrakesh

Andrew Rossi

Even though the Moroccan pavilion in World Showcase has no attractions like some of the other countries, the pavilion is really an attraction unto itself. It is one of my favorite pavilions to walk through because it so completely immerses you into the sights, sounds, and culture of Morocco. With its winding back alleys and little shops, the pavilion is very successful in making you feel as though you have been transported to Morocco itself.

Morocco Pavilion

In fact, in order to ensure the authenticity of the pavilion, King Hassan II of Morocco sent some of his finest craftsmen to work on the site with Disney Imagineers. These craftsmen helped generate hundreds of thousands of square feet of carved stone and tile work inspired by the traditions of Islamic architecture found in Moroccan cities like Casablanca, Marrakesh, Rabat, and Fez. This level of detail is what makes the pavilion so captivating to me. Although I have walked through it many times, I always seem to notice some new little detail whenever I go. This high level of detail and theming, creating a completely immersive experience, is continued into Restaurant Marrakesh.

Marrakesh Sign

Marrakesh Exterior1

Overview:
Dining at Restaurant Marrakesh is about more than just the meal itself, but rather the complete experience. Of all the restaurants around World Showcase, Restaurant Marrakesh provides one of the most immersive dining experience. The art and architecture, the music, and of course the food all contribute to give guests a small taste of Moroccan culture. The back of the menu provides a short overview of the country's culture and traditions and notes that Morocco is a country of "timeless wonders," a country of whose ancient mosques, synagogues, souks, churches, and kasbahs feature art and architecture which has been developed and refined over centuries. Indeed, dining at Restaurant Marrakesh makes you feel as though you have been transported to a time and place very far away and everything that you see, hear, and taste during your meal all contributes to this experience.

Marrakesh Exterior2

Atmosphere:
While the dining room at Restaurant Marrakesh is not very large, it feels much bigger. Its high ceilings give the restaurant a very open feel, which is enhanced by the fact that the dining room is just one large space. Even the tables are also positioned so that they are not right on top of one another, giving an added sense of spaciousness. Also adding to this is a large, open dance floor located directly in the middle of the dining room.

Marrakesh Dining Room1

Marrakesh Dining Room2

The restaurant has a casual yet elegant feel, almost as if you were dining in the banquet hall of a Moroccan palace. This sense of grandeur, opulence, and luxury may not make it the best location when dining with small children, but it is an atmosphere that should not necessarily scare away families. However, the overall feel and theme of the dining room is one that will be appreciated more by adults.

Marrakesh Dining Room3.jpg

One of the things I enjoyed most about the restaurant was the level of detail in its art and architectural elements, all of which gives you plenty to look at as you are dining. The elaborate carvings, mosaics, painted ceilings, decorative carpets, and light fixtures all help to create an exotic feel of a faraway land and highlight the beauty of Arabic art.

Marrakesh Ceiling

Adding to this atmosphere is the lighting, or lack thereof. The dining room has no windows and thus no natural light. What light there is comes from the intricate light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, including some with pink lightbulbs, giving the dining room a dark, romantic, and somewhat mysterious feel.

Another major element of the atmosphere is the live entertainment. As noted earlier, dining at Restaurant Marrakesh is about having a complete experience. The immersion into Moroccan culture does not stop with the art, architecture, and detailed theming, but continues with music and dancing performed periodically in the center of the restaurant. While the live music is not continuous (the performances last about a half an hour), there is a good chance that you will see them perform at some point during your meal.


The music, unlike anything I have ever heard before, adds to the exotic feel of the restaurant but at the same time is not too overpowering. While it is loud enough to be heard from all parts of the restaurant, it is not so loud that you cannot have a conversation with others sitting at your table. After playing a couple of songs, the musicians were joined by a belly dancer performing some traditional Moroccan dances. I thought it was a nice touch that the dancer invited some of the children to the dance floor in the center of the room to teach them some different moves.

Belly Dancer

Overall, the music and dancing create a festive atmosphere and combine with the food and the restaurant's architectural elements to completely transport you to Morocco. The restaurant has a completely different feel from anywhere else I have dined at Disney World and a large part of this is because it is a complete sensory experience; its sights, sounds, and tastes all combine to completely immerse you into Moroccan culture.

The Menu:
As noted on the restaurant's menu "Moroccan cuisine is presented in a fashion that enhances its surroundings." This was my first-ever experience with Moroccan food and the menu at Restaurant Marrakesh definitely includes some different and exotic items for the more adventurous diners. One thing that I can say about Moroccan cuisine after my meal is that it is all about flavor. Just in my meal alone I noticed a wide assortment of spices and flavors that both complimented and contrasted each other with a level of complexity that went beyond food that I am typically used to eating. That being said, the food was actually not as spicy as I expected, but still full of flavor.

The lunch and dinner menus differ slightly in terms of food offerings and prices and both feature a fairly wide assortment of Moroccan dishes. The appetizer selections are constant for both lunch and dinner and include Harira Soup ($5.99), traditional hearty soup with tomatoes, eggs, lentils and lamb, Beef Brewat Rolls ($7.99), baked layers of thin pastry filled with seasoned minced beef and sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar, Chicken Bastilla ($8.99) featuring baked layers of thin pastry filled with minced chicken and almonds, Seafood Bastilla ($9.99) filled with grouper, shrimp, and mushrooms, an Assorted Mediterranean Salad for Two ($13.99) including falafel, sundried tomatoes, hummus, roasted eggplant puree, and tabbouleh, a Goat Cheese with Crispy Bread for Two ($13.99) with mixture of cheeses and kalamata olives served with tabouleh, red pepper sauce, and balsamic vinegar reduction, and an Appetizer Combination for Two ($16.99) that includes the Beef Brewat Rolls, Chicken Bastilla, and a Jasmina Salad.

Lunch entrees feature an assortment of seafood, beef, chicken, and even vegetarian selections. My server noted that one of the more traditional items on the menu was the Roast Lamb Meshoui ($18.99) served in natural juices. There is also a Shish Kebab ($18.99) with grilled tenderloin of beef marinated in Moroccan herbs and spices, Chicken Kebabs ($16.99) featuring grilled brochettes of chicken breast marinated in Moroccan herbs and spices, North Atlantic Salmon ($21.99) pan seared with mushrooms, tomatoes, garlic, parsley, oil, and hummus $21.99, Lemon Chicken ($17.99) braised with garlic, green olives, and preserved lemon, and a variety of Couscous options including Vegetable ($14.99), Chicken ($17.99), Lamb Shank ($19.99), and Beef ($18.99). If you are looking for a wide assortment of Moroccan tastes and flavors there is the Berber Feast which is $27.95 per person and is served family style. This entrée includes a Jasmina Salad, Chicken Kebabs, Roast Lamb Meshoui, Vegetable Couscous, and Baklava.

Among some of the items found only on the dinner menu are the Mogador Fish Tagine ($27.99) featuring marinated fish with olives, lemon, potatoes, green peppers, and a chermula sauce. There is also the Mediterranean Seafood Platter ($36.95) that includes Seafood Bastilla, Shrimp Ragout and Broiled Salmon served with seasoned as well as the Night in Casablanca ($36.95) with Seafood Bastilla, Roasted Lamb Meshoui, and chicken Kebab served with seasoned rice. The most extensive offering is the Royal Feast which is $42.95 per person and is served family style. This meal includes Harira Soup, Beef Brewat Rolls, Lemon Chicken, Roast Lamb Meshoui, Vegetable Couscous, and Assorted Moroccan Pastries.

The dessert options are limited to a Moroccan Symphony ($6.99) with assorted baklavas, the Marrakesh Delight ($5.99), which is a fresh fruit salad topped with mint ice cream, toasted almonds, and orange blossom water, and a Bastilla with crispy leaves of pastry topped with vanilla cream and sprinkled with cinnamon, powdered sugar and toasted almonds (For Two - $8.99, For One - $7.99).

For my meal I decided to try the Chef's Lunch Special ($19.99), which included a prix fixe selection of an appetizer, entrée, and a dessert. I felt this was the best way to get the most complete sampling of different Moroccan dishes for a very affordable price.

The appetizer was a Beef Brewat Roll, a thin pastry filled with minced beef and then topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar and accompanied by a small salad. I was a little hesitant about this dish because I was not sure how the combination of beef with cinnamon and powdered sugar would taste. I turned out to be pleasantly surprised. The pastry roll itself was delicious. Crispy and flaky, it tasted very much like a pastry you would have for dessert. The beef was not too heavily season and, in fact, the roll would not have had much flavor if it had not been for the cinnamon and powdered sugar. I was shocked at how well the cinnamon complimented and enhanced the flavor of the beef. These are not too flavors that I would typically associate with each other, but they contrasted and yet complimented each other very well. The salad that came with the beef roll was very light and refreshing and was topped with a mayonnaise-based salad dressing that was very creamy.

Beef Roll

The entrée on the lunch special was Chicken Kebabs, a dish that I have had before at other restaurants but never matching the flavors of the ones here at Marrakesh. The chicken was seasoned with Moroccan herbs and spices, which definitely gave it a little kick but was far from being overwhelming. There was also a slightly spicy sauce served over the kebabs, which enhanced the flavor of the chicken and added more complexity and depth to the flavor of the meal as a whole. My only complaint was that there could have been more sauce because, although the chicken was very tender, it was a little dry.

Chicken Kebab

Accompanying the chicken on the kebabs were mushrooms seasoned with the same spices. Although the mushrooms paired very well with the chicken, I felt they could have been cooked a little longer because they were a bit hard. The kebabs also came with rice. Surprisingly, for all the flavor found in the rest of the dish, the rice was pretty plain. This is another reason why it would have been nice to have more sauce because mixing it with the rice would have given it much more flavor.

The dessert was Baklava, a Moroccan specialty. Although the portion was not too big, it was just right size after a large meal. The pastries were light, flaky, and very sweet, which offered a nice contrast to the spiciness of the chicken kabobs. The Baklava was also topped with almonds which added more flavor and texture to the dessert.

Baklava

Service:
The service was really the only disappointing part of my experience at Restaurant Marrakesh. I hardly ever saw my server at all throughout the entire meal and when I did see him there was very little interaction. After I was seated, the server brought me a menu but did not even explain or describe any of the items for me, which I found a bit surprising because not too many Americans are familiar with Moroccan food. After taking my order the only times I saw my server were when he was bringing out my appetizer, entrée, and dessert. The server did not even stop by to make sure I was enjoying everything, which has never happened to me at a Disney restaurant. That being said, I thought the pace of the meal was very good. Sometimes when you order off of a prix fixe menu the appetizer, entrée, and dessert are brought out in rapid succession, but here the meal progressed at a leisurely pace giving you time to enjoy the entertainment and digest between courses.

Dining on a Budget:
As with most restaurants at Disney World, I highly recommend going to Restaurant Marrakesh for lunch rather than dinner because you are getting a very similar menu but at a much cheaper price. For example, the Roast Lamb Meshoui will cost you $18.99 for lunch but then goes up to $27.99 for dinner. Likewise the Shish Kebabs are $18.99 for lunch and $28.99 for dinner, the Chicken Kebabs go up from $16.99 for lunch to $24.99 for dinner, and the Lemon Chicken increases from $17.99 for lunch to $25.99 for dinner. I am sure the dinner portions are larger than the lunch portions, but I left lunch feeling completely full and satisfied.

The best value on the menu for either lunch or dinner is definitely the Chef's Lunch Special because you get a complete meal with appetizer, entrée, and dessert for just $19.99. The lunch and dinner menus actually feature several options that allow you to sample of variety of Moroccan dishes and while these are more expensive than the Lunch Special, they still offer a good value for your money. The Berber Feast for $27.95, Mediterranean Seafood Platter for $36.95, the Night in Casablanca for $36.95, and even the Royal Feast for $42.95 might seem a little expensive, but when you consider the amount and assortment of food you get with each they come out to be cheaper than if you were ordering an appetizer, entrée, and dessert separately off the menu.

Restaurant Marrakesh does participate on the Disney Dining Plan and is worth one table service credit for both lunch and dinner. The restaurant also offers a 10% discount for Annual Passholders, but only for lunch on Mondays through Fridays. There is also a 20% discount for Disney Vacation Club Members for both lunch and dinner. The restaurant also participates in Tables in Wonderland and offers the 20% for its members.

The Overall Experience:
This was my first time dining at Restaurant Marrakesh and I can say without a doubt that I will definitely be going back again. Nearly every aspect of the restaurant exceeded my expectations. The level of detail and theming in the restaurant's décor, the authentic Moroccan music and dancing, and the extremely flavorful food all contributed to create a completely immersive atmosphere. I think this has to be one of the more exotic dining locations I have eaten at in Disney World. More so than many other dining locations at Disney, Restaurant Marrakesh transports you to another time and another place, a faraway land very different from our own, and gives you a little taste of Moroccan culture. I would highly recommend this restaurant for anyone looking for a meal that is both different and unique. It is definitely a restaurant for the more adventurous eater, those people who like to try different dishes and experience different flavors. The best part of Restaurant Marrakesh is that it is more than just a meal, but rather an experience that is aptly described on the restaurant's menu as "a cultural feast."

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Restaurant Marrakesh and post your own too!

November 4, 2011

A Little Taste of Food & Wine

Andrew Rossi

Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival is one of my favorite times of year at Disney World; there is so much to do, so much to see, and so much good food to taste. One of the things I enjoy most about the Festival is that it allows you to sample the cuisines of so many different countries that you do not normally get to experience. The Festival is a dream come true for the adventurous eater, allowing one to encounter new ingredients, flavors, and dishes both exotic and unique. Epcot is always my go-to park when it comes to great food and this is all the more heightened during the Food & Wine Festival.

Festival Signage

This year's Festival features twenty-nine international marketplaces ranging from Singapore to Portugal to the Caribbean Islands and with so much good food to be found it can sometimes be very difficult to decide which dishes to try. As you walk around World Showcase and look at various menus you quickly find yourself wanting to try everything, the pleasant aromas filling the air only adding to the temptation. Of course, it would cost far too much money to try every single item that the Festival has to offer and so here I present a few of my favorites in the hope it will help you decide which dishes might interest you most.

We will start with Morocco. Although the Moroccan pavilion features both a full service restaurant and quick service eatery, the country's Food & Wine marketplace presents some different offerings.

Morocco Marketplace

Here I decided to try the Kefta Pocket which was described on the menu as ground seasoned beef in a pita pocket. I likened the beef to a spicy hamburger. While the beef did have a very distinct spiciness to it I did not find its flavor to be overwhelming and, even though the beef was a little on the dry side, this did not take away from the flavor. Accompanying the beef in the pita was a type of cole slaw that provided a light and refreshing accompaniment that paired very well with the stronger flavored beef. For $5.00 this is one of the more expensive items throughout the marketplaces, but the size of the dish makes it a good value.

Kefta Pocket

The Hops and Barley marketplace features foods and beers from the United States. Although I like to use the Food & Wine Festival as a way of sampling the cuisines of distant countries that I may not be as familiar with, I could not resist trying a new item on the menu here this year.

Hops and Barley Marketplace

The Pumpkin Mousse with Ocean Spray Craisins and Orange Sauce immediately jumped out at me because I am a huge fan of all things pumpkin and I am happy to say that it certainly lived up to my expectations. The pumpkin mousse was very smooth and creamy and had a flavor similar to that of a pumpkin pie only a little more on the sweet side. To be honest, the only flavor that I really noticed was that of the pumpkin and could not really pick out the orange sauce (which I was glad because the combination of pumpkin and orange seemed a little odd to me). The mousse came topped with chopped nuts and craisins that added a nice contrast in texture to that of the mousse. For $1.50 this is one of the best valued items in the entire Festival.

Pumpkin Mousse

Scandinavia makes its return this year after a brief hiatus and may have one of the best themed exteriors of any of the marketplaces.

Scandanavia Marketplace

Here I chose the Swedish Meatballs with Lingonberries. While this may not be the most visually appealing dish at the Festival, it certainly has great taste and flavor. The meatballs themselves were very moist and tender and were somewhat different in consistency than the meatballs you would get if dining out at an Italian restaurant. Accompanying the meatballs was a lingonberry sauce, which to me tasted very similar to cranberry sauce. I found the lingonberries to be very strong in flavor, and while they did provide some sweetness to the dish and a nice contrast to the flavor of the meatballs, they were a little too overpowering. The meatballs were just as good without the sauce as they were with it on them (and without the sauce you could actually appreciate the flavor of the meatballs more). For $3.50 I found this to be a good sized portion and a good value.

Swedish Meatballs

Argentina is a marketplace that always stands out, not only because of its bright yellow color, but also because of the tremendous aromas wafting from the food being cooked inside.

Argentina Marketplace

I had heard great things about the Grilled Beef Skewer with Chimichurri Sauce and Boniato Purée last year and this year decided to give it a try. The chimichurri sauce gave the dish a very strong and distinctive flavor, but it really made the dish what it is. I can best describe the chimichurri sauce as being a slightly spicy pesto and its taste was the dominant flavor in the dish. This is definitely a dish with a kick to it and not for the faint of heart. The boniato puree had the texture and flavor of mashed potatoes that was really enhanced by the chimichurri sauce. The beef itself was tender and juicy and while its $5.00 cost makes it one of the more expensive items it is most definitely worth the price. This is a very high quality and great tasting dish and I would not hesitate to say it is my favorite among the dishes I have sampled so far.

Beef Skewer with Chimichurri Sauce

Hawaii is a new addition to the Festival this year, helping to draw attention to Disney's new Aulani resort which just recently opened.

Hawaii Marketplace

Here I ordered the Kalua Pork Slider with Sweet and Sour Dole Pineapple Chutney and Spicy Mayonnaise. I did not expect the slider to be as spicy as it actually was. The mayonnaise provided a definite kick to the dish and even the pineapple chutney was more on the spicy side than the sweet side. That being said, the pineapples did provide a sweeter, refreshing accompaniment to the flavor of the pork. Overall, I thought that all the varying flavors of the dish blended together very nicely. The pork came served on a soft roll, although I wish the roll had been more crusty because it would have made an already good dish even better. For $3.00 this was a very good value in terms of both portion size and quality and one of the better new items at the Festival this year.

Pork Slider

No trip to the Food & Wine Festival for me can be complete without a stop at the Ireland marketplace because it features my favorite dessert.

Ireland Marketplace

The Warm Chocolate Lava Cake with Bailey's Irish Cream Ganache is something that I order every year and keep wishing that there was someplace at Disney that served it all year round. This is definitely a sweet, rich, decadent dessert and, even though it is small, it is still very filling. The chocolate cake comes served warm and is extremely moist, but what truly makes the dessert is the Bailey's ganache that is served on top. While the sauce does have a distinct Bailey's flavor, I did not find this to be too overpowering. Rather, there was just enough taste of Bailey's to give the dessert a little bit of a kick. I was disappointed to find that the price had increased from $2.75 last year to $3.00 this year, but it is still a good value even though the portion size is exactly the same as it was last year.

Lava Cake

Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival continues through November 13.

You can further examine all the marketplaces and menus this year's Festival has to offer here.

See how others are rating the various Festival marketplace offerings here.

If you have been to the Food & Wine Festival this year, you can take part in the survey as well by clicking here.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

November 1, 2011

Breakfast at The Wave: A Healthier Way to Start the Day

Andrew Rossi

When it comes to dining at Disney's Contemporary Resort, there are two venues that immediately come to mind. The first is the California Grill. Located on the top floor of the resort, this restaurant offers stunning views of Bay Lake, the Seven Seas Lagoon, and the Magic Kingdom. As one of Disney's Signature dining locations, the allure of the California Grill is not limited to its location, but also its exquisite gourmet food. Another extremely popular dining location at the Contemporary is Chef Mickey's, possibly the most popular character dining experience in all of Disney World. With its dramatic setting in the Grand Canyon Concourse, with monorails passing overhead, this restaurant delivers great food and fun for the entire family.

When compared with these two dining locations, many guests tend to overlook another of the Contemporary's restaurants. Tucked away at the back of the resort's lobby The Wave of American Flavors is the Contemporary's newest restaurant, having opened in 2008, and while it may not have the name recognition of California Grill or Chef Mickey's it still delivers a high-quality dining experience worthy of the Contemporary Resort.

The Wave Entrance

Overview:
The year 2008 was a time of great change at the Contemporary Resort. The lobby area was updated and modernized, guestrooms were renovated, and changes were made to the resort's dining offerings. All this was done to help the Contemporary Resort feel more contemporary. Many were disappointed when it was announced that the popular Concourse Steakhouse was being closed to make way for a new quick service dining option (the Contempo Café). To make up for the loss of the Concourse Steakhouse, however, the resort did add a new table service dining option known as The Wave of American Flavors.

Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner The Wave offers a menu featuring American cuisine. Since America is a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities, the restaurant's dishes reflect the influence of these different worldwide flavors on American cooking. One of the things that makes The Wave unique is that its menu focuses on food that is locally grown, organic, and sustainable. Whatever time of day you chose to dine here you will find a slew of healthier meal options, with the restaurant placing an emphasis on serving great tasting food and drink that is both satisfying and environmentally friendly.

While I had never been to this dining location before, I have heard many good things about it and the restaurant seems to be growing in popularity since its opening roughly three years ago. For my first experience at The Wave I chose to go for breakfast and was treated to a meal that presents a refreshing change of pace from many of the other breakfast options found across Disney World.

Atmosphere:
With its sleek, modern feel, The Wave fits perfectly with the theming of the Contemporary Resort. This feel is established as soon as you enter the restaurant, walking through a steel-arched tunnel to the check-in podium. Once inside, the restaurant's décor is very simple with few decorative elements. It is an atmosphere that relies more on colors and shapes, rather than intricate details, to set the mood. Holding true to the restaurant's name, a wave motif is predominant throughout the restaurant. With no windows, the restaurant's lighting and coloring take up an even greater role in establishing the atmosphere and help contribute to a markedly different feel in the bar and dining room sections.

Once you enter the restaurant you a greeted first by a large bar area. The dark blue walls, upholstery, and carpeting of the sitting area combine with the blue ceiling over the bar give this section of the restaurant a constant nighttime feel even in the middle of the day.

Bar Seating

Enhancing this is the lighting over the bar which gives the appearance of stars twinkling in the night sky.

The Wave Bar

The bar and the adjoining seating areas are fairly large, almost the same size as the actual dining room, and I can picture these areas becoming very crowded at night and especially popular among the resort's convention guests looking for a place to relax, socialize, and enjoy a sporting event on the bar's big screen television.

Another interesting feature of the bar area is along its back wall, which is made entirely of glass and showcases The Wave's large wine collection. What makes this wine collection unique is that it is comprised almost entirely of screw-topped bottles (as opposed to corks), which is in keeping with the restaurant's commitment to being environmentally friendly.

Wine Wall

In the main dining room, the dark blues of the bar are replaced by earth tones, featuring a color palette of orange, brown, green, yellow, and bronze.

Dining Room Color Scheme

This coloring gives the dining room a very natural feel, but one that is still distinctly modern. It is a décor that is extremely simple and streamlined, featuring a contrasting style between the straight lines found on the curtains and carpet and the wavy lines on the chair backs and ceiling panels.

Dining Room3

While the dining room's sleek appearance gives it a more elegant feel, I found the color scheme to actually be a little dull and dreary. With no real decorations to speak of and no windows to look out, there is very little about the restaurant's atmosphere to keep you entertained and engaged during the course of your meal.

Dining Room1

The most interesting aspect of the décor would have to be the modern-looking light fixtures and wave-shaped ceiling panels which help tie in the restaurant to the overall contemporary theme of the resort.

The Wave Ceiling

While the restaurant's feel is not so upscale as to deter families with small children from eating here, there is really nothing about the restaurant's atmosphere that would make it interesting for children. I was not so surprised that, when dining there at breakfast, I found only groups of adults. It is a restaurant I would recommend more for couples looking for a more romantic meal or guests visiting the resort on a business trip rather than families traveling with children.

The Menu:
The main reason that I wanted to try The Wave for breakfast was because its menu features some intriguing options that cannot be found at other breakfast locations in Disney World. Just as with its menus at lunch and dinner, breakfast at The Wave offers an array of healthier, organic options, making it a very refreshing way to start the day.

While the manu features several traditional breakfast items, they are severed in a more natural, healthy way. For example, The American ($11.99) emphasizes that it is served with two "naturally raised" eggs along with breakfast potatoes and a choice of bacon, pork sausage, or chicken sausage. Other healthier versions of breakfast favorites include a Multigrain Waffle ($9.99) served with fruit compote and a choice of bacon, pork sausage, or chicken sausage and Multigrain French Toast ($10.99) which comes with the same accompaniments.

Among the other choices on the menu are a Ham and Cheese Omelet ($11.49) served with breakfast potatoes and a biscuit, Classic Smoked Salmon ($9.99) with tomato, cucumber, red onion, olives, and dill cheese, Eggs Benedict ($10.99) featuring two "naturally raised" eggs poached and topped with key lime hollandaise, an Egg White Frittata ($10.99) with spinach, onions, mushrooms, potatoes, and cheddar cheese, a Spinach, Tomato, and Onion Omelet ($11.99) served with breakfast potatoes and a biscuit, Sweet Potato Pancakes ($9.99) with a pecan-honey butter, Make Your Own Wave Muesli ($9.99) with seasonal fruit and house-made granola, and Spinach, Tomato, and Feta Cheese Scrambled Eggs ($8.99) served with breakfast potatoes and a biscuit.

The Wave has also recently started offering a breakfast buffet that features a wide assortment of items found on the menu in addition to a selection of pastries, cereals, and fruits. The all-you-care-to-enjoy buffet is $18.50, which also includes your choice of coffee or juice.

Breakfast Buffet

I had basically already decided what I was going to order before even setting foot into the restaurant. Upon first ever seeing The Wave's menu I knew that I wanted to try the Sweet Potato Pancakes and they did not disappoint. The pancakes themselves were soft and moist in consistency, much different in texture than a regular pancake. The pancakes were certainly sweet, but I did not find their flavor to be overwhelming or sickening in any way. My server commented that I would not need any syrup to go along with the pancakes and she was definitely right as they were flavorful enough to stand by themselves.

Sweet Potato Pancakes

Topping the pancakes was a honey-pecan butter, which added some additional sweetness to the dish. However, I did not find the flavor of the honey to be too strong and it provided just a little extra flavor that paired very well with that of the sweet potato. My only complaint was that I wish there had been more pecans mixed in the butter as their texture proved to be a nice contrast to the softer pancakes and really added some flavor the dish. The pancakes also came served with a choice of bacon, pork sausage, or chicken sausage. I chose the pork sausage and there was really nothing special that made it stand out. If anything, it could have been cooked just a little bit longer as I like my sausage to be slightly on the crispy side.

As a side dish I ordered the Cheddar Cheese Grits ($4.99), which provided a striking contrast to the pancakes. While the pancakes were sweet and light in texture, the grits were a much heavier and heartier option, especially with the stronger flavors of the cheddar cheese and the smoky-saltiness of the bacon bits. I was hoping that the cheese and bacon would come mixed in with the grits, but instead they were served on top; while I was able to mix them in myself, it still was not quite the same. The serving size was very generous, not only in the amount of grits, but also the large portion of bacon bits on top.

Cheddar Cheese Grits

The grits were certainly very filling and when combined with the large portion size of the pancakes I was not even able to finish all of them. While the grits may not have been anything to write home about, I would go back to The Wave in a heartbeat just to order the pancakes again.

Service:
I found the service at The Wave to be very attentive. It certainly helps that the restaurant was not very crowded and each server only had one or two tables at a time, but the service provided by the waiters and waitresses was very good. I found my server to be very friendly and she took a good amount of time explaining some of the items on the menu and offered her own recommendations. Throughout the meal my server was constantly checking in on me to make sure I was enjoying everything and was continually refilling my drink. Since she was only serving one other table it was almost like having my own private waitress.

What impressed me most about the service at The Wave was actually a conversation that I heard between a server and the couple sitting at another table. After they had finished eating their breakfast, the server went over and asked the couple if they had enjoyed everything and then proceeded to ask if they had questions about anything in Disney World that they wanted to know more about. I was astounded because I had never heard a server ask this before. The server and this couple had a nice conversation about Epcot and what his must-do attractions were.

For me, this is what makes Disney restaurants so special. Not only to the restaurants at Disney World offer unique dining experiences, detailed theming, immersive atmospheres, and great food, but they also feature servers who truly care about the guests that they are serving and seek to make their meal (and their vacations) truly special. This server at The Wave was really going above and beyond with helping this couple and it was something very refreshing to see.

Dining on a Budget:
When it comes to trying to save money, many people will see The Wave's breakfast buffet and immediately think that it is the best option. This is true in some cases. If you are looking for a big breakfast and want to try a lot of different things, then the breakfast buffet is a great value at $18.50 (far cheaper than the prices at other breakfast buffets with character dining). The buffet features many of the items offered on the menu, in addition to an assortment of pastries and fruits, and also includes a drink. However, if you are not a big eater or have your heart set on one specific dish, it would actually be cheaper just to order off the menu. In this way, The Wave's breakfast buffet will be a better value for some than others and it is up to each individual to decide what would be the most economical option. If you are not getting the buffet, the prices on the menu are fairly reasonable (by Disney standards), especially considering the generous portion sizes of the dishes.

The Wave is on the Disney Dining Plan, but I would not want to use one dining plan credit for breakfast as it would not be the best value for your money. For dinner, however, it does become a much better value to use the dining plan. The Wave also features a 10% discount for Annual Passholders for breakfast and lunch, a 10% discount on breakfast and lunch for Disney Vacation Club members, and offers the 20% Tables in Wonderland Discount.

The Overall Experience:
Sometimes breakfast can be the overlooked meal when vacationing in Disney World. With everyone in a rush to get to the theme parks in the morning, most people just grab a quick bite to eat at their resort's food court or bring some snacks with them to have en route. What breakfast dining locations do receive attention are generally the character dining experiences like the Crystal Palace at the Magic Kingdom or Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary. The reality is that there is actually a variety of different breakfast dining locations across Disney World for those looking for a nice, calm, relaxing way to start the day. These restaurants, like The Wave, tend to get overlooked and are generally easy to get a table at in the morning.

While its atmosphere may not be the most impressive, I thoroughly enjoyed my breakfast at The Wave. It delivered a meal that was not only unique, but also extremely tasty, generous in portion size, and reasonable in price. This is a great option for breakfast if you are staying at the Contemporary Resort or even if you are looking to have a nice sit-down meal before heading into the Magic Kingdom. It may not be the best known restaurant, even at its own resort, but it is certainly worth a visit if you are looking for something a little different, and a little healthier, for breakfast.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of The Wave and post your own too!

October 10, 2011

Food and Entertainment Together at Teppan Edo

Andrew Rossi

I have noticed recently that one type of dining experience that seems to be gaining a lot of popularity is teppanyaki-style restaurants. Also referred to by some as a hibachi restaurant or Japanese steakhouse, these dining locations are best known for their food being prepared right at the table in a presentation that is just as much about entertainment as it is cooking the food. It seems as though teppanyaki restaurants are popping up all over the place, making what was once an extremely rare and unique dining experience much more commonplace and easily accessible.

Teppan Edo at Epcot's Japan pavilion in World Showcase is one such teppanyaki restaurant and the first one that I had ever visited. When I was younger we had none of these restaurants anywhere close to home and when my family came to Disney World this was a place we would eat at to experience something we could not normally find, quickly becoming a tradition to eat there on nearly every trip. Now that I am older, even though there are about three similar restaurants within easy driving distance of my home, I still enjoy going to Teppan Edo at Epcot, not only for the great memories I have there of past family vacations, but also for its delicious food and entertaining chefs. It may not be as unique as it once was, but Teppan Edo continues to deliver a special and memorable dining experience.

Teppan Edo Sign

Overview:
I do not want to bore anyone with a history lesson, but I feel that in order to fully understand the dining experience at Teppan Edo you need to have some knowledge of where it came from. To start, the word teppanyaki is derived from the Japanese words teppan, which means iron plate, and yaki, which means grilled, broiled or pan-fried. Here in America some people mistakenly refer to teppanyaki-style dining locations as a hibachi restaurants when in fact a hibachi (the Japanese word for "fire bowl") is a grill that utilizes charcoal.

Upon doing some research I was surprised to find that teppanyaki dining was not as old a tradition as I originally expected. In fact, the teppanyaki-style restaurant in Japan had its origins with the restaurant chain Misono, which introduced the concept of cooking Western-influenced food on a teppan grill in 1945. They soon found the cuisine was less popular with the Japanese than it was with foreigners, who enjoyed watching the chefs preparing the food as much as the food itself. As the restaurants became popular tourist spots, the chain increased the performance aspect of the chef's preparation.

With its fairly modern origins, the name Teppan Edo is slightly curious as the Edo period in Japan refers to a time frame running from roughly the beginning of the 1600's to the 1860's. Edo, however, was also the former name of the Japanese capital of Tokyo and it was during the Edo period that Tokyo became the seat of power for the country's rulers and grew to become one of the largest cities in the world and the site of a vibrant urban culture.

Helping to promote this culture was a company called Mitsukoshi, which opened its first retail store in Tokyo in 1673 and would later introduce the first westernized department store to the Japanese retail market in 1904. It is Mitsukoshi that brings this story full circle because not only do they have a store at Epcot's Japan pavilion reminiscent of their larger department stores in Tokyo, but they are also the owners of both restaurants located above the store, Teppan Edo and Tokyo Dining.

Mitsukoshi Sign

The company's motto is "Service With Sincerity" and I found this to be very fitting because it aptly describes the dining experience that is found at Teppan Edo.

Atmosphere:
Simple and streamlined are two words that probably best describe Teppan Edo's décor. While there are actually very few decorative items throughout the entire restaurant, this does help give the dining room a more contemporary and modern feel. It is an atmosphere that relies more on color rather than theming and decoration to establish the restaurant's feel. The white walls and tables are like the canvas upon which the black wood and red cushions of the chairs really pop out. The red color especially adds a great amount of vitality and liveliness to the space.

The layout of the dining room is also very linear and symmetrical. First, guests must walk down a long, straight hallway where they are then seated in one of the smaller dining rooms to the side.

Entry Hallway

Inside these dining rooms, the tables are arranged in straight rows with the chairs, plates, and napkins all positioned in a similar linear fashion.

Dining Room Setup

Combined with the color scheme, this layout really helps to give the restaurant a simple-yet-upscale design and feel. If someone were to just walk through Teppan Edo when it was empty of all guests, one would think that it was a restaurant geared more towards adults rather than families. However, atmosphere is based upon more than just décor and looks can sometimes be deceiving.

The straight lines and predominantly black and white color scheme of the restaurant may seem cold, but as soon as one walks into the dining room the atmosphere is actually one that is warm and inviting. This starts with the tables themselves, which seat eight people. Unless dining with a large party, this seating arrangement usually means that you will be dining with at least one other party. With all the seats facing towards the grill in the center, not only does this seating arrangement offer everyone at the table a great view of the food being prepared in front of them, but it also creates a more intimate feel and encourages conversation not only between those sitting at the table.

Table Seating Arrangment

On some occasions I have been seated with families that were very outgoing while other times there have been families that did not really want to talk or interact. The party/parties that you are seated with does not make or break the experience of Teppan Edo, but it is definitely more fun having another party with you that will enjoy dining with.

The major component of Teppan Edo's atmosphere is the fact that your food is being prepared right before your eyes.

Cooking on the Grill

The chefs, however, are doing more than just cooking the food; they are really the entertainment for your meal. As they are cooking, the chefs will joke with the guests sitting at their table, perform tricks like flipping shrimp shells into their hats, and even use the food being prepared for entertainment purposes. For example, in the many times I have dined here I have seen chefs pour oil on the grill in the shape of a smiley face or Mickey Mouse, sprinkle a line of sesame seeds onto the grill and call it "Sesame Street," and, of course, make the signature smoking volcano out of the stacked rings of an onion.

Onion Volcano

Not only does the teppanyaki style of the restaurant make meals fun and entertaining for the entire family, especially for the children, but there is just something interesting (even artistic) about your food being prepared right before you. Not only are the smells of the cooking food amazing, but you also know that your meal is going to be fresh and you can see exactly everything that is going into it. Visually it is also very impressive with the mixture of colors of the vegetables and meats.

Cooking Vegetables

Cooking Vegetables and Chicken

Cooking Chicken and Shrimp

Cooking Steak and Shrimp

The overall atmosphere of Teppan Edo is one of activity and excitement, with many chefs at different tables preparing their food simultaneously there is a lot of action throughout the entire dining room. This also means that the restaurant can get a little bit loud with the combination of sizzling food, clanging cooking utensils, and the not-so-uncommon cheer or applause from various tables for their chefs. All this gives Teppan Edo a fun, festive feel that is a great place for families to dine. If you are looking for a quiet, more intimate meal at the Japan pavilion you may want to consider Tokyo Dining. The décor Teppan Edo may not be anything special, but that allows you to concentrate your attention on what really matters, the art and entertainment of the food being prepared by the chefs at your table.

The Menu:
Teppan Edo's menu is dominated by items cooked on the grill at your table, but it features a wide selection of items ranging from seafood to steak to chicken and even vegetarian selections.

The appetizers offered are prepared in a kitchen in the back as opposed to at your table. Among these appetizer selections are Wafu Ribs ($9.50) braised with sake, soy and ginger, the Tuna Salmon Sensation ($8.50) featuring raw tuna and salmon sashimi served with a sesame-saki-soy dressing, Assorted Tempura ($8.50) that includes lightly fried shrimp, chicken breast, and seasonal vegetables served with dipping sauces, Gyo No Negi-Maki ($8.50) which are beef-wrapped green onions served with hickory smoked sea salt, a Garden Salad ($5.95) with your choice of ginger dressing or a creamy sesame dressing, Edamame ($4.50) which are young soy beans, and Miso Soup ($3.00). I have been to other teppanyaki-style Japanese restaurants that include either a soup or salad with your entrée, but that is not the case at Teppan Edo.

The menu also features several different sushi selections. Among these are a Spicy Tuna Sushi Roll ($8.50) featuring a spicy tuna mix, cucumber, green onions, sesame seeds, seaweed and rice, a California Sushi Roll ($7.95) including avocado, cucumber, smelt, mayonnaise, seaweed and rice, a Grilled Crispy Sukiyaki Beef Roll ($8.50) with beef, sesame seeds, seaweed and rice. For those wanting to try more than one type of sushi there are the Sushi Roll Sampler ($7.50) that includes two pieces each of California roll, spicy tuna roll and sukiyaki beef roll as well as the Sushi Sampler ($9.50) with tuna, salmon, and shrimp sushi.

All entrée items on the menu are accompanied by vegetables with udon noodles and white rice. Sometimes at other teppanyaki-style restaurants you are offered the choice of either fried or white rice, but at Teppan Edo white rice is the only option. The entrée items are what will be cooked on the grill at your table and there are several options available. You can choose a single serving of Filet Mignon ($29.95), Sirloin Steak ($27.95), Hotate (cold water sea scallops, $29.95), Kajiki Maguro (swordfish, $26.95), Ebi (large shrimp, $25.95), Ton (pork loin, $23.95), Tori (chicken breast, $22.95), and Yasai (seasonal vegetables, $16.95).

Also available are combinations including Nihonbashi (sirloin steak and chicken breast, $28.95), Asakusa (sirloin steak and large shrimp, $29.95), and Ueno (chicken breast and large shrimp, $26.95).

The dessert options are very limited and include Soft Served Ice Cream ($4.50) in either chocolate, vanilla, or swirl, Green Tea Pudding ($6.95), and Chocolate Ginger Cake ($6.50). On a couple of occasions I have visited Teppan Edo on a birthday or anniversary of another member of my party and they actually received a complimentary piece of the Chocolate Ginger Cake. The flavor of the ginger is a little too strong for my liking even though the chocolate frosting is very smooth and creamy. For free on a special occasion it is worth a taste, but it is not something I would spend money out-of-pocket to try.

For my meal I decided on Ueno, the combination of chicken breast and large shrimp. To start, the chef first prepares the vegetables with udon noodles. The vegetables are zucchini and onions which are grilled and then mixed with sesame seeds and soy sauce and combined with the noodles. Even though this item is placed on your plate before the rest of the entrée, I like to wait to eat it until the chicken and shrimp are also done.

Vegetables and Noodles

Both the zucchini and onions are grilled so that they are still a little crunchy and provide a nice contrast in texture to the softer noodles. I am not necessarily a fan of sesame seeds, but there are not so much of them that they really detract from the taste of the vegetables and noodles; the purpose of the sesame seeds is to provide just a little extra flavor and texture. The combination of vegetables and noodles proves to be a light and refreshing accompaniment for the chicken and shrimp.

Both the chicken and shrimp are cut into smaller pieces and are prepared very simply using just a little bit of oil, butter, soy sauce, salt, pepper, and some sesame seeds. This really allows you to enjoy the natural flavor of the chicken and shrimp. While the shrimp was very good and very fresh I was even more impressed with the chicken, which was extremely tender and grilled to a beautiful golden-brown color (and also comes served with mushrooms). One of the benefits of the food being prepared right at your table is that it is hot and fresh when it is served.

Chicken and Shrimp

While the chicken and shrimp were good enough just to eat plain, the chef does provide everyone at the table with three different dipping sauces. First is a mustard sauce that is recommended for use on steak and chicken, next is a ginger sauce that pairs well with the vegetables, and finally a white sauce for the shrimp.

Dipping Sauces

Of the three my favorite was the white sauce. The sauce is very rich and creamy (I believe it is mayonnaise-based) and it provides a refreshing, almost sweet contrast to the flavor of the shrimp; the two paired perfectly together. I also enjoyed the mustard sauce with the chicken, although this was much stronger in flavor than the white sauce. This one is definitely not for the faint of heart because it has a definite kick. I tried some of the ginger sauce with the vegetables, but I so enjoyed the way the vegetables were prepared that I preferred to eat them as-is rather than putting the sauce on them. Adding to this was the fact that I am not the biggest fan of ginger. I felt this sauce was a little too strong in flavor and actually took away from the taste of the vegetables.

One of the things I enjoy most about meals at Teppan Edo is that they are not only fresh, but they are also on the lighter side. As opposed other restaurants at Disney World which feature many heavier, filling dishes, Teppan Edo's menu features predominantly more healthy choices that leave you feeling satisfied, but not overly full. That being said, the serving sizes are very generous and my combination of chicken and shrimp along with the noodles and vegetables as well as the white rice was more than enough for a meal without even having an appetizer or dessert.

Full Entree Plate

Service:
There are two components to service at Teppan Edo. The first is your waitress who is responsible for taking your orders and serving your drinks as well as appetizers and desserts should you order any. The second is the chef who prepares the food at your table. In all my times visiting this restaurant I have found the waitresses to be very courteous and respectful. The type of service they provide is very much a reflection of Japanese culture. I can tell that they care very much about providing guests with the best possible dining experience. One thing that is common with the waitresses, however, is that they tend to be very soft-spoken and this can sometimes make them a little difficult to understand what they are saying.

The chefs all basically have the same performance while cooking but they greatly differ in delivery and style. While I have never had a chef at Teppan Edo that I would call bad, there are certainly some that are far more energetic than others. I think that the chefs certainly do feed off of the enthusiasm of those sitting at the table and cater their performance to the type of guests that are there. If there are several small children at the table the chef will often pay extra attention to them. A chef cooking for a table with a younger crowd might interact differently with them than a chef at a table with all older guests.

Not to stereotype, but I have tended to notice the younger chefs to be far more enthusiastic and outgoing than the older chefs. This is not always the case, however. Just as with the waitresses, the chefs' grasp of the English language can sometimes inhibit communication, but I have had several that spoke English very well. If a chef does not speak very good English, they might not talk very much while preparing the food. While the performance of your chef is certainly not the be-all-end-all of your dining experience at Teppan Edo I have had some that have made the meal very memorable. An entertaining and engaging chef can make an already good meal even better.

Dining on a Budget:
It used to be that Teppan Edo had separate menus for lunch and dinner that featured cheaper prices for lunch, but this is no longer the case. Teppan Edo is not the cheapest restaurant in Disney World, but for that price the amount of food that you get is very generous and you are also getting the entertainment of the food being prepared at your table. To get the most for your money I would recommend getting one of the combination entrees because they let you sample a wider selection of offerings than just ordering a single item. If you are looking to save some money, my best advice is to skip appetizers and desserts. The amount of food you get with your entrée that it is more than enough to leave you satisfied at the end of your meal; you certainly will not leave hungry.

Teppan Edo is on the Disney Dining Plan and is worth one dining credit. In addition, Annual Passholders can receive a ten percent discount on lunch Mondays through Fridays. The restaurant does not participate in Tables in Wonderland, however, and there is no discount for Disney Vacation Club members.

The Overall Experience:
Dining at Teppan Edo is more than just a meal, it is truly an experience. Not only are you getting good food, but you are getting the entertainment of that food being prepared in front of you right at your table. This combination of cooking and performance make for a really special dining experience that can be enjoyed by the entire family. This is the type of dining experience that is quintessentially Disney.

Even though teppanyaki-style restaurants are becoming more and more commonplace across the country, they still have a tremendous uniqueness factor. Teppan Edo is the type of restaurant that you are not going to eat at all the time and that is something that adds to its appeal. The fact that it is located at the Japan pavilion with servers and chefs actually from Japan lends added authenticity and a level of immersion into Japanese customs and culture that you do not necessarily get at similar restaurants. For this reason, even though I could just go to another teppanyaki restaurant a couple of miles away from my house, I still choose to go to Teppan Edo at Epcot because it provides a consistently fun and memorable dining experience from start to finish.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Teppan Edo and post your own too!


June 15, 2011

Dining on the Boardwalk at Big River Grille

Andrew Rossi

One of my favorite locations in all of Disney World is the Boardwalk Resort. In terms of its picturesque location, charming atmosphere, and beautiful theming, the Boardwalk is the perfect spot to escape from the hustle and bustle of the theme parks.

By day, the Boardwalk is a great place to take a leisurely stroll or enjoy a relaxing bike ride along the shores of Crescent Lake. By night, the area comes alive with various entertainers performing magical acts and comedy routines. The Boardwalk's atmosphere is enhanced by its numerous food offerings ranging from carts selling classic seashore favorites like corndogs, funnel cakes, and fried ice cream to the Boardwalk Bakery that offers some of the best pastries and desserts in all of Disney World.

The Boardwalk also includes an impressive lineup of sit-down dining locations that includes Kat Kora's Kouzzina which features a menu inspired by the Iron Chef's Greek heritage, the signature Flying Fish Café that showcases exquisite gourmet seafood dishes, and the ESPN Club which is the ultimate bar and restaurant for any sports fan featuring hundreds of televisions, walls jam-packed with sports memorabilia, and kicked-up versions of classic ballpark cuisine. One restaurant on the Boardwalk that tends to get overlooked in relation to these other three is the Big River Grille and Brewing Works, but despite its lesser-known stature it can certainly hold its own with the other Boardwalk dining options.

Big River Grille Signage

Overview:
While the name Big River Grille might not be familiar to many Disney guests it is actually a chain. Although, the one at the Boardwalk is the restaurant's only location outside of Tennessee, with two locations in Chattanooga and one in Nashville. Big River Grille was inspired by the great river boats of the 1800's that sailed the waters of the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers and brought fresh goods to the cities along their banks. The location of the first Big River Grille in Chattanooga is actually an old trolley barn just a short walk from a landing on the Tennessee River where fresh grains and produce were offloaded to be brought to local mills, markets, and breweries.

One of the things that makes Big River Grille so unique is that not only is it a restaurant, but it is also a working brewery that produces a variety of different beers. Some of their in-house brews (available to order individually or in a flight) include the colorfully named Southern Flyer Light Lager, Gadzooks Pilsner, Steamboat Pale Ale, and Rocket Red Ale. Even more interesting than the names is that you can actually witness the beer being produced first-hand at the restaurant. Big River Grille is open for both lunch and dinner and it should be noted that they do not accept reservations. While most guests tend to eat at the theme parks rather than the resorts during the day it is typically not difficult to get a table for lunch, but be prepared for a little bit of a wait if going for dinner.

Atmosphere:
The Big River Grille is not the largest of restaurants, but it does offer three distinct dining areas. First is the main dining room, which has a casual, relaxed feel. The décor is minimalist, simple, and streamlined, featuring very little decoration and detail. I felt the dining room had a somewhat geometric feel, enhanced by the modern art adorning the walls and the interesting design of the ceiling.

Modern Art

Ceiling

The atmosphere's greatest asset is the restaurant's large windows that offer great views onto the Boardwalk and let in plenty of natural light, giving the smaller space a more open, airy feel.

Dining Room Seating

The dining room's smaller size does give it a more intimate feel, but I felt the tables were positioned a little too close together. Also, the kitchen is separated from the dining room by a just a half wall. My table was located right by the entrance to the kitchen and it was very easy to hear orders being placed and the clanging of pots and pans.

Another seating option is to dine al fresco. Big River Grille may not have the largest indoor dining space, but it does offer ample outdoor seating. While this may not be the most appealing option during the hot, humid days of summer, at night this becomes a very desirable dining location with the cooler temperatures and light breeze coming off the water. The outdoor seating area offers stunning views of Crescent Lake and, especially at night, is a great place to people watch and absorb the vibrant atmosphere of the Boardwalk.

Boardwalk Seating

The final dining area at Big River Grille is the bar. It is this area that I felt really defines the restaurant best and the area I will definitely request to sit in whenever I dine here again. Big River Grille is an actual working brewery and it is in the bar area that you can witness first-hand the beers you are drinking being produced. The glass walls of the bar reveal the large machinery used in the various stages of the beer-making process and each section is labeled to explain what is actually taking place, starting with the milling room, moving to the brewhouse, and then to fermentation. This helps to give the bar area a much more lively and active atmosphere than the rest of the restaurant.

Beer Milling Room

Brewhouse

Beer Fermentation

Bar

The bar area also has a more open feel than the main dining room, with the tables positioned less closely to one another. The bar area really helps make dining at Big River Grille a more unique dining experience (especially when the beer is being brewed), whereas the main dining room felt much more generic. If you are going to eat here I would definitely suggest requesting a table in this area.

The Menu:
The Big River Grille is a restaurant that prides itself on its hand crafted beer and "made-from-scratch" regional cuisine that provides a perfect complement to the varieties of beer that they have available. The menu may not be the most elaborate nor the most gourmet, but it features a wide selection of offerings that pair well with the relaxed, laid-back feel of the restaurant.

The menu begins with several appetizer offerings that are great for sharing with large groups. There is a Jalapeno Spinach Cheese Dip ($9.50) that comes served hot with tortilla chips, an Asiago Artichoke & Crab Dip ($12.50) accompanied by pita chips, a Chicken Quesadilla ($9.99) with grilled chicken, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and pepper jack cheese, and Beef or Chicken Nachos ($11.99) loaded with pepper jack cheese, sliced jalapenos, and topped with pica de gallo and sour cream. While I did not order the nachos myself I did notice many other tables getting it and the serving size looked absolutely huge. This is definitely something I want to try the next time I go back.

For entrees, the menu features a plethora of sandwiches and salads. The California Chicken Sandwich ($10.50) is topped with Swiss cheese, avocado, lettuce, tomato, and ranch dressing. There is also the Blackened Mahi Mahi Sandwich ($13.50) with a chipotle mayonnaise, the Honey Dijon Chicken Sandwich ($10.99) topped with crispy smoked bacon strips and Swiss cheese, the Blue Ridge Pork Sandwich ($9.50), as well as a trio of burgers: the Big Brew Cheeseburger ($10.99), the Mushroom Cheeseburger ($11.99), and the Hickory Bacon Burger ($11.99) with smoked cheddar cheese, bacon, and sweet magnolia barbecue sauce.

On the lighter side, the salad choices include a Grilled Chicken Cashew Salad ($12.99) served on a bed of mixed greens with artichoke hearts, feta cheese, tomatoes and cashews, with balsamic vinaigrette dressing, a Grilled Salmon Caesar ($12.99), and a Grilled Chicken Caesar ($11.99).

If you are looking for something a little more than just a sandwich or salad, there are many other choices available including many traditional favorites. If you are in the mood for pasta there is the Chicken Alfredo ($15.99) or the Shrimp & Scallop Penne Pasta ($22.99) served with a pesto cream sauce. From the grill there is the Signature Ribeye ($25.99) or the New York Strip ($22.50). The menu also features Rocket Red Ribs ($22.50), dry-rubbed, slow-cooked, and basted with Rocket Red Barbecue sauce, the Flame-Grilled Meatloaf ($15.50) made with ground beef and Italian pork sausage and topped with rich, brown gravy, as well as Atlantic Salmon ($22.50) topped with dill butter.

For my meal I started with a cup of the Beer Cheese Soup ($4.50). I was very interested to see how this compared with the Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup from Le Cellier, which I have always said is one of my favorite things to eat in all of Disney World. The Beer Cheese Soup from Big River Grille was good, but nowhere close to being on the level of Le Cellier's soup. Whereas Le Cellier's has a stronger cheese flavor and just a hint of beer to give it a little kick, the soup at Big River Grille had a much more distinct beer flavor.

Beer Cheese Soup

That being said, the soup at Big River Grille was still very rich and creamy. It was also very filling. I was glad that I ordered just a cup of the soup rather than a bowl because I might not have otherwise had room for the rest of my meal. It may not be the same high quality of Le Cellier's Cheddar Cheese Soup, but it is definitely a viable alternative if you have a craving for it and are not able to get reservations there.

For my entrée I decided on a dish that stood out as something unique among the otherwise straightforward and traditional offerings on the menu. When I ordered the Hazelnut Crusted Chicken ($16.50) I was a little skeptical because I have never heard of this combination before, but my curiosity and intrigue got the better of me and I am glad that they did. The combination of chicken and hazelnut was surprisingly good. Not only did the hazelnut crust give the chicken a very unique texture, but it also complimented the flavor of the chicken rather than being overpowering.

Hazelnut Chicken

Overall, this was actually a very light tasting dish, much more so than chicken coated in just regular breadcrumbs. My only complaint was that it was a little dry. The chicken came topped with a sun-dried cherry sauce, which I was surprised was actually more brownish in color than red. I am not usually a fan of cherries, but this sauce was delicious; the chicken and hazelnut actually would have been a little bland without it. The sauce added just enough sweetness to the dish without being too overpowering. I wish there had been more of the sauce served on top of the chicken.

The chicken also came accompanied by mashed potatoes, which paired well with the chicken and were especially good with some of the cherry sauce on top, as well as a mixture of vegetables including green beans, carrots, peppers, and squash. The vegetables were probably the most disappointing aspect of the meal as they were just steamed and had no real flavor. Overall, this was a very original dish that offered a unique combination of flavors and textures. I would certainly order it again, but would make sure to request additional cherry sauce on top or on the side.

Service:
This was the area in which I was most disappointed with the restaurant. Big River Grille is owned and operated by an outside company, not Disney, so the service was not quite on the same level as you would receive at other restaurants across Disney World. After being seated at my table it took a very long time for my server to come over and greet me. There was really no excuse for this because the restaurant was not very crowded at all.

I ordered my soup and entrée at the same time and then I waited a very long time until the soup was brought out. I actually think my server forgot to put in the order for the soup because it was not brought to me until I reminded my server about it. Then, just after I began enjoying my soup, my entrée was brought out. This is one of my biggest pet peeves when dining out and I was very disappointed. My server was apologetic and redeemed himself a little by taking the soup off the bill.

The overall feel of the restaurant is very laid-back and relaxed, and the service matched the atmosphere in that regard, but a little too much so. If you are looking for a quick meal, then this is not necessarily the restaurant for you. It may be that the service I received was a fluke and I am certainly not going to use it as an excuse to condemn all the servers at the restaurant (and neither am I going to use it as a reason for not going back to dine here again).

Dining on a Budget:
If you are looking for a good sit-down meal at an affordable price, then the Big River Grille is a great option. With most of the sandwiches in the $10 to $12 price range, there are a wide variety of economical options available on the menu. Even if you are not in the mood for a sandwich and want something a little more substantial there are still many affordable alternatives. The Grilled Salmon Caesar for $12.99, Chicken Alfredo for $15.99, and Flame-Grilled Meatloaf for $15.50 are all reasonably priced selections. Even my meal, the Hazelnut Crusted Chicken, for $16.50 is a good value in terms of both quality and portion size.

My suggestion, if you really wanted to save money, would be to sit at the bar an order a couple of appetizers to split as a group for your meal. The Spinach Cheese Dip for $9.50, Asiago Artichoke & Crab Dip for $12.50, and Beef or Chicken Nachos for $11.99 are great for sharing and would make for a very affordable meal shared amongst family or friends.

The Overall Experience:
While the Big River Grille & Brewing Works might not be among my favorite restaurants in Disney World, I would certainly dine there again. I always like to tell people that I have yet to have a bad meal at Disney. While there are certainly some restaurants that are better than others, I have never left a restaurant at Disney World saying "That was terrible. I am never going to eat there again."

If you are looking for a quiet, relaxing lunch away from the crowds of the theme parks then Big River Grille is a great option; I was able to walk in, without a reservation, and get seated immediately. If you are staying at the Boardwalk Resort the restaurant is definitely worth a try. In addition, it is just a short walk from Epcot so it is a possible alternative if you are unable to get into a restaurant inside the park. Also, if you are a connoisseur of beer (which I confess I am not) the restaurant offers a variety of freshly-brewed beers that cannot be found anywhere else in Disney World.

Big River Grille might not be as well-known as many other restaurants at Disney World (or even the other restaurants along the Boardwalk), but it still offers a tasty, affordable, relaxing meal, making it a good restaurant to try if you are looking for something different or new.

Check out Reader Reviews of Big River Grille and post your own too!

March 29, 2011

A Relaxing Escape at Olivia's Cafe

Andrew Rossi

Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi returns with a review of Olivia's Cafe at Disney's Old Key West Resort.

When it comes to dining at Disney, the restaurants inside the theme parks tend to receive much of the attention. While there are certainly some dining locations at the resorts that are immensely popular, such as Ohana at the Polynesian, California Grill at the Contemporary, or Yachtsman Steakhouse at the Yacht Club, a good many resort restaurants tend to get overlooked. These are the restaurants that I like to call my "hidden gems" of Disney dining. While many guests will make reservations months in advance to get into the most popular restaurants inside the parks, there are numerous restaurants at the resorts that you can walk up to without a reservation and get seated right away.

While these resort dining locations may not be as well-known or as crowded as the restaurants inside the parks, that does not mean they are inferior or inadequate. On the contrary, I have been extremely pleased with my experiences at these lesser-known dining locations, all of which live up to the high standards you would expect from any Disney restaurant. If you are looking to get away from the crowds and escape the hustle and bustle of the theme parks to have a calm and relaxing meal, there are so many options waiting to be discovered at the various resorts. Olivia's Café at Disney's Old Key West Resort is one of these restaurants.

Olivia's Signage

Overview:
Spread out amongst several of the holes of the Lake Buena Vista golf course, Disney's Old Key West Resort provides a quiet, relaxing, and care-free environment that can sometimes make you forget that you are even in Disney World. The widespread layout of the resort amongst a natural landscape littered with waterways, palm trees, and other natural vegetation gives it a very secluded, intimate feel and one that perfectly embodies the island paradise theme of the Florida Keys. Because of the nature of the resort's layout, it just does not feel as crowded as many of the other Disney resorts.

Located just across from the lobby and right by the main pool, Olivia's Café is a restaurant that ties in perfectly with the overall theme of the Old Key West Resort. With its beachside feel and nautical touches, it is almost as if this restaurant was lifted out of the real Key West and set right in the middle of the resort. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Olivia's is a great way to escape the crowds of the theme parks and enjoy a relaxing, laid-back meal.

Olivia's Exterior

Atmosphere:
If you are looking for a casual, calm, and quiet meal then Olivia's Café is a great option. I arrived at the restaurant around noon with no reservation and was seated immediately. In fact, there were only three other tables with guests when I arrived and only two other parties were seated during the course of my meal. This makes Olivia's a great option if you have no reservations and are looking for somewhere to eat. It should be noted, however, when I inquired to my server about the relative emptiness of the restaurant she told me that it is generally more crowded for dinner than lunch and they do recommend making reservations ahead of time (but probably not as far in advance as with many of the more popular Disney restaurants).

The restaurant features both indoor and outdoor seating and has large windows offering beautiful views of the resort's marina just outside and let in plenty of sunlight, giving the dining room an open, airy feel.

Olivia's Seating

Even though the restaurant is very casual and laid-back, its relatively small size gave it an intimate feel. It actually feels as though you are eating at some small, family-run restaurant rather than being at Disney World. Adding to this were several walls in the dining room that were crammed with photographs of Disney Vacation Club members and their families. This really helped to give the restaurant a more personal touch that you seldom find at many other Disney dining locations.

Olivia's Family Pictures1

Olivia's Family Pictures2

The main theme of Olivia's is vintage nautical, but it is by no means tacky or over-the-top. The restaurant's light pastel-colored walls and furniture give it a beachside feel in addition to many little details that help immerse you in this atmosphere. It is an atmosphere which is very authentic. Having vacationed in the Florida Keys before, Olivia's has the type of feel you would expect to find in a restaurant on the streets of Key West itself.

Olivia's Seating and Nautical Touches

There are several large pieces that will quickly catch your attention as soon as you enter the main dining room and help establish the nautical theme of the restaurant, such as the large fish mounted on one of the walls, a vintage ship's wheel, oars, fishing nets, and model ships.

Olivia's Nautical Touches

Olivia's Nautical Touches2

However, there are also many little touches to be found that help add extra detail. The walls of the restaurant are adorned with many old black and white photographs of Key West in addition to framed post cards that help add sense of history and nostalgia.

Olivia's Key West Photos

There are many additional touches that help give the restaurant a sense of being older than it actually is. From the vintage wicker fans slowly spinning overhead to the brass light fixtures, Olivia's atmosphere is a throwback to an earlier time (it is the "old" in Old Key West).

Olivia's Wicker Fan

Along the top of the walls there is a shelf that runs around the perimeter of the dining room that houses numerous antique-looking items, such as copper tea kettles, bird cages, cookie jars, ceramic plates and vases, and various other knick knacks. All these little touches give you plenty to look at during the course of you meal and help immerse you into the restaurant's theme.

Antique Items1

Antique%20Items2

The Menu:
I was impressed by the wide selection of offerings available on Olivia's menu, featuring many tropical/island inspired dishes reminiscent of Key West, with seafood featured very prominently. To start, there are many tempting appetizers. With Key West being known as the Conch Republic, it comes as no surprise that Conch Fritters ($10.49) and Conch Chowder ($6.99) are both available. Other appetizer selections include Crab Cakes ($10.49) served with key lime mustard and papaya-ginger sauce, Grilled Mojito-Marinated Shrimp ($10.99) accompanied by Johnny cakes, Island BBQ Pork Ribs ($11.99), Onion Rings with Dips ($5.99), Mozzarella and Tomato Salad ($7.99) with a balsamic syrup, and Caesar Salad ($6.49).

For lunch, the entrée choices are primarily lighter fair and feature many different sandwiches. There is a Roast Beef and Blue Cheese Sandwich ($12.99) served with creamy horseradish, balsamic onions, and field greens, a Jamaican Jerk Chicken Sandwich ( $14.49) topped with grilled pineapple, a Cuban Sandwich ($11.49) featuring sliced pork loin, ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, mustard, and mayonnaise, an Angus Chuck Cheeseburger ($12.99), and a Turkey Club Sandwich ($11.99). Another option is the Soup and Half Sandwich Combo ($10.99) offering the choice of a Tuna Salad, Roast Beef and Blue, or Turkey Club sandwich with a cup other either Conch Chowder or the Soup of the Day.

If you are looking for something a little more than a sandwich, the lunch menu also includes Blackened Tuna ($19.99) served with fried yellow tomatoes, arugula, and roasted red peppers topped with an avocado ranch dressing. There is also Olivia's Marathon Shrimp Pasta ($17.99) with a sun dried tomato pesto and fresh herbs (you can also substitute chicken instead of shrimp for $15.99) as well as the Key West Salmon Salad ($16.49) with mixed greens, vine ripened tomatoes, applewood smoked bacon, cucumbers, and topped with a citrus vinaigrette.

The dinner menu is slightly different from lunch, and a little more pricey, with the sandwiches replaced by heartier offerings such as a Grilled Pork Chop ($21.99) with a chipotle barbecue sauce and accompanied by smoked cheddar grits. Other options include a Grilled New York Strip ($28.99) with mashed potatoes and a cabernet mushroom sauce, Marinated Chicken Breast ($17.99) with a mango glaze served with a warm potato salad, Slow-Roasted Prime Rib ($27.99), and Coconut-Encrusted Mahi Mahi ($21.99) topped with a spiced citrus glaze.

The dessert offerings are few and for the most part fairly standard, but still tempting nonetheless. The restaurant's specialty is the Key Lime Tart ($5.49) topped with a mango and raspberry sauce. There is also the Banana Bread Pudding Sundae ($6.49) served with a warm banana fosters topping, Chocolate Cake ($5.99) topped with a raspberry sauce, No Sugar Added Lemon Pound Cake ($5.49), and a New York Style Cheesecake ($5.49).

For my entrée I chose the Key West Burger ($13.49), which came topped with grilled shrimp, pepper jack cheese, and pico de gallo. This was unlike any other burger I have ever had anywhere and probably one of the best burgers I have tried in Disney World. What I enjoyed most about the burger was the tremendous combination of different flavors. Each of the toppings added their own distinct taste, but they all blended together extremely well. There was the spiciness of the pepper jack cheese, the light, refreshing taste of tomatoes and avocado in the pico de gallo, and a slight citrusy flavor to the grilled shrimp, but no one flavor really dominated or overpowered the others. If anything, I could have done with a little less avocado and a little more pepperjack cheese, just because I like my food to have a little more of a kick.

Key West Burger

I was also very impressed by the portion size, not only of the burger but also the quantity of fries that came along with it, as well as the amount of shrimp that topped the burger.

For dessert I decided to try the Banana Bread Pudding Sundae. I absolutely love bread pudding and have tried it at many restaurants around Disney World. The bread pudding at Olivia's was certainly good, but not the best I have ever had. The bread pudding itself was served warm although I found it to be a little dry. The bread pudding was topped withy a banana fosters sauce that added some sweetness to the dessert but was by no means overpowering; I actually think that the dessert could have used a little more of this sauce. The bread pudding also came topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream that provided a light and refreshing contrast and the slices of banana that surrounded it provided additional flavor and texture to the dessert.

Banana Bread Pudding Sundae

Service:
One of the benefits of going to a restaurant that is not very crowded is that your server is able to pay a lot of attention to your table. My server only had one other table in addition to mine, which meant that she was able to provide very dedicated service. I found my server to be very friendly and pleasant, although not too conversational. She did, however, take time to explain several items on the menu in addition the describing the daily specials in detail.

I found the service to be very efficient. After ordering, my food came out quickly but I did not feel rushed at all. On the contrary, the meal really progressed at a calm and relaxing pace that matched the atmosphere of the restaurant. This is the benefit of dining at one of the lesser-known resort restaurants as opposed to the more crowded dining locations inside the parks.

Dining on a Budget:
Olivia's is a great dining option if you are looking for a nice sit-down meal at an affordable price. The prices are just a little more than what you would pay at a counter service restaurant in one of the parks and here you get to enjoy the calm, relaxing atmosphere in addition to larger portion sizes and higher quality meals than what you would find at a quick service location. One of the better values on the menu might be the Soup and Half Sandwich Combo for $10.99. All of the sandwiches are very reasonably priced, ranging from $11.99 to $14.49, and the portion sizes are generous. If you are looking to save even more money, consider ordering an appetizer as an entrée. The Crab Cakes, Conch Fritters, and Island BBQ Pork Ribs are all tempting options that when paired with a soup/salad or a dessert would make a nice meal at a very affordable price.

The Overall Experience:
I was pleasantly surprised by my dining experience at Olivia's Café. It is one of many restaurants found at the various Disney resorts that fly under the radar. These restaurants offer a great option if you are looking to try something different. One thing that you can expect from any Disney restaurant, regardless of whether it is in one of the parks or at one of the resorts, is that you will get tremendous quality in terms of atmosphere, food quality and taste, and service.

Olivia's may not be the best Disney restaurant that I have ever been too, but I thoroughly enjoyed my meal. The restaurant has everything you could possibly want, including a menu featuring several unique items, high quality and large portioned meals, in addition to a casual and laid back atmosphere that allows you to truly relax and enjoy your meal in a peaceful and un-crowded environment. If you are looking to escape from the hustle and bustle of the theme parks, definitely consider Olivia's or one of the numerous other lesser-known restaurants at the resorts. I often find these restaurants offer some of the best values for your money and overall provide very enjoyable dining experiences.

Check out Reader Reviews of Olivia's Cafe and post your own too!

March 5, 2011

ESPN The Weekend

Andrew Rossi

I'm having a great time at ESPN the Weekend right now. I spent most of yesterday at the event and my photos are already in the ESPN Weekend Photo Gallery.

Here are a few tips based on my experience yesterday!

1. Be sure to get an event times guide as soon as you enter the park. There are often multiple things going on at the same time at different locations throughout the park so it helps to plan in advance what you are most interested in seeing.

2. If you want to be close to the stage, especially for the taping of live shows, it helps to show up about a half an hour ahead of time.

3. If you are looking for autographs, be sure to head to the ESPN Sports Zone (located near Rock n' Roller Coaster). Athletes make appearances there throughout the day, although there is no set times for when they will be there.

4. The athlete motorcades process up Hollywood Boulevard toward the Hat Stage. It is actually fairly easy to find a spot along the route to view the motorcade, so you only need to get there a couple of minutes before it starts.

Please post your reviews of ESPN the Weekend in the AllEars Rate and Review Section!

February 13, 2011

Dining Aboard the Disney Dream: Cabanas and Other Options

Andrew Rossi

Guest blogger Andrew Rossi continues to explore the dining options available aboard the Disney Dream with a look at Cabanas as well as many other locations to get something to eat or drink.

One thing about cruises, there is never a shortage of food. Not matter which way you turn, there always seems to be something to eat. This is especially true of the Disney Dream. Of course, the three restaurants that comprise the dinner rotation receive the most notoriety: Royal Palace, Enchanted Garden, and Animators Palette. In addition to these restaurants, however, there is a plethora of dining options available throughout the ship offering a wide variety of choices ranging from a quick snack to a full-course meal. Here are some of the dining locations found aboard the Dream:

Cabanas:
Cabanas can be most closely associated with the Beach Blanket Buffet on the Wonder and the Topsider Buffet on the Magic, but major improvements and enhancements have been made on the Dream.

Cabanas Sign

Located on deck eleven, the theme of the restaurant is meant to evoke images of a California beach, complete with palm trees, Adirondack-style chairs, tables topped with seashells, and decorative surf boards. The dining room has a very light, open, airy feel with large windows allowing in plenty of natural sunlight and showcases beautiful views of the ocean below.

Cabanas Indoor Seating

There are also some uniquely "Disney" touches with appearances from some of the characters from Finding Nemo.

Cabanas Nemo Characters1

Cabanas Nemo Characters2

In addition, the restaurant also has outdoor seating, allowing diners to take advantage of the warm Caribbean sun and cool ocean breezes.

Cabanas%20Outdoor%20Seating

Two really nice artistic touches in the restaurant are a 30-foot mosaic depicting a scene of a coral reef complete with characters from Finding Nemo in addition to another piece of art depicting the various Disney castles from around the world in sand.

Cabanas Mosaic

Cabanas Sand Castles

Cabanas features a buffet breakfast and lunch, but rather than being one long counter, the food selections are divided into different stations meant to resemble beachside cabanas. As opposed to the setup on the Magic and Wonder, where diners have to wait in one long line, this new design allow diners to pick and choose which sections to visit and allows them to skip past those that don't interest them.

Cabanas Station1

Cabanas Station2

Cabanas Station3

Cabanas Station4

Cabanas Desserts

It also seemed to me that this new format allows for a wider variety of food choices than what can be found at the Topsider or Beach Blanket Buffets. The various food stations offer everything from soups and salads to pizzas, pastas, sandwiches and wraps, a carving station, and delicious desserts. I also noticed the food quality on the Dream to be higher than that of the Magic and Wonder (not saying that it is poor on the other two ships) with more gourmet and refined offerings.

Another improvement is that the drink station has been moved away from the end of the food line, with multiple locations throughout the restaurant. On the Magic and Wonder the buffet line would frequently get backed up as people were pouring their drinks.

Cabanas Drink Station

Another difference with Cabanas comes at dinner where the restaurant is transformed from a buffet to a table-service dining experience where meals are cooked to order. This offers cruisers a more casual alternative to dining in the main restaurants and offers the option of being able to dine outside under the stars. The dinner menu features a full four-course meal that includes some of the signature items from the main rotational restaurants as well as some unique items that can only be found here. This is a great option for cruisers who do not necessarily want to be locked in to either an early seating or late seating dinner time, allowing them to eat at a time of their own choosing.

Flo's V-8 Café:
If you are relaxing by the pool and looking for a quick bite to eat, then Flo's V-8 Café is the place for you. It is basically the equivalent of Goofey's Galley, Pinocchio's Pizzeria, and Pluto's Doghouse from the Magic and Wonder all located in one convenient location. Themed after the movie Cars, there are three separate counters from which you can order.

Flo's Cafe Sign

Luigi's features an assortment of pizzas ordered by the slice.

Luigi's Menu

Luigi%20Counter

Tow Mater Grill has traditional favorites like hamburgers and cheeseburgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, hotdogs and bratwurst, and chicken tenders.

Tow Mater Menu

Fillmore's Favorites has a lighter fare of sandwiches and wraps, freshly made paninis, and salads.

Fillmore's Menu

Fillmore's Counter

While it is convenient to have all three stands located right next to each other, and so close to the pools, I did find that this area became very crowded, especially during the afternoon lunchtime hours.

Cove Café:
One of my favorite spaces on the entire ship was the Cove Café located adjacent to the Quiet Cove Pool. Even though it is more of a place to get something to drink than something to eat, the Cove Café does have some food offerings during the course of the day with muffins, Danishes, and croissants in the morning and an assortment of pastries throughout the rest of the day, in addition to delectable chocolate covered strawberries that became on of my favorite snacks on the cruise.

Cove Cafe Sign

Cove Cafe Bar

The Café's furniture and artwork are inspired by the Art Deco era of the 1920s and 1930s, giving the interior a sense of luxury and refinement. Take time to look at some of the black and white photographs hanging on the walls as they feature many images of Walt Disney travelling with friends and family. With its comfortable chairs and couches, the Cove Café is the perfect place to relax, its quiet atmosphere great for grabbing a drink and enjoying a good book.

Cove Cafe Seating1

Cove Cafe Seating2

Bars and Lounges:
I was astonished by the number of bars and lounges to be found throughout the ship. It will be very difficult to go thirsty on this ship because wherever you are there is a bar nearby. While The District, the adults-only nightclub area, features a variety of differently themed bars and lounges, there are many others located throughout the ship. Here are just a few and where they can be found:

Located on deck 13 just above the Quiet Cove Pool, Currents offers ample outdoor seating where cruisers can enjoy the sun and a refreshing frozen drink by day or a cocktail sitting under the stars by night.

Currents Bar

One thing that really impressed me about the Dream was that the lounge chairs and other furniture out on deck was of much better quality than found on the Magic or the Wonder.

Currents Seating Area

Meridian is situated between Palo and Remy on deck 12, offering the perfect spot to enjoy a pre- or post-meal cocktail while enjoying the beautiful ocean views. Featuring both indoor and outdoor seating, Meridian's comfy leather chairs and dark-paneled walls give the lounge a feeling of luxury. In fact, the lounge actually has a dress code with a dress shirt or jacket required for men and a dress or pantsuit for women; no jeans are allowed.

arMeridian.jpg

The décor of the lounge pays tribute to world travel, specifically the early days of sea travel. There are many little details to be found here, from the navigational tools embedded in the floor, leather maps featuring passport stamps from around the world, and even a constellation map lit up with twinkling stars covering the ceiling.

Also on deck 12 is Waves, tucked just behind the aft funnel. Its location just below Goofey's Sports Deck makes it a convenient location for grabbing a cold drink after playing a game of basketball or finishing up a round of miniature golf. It is located in an out-of-the-way area, which makes it another nice quiet spot to relax.

Waves

The Quiet Cove Pool on deck 11 features the Cove Bar, which offers a Disney Cruise Line first. Cruisers are able to walk up or swim up to the bar, allowing the convenience of ordering drinks without even having to leave the pool. I noticed this to be one of the busiest bars on the ship, primarily because of its location, but Currents (located just above the Quiet Cove Pool) offers the same drinks while having less of a wait to get them.

Cove Bar

Overlooking the ship's atrium on deck 4, the Vista Café is very similar to the Cove Café, just in a less secluded setting. It still features comfy chairs and coaches and offers beautiful views of the atrium that make it a perfect place to sit and relax. In addition, its large portholes allow for great ocean views. The Café specializes in coffee drinks and also features an assortment of pastries throughout the day.

Vista Cafe Bar

Vista Cafe Seating

Just off the atrium on deck 3 is Bon Voyage. Its centralized location makes it a great place to enjoy a cocktail before dinner or prior to seeing a show in the Walt Disney Theater. The bar's Art Deco feel ties in perfectly with that of the atrium, offering a refined yet relaxing setting.

Bon Voyage

With a ship so large there are so many places to explore and things to discover. But, despite being so big, I found that the Disney Dream features many little, quiet places to sit and relax. These bars and lounges offer the perfect place to unwind and enjoy a refreshing drink. Then, if you get hungry, there are multiple dining options throughout the ship that make food readily available at nearly any hour of the day. It is safe to say that you will not go hungry or thirsty while on a Disney cruise.

January 15, 2011

ESPN Club: A Sports Fan's Paradise

Andrew Rossi

Andrew Rossi returns with a review of the ESPN Club at Disney's Boardwalk Resort.

If you are a sports fan like me then you always want to keep track of how your favorite teams are doing, even when you are on vacation. This, however, is sometimes easier said than done. What if there is a major sporting event like the World Series or Super Bowl that you really don't want to miss? Sure, you could probably go back to your room at your resort and watch the game there, but where is the fun and excitement in that? Fortunately for guests at Walt Disney World, the ESPN Club at the Boardwalk Resort offers the perfect location to enjoy a game and celebrate a big win with your fellow fans. Whether you are just looking for a drink and a couple of appetizers at the bar or a full sit-down meal, the ESPN Club completely immerses you into the world of sports.

ESPN Club Sign

Overview:
Nestled at the far end of the Boardwalk, the ESPN Club may appear quiet by day but at night it is transformed and comes alive with the raucous cheers of the many sports fans rooting for their favorite teams. The ESPN Club has become a very popular location in Disney World for sports fans who do not want to miss a big game when they are on vacation. Much of its popularity is also due to the fact that it is the only real sports bar/restaurant in Disney World (there is the ESPN Grill at the Wide World of Sports Complex, but its location makes it much more difficult to get to). In addition, the ESPN Club's location at the Boardwalk makes it easily accessible, being just a short walk from Epcot or a quick boat ride from the Hollywood Studios.

ESPN Club Exterior

The ESPN Club should not be confused with the ESPN Zone, like the one found at Disneyland in California. The ESPN Club is smaller and more intimate in size and does not have some of the added features of an ESPN Zone, such as a rock climbing wall, massive sports arcade, and rooms for private functions like the one in Disneyland. The ESPN Club's smaller size, however, does not limit the fun and excitement of this dining location, especially during a big game.

Atmosphere:
As soon as you enter the ESPN Club you are given the option of sitting in the bar side or the restaurant side. The bar features open seating with booths, high-top tables with stools, as well as regular tables and chairs. The bar area can get very loud, especially when there is a major sporting event being shown. It can also seem more crowded because the tables are placed closer together in this area.

ESPN Club Bar Seating Area

If you are looking for a slightly more quiet meal, the restaurant side may be better for you.

ESPN Club Restaurant Seating Area

One important note: The ESPN Club can get very crowded at night and especially during major sporting events like the World Series and Super Bowl. If you are hoping to catch a specific game while you eat, it definitely helps to show up early so you will be able to get a table.

The ESPN Club is a restaurant that is just as much (if not more) about the atmosphere as the food. Everywhere you look throughout the restaurant you will see pieces of memorabilia from every major sport, both college and pro. There are jerseys representing almost every professional hockey, basketball, football, and baseball team, many of which are autographed.

ESPN Club Hockey Jerseys

ESPN Club College Football Jerseys and Helmets

ESPN Club NFL Jerseys.JPG

The walls are also covered with balls, helmets, and photographs signed by sports legends of both past and present. Its almost as if you are eating in a sports museum rather than a restaurant.

ESPN Club Sports Memorabilia

Another major feature of the restaurant's atmosphere is the hundreds of televisions throughout the dining room and bar. From your table, no matter which way you look, you will be able to see multiple televisions showing different games. The numerous amounts of televisions ensure that you do not miss a moment of the action, even when you are in the restroom.

ESPN Club Televisions1

ESPN Club Televisions2

With so many televisions showing different games, different sections of tables throughout the restaurant receive the audio from different televisions. When it is not crowded, and there is a particular game you are interested in, they will seat you so that you will be able to see and hear the game of your choice. One of the best parts of the televisions is that they actually turn the audio off during the commercials.

The restaurant's atmosphere, with the noise from the televisions and cheering fans, can make it difficult to have a conversation with the other members of you party. If you are looking for a more quiet meal, consider coming for lunch when it is less crowded. This might not be the best restaurant if travelling with smaller children, but it is great for teenagers and adults. It is a very laid-back dining location that makes it a great place to relax, escape the theme parks, and enjoy a good game with friends or family.

The Menu:
The ESPN Club is not the type of restaurant you would go to if you are looking for a gourmet meal, but this does not mean that the food is not of good quality. Quite the contrary, I was very pleasantly surprised by the wide selection of offerings on the menu, which offers classic Americana and ballpark fare kicked up a notch and provides new twists on many traditional favorites. In this way, the menu pairs perfectly with the atmosphere of the restaurant, providing diners the type of food you would want when watching a sporting event.

The appetizer selections are great for sharing, especially if you are going to the ESPN Club just to sit at the bar and enjoy a game without having an entire meal. Among the appetizers are Red Wings ($11.49), which are chicken wings served with your choice of medium, hot, flame, teriyaki, or barbecue sauce and accompanied by celery and blue cheese dressing. A slight variation on this are the ESPN Dingers ($8.99), which are chicken breast nuggets served the same way. There is also a Black Bean and Spinach Dip ($8.49) served with Tortilla Chips, Macho Nachos ($9.99) topped with chili, cheddar cheese sauce, pico de gallo, sour cream, and jalapenos, and the Overtime Fries ($8.99) featuring a generous portion of French fries topped with chili and cheddar cheese sauce.

The entrée selections include a lot of variety and offer something for everyone. If you are in the mood for a burger, the menu features not only a traditional hamburger or cheeseburger, but also a Cuban Burger ($11.99) topped with dijonaise sauce, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles, the Southwestern Burger ($11.99) served with jalapenos, pico de gallo, avocado, cheddar, and lettuce, and the Muffalata Burger ($12.49) which comes with prosciutto, cappicola, salami, provolone, and olive tapenade.

The menu also includes several different sandwiches. There is the Championship Chicken Sandwich ($13.49) topped with sun-dried tomato pesto, greens, and goat cheese on rosemary focaccia, the Triple Play Turkey ($11.49) with brie, greens, and cranberry mayonnaise on multigrain bread, and the Extreme Reuben ($10.49) with sliced corned beef, sauerkraut, and swiss on sliced rye.

If you are looking for some seafood there is the Salmon "Club House" ($14.49), which is a BLT Sandwich with a fresh grilled salmon fillet, as well as the Fish on the Bun Sandwich ($14.49) featuring fresh grilled mahi mahi on a whole grain roll. For vegetarians there is the Vegetable Sandwich ($10.49) with chilled, grilled zucchini, onion, and portobello mushrooms with greens, tomatoes, and roasted red pepper hummus on multigrain bread.

If you are looking for something more than just a sandwich the menu also features Rack 'em-Ribs ($20.99) topped with a tangy barbecue sauce and served with coleslaw, corn on the cob, and French fries, a Sports "Center Cut" Top Sirloin ($20.99) served with chipotle-lime butter, macaroni and cheese, and spicy green beans, as well as a Grilled Salmon Fillet ($20.99) accompanied by buttered Yukon potatoes and spicy green beans.

You may want to save room for dessert because there are some delectable options available. The Rocky Road Cake ($5.99) is a chocolate cake layered with chocolate mousse, walnuts, marshmallows, and fudge sauce. There is also a Lemon Meringue Pie ($5.49) with a graham cracker crust, fresh lemon filling and a toasted meringue, as well as a Boston Cream Pie ($5.99).

As I was perusing the menu I was greatly intrigued by the Italian Hot Dog. Although a hot dog is not something I would typically order when going out to eat, it was so unlike anything I had heard of before (topped with roasted potatoes, sautéed onions, and peppers) that I decided to give it a try.

ESPN Club Italian Hot Dog

While $10.99 might seem like a lot for a hot dog, it was absolutely huge. Its size also made it a little difficult and sloppy to eat; it was so big that I needed to eat it with a knife and fork and I was only able to finish about half. The hot dog did not come served on a typically hot dog bun, but rather on an Italian roll that was just slightly toasted so that it was a little crispy on the outside.

The hot dog itself was very thick and was cut in half to make it easier to eat. The onions and peppers were cooked perfectly, not too hard and yet not mushy, and their flavor really blended well and complimented that of the hot dog. Actually, although there was a good amount of onions and peppers topping the hot dog, I would have liked it if there had been even more. The combination of roasted potatoes and a hot dog may seem odd, but their flavors actually blended together very well and the potatoes added a little contrast in texture. There was also mustard topping the hot dog, but just enough to add a little extra flavor without being too overpowering.

For dessert I decided on the Bananas Foster Cream Pie ($5.99), which after a very filling entrée provided a nice, light contrast. The pie was layered with fresh bananas and custard over banana bread and topped with white chocolate whipped cream.

ESPN Club Banana Fosters Pie

The pie was extremely creamy and smooth with a flavor that was sweet without being overpoweringly so. The bananas were soft, but not mushy, and there were actually fewer bananas in the pie than I thought there would be. Personally, I would have preferred it if there were more bananas and less custard. The pie came drizzled with caramel and chocolate that added a little extra flavor and sweetness, but did not overpower the flavor of the bananas. There were also white chocolate flakes atop the pie that added some extra texture. This was actually a much more elegant dessert than I was expecting, providing a contrast to the more simple, traditional offerings found throughout the rest of the menu.

Service:
Matching the restaurant's atmosphere, the service is very laid back and casual. I noticed that many of the servers seemed to be rushing around the restaurant serving a lot of different tables. As a result I really did not see my server too much throughout my meal. I was very surprised that the server never even checked with me during my meal to make sure I was enjoying everything. While the food was brought out in a timely manner I did find the service to be a little slow as I had to wait a while for the table to be cleared when I was finished and even longer for the check to be brought out to me. However, this slow service was not necessarily a problem because it allowed more time for watching the various sporting events on the restaurant's televisions. If you are looking for a quick meal this is probably not the restaurant for you, but if you have time to relax and enjoy a game then the ESPN Club is the place for you (and the service is geared more toward the latter).

Dining on a Budget:
While the prices on the menu may seem a little steep for ballpark food, you get what you pay for in terms of both quantity and quality. The portion sizes of my meal and every other dish that I saw being brought out of the kitchen were absolutely huge. One great way to save money, especially if you are dining with a group of two or more, is to just order appetizers. The menu features a wide assortment of appetizers and if you split two or three you could easily have a filling meal at a very reasonable price.

If you are looking for something more than just appetizers, the hot dogs and hamburgers offer another affordable option. Ranging in price from $10.99 to $12.49, you are getting much more than your typical hot dog or hamburger as they come piled high with various toppings. When you consider a quarter-pound cheeseburger at a Disney World quick-service dining location will cost about $7, then $11.99 for a burger at ESPN Club is not too bad because you are getting a larger burger, with more toppings, and at a better quality. In addition, you are getting a restaurant atmosphere better than any counter service location.

The Overall Experience:
The ESPN Club at the Boardwalk Resort is a really unique restaurant because it is one of the only dining locations in Disney World that offers the opportunity to enjoy various sporting events. It is a great place to escape from the hustle and bustle of the theme parks, relax, and enjoy a good meal along with a good game. If you are a sports fan then the ESPN Club is a must, especially if there is a big game that you do not want to miss. It may not be the place to go if you are looking for a quiet, gourmet meal, but it does deliver a lively, exciting, and laid back atmosphere along with a menu that provides a new twist on traditional ballpark fare that is of good quality and large portion size. It may not be my favorite restaurant at Disney World, but it is a restaurant that serves a specific purpose and does it very well. If I am ever looking for a place to enjoy some good food while watching a major sporting event, I know exactly where I will be going.

Check out Reader Reviews of the ESPN Club and post your own too!

December 28, 2010

Italy Meets Hollywood at Mama Melrose’s Risotrante Italiano

Andrew Rossi

Andrew Rossi returns with a review of Mama Melrose located in Disney's Hollywood Studios.

When it comes to Italian food, Disney World certainly offers a wide variety of options, from Tutto Italia and Via Napoli at Epcot to Tony's Town Square at Magic Kingdom, Portobello at Downtown Disney, or Il Mulino at the Swan. Each of these restaurants features something a little different in terms of menu choices and atmosphere that allow them to deliver completely unique dining experiences.

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at the Hollywood Studios is another one of these Italian options. While Mama Melrose's may not be the most authentic nor the most elegant of Disney's Italian restaurants, it still delivers a wide selection of good Italian food combined with an atmosphere that is far from what you would expect from a typical Italian restaurant.

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Overview:

Every Disney dining location has its own theme or story, and this is very true of Mama Melrose's even though it may not be as immediately evident as in other restaurants. Mama Melrose's is a restaurant where "Italy meets California in the heart of the Backlot," but even knowing this one may be confused by the strange décor found inside; it certainly does not look like any other Italian restaurant you have seen before. Everything becomes more clear, however, when you learn the restaurant's back-story, but even this is something passed down more through word-of-mouth rather than anything official within the restaurant. The story, as I have heard it, is that Mama Melrose moved from Italy to California to pursue a career in acting, but instead decided to open a restaurant. In her restaurant Mama Melrose displayed numerous items she had brought over from Italy as well as various movie memorabilia she had collected during her time in California. This blend of Italy and Hollywood is seen throughout the restaurant and gives it a very unique feel.

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Atmosphere:

As soon as you walk through the door of Mama Melrose's you can tell that this is not your typical Italian restaurant. Upon entering the restaurant you are greeted by walls covered with pictures not of famous Italians, but rather Hollywood celebrities. These "Legends of Disney's Hollywood Studios" are a nice way of paying tribute to the history of the park while also tying in perfectly with the theme of the restaurant.

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

The interior of the restaurant is fairly dark, with only a few small windows letting in natural light from the outside. The dining room has the feel of an aged, re-purposed warehouse with industrial-looking light fixtures, high ceilings where the wood-beam supports and air ducts are visible, brick walls covered with graffiti, and worn floor boards. All this gives the sense that Mama Melrose's location is much older than it actually is, lending a sense of authenticity and depth to the restaurant's theme.

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

The real attraction of the restaurant's decor, however, is all the memorabilia that litters the walls. In fact, there is very little free wall space available. The level of detail is so great that I am always noticing new things every time I return to eat here. Among the items adorning the walls are numerous Italian references: black and white photographs of famous Italian landmarks, Italian paintings (with the Mona Lisa making several appearances), records by famous Italian singers, Italian soccer flags, Italian movie posters, a wide variety of bottles of wine, and even cooking utensils and garlic cloves handing from the ceiling.

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

At the same time, there are many other items that are distinctly Californian, such as pennants of California sports teams, posters of the Hollywood sign and other landmarks, photographs of famous movie stars and singers (with Mickey Mouse appearing quite frequently), Los Angeles street signs such as Melrose Ave. and Vine St., and license plates from several states.

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Another alluring part of the Mama Melrose's atmosphere is the open kitchen, which is clearly visible as soon as you enter the restaurant. The most prominent feature of this kitchen is the large brick oven in which the pizzas are cooked. Not only does the open kitchen allow you to see the food be prepared, but it also gives the restaurant a tremendous aroma as the smell of the cooking food spreads throughout the entire dining area. All the activity and noise of the kitchen also lend a sense of action and excitement to the restaurant.

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Overall, Mama Melrose's is a restaurant that is very laid-back and relaxing, making it great for families traveling with children. The atmosphere has a certain degree of whimsy and a lot of fun little touches, whether it be the grape vines and Christmas lights hanging all over the ceiling and walls, the big fish with sunglasses, or the huge oil drums of olive oil and marinara sauce. It is all these details that help make the restaurant uniquely Disney.

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

The Menu:

Mama Melrose's features a menu of many traditional Italian favorites as well as some other less conventional items. It is a menu that offers a lot of variety, whether you are in the mood for seafood, pasta, pizza, or steak. Mama Melrose's did recently undergo a menu change and as a result some long-time menu items have been updated or replaced, but the new menu does include some intriguing new items as well as many of the old menu's favorites.

Among the appetizer selections are Italian classics such as Crispy Calamari ($12.99) served with marinara sauce, Caesar Salad ($5.99), Minestrone Soup ($5.49), and an Antipasto for Two ($14.99) featuring Italian meats, cheeses, and marinated vegetables. One different appetizer is the Clams Oreganatta ($10.99), which features oak-fired clams cooked in butter and served with Italian sausage over foccacia bread.

Like any Italian restaurant, pastas are prominently featured entrees on the menu. One new item is the Spaghetti con Vongole ($19.99) that comes with sauteed clams tossed with spaghetti and a white clam sauce. On the heavier side there are the Penne alla Vodka ($16.99) with a tomato-basil, cream, and vodka sauce and the Chicken Pipette ($17.99) with wood-grilled chicken, artichokes, peas, roasted peppers, and sweet onions in a four-cheese cream sauce (or you can substitute shrimp for $19.99). A For something a little different there is the Goat-Cheese Filled Ravioli ($16.99) that presents a little twist on a classic Italian dish.

If you are not in the mood for pasta, there are a variety of other options available. One traditional Italian favorite is Chicken Parmesan ($16.99), but the menu also features a Charred Strip Steak ($28.99) that comes with Italian roasted potatoes, aged balsamic-shallot butter, and a Chianti wine reduction, as well as a Wood-Grilled Tuna ($22.99) over a seasonal vegetable risotto.

The menu also includes a wide array of flatbread pizzas. The Carne D' Italia ($12.99) is topped with pepperoni, Italian sausage, pancetta, and a spicy marinara sauce. For vegetarians there are the Vine-Ripened Tomato ($11.99) and Four-Cheese ($11.99) flatbreads. One of the more popular flatbreads is the Grilled Chicken ($12.99), which comes with sun-dried tomato pesto, pancetta, and asiago cheese. There is also the Grilled Shrimp and Arugula Flatbread ($13.99), with pesto goat cheese, artichokes, and tomatoes.

Dessert selections at Mama Melrose's include Italian favorites with a twist. There is Mama's Tiramisu ($5.99), which is actually a tiramisu-flavored gelato, Chocolate Cannoli Cake ($5.99), Chocolate Amarettini Cheesecake ($5.99), Crema Limone ($6.99), and various flavors of Gelato ($4.49).

For my meal I decided on something a little different that I would not normally order at an Italian restaurant, the Oak-Grilled Pork Chop ($21.99). The pork chop was cooked absolutely perfectly so that it was still nice and moist but also charred just enough to add a little extra flavor. The pork came served in an onion broth and was topped with tomato jam. Personally, I did not really notice too much of an onion flavor and the "jam" was basically just a light tomato sauce. The tomato sauce paired very well with the pork and also had a definitive garlic flavor, although this was not too overpowering. There was a lot of ground black pepper used in this dish and, while it did add some extra flavor, if you are not a fan of black pepper you might want to ask for them to hold off on adding it on top.

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

The pork was accompanied by broccoli, but this had very little flavor, as well as garlic bread pudding. This was unlike anything I have ever seen or tasted before. As a word of warning, if you are not a fan of garlic you will probably not like it because it has a very strong flavor. The bread pudding was very soft and moist and it presented a definite contrast to the more mild flavored tomato sauce served over the pork. While its flavor did not overwhelm that of the pork, it had a very distinct taste and texture that added a real kick to the dish.

I was dining with a group and we decided to split several desserts. The desserts were served all together on one large plate that made for a very nice presentation.

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

First was Mama's Tiramisu ($5.99) and I was extremely disappointed with this. Mama Melrose's used to have delicious tiramisu, but with the new menu came a change to this classic Italian dessert. Rather than your traditional tiramisu, this dessert is tiramisu flavored gelato served over freshly brewed espresso and topped with amaretto and ladyfingers. The gelato itself did not really have too much flavor and the ladyfingers were made soggy by the espresso. There are many other versions of tiramisu at Disney World that I would rather have than getting the one here again.

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Next was the Chocolate Cannoli Cake ($5.99), which is a chocolate cake with a cannoli filling, topped with nutella, and garnished a hazelnut florentine (we decided to order two of these). The chocolate cake was very rich but a little on the dry side. The cannoli filling presented a nice contrast with its light, creamy flavor complimenting the heavier cake. The nutella on top provided additional richness to the dessert and just a slight hint of hazelnut that added just a little extra flavor.

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

My favorite of all the desserts was the Chocolate Amarettini Cheesecake ($5.49), which is a chocolate-flavored cheesecake with a cookie crust and topped with Italian amarettini cookies. The cheesecake was very light, soft, and creamy with just a hint of chocolate flavor. The crust had the taste and texture of crushed oreo cookies and provided a heavier, richer contrast to the lightness of the cheesecake. The amarettini cookies that topped the dessert were light and fluffy and added a little extra flavor of amaretto without overpowering the cheesecake.

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Service:

My server did not speak very good English, which really inhibited communication. This language barrier meant that the server was not too personable and did not really try to strike up any type of conversation. That being said, I could clearly tell that the server was trying her best to make sure we were enjoying our meal. Actually, as a server she was very efficient in taking our order, bringing out the food and drinks, and clearing the table of dishes when we were finished. The meal progressed at a good pace, not too slow but not too fast. It should be noted that there were other servers that appeared to be very friendly and personable, with one actually coming to our table when we were deciding on desserts to give us a little explanation of each and telling us which ones were her favorites.

Dining on a Budget:

Compared with some of the other Italian restaurants on Disney property, such as Tutto Italia or Via Napoli, Mama Melrose's is an affordable option. If you are looking for a good meal at a reasonable price, Mama Melrose's various flatbreads are a great choice. Ranging from $11.99 to $13.99, not only are the portion sizes very large but they are also very tasty. By comparison, an individual size pizza from Via Napoli costs $16. While the flatbreads at Mama Melrose's may not be as authentic as Via Napoli, it does present a cheaper alternative. The Chicken Parmesan is another option that is cheaper at Mama Melrose and is one of my favorite items on the menu. The same dish at Via Napoli costs $22.

Mama Melrose's is one of the restaurants at the Hollywood Studios that offers the Fantasmic dining package. The price is $32.99 for adults and $11.99 for children (not including tax and gratuity) and includes appetizer, entrée, dessert, and a non-alcoholic beverage as well as priority seating to the first showing of that night's Fantasmic. If you are not the type of person who will want to wait an hour (and sometimes more) to get a seat for Fantasmic, then the dining package will be worth it regardless of price. With the dining package you can get to the theater about a half an hour before the show starts and, without having to wait in line, still get a decent seat.

If you decide to go with the Fantasmic dining package at Mama Melrose's, certain combinations of appetizers, entrees, and desserts will make for better values than others. If you do not necessarily mind waiting in line to get a seat for Fantasmic, I would suggest looking at the menu ahead of time to see if what you would potentially order would make the dining package a good deal for you.

For example, if you were to order the Minestrone Soup ($5.49) for an appetizer, the Vine-Ripened Tomato Flatbread ($11.99) for an entrée, and Gelato ($4.49) for dessert your total would be $21.97. At the same time, however, if you were to order a Caesar Salad ($5.99), the Charred Strip Steak ($28.99), and the Chocolate Cannoli Cake ($5.99) your total would be $40.97. My best advice is to do the math to see if the Fantasmic dining package is worth it for you and allowing you to get the most for your money.

The Overall Experience:

Mama Melrose's is the type of restaurant that is a lot of fun to dine at. From its walls covered with Hollywood memorabilia and Italian knick knacks to the Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling and the combination of California surf tunes and classic Italian music playing in the background, the restaurant creates an atmosphere that is laid back and inviting. It is a great place to enjoy a meal with the entire family. The food may not be as authentic or elegant as some of the other Italian restaurants in Disney World, but it still features many tasty Italian favorites that come in large portion sizes for a reasonable price. If you are looking for a traditional, classic Italian restaurant, this may not necessarily be the place for you, but if you are looking for Italian in a way that only Disney could dream of then Mama Melrose's is definitely worth a visit.

Check out Reader Reviews of Mama Melrose's and post your own too!

November 26, 2010

Breakfast with a Greek Flair at Kouzzina

Andrew Rossi

When vacationing at Disney World, breakfast can sometimes be an overlooked meal. Rushing to get to the theme parks early in the morning, many guests simply grab a snack on the run or a quick bite to eat at the food court of their resort. With so many guests planning to have a big meal at lunch or dinner, they do not want to also have a large breakfast and spoil their appetite. As a result, breakfast at Disney World does not usually receive the same notoriety as lunch or dinner.

One of the exceptions to this rule are the character dining experiences, such as the buffets at Chef Mickey's, Chrystal Palace, Cape May Café, or Tusker House. These restaurants are very popular for breakfast and reservations are needed well in advance. But what if you do not necessarily want to have a character meal and are looking for something other than a buffet? The reality is that Disney offers plenty of other breakfast options if you are looking for a nice, relaxing meal. Kouzzina at Disney's Boardwalk Resort is one such option and offers a breakfast unlike any other in Disney World.

Kouzzina at Disney's Boardwalk Resort

Overview:

In the Spring of 2009 it was announced that renowned chef Cat Cora would be partnering with Disney on a new restaurant venue and that August Kouzzina opened at the Boardwalk Resort replacing an existing restaurant known as Spoodles.

Spoodles, which featured a menu of Mediterranean cuisine, had been a very popular dining location among Disney guests and many were disappointed to see it go. Cat Cora's Kouzzina, however, is very much in the same vein and strongly reflects Cora's Greek heritage. Cat Cora, who is probably best-known for her role on Food Network's "Iron Chef America," has created a restaurant which celebrates classic Greek and Mediterranean dishes as well as some of her own personal favorite recipes.

The name "Kouzzina" is actually the Greek word for kitchen and examples of Cora's Greek roots can be found throughout the restaurant in the décor and especially the menu, which even includes some of her own special cocktail recipes. Greek cuisine features very distinct combinations of flavors and ingredients that people of other cultures may not be accustomed and the result is that Kouzzina offers a dining experience, for both breakfast and dinner, that is truly unique among Disney restaurants.

Kouzzina at Disney's Boardwalk Resort

Atmosphere:

Kouzzina's atmosphere is simple, but elegant; it is at the same time upscale as well as warm and inviting. The restaurant's Mediterranean influences, as well as Cat Cora's Greek heritage, are evident as soon as you enter the restaurant, with the lobby area featuring a large wall mural depicting a map of the Mediterranean in addition to various black and white photographs of the Cora family.

Kouzzina at Disney's Boardwalk Resort

Kouzzina at Disney's Boardwalk Resort


The main dining area of the restaurant has a rustic Mediterranean feel with wood-plank flooring and dark wooden tables, chairs, and paneled walls.

Kouzzina at Disney's Boardwalk Resort

Kouzzina at Disney's Boardwalk Resort


Despite its dark, earthy colors, the restaurant actually has a very open feel. Contributing to this is the fact that the dining room is just one large, open space and features high, vaulted ceilings.

Kouzzina at Disney's Boardwalk Resort

The restaurant also has large windows that allow in plenty of natural light and add to the sense of openness.

Kouzzina at Disney's Boardwalk Resort

The overall décor is very plain and without a lot of decoration. The walls do feature some black and white photographs of the Greek coastline and small fishing villages, which are just enough of a touch to tie-in the restaurant's Mediterranean theme.

The real allure of Kouzzina atmosphere, however, is its open show-kitchen that really helps to make guests more a part of the dining experience and see their food being prepared before them. While some might find the hustle, bustle and noise of the kitchen to be distracting, I found it to be extremely interesting and thought it really added some energy and excitement to the restaurant (while there was not too much action in the kitchen during breakfast I was told that things are much more lively at dinner time).

Kouzzina at Disney's Boardwalk Resort

Kouzzina at Disney's Boardwalk Resort

While Kouzzina certainly offers a more refined setting, I still found the atmosphere to be very welcoming and relaxing. It is an atmosphere which is definitely conducive to a nice quiet meal for adults, but I would not shy away from bringing families with children here as well. In Greek culture, spending time with family is very important and Kouzzina is a restaurant that offers a comfortable setting for families to enjoy a meal together.

The Menu:

Kouzzina's menu offers a selection of breakfast dishes the likes of which cannot be found at any other dining location in Disney World. If you are a person with simple tastes, this may not be the best restaurant for you. However, if you are someone more daring, then Kouzzina is truly an adventure for the taste buds and one which offers plenty of new and interesting dishes to try. Not only does the menu feature some unconventional breakfast dishes, but it also takes some traditional favorites and presents them with a Greek twist.

Greek flavors and ingredients are found throughout the entire menu. One example of this is the Stacked Kouzzina Breakfast ($11.99), featuring two poached eggs, kalamata olive toast, artichoke spread, and sweet potato hash with a choice of bacon or chicken sausage. There is also the Spinach, Tomato, and Feta Scrambled Eggs ($11.99) that come served with breakfast potatoes and a choice of bacon or chicken sausage. Similar to this is the Vegetable Flatbread ($11.99) topped with scrambled eggs, roasted red peppers, spinach, and feta. Yet another interesting dish is the Turkey-Sweet Potato Hash ($12.49) with two eggs and arugula salad.

For those less adventurous eaters, Kouzzina also offers some more conventional options. There is a Ham and Cheese Omelet ($12.49) served with breakfast potatoes, Challah Bread French Toast ($10.49) with a choice of bacon or chicken sausage, Blueberry Orange Granola Pancakes ($10.49) with a choice of bacon or chicken sausage, and the American Two Eggs ($11.99), which comes with breakfast potatoes and a choice of bacon or chicken sausage.

For my breakfast I chose the Classic Golden Waffle ($10.49) which comes topped with whipped mascarpone cheese, honey, and chopped pecans and is served with a choice of bacon or chicken sausage. While the price may seem a little steep for waffles, the portion size is absolutely huge and I was not even able to finish it all. The waffles had a light, fluffy texture and were nice and thick. They were cooked perfectly to have a golden brown color and were just slightly crispy on the outside but still soft on the inside. The waffles actually tasted very similar to the Mickey waffles that are found at restaurants across property, but what made this breakfast really stand out were the waffle's toppings.

The waffles came accompanied by a generous portion of whipped marscapone cheese, which is similar to cream cheese but lighter, softer, and sweeter in taste. The sweetness of the marscapone proved to be the perfect compliment to the waffles; it was not even necessary to add any butter or syrup on top. The waffles also came drizzled with honey, just enough to provide a little added flavor and sweetness to the dish.

The waffles were then topped with a good-sized helping of pecans, which really helped to add some additional texture to the dish and provided a nice contrast to the softness waffles and the sweetness of the marscapone and honey. I thought the combination of marscapone, honey, and pecans blended together perfectly so that no one ingredient dominated the others and each served to enhance the flavor of the waffles rather than draw attention solely to themselves. While certainly a little on the sweet side, I did not find the overall sweetness of the dish to be overwhelming by any means.

Kouzzina at Disney's Boardwalk Resort

The waffles also were served with a side of chicken sausage, which I found to be relatively mild in flavor especially when compared with more common pork sausage. The sausage did have a little spiciness to it, adding just a little kick to the breakfast that provided a nice contrast to the sweetness of the waffles and their toppings.

As a side dish I really wanted to try the Sweet Potato Hash ($5.95) because it seemed like something unique; I had never seen anything like it on other breakfast menus before. The flavor of this dish really surprised me. I was expecting it to be a little on the sweet side, but the sweet potato came mixed with peppers and onions that gave it a little bit of a spicy flavor and proved to be a great contrast to the sweetness of the waffles. While the hash had a definite kick, I did not find it to be too spicy.

Kouzzina at Disney's Boardwalk Resort

The Sweet Potato Hash really helps exemplify breakfast at Kouzzina as a whole. It may not be your traditional type of breakfast, but it is a meal with plenty of flavor the likes of which you cannot find at any other breakfast location in Disney World.


Service:

One thing that Kouzzina prides itself on is that every meal is served fresh and is made to order. As a result, this may not be the best restaurant for you if you are looking for a quick bite to eat. That being said, I did not find the service to be slow, but rather the meal progressed at a very relaxing pace. Unlike many other breakfast restaurants that look to get tables turned-over quickly in order to seat as many people as possible, I did not feel rushed at all. Adding to this was the fact that the restaurant was nearly empty. This is a great way to start the morning if you are looking for a calm and quiet breakfast option, especially since many of the breakfast buffets and food courts can be crowded and a little noisy.

Because the restaurant was not very busy, my server was able to be very attentive to my needs and frequently checked in with me to make sure everything was to my liking. However, with a menu featuring so many unconventional selections, I would have liked it if the server took a little time to describe the menu offerings.

Dining on a Budget:

Kouzzina may not be the cheapest breakfast location in Disney World, but you get good value for your money in terms of both quality and quantity. The portion sizes are all very large and if you were to go to Kouzzina for breakfast you could actually save money by not needing to get anything for lunch. When compared with other breakfast options, Kouzzina is actually very affordable.

For example, the breakfast buffet at Crystal Palace costs $20.99 while the buffets at Cape May Café and Chef each cost $26.99. Even breakfast locations that do not have characters can be more expensive, such as the Boma breakfast buffet for $18.99. While comparing a restaurant with an al a carte menu to that with a buffet is like comparing apples with oranges, breakfast at Kouzzina offers less expensive selections without sacrificing anything in terms of quality.


The Overall Experience:

I was extremely pleased with my breakfast at Kouzzina and will definitely be going there again. The restaurant offers a real change from the typical breakfast foods that you find at so many other dining locations around Disney World. If you are the type of person that likes to try new and different foods, then Kouzzina is must-do because you will experience a breakfast the likes of which you have never had before.

Not only does Kouzzina present a breakfast with a Greek flair, but it does so with dishes that have an incredible amount of flavor and portion sizes that are very generous; this is a really high-quality breakfast and you certainly get what you pay for. Kouzzina offers an escape from the crowds and congestion of the resort food courts and the popular character breakfast buffets. It is a nice, relaxing way to start your day and get you energized before heading out into the parks.

Read what others have to say about Breakfast at Kouzzina!

One important note: Kouzzina by Cat Cora will close for refurbishment from Monday, Nov 29 - Tuesday, Dec 14, reopening to guests on Wednesday, Dec. 15. Enhancements are planned for many areas of the restaurant, including the lobby and the dining area.

The pizza window will remain open during the refurbishment.

While Kouzzina by Cat Cora is undergoing refurbishment, guests can enjoy an a la carte breakfast from 7:30am - 11am at The Flying Fish as well as regular dinner offerings at Disney's Boardwalk Resort.

November 9, 2010

Trail's End Restaurant - Ft. Wilderness - Walt Disney World

Andrew Rossi

The Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground tends to be overlooked by many guests, but it is a really interesting place to visit especially if you have never seen it before. It is a truly unique location within Disney World.

Fort Wilderness features variety of fun and exciting offerings found nowhere else at Disney with everything from horseback riding and archery lessons to making s'mores with Chip and Dale at a nightly sing-along campfire.

Like any other Disney resort, Fort Wilderness also offers a variety of dining opportunities. Mickey's Backyard Barbeque (held seasonally on Thursdays and Saturdays only) features an all-you-can-eat buffet along with a live country band, line-dance instructor, and appearances by your favorite Disney characters.

The Hoop-De-Doo Musical Review has three shows nightly in Pioneer Hall at 5:00, 7:15, and 9:30 featuring singing, dancing, and comedic skits along with pails (literally) of American favorites such as fried chicken and barbeque ribs.

But if you are looking for just a regular sit-down meal, Fort Wilderness has a restaurant that tends to be overshadowed by these other dining experiences. The Trail's End Restaurant may not be the most glamorous or well-known dining location at Disney World, but it is definitely a restaurant worth checking out if you are visiting Fort Wilderness.

Trail's End Restaurant  - Ft. Wilderness

Trail's End Restaurant  - Ft. Wilderness


Overview:

The Trail's End Restaurant is located adjacent to Pioneer Hall in a section of Fort Wilderness known as "The Settlement."

One of the reasons why this restaurant may not be very well known among Disney guests is that it is somewhat out of the way and it can take a while to get there. From Magic Kingdom, you can take a boat to Fort Wilderness followed by a short walk from the dock to the restaurant. From any of the other parks, however, Disney buses drop guests off at "The Outpost" near the front entrance of Fort Wilderness and from there you must get on an internal resort bus that will take you to The Settlement. Because of its isolated location, Trail's End probably receives most of its business from guests staying at Fort Wilderness.

Up until recently Trail's End has featured an all-you-care-to-eat buffet throughout the day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The breakfast buffet featured traditional items such as scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and Mickey waffles. The lunch and dinner buffets included, among other things, the same fried chicken and barbeque ribs served at the Hoop-De-Doo Review. While the restaurant still offers the same breakfast and dinner buffets, Disney has decided to try out a new a la carte menu for lunch and I decided to go check it out first-hand.

Atmosphere:

I can best describe the atmosphere of the Trail's End Restaurant as casual-rustic. The restaurant has a very laid back and informal feel that makes it a great dining location for the entire family. At the same time, the restaurant's remote location means that it is far less crowded than many other dining locations found inside the theme parks. This makes it a great alternative for those guests looking for a quiet meal (especially at lunchtime) and to escape the hustle and bustle of the parks for a little while.

The restaurant's theme is that of an old-western, frontier tavern or hunting lodge and the walls are adorned with many items you would typically expect to find in this setting. Tea kettles, pots and pans, snowshoes, horseshoes, washboards, saws, ceramic jugs, and even a wooden canoe are just a few of the period pieces that lend a sense of authenticity and history to the restaurant.

Trail's End Restaurant  - Ft. Wilderness

Trail's End Restaurant  - Ft. Wilderness

Trail's End Restaurant  - Ft. Wilderness

And, of course, what frontier tavern or hunting lodge would be complete without an assortment of wild animals on display?

Trail's End Restaurant  - Ft. Wilderness

Trail's End Restaurant  - Ft. Wilderness

However, I was a little disappointed to find that the attention to detail was not at the same level as you find in many other Disney dining locations. This is unfortunate because the restaurant's frontier theme and wilderness setting lend themselves so well to a completely immersive dining experience.

While the restaurant has a definite overarching theme, I felt that it was not carried out as far as it could have been. For example, the ceiling is supported by wooden beams meant to give the restaurant a log cabin feel, but this is betrayed by white ceiling tiles and a generic tile floor. It does not really make you feel as though you are actually eating in a rustic frontier tavern. While many other Disney restaurants have the unique ability to transport you to a completely different time and place through highly themed and detailed décors, the Trail's End Restaurant falls a little short in this area.

Trail's End Restaurant  - Ft. Wilderness

Trail's End Restaurant  - Ft. Wilderness

The Menu:

The main reason I wanted to try Trail's End was to experience the new a la carte lunch. It is a menu that offers some traditional Southern favorites as well as some more unique items. The menu is made up primarily of old-fashioned comfort food, with such classic Americana offerings as grits, hush puppies, and fried chicken. While it may not be a gourmet meal, Trail's End features home-style food that is simple but satisfyingly good.

Appetizers are limited to Beef Chili with Beans ($6.49), a Mixed Greens Salad ($5.49), and the Soup of the day ($6.99), but the entrée choices are far more interesting.

There are a good variety of entrees that offer something for everyone, whether looking for a hearty meal or something on the lighter side. In many cases the accompaniments and sides are just as intriguing as the main course itself.

The Spicy Grilled Shrimp and Andouille Sausage ($16.99) is served over cheese grits, the Grilled Pork Chop ($17.99) is accompanied by Hoppin John (a southern version of rice and beans), and the Fried Green Tomatoes ($15.99) come with fried green beans and sweet potato fries.

The menu also features an Angus Chili Cheeseburger ($13.99) topped with chili, cheddar, and Swiss cheese and served with sweet potato fries as well as the Angus Chuck Bacon Cheeseburger ($12.99) topped with bacon and cheddar and also accompanied by sweet potato fries.

On the lighter side there is the Fresh Berry Salad with Chicken ($12.99) tossed with raspberry vinaigrette, fresh berries, blue cheese and candied walnuts. However, the most interesting, and unusual, option on the menu is the Fried Chicken and Waffles ($13.49), which my server explained was one of the more popular lunch choices.

The dessert choices are few but interesting nonetheless and include Wilderness S'mores ($4.79), a dark chocolate mousse layered with graham crackers and topped with toasted marshmallows drizzled with chocolate sauce, a Warm Sticky Bun Sundae ($4.99) layered with vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce, and whipped cream, and Angel Food Cake ($6.99) with fresh berries and raspberry sorbet.

For my meal I chose the Pan-seared Catfish ($14.99) which came served with coleslaw and corn-chive hush puppies. As someone who grew up in New England, this type of food is something far different than what I am typically used to and while I found it to be somewhat more exotic, someone from the South would probably think it rather commonplace.

I had never had catfish before and it is actually a very mild flavored fish. The fish was pan-seared perfectly so that it was golden brown on the outside but still moist, light, and flaky on the inside. The catfish came coated with cornmeal that provided an added texture to the dish that was more coarse and crunchy than a flour or breadcrumb coating, but I felt it was a little dry.

The fish would not have had much flavor if not for a spicy horseradish sauce that accompanied it and provided a much needed kick to the dish. The sauce was very strong and definitely not for the faint of heart or people who are not fans of horseradish. The hush puppies served alongside the catfish were very soft and light, but a little dry. Mixed inside the hush puppies were pieces of corn and bell peppers that provided some added flavor and a little spiciness. Overall, the catfish and hush puppies were both good, but I was disappointed with the coleslaw because it was very dry and had little flavor.

Trail's End Restaurant  - Ft. Wilderness

For dessert I decided on the Warm Sticky Bun Sundae. This was definitely the highlight of my meal. The dessert features a pecan sticky bun topped with vanilla ice cream, a combination that I had never seen before but one that works really well. The sticky bun and the vanilla ice cream present two totally different flavors and textures, but they compliment each other perfectly. The sticky bun itself was nice and soft, and although it was served warm I wish it had been a little warmer. The pecans added even more texture and flavor to the dessert in addition to the whipped cream and caramel that topped the sundae. The dessert may be simple, but it was something unique. The combination of a sticky bun and ice cream may seem unusual at first, but the two paired together to create a very tasty dessert.

Trail's End Restaurant  - Ft. Wilderness

Service:

It was only recently that Trail's End made the switch from a buffet lunch to an a la carte menu and I could tell that the servers were still getting used to the change. Up until this point, the restaurant had always featured a buffet for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and thus a conventional sit-down meal is a major change for the servers. The service was a little slow and, although it did not happen to me personally, I did witness some confusion in orders coming out of the kitchen and meals being brought to the wrong tables.

That being said, I could tell that all the servers were trying really hard and doing the best they could to adapt to this changed lunch format. I was very happy with my server. While he was still getting used to the new menu and had a sheet of notes providing descriptions of the different dishes, he really went out of his way to make sure that everything about my meal was satisfactory. He was a grandfather-like figure who referred to me "partner" and seemed genuinely interested in how I was enjoying everything. This is a quality that I noticed among all of the servers in that they seemed to be very personable and really cared about the service they were providing.

Dining on a Budget:

Trail's End is actually a very affordable dining location for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Breakfast features an all-you-care-to-eat buffet for $15.99. That is quite a bargain when compared to the Crystal Palace breakfast buffet for $20.99 or breakfast at Chef Mickey's for $26.99. While Trail's End breakfast may not feature Disney characters or have a selection of food as elaborate or extensive as these other restaurants, it still offers a hearty and filling meal with many traditional breakfast favorites.

Likewise, the all-you-care-to-eat dinner buffet for $22.99 may be one of the best values on Disney property, especially when you consider that dinner at Chef Mickey's costs $34, Boma's dinner buffet is $30, and the dinner buffet at Cape May Café is $26.99.

Again, I am not saying that Trail's End is on the same level as these other restaurants, but it is a much more affordable option if you are looking for a buffet meal. The a la carte lunch also features many reasonably priced selections, with most entrée items on the menu ranging from $12.99 to $14.99. One of the best values on the menu may be the Chicken and Waffles for $13.49 because the portion size looked to be absolutely huge.

The Overall Experience:

I am the kind of person who always likes to try different things and this is especially true in regards to restaurants. The Trail's End Restaurant is not one of the most popular or well-known dining locations at Disney World, but just because a restaurant is not crowded all the time does not mean that it is not good. It may not be the best meal that I have had at Disney, but the food was still good and featured large portion sizes at a reasonable price. I am definitely glad I tried the Trail's End Restaurant at least once and, in fact, there are still several other items on the lunch menu that I wish to taste.

While I will probably not purposely make a special trip to go back to the restaurant again, if I ever find myself at Fort Wilderness I will not hesitate to eat there. Even though it may not be one of my "must-do" Disney restaurants and its isolated location makes it a little bit of a hassle for most guests to get to, the Trail's End Restaurant is definitely worth a visit for anyone staying at Fort Wilderness or if you are looking for a dining experience that is a little different and off the beaten path.

Have you dined at Trail's End recently? Share your experience and read what others have to say! AllEars Rate and Review Trail's End Restaurant

Read Andrew's first blog, a review of House of Blues in Downtown Disney.

October 26, 2010

House of Blues - Downtown Disney - Review

Andrew Rossi

There are some times when a restaurant can completely blow you away when you least expect it. This is exactly what happened to me at the House of Blues at Downtown Disney's West Side.

I decided to go here because I was looking to try something different, but I did not really know what to expect. Whenever I would think of House of Blues I pictured a bar or club-like atmosphere with music blaring and people being really loud and obnoxious, a place that you would be more likely to go to just to get a drink rather than a full sit-down meal. The reality turned out to be far different and I do not think I have ever been more pleasantly surprised by a restaurant at Disney World. House of Blues exceeded my expectations in every way in terms of the atmosphere, the service, and especially the food. After eating here just once I can say that it has become my favorite dining location at Downtown Disney and I will definitely be going back frequently.

House of Blues - Downtown Disney

House of Blues - Downtown Disney


Overview:

When you think of the House of Blues, a restaurant may not be the first thing that comes to mind. In fact, most people are far more likely to think of it as a concert venue. This is largely because House of Blues itself heavily promotes the various musical groups that it has coming to perform. The House of Blues draws performers from all across the country, some well known and others less so. However, the music hall where these groups perform is separate from the main dining room. Others may associate House of Blue with a bar or club for people looking to party. While the restaurant does have a bar, I found House of Blues to be a restaurant more along the lines of Raglan Road, featuring a laid back and relaxing atmosphere where you can come if you just want a drink at the bar or if you are looking for a nice sit-down meal. It is a dining location that offers something a little different from your typical Disney restaurant. While not inappropriate for families with children, House of Blues offers a more mature setting that can be enjoyed by adults looking to relax and escape from the hustle and bustle of the theme parks.

Atmosphere:

The House of Blues is dedicated to educating and celebrating the history of Southern culture, especially African American contributions to music and art. Since the first House of Blues opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1992 one of its primary goals has been to introduce the world to the music of the rural south, including blues, rhythm and blues, gospel, jazz, and rock & roll. The result is an atmosphere which is very eclectic. Upon first seeing the interior of the restaurant I was not sure exactly what to make of it. On one hand the restaurant had a definite Louisiana bayou/voodoo feel. It is an atmosphere in which Dr. Facilier from "The Princess and The Frog" would feel right at home. At the same time, the restaurant is like a shrine to all things music, especially jazz and blues.

So puzzled by what the theme of the restaurant was meant to be, I went to the House of Blues website to do some research. It turns out that juke joints are a major inspiration for the look and feel of the restaurant. Juke joints have their origin shortly after the Civil War and emancipation where they were primarily operated by African Americans in the South. Plantation workers and sharecroppers needed a place to relax and socialize following a hard week, particularly since they were barred from most white establishments by Jim Crow laws. Juke joints were thus set up on the outskirts of town, often in ramshackle buildings or private houses, and offered food, drink, dancing, and even gambling for weary workers. Juke joints are still in existence today and are full of hand-painted collections of art, posters, furniture, wall murals, and all other sorts of decoration. This tradition is carried on in the décor of the House of Blues. In fact, many of the artifacts and items throughout the restaurant have historical significance.

The dining area itself was dimly lit and had a somewhat foreboding and mysterious feel, but what really stood out the most about the decor were the vibrant colors. The walls are littered with a wide variety of different types of art. A large amount of the artwork is a celebration of African American history, tradition, and culture, but strong religious imagery and many musical references can also be found.

House of Blues - Downtown Disney


House of Blues - Downtown Disney

Items on the walls are not limited to paintings and also feature an eclectic mixture of various types of artwork, such as masks, statues, and colorful musical instruments. This is definitely a restaurant that gives you plenty to look at while you are waiting for your meal.

House of Blues - Downtown Disney

The artwork is not only limited to the walls, and you might find yourself staring up at the ceiling even more. One thing not to miss is the painted ceiling above the bar area, which is like the House of Blues version of the Sistine Chapel and helps to reaffirm the strong religious imagery of the restaurant, where music is a religion.

House of Blues - Downtown Disney

There is also a vaulted ceiling which stretches the entire length of the center of the main dining area and features tiles with images of various jazz, blues, gospel, and R&B legends, ranging from B.B. King to Bob Marley to the Blue Brothers.


House of Blues - Downtown Disney

House of Blues - Downtown Disney


Overall, this décor helps to give the restaurant a very authentic feel, but at the same time one that is both exotic and adventurous.

The Menu:

I was very impressed by the menu at House of Blues largely because of its wide selection of offerings highlighting what can best be described as Southern soul food. The menu, which is the same for both lunch and dinner, starts with a vast array of appetizers, ranging from Spicy Buffalo Chicken Wings to Crispy Catfish Nuggets served with sweet potato fries, Whole Wheat Chicken Quesadillas, Spicy Calamari tossed with chili sauce, kalamata olives, parmesan cheese and lemon olive oil, Crab and Artichoke Dip, and Turkey Shrimp Gumbo.

The menu also features variety of burgers and sandwiches. Burgers include the Mushroom Swiss with sautéed mushrooms, onions, and Swiss cheese, The Bleu with sautéed onions and bleu cheese, and the Smokehouse featuring barbeque sauce, bacon, and cheese. Among the sandwich selections are the Pulled-Pork Sandwich, Shrimp Po-Boy, and "The Elwood," a blackened chicken breast sandwich with chili garlic mayo, green chilis, and sour cream.

Entrees feature some traditional southern favorites, most notably the Creole Seafood Jambalaya with shrimp, chicken, andouille sausage, and roasted green onions. Entrée choices also include Grilled Citrus Chicken, Cajun Meatloaf, Baby Back Ribs with Jim Bean BBQ Sauce, Grilled Rib-Eye Steak with a spicy garlic-pepper cream sauce, and Wild Mushroom and Roasted Chicken Pasta featuring shiitake, oyster, and portobello mushrooms topped with smoked gouda cheese.

For an appetizer I chose the Pan Seared Voodoo Shrimp and it could have been a meal unto itself. The shrimp themselves were fairly large and were cooked so that they were perfectly tender. The shrimp came in a rich, thick, creamy sauce that was very spicy. This is definitely not an appetizer for the faint of heart. While the sauce is a beer reduction, I did not find the flavor of beer to be too overpowering.

The shrimp is also accompanied by a large slice of the House of Blues' famous Rosemary Corn Bread. This is was what really made the appetizer special. The sweetness of the cornbread provided a nice contrast to the spiciness of the sauce, but at the same time the two complimented each other perfectly. This would have been a great appetizer even without the shrimp because it was great to just dip the cornbread into the sauce.

House of Blues - Downtown Disney

With so many choices on the menu it was hard to decide what I wanted for an entrée, but I finally decided on the Eggplant-Stuffed Salmon. I have had salmon at many different restaurants before, but nothing ever like this; it was a dish that was truly unique. In contrast to the Voodoo Shrimp, the sauce that accompanied the salmon was milder in flavor and I had a hard time figuring out exactly what the sauce was. After asking my server I found that it was actually a balsamic-butter sauce. The piece of salmon was absolutely huge and was pan-seared perfectly so that it was slightly crispy on the outside but still soft on the inside, in addition to being very light and flaky. The stuffing was a mixture of eggplant and shrimp and its rich/heavier flavor paired well with the lightness of the salmon and sauce. The piece of salmon itself was not actually stuffed, but it was served on top of the stuffing. The salmon was also accompanied by four good-sized crab claws that were great to dip into the sauce. While this entrée was not spicy (especially compared to my appetizer) it did offer a variety of different flavors that all blended together very well.

House of Blues - Downtown Disney

For dessert I went with the White Chocolate Banana Bread Pudding and I was astounded by the huge portion size. This was an extremely rich and filling dessert and it was so big that I was not even able to finish it all. I was a little hesitant at first to order this dessert because it is served with a whiskey sauce. The sauce, however, is actually very sweet and the whiskey flavor was just enough to add an extra little kick to the dessert. The bread pudding was served warm, but not piping hot. There were pieces of banana inside which added extra flavor and texture to the dessert, but too much so that the flavor of banana overpowered everything else. The bread pudding also came topped with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream, which was a light and refreshing compliment to an otherwise heavy dessert. I have tried bread pudding at several Disney restaurants and I would have to rank the one at House of Blues above that of Ohana and second only to Raglan Road.


House of Blues - Downtown Disney

Service:

I found the service at House of Blues to be very laid back and casual, which is in keeping with the feel of the restaurant on the whole. That being said, my server was very helpful in describing items on the menu and answering my various questions about the different dishes. Also, even though my server was waiting on several tables, she was also very attentive to my needs and made sure that I always had plenty of water (which is very important when eating spicy food). The service was efficient, but the meal progressed at a nice, leisurely pace, allowing some time to relax between courses.

Dining on a Budget:

One of the things that surprised me the most about House of Blues was that it offers Happy Hour every day of the week from 3pm to 5pm during which time all appetizers are half price. This is a great value, but one which is not very publicized. With such a wide variety available, you could easily make a meal of just appetizers. Whether dining by yourself or with a group of people, you could order several appetizers to share (or maybe a few appetizers and a dessert) and have a great meal at a very affordable price. Also during Happy Hour, House of Blues offers $2 domestic beer, wine, and cocktails. This is definitely one of the best deals on Disney property. Even if you do not go during Happy Hour, the appetizer prices are still very reasonable and the menu also features several other affordable options, such as the burgers for $12.99 as well as the Smoked Pulled Pork Sandwich and Shrimp Po-Boy which are also just $12.99. Not only does the menu feature reasonable prices, but the portion sizes that you get for that price are very generous.

House of Blues offers discounts for Disney Vacation Club Members, Annual Passholders, Table in Wonderland card holders and D23 members. Be sure to show your card at check-in to learn about the current offers.

The Overall Experience:
While I did not really know what to expect when I went to House of Blues, I now know that I will definitely be going back again. Everything about the restaurant completely exceeded my expectations, especially the food. The menu features such a wide variety of offerings that there are several items that I still want to try. With an atmosphere that looks like something straight out of a Louisiana bayou and a menu that features flavorful and spicy southern soul food, House of Blues is an adventure for both your eyes and your taste buds. More than just a bar or music hall, House of Blues is a restaurant that offers great food and large portions at an affordable price (a real recipe for success). House of Blues is definitely a hidden gem when it comes to restaurants and, while other dining locations may receive more attention and a far more crowded, it has become my favorite restaurant at Downtown Disney.

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