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March 12, 2017

BeaverTails

Gary Cruise banner

About a month ago Carol and I enjoyed a Canadian delicacy at FebFest, a winter carnival that takes place in our city every year.

FebFest

Our downtown transforms into a winter wonderland as residents enjoy the outdoor skating rink behind City Hall.

FebFest Hockey

There are hockey and curling games to watch.

FebFest Ice Sculpture

FebFest Ice Sculpture

There are ice sculptures to enjoy.

But the best thing of all – there are BeaverTails!

FebFest BeaverTail Kiosk

FebFest BeaverTail

Do you remember when they sold BeaverTails at EPCOT? Weren’t they delicious?

No, no . . . I’m not talking about the big flat tail from that large toothy rodent! I’m talking about a tasty deep fried pastry which originated in Canada! A piece of dough, about the same size and shape as a beaver’s tail, is deep fried to a golden brown then either dredged in sugar and cinnamon or topped with something gooey and sweet!

BeaverTails products

They are always fresh, never pre-cooked. Your BeaverTail will be in your hand about 20 seconds after it leaves the fryer! Hot and delicious!

FebFest Menu

There are similar pastries sold in other areas, referred to by such names as fried dough or elephant ears, but somehow none of them sound as appetizing to me as a BeaverTail! It’s another uniquely Canadian food!

We unusually eat them outdoors and in the winter so I suspect that the contrast, cold weather and a hot snack, really enhances our enjoyment. I prefer the original BeaverTail, dredged in sugar and cinnamon. That's probably a good thing because I'm a very sloppy eater and Carol would never allow me to try one covered with all that runny, gooey stuff!

BeaverTails were first sold in Killaloe, a small Ontario town about 100 miles north of the city Carol and I call home.

Killaloe

It was 1978 when Grant and Pam Hooker sold their first pastries at the Killaloe Craft and Community Fair. They were an instant hit! It wasn’t long before the Hookers were busy every weekend, traveling all over eastern Ontario selling their delicious hot pastries at festivals and county fairs.

Two years later, the Hookers opened up the first BeaverTails store at the Byward Market in nearby Ottawa.

BeaverTails Byward Market Store

It was an instant success!

President Obama at the Byward Market

President Obama stopped at the Byward Market for a BeaverTail in February 2009.

Soon BeaverTails were selling like crazy along the world’s longest skating rink. Every winter Canadians enjoy skating along a 7.8 kilometre (4.8 mile) stretch of the historic Rideau Canal as it winds its way through downtown Ottawa.

Rideau Canal Skateway

Usually it is frozen by early January and ploughs and zambonis are used to keep it clean and fresh for skaters until the end of February. Food trucks and refreshment kiosks are a common sight on the ice along the sides of the canal and the BeaverTail stand always has the longest line of skaters waiting for a delicious treat!

Rideau Canal BeaverTail Kiosk

Today there are more than a hundred BeaverTail outlets across Canada; most of the permanent stores are in high traffic tourist areas.

BeaverTail Mobile Kiosk

BeaverTail Truck

There are mobile units and food trucks that travel to festivals and events, like the one Carol and I bought our pastries from a few weeks ago at FebFest!

You can find BeaverTails at most ski resorts in Canada.

BeaverTails at Mont Tremblant
Mont Tremblant in Quebec

Grouse Mountain
Grouse Mountain, Vancouver BC

You can buy BeaverTails at Niagara Falls.

BeaverTails Niagara Falls

You can buy BeaverTails in Dubai, Tokyo and South Korea.

BeaverTails Japan

BeaverTails Japan Menu

But you can’t buy a BeaverTail at EPCOT. What’s with that?

What do you think folks? Does Disney need to bring back the BeaverTail?

February 12, 2017

That’s Not Poutine!

Gary Cruise banner

Every time I pass by the Canadian Pavilion at EPCOT I find myself marvelling at the amazing job the Imagineers did in capturing the essence of Canada!

How did those gifted designers figure out that we all enjoy wearing checkered lumberjack shirts? Who could have told them that after a long, tiring work-week we Canucks just can’t wait to grab an axe and chop down a tree . . . or enter a log rolling competition? How could they know that every Canadian rock band has a lead singer who plays the bagpipes?

I often find myself looking around in wonder, shaking my head, and thinking, “Boy, they sure do understand Canadians. They nailed it, EH?”

So imagine my delight when I sat down at Le Cellier several years ago and cracked open the menu. There, part way down the listing of side dishes, was a classic Canadian dish . . . poutine! “Wow” I thought, “I love poutine, this just has to be good!”

Le Cellier

Now, I know that most of you reading this are not Canadian so you are probably thinking, “Poutine? Poutine? What the heck is poutine?”

Poutine is classic Canadian cuisine! It’s Canadian comfort food. There are four basic food groups in Canada, maple syrup, beaver tails, butter tarts and poutine!

Poutine originated in the Province of Quebec in the 1950’s and quickly became a national favourite! Quebec is predominantly French-speaking and the French pronounce it “pooh-tin”. The English populace pronounce it “pooh-teen”. But no matter how they say the word, all Canadians agree that poutine is delicious!

There are several theories that try to explain how poutine came to be. My favourite version involves a Montreal cardiologist whose medical practice was floundering. He wasn’t sure how he was going to make the next payment on his Ferrari . . . so he whipped up a batch of poutine and let a local restaurateur have a taste. He started with some crispy French-fried potatoes, covered them with fresh cheddar cheese curds, then smothered it all with steaming-hot brown gravy. The restaurateur just loved the gooey mess and immediately began selling it in his restaurant. Before you could say “quadruple bypass” poutine sales were booming, arteries were hardening and the cardiologist’s practice was thriving!

Poutine

So that’s what poutine is. It’s a very simple recipe, crispy hot fries, cheddar cheese curds and piping-hot brown gravy. Carol and I have sampled a few unique variations over the years. Some chefs have added pulled pork or smoked brisket. We’ve even had a delicious version that was topped off with chunks of smoked meatloaf, but they all contained the three basic ingredients, fries, cheddar cheese curds and brown gravy.

Imagine my shock when I read the description on the Le Cellier menu! Fries, gruyère and a red wine reduction. What? Gruyère? Does gruyère even have curds? And wine reduction? Where’s the gravy?

It sounded nothing like poutine, in fact both Carol and I thought it sounded disgusting. We were skeptical but we decided to trust the chef. We cast common sense to the wind and ordered up a batch of “poutine”. Yuck! It was worse than disgusting. It was embarrassing. Not a proud moment for this Canadian!

I swore I would never order poutine again at Le Cellier, but as I wrote this blog, I checked the Le Cellier menu again. The poutine is now described as “fresh-cut fries, Gruyère, caramelized onions, French onion gravy $10”. I’m torn, the gruyère is still there, but at least there’s gravy. It might be worthy of a second chance someday! Maybe . . .

Last fall, as Carol and I explored a new area at Disney Springs, behind the Lego Store, a sign caught my eye.

The Daily Poutine

Could it be? Real authentic poutine?

I checked the ingredients . . . the “Classic Poutine” sounded good. The ingredients were correct.

Poutine Menu

All the others . . . they sounded nasty – just nasty. There is no place in poutine for Bolognese Sauce or Mushroom Cream Sauce. And fried yucca? Nope – that’s just all wrong!

Those variations are just pretentious imposters foisted on the public by snooty chefs who know nothing about poutine! To my untrained palate they sound about as appetizing as a Brussels Sprout Smoothie, Roasted Red Pepper Ice Cream or Pumpkin Pie Spiced Mashed Potatoes!

But once again Carol and I decided to give the “Classic Poutine” a try.

Big mistake . . . it was disappointing! Very disappointing.

The curds should melt in the gravy and make a gooey mixture that clings to the fries. That didn’t happen; the curds we had were cold in the middle. I don’t mean that they were cool – they were almost frozen. They were hard and chewy and just totally wrong.

Disney Springs Poutine

We tried to like the poutine, we really did, but we threw out more than half of the order they served us! Ugh!

So here’s my advice folks!

If you want to try genuine poutine, if you want to sample a real Canadian delicacy, skip the stuff they serve at Le Cellier . . . when you see that kiosk behind the Lego Store, just walk on by!

Come to Canada instead . . . then go to any McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, DQ, KFC, A & W, New York Fries or any of the Canadian fast food chains. They all serve great poutine.

Burger King

Wendys

A & W_Poutine

So do all street vendors and food trucks from coast to coast. And none of them use Bolognese Sauce, Mushroom Cream Sauce or fried yucca. That’s just WRONG. That’s not poutine!

I hope to see you up here in the Great White North real soon!

December 5, 2016

Art Smith's Homecoming beefs up Disney Springs' restaurant offerings

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Guests at Art Smith's Homecoming in The Landing neighborhood at Disney Springs prepare to dig in to some of the restaurant's signature items. [Courtesy of Art Smith's Homecoming]

As celebrity chefs go, Art Smith is the antithesis of the flashy food mavens you often see on TV cooking channels. He's thoughtful, articulate and genuinely down-to-earth.

But that doesn't mean Smith isn't passionate about what he does.

When Smith partnered with the Walt Disney Company to create Art Smith's Homecoming, one of the crown jewels of the newly transformed Disney Springs shopping, dining and entertainment district, he did so with the intention of bringing back the traditional family dining concept that's been lost in the hustle and bustle of our 21st Century lifestyles.

"It's great to see people enjoying food," Smith said during a recent interview at his restaurant, located in The Landing neighborhood of Disney Springs, the district's own version of "restaurant row."

Smith is a proponent of what he calls "celebrational family food," as well as sharing at the dinner table. "I like to serve food that's 'shareable'," meaning the meal is placed at the middle of the table and everybody just digs in.

"The sharing of food makes it more precious. And where I came from, we always had a salad with every meal."

Smith is no stranger to preparing delicious food, owning restaurants or being in the spotlight.

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Chef Art Smith is a proponent of family style, shareable dining. [Courtesy of Art Smith's Homecoming]

He has cooked for several political leaders and celebrities, and was even Oprah Winfrey's personal chef for several years. "Oprah taught me some great lessons," he says with a laugh, "including, 'Wine with food, thank you very much!'"

He's appeared on a number of television shows and specials, has written four books, has traveled the world as part of the State Department's Chefs' Program, owns restaurants in Chicago [TABLE fifty-two] and Washington, D.C. [Art and Soul] and has won several awards, including the James Beard Foundation's Humanitarian of the Year in 2007.

Indeed, if there's one takeaway from talking to Smith is that he's a caring individual.

He cares about his home state of Florida [he's a sixth-generation Floridian whose great-grandfather was a moonshiner], making a commitment to use only Florida-grown products in Homecoming [as it says on the sign outside his establishment, "Florida Kitchen, Southern Shine"]. He also cares passionately about teaching children sound nutritional values. To that end, he founded the non-profit Common Threads. He's also on the board of a nutrition program in Minneapolis called Kids' Cafe.

Smith and his husband, Jesus Salgueiro, have four adopted children, so for him, the stakes are pretty high when it comes to children's nutrition.

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Church Lady Deviled Eggs are one of many must-have selections at Art Smith's Homecoming. [Courtesy of Art Smith's Homecoming]

Years ago, "I played the whole funny fat chef thing," he said. At one point, he admits, his weight ballooned over 350 pounds. He credits healthier food choices and running marathons for helping him drop more than 100 pounds. "We have four kids. I wanna live a long, healthy life for them. You have to be responsible when it comes to your food choices, including cutting down on sugar and salt consumption. My No. 1 rule is don't drink your calories. When you take better care of yourself, you take better care of others."

Smith is involved in a number of projects which reaffirm his commitment to responsibility when it comes to the field of agriculture.

He recently purchased a former jai alai arena with plans to build a bakery and market. "I wanted to create a real farmer's market, one that showcased fresh items from Florida farms. You have to remember there are a lot of hard-working families on our farms," Smith said, adding that "Florida is the winter pantry of America."

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Art's Fabulous Fried Chicken is buttermilk-brined, moist and tender. [Courtesy of Art Smith's Homecoming]

He also purchased an Antebellum house with the idea of turning it into a school of sustainability.

"Most chefs don't know where their food comes from," Smith says, adding that many have a "Cisco-to-table mentality," meaning they take food from a delivery truck, cook it, then serve it. "Chefs should be more conscious of health and wellness."

He's also involved in helping to bring back the sagging oyster industry in Florida. "In Apalachicola, the water has changed so much and the oyster industry has suffered because of it." An oyster farming program he helped initiate at a local community college is so popular that it has a six-year waiting list.

Smith is the first Disney College Program graduate to open a business on Disney property, a fact that he's very proud of. "That's me when I was a young pup," he says, pointing to a picture of himself while in the program in 1980.

"I'm a big believer in internships," he said. He's also a big Disney fan. "I admire the sense of team spirit at Disney, the sense of family. It's no wonder so many people stay and work here for as long as they do." Smith first visited Walt Disney World when he was just 12; he and his family stayed at the Polynesian Resort.

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According to Chef Art Smith, Homecoming's desserts "taste like momma made 'em." [Courtesy of Art Smith's Homecoming]

Sense of family is so important to Art Smith and it shows through in the signature items Homecoming offers.

His Church Lady Deviled Eggs are truly mouth-watering. Momma's Mac and Cheese ... delicious. His buttermilk-brined Fabulous Fried Chicken is moist, tender and absolutely scrumptious. Addie Mae's Chicken and Dumplings ... superb. There's also fried catfish, shrimp and grits and an assortment of sandwiches and burgers. Homecoming also has a full bar with a variety of signature drinks.

And then there are the rich, decadent desserts ... desserts, Smith says proudly, "that taste like momma made 'em."

Smith says that Homecoming was five years in the making, but during the process, he never once thought about how much it would cost. "I'm a big believer in dreaming it and making that dream come true.

"I hope you find inspiration here. For all of us, the sharing of a meal is a common, anticipated ritual that reunites us with loved ones and brings a sense of balance to our lives. It's my heart's desire ... to serve a simple, unfussy meal of freshly made foods ... and see how it enriches your lives."



November 8, 2015

From the Tickle Trunk – Disney Recipes Part II

Gary Cruise banner

A few weeks ago we began a culinary tour of Disney Parks and Resorts courtesy of some old copies of Disney Magazine! Have you tested any of those Disney recipes yet?

Let’s pick up our tour right where we left off!

In the Fall 2004 issue we find instructions and pictures for:

1. Panna Cotta – Palo, Disney Wonder and Disney Magic
2. Monterey Clam Chowder – Pacific Wharf Café, Disney’s California Adventure
3. Nut-Crusted Salmon – Boma, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge
4. Jungle Julep – Tahitian Terrace, Disneyland
5. Grapefruit Cake – The Hollywood Brown Derby, Disney-MGM Studios

Don't forget to click on each of the pages to see a larger, more readable version. You’ll definitely want to write some of these recipes down!

Disney Magazine Fall 2004 pg 75

Disney Magazine Fall 2004 pg 76

Disney Magazine Fall 2004 pg 78

That Panna Cotta served at Palo is absolutely wonderful . . . and it’s now served at Palo on all four of the Disney ships! If you’re not familiar with Palo, it’s a very upscale adult-only dining experience and is well worth the very reasonable $30.00 up-charge for either brunch on sea-days or dinner every day. Reservations go quickly, so book early!

And the Grapefruit Cake at the Hollywood Brown Derby is a dessert you must try. I always have the Cobb Salad which is a meal in itself, then follow with Grapefruit Cake! Very light, very tasty!

From the Winter 2004 issue you might like to make:

1. Banana Bread Pudding - Boma, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge
2. Orange-Glazed Baby Carrots – Chef Mickey’s, Contemporary Resort
3. Mashed Boniato Potatoes - The Hollywood Brown Derby, Disney-MGM Studios
4. Sweet Potato-Hazelnut Gratin – Artist Point- Wilderness Lodge
5. Cranberry-Orange Scones – Storytellers Café, Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel

Disney Magazine Winter 2004 pg 76

Disney Magazine Winter 2004 pg 77

Disney Magazine Winter 2004 pg 78

Some words were just made to go together . . . and three words that fit each other extremely well are banana, bread and pudding. I’ve sampled the Banana Bread Pudding at Boma and at ‘Ohana. I couldn’t decide which I liked best, so I tried them both again . . . and again . . . and again. There’s no clear winner so I’ll just have to keep tasting! Honourable mention for Ger's Bread & Butter Pudding at Raglan Road. It’s delicious too!

And finally, from the Spring 2005 issue:

1. Thai Noodle Bowl - The Hollywood Brown Derby, Disney-MGM Studios
2. Beef Stroganoff – Yacht Club Gallery, Yacht Club Resort
3. Creamed Spinach – 1900 Park Fare, Grand Floridian Resort & Spa

Disney Magazine Spring 2005 pg 74

Disney Magazine Spring 2005 pg 75

I haven’t tried any of the dishes from the Spring 2005 issue, but we will be at Walt Disney World when this blog is published and we have dinner booked at 1900 Park Fare during that trip. I’ll probably give that Creamed Spinach a try!

Do you use any Disney recipes at home?

We do! The Hoop-Dee-Doo Cornbread from Trails End Restaurant at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground. Carol does not normally like corn bread, but she really enjoys it at Fort Wilderness and prepares it at home quite often. Yum!

Disney is normally very happy to share recipes, so if there is a dish you particularly enjoy, ask your server if the recipe is available. They are often pre-printed for guests who ask.

Don’t forget, many of them (including that corn bread I mentioned above) are already listed on AllEars.net HERE!

You and your family can still enjoy a taste of Disney, even when you're not there!
Have fun whipping up your favourite Disney dish at home!

October 25, 2015

From the Tickle Trunk – Disney Recipes

Gary Cruise banner

I was looking for a topic for a new blog; nothing was coming to mind so I took another exploratory trip through Carol’s trusty old Tickle Trunk. What do you suppose I found?

Six old Disney Magazine articles featuring some fabulous Disney recipes! The series of articles spans a year and a half, from Winter 2003 to Spring 2005 and contains the recipes most requested by magazine readers!

Have a look at the pages below; some of your favourite Disney dishes are sure to be there!

Here’s the Winter 2003 Issue which features:

1. Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup – from Le Cellier Steakhouse, EPCOT
2. Caramel French Toast – from Storyteller’s Café, Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel
3. Frunch – from Boma, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge
4. Cheese Pizza – from Gasparilla Grill & Games, Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
5. Monte Cristo Sandwich – Blue Bayou Restaurant, Disneyland

Click on each of the pages to see a larger, more readable version. You’ll want to write some of these down!

Disney Magazine Winter 2003  pg 71

Disney Magazine Winter 2003 pg 72

Disney Magazine Winter 2003 pg 73

Yes, the article is a bit dated and many things have changed in the past decade. Garsparilla Grill & Games is now known as Gasparilla Island Grill, but they still serve that great cheese pizza! The Blue Bayou no longer serves the Monte Cristo Sandwich, but just a few months ago I had one just like it at Café Orleans which is right next door to the Blue Bayou. It was yummy, as always!


The Spring 2004 Issue tells how you can make:

1. Caesar Dressing – Concourse Steakhouse, Contemporary Resort
2. Breakfast Lasagna - Crystal Palace, Magic Kingdom
3. Tomato-Basil Sauce – Redd Rockett’s Pizza Port, Disneyland
4. Honey Coriander Chicken Wings – ‘Ohana, Polynesian Resort
5. Rice Cream – Restaurant Akershus, EPCOT

Disney Magazine Spring 2004 pg 71

Disney Magazine Spring 2004 pg 72

Disney Magazine Spring 2004 pg 73

Hmmmm . . . breakfast lasagna! That reminds me, it’s time we went back to The Crystal Palace for breakfast. It’s a tasty dish and not at all like the name suggests. It’s a deliciously fruity “bread-pudding-like” dish; a sweet treat to get your day started!


The Summer 2004 Issue gives instructions for:

1. Kate’s Coyote Grilled Chicken - Whispering Canyon Café, Wilderness Lodge
2. Butterscotch Crème Brûlée with Almond Biscotti – California Grill, Contemporary Resort
3. Ginger Dressing – Mitsukoshi Teppanyaki Dining Room, EPCOT
4. Goofy’s Peanut Butter and Jelly Pizza – Goofy’s Kitchen, Disneyland
5. Stuffed French Toast – Cinderella’s Royal Table, Magic Kingdom

Disney Magazine Summer 2004 pg 74

Disney Magazine Summer 2004 pg 76

Disney Magazine Summer 2004 pg 77

Would it surprise you to hear that I’ve sampled Goofy’s Peanut Butter and Jelly Pizza? It’s served on the breakfast buffet and I just had to try it! It’s very rich, oh-so gooey, and just as childishly delicious as it sounds!

I've never sampled that Stuffed French Toast, but it sounds delicious. If it's similar to the Tonga Toast at Kona Café I may have to endure some princesses and give it a try!

Wow, I think I’ve gained a few pounds just writing this blog, so I’m going to leave it there for now!

There are three more articles and lots more recipes to go. I’ll include them all in Part II of this blog in just a few weeks.

If you can’t wait that long, or if you have a favourite Disney dish you’re wishing you had the recipe for, check out the AllEars.net recipe page HERE!

July 2, 2015

Pre-Ordering with Food Allergies? No Problem at Be Our Guest

by Laura Schmitt CNE
AllEars Guest Blogger

With an upcoming trip to Walt Disney World, I was excited to try out Be Our Guest restaurant in the Magic Kingdom. I was unable to secure a reservation at this popular destination for dinner, but I did manage to grab a lunch reservation. To bypass one step upon ordering, you have the option of selecting your meal in advance. (Note that there is also the option to wait and order at the restaurant.) I was curious if this was something that would work for people with basic food allergies, and here is what I discovered.

When you have a reservation for lunch, you will have the option to choose lunch menus for your party. There is a "Filter" button on the bottom of the ordering screen.

Click that button to see the window titled "Allergens". If your allergies are among this list (corn, peanut, soy, wheat, egg, milk, shellfish, treenut, fish), then you may feel comfortable pre-ordering.

There is an allergen disclaimer at the bottom.


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I noticed that “gluten” was not listed, and only “wheat”, for example, so a person who has Celiac disease may want to inquire about this.

I selected two filter items, Wheat and Milk.


be-our-guest-ordering-2.jpg


I proceeded to the next screen of entrees where I found several choices that would work for those allergy restrictions. I chose the quinoa salad.

By adding the menu item from this "filter" window, it tags the foods as "wheat free" and "milk free" on the summary page to follow. If you order the same entree item without first applying the filters it will not mark it as "wheat free" or "dairy free". So, I would definitely make sure to mark your filters first. (See photo below for orange triangle followed by warning of "Does not contain: Wheat.")

be-our-guest-ordering-3.jpg


While there was an option for a gluten-free dessert, there was nothing that came up as wheat-free and milk-free. I did find two sorbet options that are marked dairy-free and no sugar added (lemon and raspberry). I felt comfortable with the sorbet, so I ordered that for myself. For my daughter, I ordered the gluten-free cream puff, as she can eat dairy.

When we arrived at Be Our Guest on our reservation date, we found that if you do the pre-order option, a chef will not be sent out for you to consult with, as at other Disney World restaurants. You will have to seek one out immediately upon check-in or your food will be brought to you as pre-ordered. This is another reason why it would likely be best to pre-order only if the current filters work for your allergy needs.

After checking in, we were told to seat ourselves. We found the system a little confusing because no one explained how it would work. For example, no one told us to get a drink, or said that they would come out to find us. I was able to ask a very friendly cast member, though, and we figured it out.

My husband was not excited about the system of ordering and he was already determined to dislike the meal. To his surprise it was his favorite of the trip. My daughter agreed that the wheat-free pork roast was delicious! She absolutely loved her lunch and she proclaimed the green beans and potatoes were also very tasty.


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I had ordered the quinoa cake and salad, because I knew I would want a lighter lunch option. It was also quite good, but I only ate about half of it after having a huge breakfast. The quinoa cake was well seasoned and the beet cubes on top were delightful. The olives chopped into the salad greens were a nice touch.


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My daughter has always wanted to try French Onion Soup, but we have never found one that was gluten-free and dairy-free. When you order the soup with the wheat filter, it gives you the option to get the French Onion Soup without the bread crumb and cheese topping. This was confirmed on our receipt, so when I saw all the cheese on the soup they brought out to us, I sent it back. They brought out a second batch without any cheese and they explained that they did make it gluten-free, but they had left the "safe" cheese on for my daughter. It was not clearly labeled this way in ordering, so that was a bit confusing. She ended up eating the cheese-free version (which her tummy appreciated). She loved it, and she was so happy to have tried French Onion Soup at last.


be-our-guest-allergies-3.jpg


The soup and entree were the stars of the show. My daughter was disappointed with the gluten-free cream puff. She said the dough was very hard (rock-like) and that the lemon filling was incredibly tart, which she did not enjoy. As it turns out, a scoop of rice dream would have been a better choice for her, but it was fun to try something new.


be-our-guest-allergies-4.jpg


As I said earlier, I had ordered the only dairy-free option I could find, a lemon sorbet, which turned out to be bitterly tart. I ate a little, but left the rest behind. While Be Our Guest has mastered the lunch entrees, they have room for improvement in the world of gluten-free, dairy-free dessert offerings. We are still disappointed that the French Meadow Bakery items are no longer offered on property, or the Babycakes/Erin McKenna’s in a restaurant like this. I did ask the Special Diet department via email if there were any other options for us, but they did not get back with an answer.

A benefit of pre-ordering and using our dining plan credits is that we didn’t have to wait in a line to order at a kiosk, nor did we have to wait in a line to pay. Our meal was already paid for, so we could dine and dash. This worked beautifully, minus the confusion here and there. As we look back on our experience, my family all raves about this beautiful restaurant experience as the best of the trip and a definite “must-do” for future visits.

While we felt comfortable with our pre-order options using the filters available, it is clear that each individual will have to consider their own allergies and determine if pre-ordering is a viable option, or if it would be better to wait and ask to speak to a chef upon arrival before ordering. I suspect this will not add a considerable amount of time to your lunchtime, and the atmosphere is very fun to explore.

For a “quick service” lunch credit, I felt quite spoiled by the great options for everyone in my family at Be Our Guest.

October 10, 2014

Yia Sou Kouzzina

kouzzina-closing-1.jpg

by David Abel
AllEars.Net Guest Blogger

It's always a sad day when something comes to an end, so it almost seems poetic that Kouzzina by Cat Cora served its final meals on a dreary rainy evening. We were only slightly concerned about our dining experience. Would they be running out of food? Would the staff be annoyed they were losing their jobs?

All of our worries proved to be unfounded. We arrived right on time for our 6:25 p.m. dinner reservation. The cheerful hostesses greeted us and escorted us to a table on the far side of the open show kitchen. The half-empty dining room was abuzz with energy and excitement. Within 15 minutes, the dining room was full.

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Our server, Bruce, took our orders and brought us bread with olive oil for dipping and olives. He only poured one type of olive oil as they were out of the other. This was the only apparent item the restaurant was out of. We were even offered additional olives, so they apparently had an abundance of those.

I'd ordered the Pastitsio (Greek-style Lasagna) with a side of Sauteed Brussels Sprouts, and my partner ordered the Traditional Whole Fish. Both meals arrived in a reasonable amount of time. The server filleted the fish right at the table, and this was almost a show in itself. Everything was tasty, up to their normal standards. We passed on dessert because we were too full, in fact, I couldn't even finish my meal.


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Although I'm sad to see this fine restaurant close, I'm glad that it went out on top, maintaining its standards of food quality and service to the very end. For those of you afraid you won't see your favorite server(s) again, fear not. They're being re-allocated for a few weeks and then will be brought back to Trattoria al Forno for its opening. And the new restaurant is even expected to retain a few of the popular dishes from Kouzzina's menu!

So for now, we must say Yia Sao (or Good-bye) Kouzzina.

March 12, 2014

Jim’s Attic: A Short History of Tony’s Town Square Restaurant

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A Short History of Tony's Town Square Restaurant By Jim Korkis

When Main Street U.S.A. opened at the Magic Kingdom in Florida in October 1971, right there in Town Square was the Town Square Café with an open air porch where patrons could watch the stream of guests rushing in and out of the park.

The food and beverage location offered breakfast, lunch and dinner and was themed to the elegant Victorian era. Originally, the venue was going to be sponsored by a coffee company but the proposed participant backed out.

It ended up being sponsored by Oscar Mayer from 1971-1981. Diminutive spokesman for the company, Little Oscar (actually affable George Molchan) in his white chef's hat, was there greeting guests and handing out the iconic wiener whistles to eager children.

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However, it was not a variety of Oscar Mayer hot dogs that were served at the location but upscale fare like a Monte Cristo sandwich and Crepes Jambalaya. Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola were available as well on the menu.

When Oscar Mayer declined to renew its sponsorship, the location was taken over by Hormel who handled the operation from 1981 to 1989. The menu was a large four page newspaper entitled "Town Square Times" with the first page devoted to the history of the Hormel company. The new sponsor still sold a Monte Cristo sandwich along with a Main Street Deli Plate and Fresh Catfish.

When Hormel decided not to continue sponsorship in 1989, the Disney Company did an extensive rehab of the restaurant converting it into Tony's Town Square Restaurant.

The restaurant references the Italian restaurant in the Disney animated feature classic Lady and the Tramp (1955) where two canines shared a romantic moment over a plate of spaghetti and meat balls.

The proprietor of the film's eatery is a larger-than-life, black-mustached, friendly character named Tony voiced by actor George Givot, known for his dialect comedy and fine singing voice, who passed away in 1984.

After a recent rehab, Tony's image is now smiling from a brand new overhead sign.

The waiting area has a television playing a clip from the film and the interior of the restaurant is decorated with Lady and the Tramp artwork as well as a sculpted fountain.

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For over thirty years, Don "Ducky" Williams has been a Senior Character Artist at Walt Disney World. During that time, he supplied artwork for memorable pieces of merchandise like the special limited edition lithographs for the Disney Cruise Line and the Disney Vacation Club.

Sometimes, his talents were tapped for unusual projects like Tony's Town Square Restaurant.

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"I did the artwork for all the china, signage, menus, etc. In fact, when it first opened, it had plates, saucers, creamers and more with my Lady and the Tramp artwork on it," commented Williams when I interviewed him. "They found the guests loved it so much that they kept stealing it so they replaced them with regular china. The remainder they had they sold at Disneyana conventions.

"Do you see all those framed paintings on the wall? There are twelve of them and I did them all. Those are the original paintings framed under glass, not prints or reproductions. If they ever change out that place, I would love to have those back to put up in my house."

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Disney enthusiast Greg Ehrbar was responsible for writing the original two-sided kid's menu that was designed to resemble the comics section from the "Main Street Gazette". Besides the menu, it featured games and puzzles and an original comic strip. Unfortunately, this particular menu has been retired.

Some Disney fans are unimpressed with the menu offerings at Tony's but everyone is appreciative of the artistic "theming" of the space and how it captures the spirit of one of Disney's most beloved animated features. I wonder if there are any left over hot dogs in the back from Oscar Mayer for Tramp's many friends?

Deb's Note:
Ducky was a special guest of AllEars during our December to Remember Celebration in 2011. We designed a special AllEars Trading Card dedicated to his work at Tony's Town Square.

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RELATED INFORMATION AND LINKS
Disney Historian Jim Korkis goes up into his imaginary attic to rummage around his archives and often stumbles across an unusual story about Walt Disney World. Those who have met me know that I take real joy in talking about Walt Disney.

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Check out Jim's other "From the Attic" Blogs

Full features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives: http://allears.net/ae/archives.htm

Jim Korkis

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney Historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, his skills and historical knowledge were utilized by Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of three new books, available in both paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com:
The Book of Mouse: A Celebration of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse
Who's Afraid of the Song of the South
"The REVISED Vault of Walt":


February 9, 2014

Liberty Tree Tavern: A "Revolutionary" Dining Experience

Andrew Rossi

As soon as you set foot in Liberty Square at the Magic Kingdom you feel as though you have been transported back to 1776. Although it is the smallest of any of the Magic Kingdom's lands, it may be the best themed of them all. From its replica of the Liberty Bell to its colonial architecture, wooden stockades, and even smaller details such as a window with two lanterns signifying the "two if by sea" of Paul Revere's midnight ride, Liberty Square provides a view into what life was like in the thirteen original colonies. If Walt Disney were around today, Liberty Square would probably be his favorite place in the Magic Kingdom as he was once noted as saying, "If you could see close in my eyes, there's an American flag waving in both of them."

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Liberty Square features a little bit of everything. It has two of the most classic Disney attractions in the Haunted Mansion and Hall of Presidents, various little shops such as Yankee Trader and Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe, as well as a number of dining experiences, such as Sleepy Hollow for snacks and the counter service restaurant Columbia Harbour House. Even though Magic Kingdom has a limited number of sit-down restaurants, Liberty Square's Liberty Tree Tavern still tends to be overlooked by many as they make their way past toward Frontierland. However, this restaurant provides Guests a tremendously themed dining experience that helps make it one of the best dining options at Magic Kingdom.

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Overview:
The Liberty Tree Tavern's very name is one filled with history and heritage befitting of Liberty Square. In 1765 the British government imposed a Stamp Act on the American colonies. It required all legal documents, permits, commercial contracts, newspapers, pamphlets, and playing cards in the American colonies to carry a tax stamp. In August 1765, a crowd gathered in Boston under a large elm tree to protest this hated tax. Patriots who later called themselves the Sons of Liberty hung an effigy of Andrew Oliver, the colonist chosen by King George III to impose the Stamp Act, in the branches of the tree. It was the first public show of defiance against the Crown and spawned the resistance that led to the American Revolution. A sign saying "Tree of Liberty" was later nailed to the trunk of the tree and soon other cities and towns across the thirteen colonies began creating their own Liberty Trees with lanterns hung amongst the branches. As resistance to the British grew, flags bearing a representation of the Liberty Tree were flown to symbolize the spirit of liberty. Liberty Square features its own Liberty Tree and the restaurant that bears its name pays homage to several of the Founding Fathers who played a major role in the creation of the nation.

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Atmosphere:
One of the most endearing characteristics of the Liberty Tree Tavern is how well it carries the overall theme of Liberty Square inside the restaurant. Every element of the restaurant, from the lighting to the furniture to the costumes worn by the servers, all contributes to the Colonial/Revolutionary Era feel. One of the first words that comes to mind to describe the feel of the restaurant is quaint, with a tremendous level of detail and authenticity that give it an old-world charm. The restaurant is divided into a series of smaller rooms, giving it a much more intimate feel. As you walk through the dining area you feel as though you are passing through different rooms in a house, each having a different look and feel in terms of décor, color, and architecture.

Each of these rooms, in fact, is specifically themed to one of the Founding Fathers and the architecture and décor of each reflect their different backgrounds and the roles they played in gaining American independence. Among the Founding Fathers honored are Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Paul Jones, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, as well as Betsy Ross.

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In addition to featuring their portraits, each room features various themed elements that help to tell the story about that particular person.

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It comes as no surprise that the John Paul Jones room has strong nautical influences with model ships, navigation equipment, and nautical knots. Both the Jefferson and Washington rooms on the other hand have a decidedly more upscale feel, reflecting their well-to-do Virginia lifestyle.

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Meanwhile, the Paul Revere room has a much more simple appearance reflecting his humble occupation as a silversmith.

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The level of detail found throughout the entire restaurant is outstanding and there are probably many elements that go unnoticed by most Guests. While larger objects such as the faux fireplaces, portraits and paintings of the Founding Fathers, and colonial-era muskets all contribute to the overall theme of the restaurant, it is really the smaller items which greatly add authenticity to the dining experience.

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Everywhere you look throughout the restaurant your eye always seems to pick out some new detail, with many of the items looking as though they could belong in a museum. Some of the more interesting items included ceramic pipes, a copper tea kettle, maps of the thirteen colonies, an old-fashioned flat iron, a butter churner, and an alphabetical list of members of the Sons of Liberty.

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Whether it be maps, lanterns, blankets and quilts, cooking utensils, or pewter dishes, all these little details complete immerse you in the overall theme of Liberty Square and make you feel as though you are dining in a colonial-era home. This level of detail and theming found in the Liberty Tree Tavern is definitely Disney Imagineering and storytelling at its best.

The Menu:
The Liberty Tree Tavern is a restaurant that gives you a totally different dining experience depending on whether you go for lunch or dinner. Lunch offers an al a carte menu featuring an array of classic Americana cuisine. Meanwhile, dinner is an all-you-care-to-eat meal served family style that includes roast turkey breast, carved beef, smoked pork loin, mashed potatoes, seasonal vegetables, herb bread stuffing, and macaroni and cheese. Given the choice between the two, I prefer lunch over dinner because the lunch menu has a number of interesting choices and at a cheaper price than the family-style dinner. While the menu features nothing overly exotic or elegant, it does offer many traditional Americana favorites.

For lunch, the appetizer offerings include the Crab and Spinach Dip for Two ($10.99) featuring blue crab combined with spinach and cream cheese served with warm flatbread, Declaration Salad ($5.49) combining field greens and vegetables tossed with your choice of tavern-made dressing or roasted garlic buttermilk dressing, Tavern Fried Cheese ($5.99) served with marinara sauce, New England Clam Chowder ($7.49), and Today's Soup Kettle ($5.99), which happened to be chicken noodle on the day I was dining there.

The menu also features a good array of entrée offerings ranging from New England Pot Roast ($18.99) with braised beef in a cabernet wine and mushroom sauce served with mashed potatoes and garden vegetables to Freedom Pasta ($19.99) featuring fusilli pasta with sauteed chicken, seasonal vegetables, and mushrooms tossed in a cream sauce, The Liberty Boys BLT ($13.99) topped with slow roasted pork, fresh greens, and tomatoes on house-made bread with caramelized shallots and a mushroom-mayonnaise spread, the Pilgrims' Feast ($15.99) which combines traditional roast turkey with herb bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, and garden vegetables, the Colony Salad ($14.49) featuring apples, sweet pecans, applewood smoked cheddar, dried cranberry craisins, and grilled chicken tossed with field greens in a honey shallot vinaigrette, an Angus Chuck Cheeseburger ($13.99) topped with bacon and cheddar or mushrooms and provolone, and the Vegetarian Burger ($11.49).

There are also several delectable desserts available. Among these are the Ooey Gooey Toffee Cake ($7.49) featuring a vanilla cake with a toffee filling, caramel sauce, and vanilla ice cream, Martha Washington's Cake ($7.99) which is a slice of rich chocolate cake, layered with a chocolate coffee icing, Fruit Crisp ($5.49) combining baked seasonal fruits with a crisp streusel topping and homemade ice cream, and Johnny Appleseed's Cake ($7.49) filled with apples and craisins and topped with ice cream.

For my entrée I decided upon the New England Pot Roast, which happens to be one of the restaurant's most popular dishes. After sampling just a few bites I could see why this dish came so highly recommended by my server. The braised beef was cooked to perfection and so tender that it fell apart at the touch of my fork. Alongside the beef were a generous portion of carrots, celery, mushrooms, and onions all atop a heaping helping of mashed potatoes, which had a smooth and fluffy consistency. Topping it all off was a rich cabernet wine and mushroom sauce that provided a tremendous flavor that soaked into the beef and potatoes. This is the type of home-style comfort food that you can expect at the Liberty Tree Tavern and was the perfect meal to warm up on a cool January afternoon.

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For dessert I chose the Ooey Gooey Toffee Cake, which has become one of my favorite desserts in all of Disney World. One of the things I like most about this dessert is the mixing of so many different flavors. The chocolate, caramel, toffee pieces, and vanilla ice cream all have their own distinct flavors, but combine together deliciously. The cake itself was served warm with the appearance and taste of a big, thick chocolate chip cookie. Topping the cake is a large scoop of vanilla ice cream whose refreshingly light taste provides a nice compliment to the more rich and heavy cake. The toffee pieces that top the dessert give added flavor and texture along with a healthy amount of chocolate and caramel sauce. It is certainly a filling dessert and can easily be split by two people, but it is so good that you might want to eat the whole thing yourself.

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Service:
I was very impressed by the efficiency of the service at Liberty Tree Tavern. Even though the restaurant was a little crowded during the lunchtime rush, I was still seated very quickly and, upon placing my order, the food was brought out in a very timely manner. However, the meal did not progress so fast that I felt like I was being rushed. I also noticed that the restaurant had good number of servers, which gave each a smaller number of tables to wait upon and allowed them to offer more attentive service to their Guests. My server frequently checked in on me to make sure that I was enjoying everything and to see if he could get me anything else that I might have needed. In fact, he was so attentive that never once did my glass of water get more than halfway empty before he came around to fill it back up. My server was also very helpful in pointing out several of his favorite items on the menu, which dishes were the more popular choices, and provided a little description of each.

Dining on a Budget:
If you are looking to save a little bit of money, then lunch at Liberty Tree Tavern is definitely the way to go rather than dinner. Not only are the lunch prices more reasonable, but you also get a fairly wide selection of choices on the menu and portion sizes that are generous. One of the best values on the menu is probably the Pilgrims' Feast, which gives you a full Thanksgiving dinner for just $15.99. Other economical options would be the Colony Salad for just $14.49 or the Liberty Boys BLT that costs $13.99. Seeing other people get these I noticed that the portions are likewise a very good size, but if you still wanted a little something more you could always split an appetizer or dessert. Speaking of appetizers, the Tavern Fried Cheese is a great value at just $5.99.

The Liberty Tree Tavern is on the Disney Dining Plan and worth one table service credit for both lunch and dinner. Thus, if you are on the Dining Plan, you would actually get a better value for your money by going here for dinner, which regularly costs $34.00. While the restaurant does participate in Tables in Wonderland, there are no further discounts for either Annual Passholders or Disney Vacation Club members.

The Overall Experience:
While Magic Kingdom may not have many sit-down restaurants, this lack of quantity does not necessarily mean a lack of quality. I highly recommend the Liberty Tree Tavern because it is truly the type of dining experience that you expect to get from Disney. It all starts with a great theme which is carried throughout the restaurant in the tiniest of details and creates a fully immersive dining atmosphere. This combines with food that may be simple and traditional, but is also extremely tasty and generously portioned. Along with efficient service and reasonable prices, this all helps to create a memorable dining experience that can be enjoyed by the entire family. Next time you are at the Magic Kingdom and are looking for a little break from all the hustle and bustle, lunch (or dinner) at the Liberty Tree Tavern is a great way to relax, refresh, and get reenergized for the rest of your day.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Liberty Tree Tavern 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 20, 2013

"Simple is Delicious" at the Wolfgang Puck Express

Andrew Rossi

For my latest review I have decided to do something a little different. While all my past reviews have focused on Disney's table service dining locations, I have realized that I have been overlooking the numerous counter service restaurants located around property. For many Guests travelling to Walt Disney World, these quick service dining locations are their primary dining options, either because they want to dine on a budget or they don't want to spend the time it would take to have a full service meal. One of the great things about Disney World is that it features a tremendous variety of counter service options that go beyond merely hot dogs, hamburgers, and chicken nuggets. In fact, some of the quick service locations across property offer dining experiences that are nearly just as good as a full service restaurant. This review will highlight one such location.

When one hears the name Wolfgang Puck, the thought of a casual, quick service dining experience is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. This is, however, exactly what is offered at the Wolfgang Puck Express at the Downtown Disney Marketplace. Specializing in sandwiches, salads, pizzas, and pastas, this restaurant certainly lives up to its slogan that "simple is delicious."

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Overview:
Downtown Disney offers plenty of dining options and features a wide array of cuisines, but despite this it always seems as though every restaurant is packed. For those Guests who have not made reservations in advance, this often means very long waits. Fortunately, there are several quick service locations here as well for those Guests who may not want to wait. Tucked back between Disney's Days of Christmas and Mickey's Pantry, the Wolfgang Puck Express can sometimes be overlooked, but it offers a dining experience worthy of its famous namesake.

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Presenting a more casual take on some of the signature dishes that made chef Wolfgang Puck famous, this dining location offers a great alternative to the large crowds found in Downtown Disney's various sit down restaurants. The restaurant is what could be considered an "enhanced" counter service location; you place your order at the counter as you enter, find a table to sit at while your food is being prepared, and then have your meals delivered directly to your table. The result is the feel of a sit down restaurant but with much quicker service.

Atmosphere:
The Wolfgang Puck Express is not the largest dining venue, but it still offers plenty of seating. While the restaurant used to feature a large covered patio for outdoor seating, this space has now been enclosed to allow more diners to enjoy the climate-controlled environment during the hot summer months.

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There are still a few tables located outside for those wishing to dine al fresco. What is nice about the restaurant's location is that it is tucked out of the way, so if you are eating outside there are not a lot of people walking and there is very little noise. While the restaurant's decor has no specific theme, the overall design is very minimalist and simple, giving it a casual and laid back atmosphere.

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The restaurant's sense of openness, with its high vaulted ceilings and numerous windows which allow for plenty of light, give the dining room a sense of being larger than it actually is. The only real visual décor elements in the main dining area are black and white photographs on the walls.

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One of the best elements of the restaurant's atmosphere is the area just after the counter where you place your order.

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As you make your way into the main dining area you pass through a room that makes you feel as though you are walking through the kitchen. Not only are there pots and pans hanging from racks on the ceiling, but you are able to see right into the area where the chefs are preparing the food as well as the large oven used for making the pizzas. This part of the restaurant presents a bit of a contrast from the main seating area, a more classic style as opposed to the modern feel of the dining room.

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The Menu:
For a counter service restaurant, the menu at Wolfgang Puck Express is very extensive. It is certainly safe to say that it is a menu that offers something for everyone. It starts with their numerous salads which include Butter Lettuce ($7.00) with goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette, Caesar ($7.00) or served with chicken ($11.00), Chinese Chicken ($11.00) with crispy wontons, cashews, ginger, and a sesame honey dressing, Roasted Beet ($9.00) with goat cheese, oranges, candied pecans, fresh greens, and balsamic dressing, Curried Chicken ($13.00) with apples, lettuce, golden raisins, avocado, and toasted pecans, Rotisserie Turkey Cobb ($14.00) mixed with eggs, bacon, beans, tomatoes, gorgonzola, avocado and balsamic, Greek ($10.00) topped with feta, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and a creamy yogurt dressing, and Barbecued Chicken ($11.00) with romaine, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, crispy tortilla strips, and ranch dressing.

If you are more in the mood for a sandwich there are several to choose from. These include the Pesto Chicken Salad ($10.00) topped with romaine, red onions, and plum tomatoes, the Rotisserie Turkey Club ($13.00) with avocado, bacon, red onion, plum tomatoes, and romaine, Chicken Aioli ($10.00) with mozzarella, romaine, tomatoes, red onions, and a cilantro aioli, the Roasted Turkey ($14.00) topped with cheddar, caramelized onions, arugula, port wine sauce, house dressing, and a horseradish cream, Meatloaf ($14.00) accompanied by provolone, bacon, tomato chutney, horseradish cream, and crispy onions, and the Roasted Vegetable ($13.00) with mozzarella, pesto, lettuce, tomato, and a horseradish cream.

The menu also features a number of pizzas prepared in the restaurant's wood-fired oven. Among these are the Traditional Margherita ($11.00), Fennel Sausage ($11.00) topped with pesto, roasted sweet peppers, and mozzarella, the Classic Cheese ($10.00), Pepperoni and Mushroom ($11.00), Barbeque Chicken ($13.00) topped with red onion, cilantro, tomatoes and a smoky BBQ sauce, Seasonal Vegetables ($12.00), Four Cheese Pesto ($12.00) featuring parmesan, mozzarella, fontina, and goat cheese with plum tomatoes, fresh basil, and sun-tomatoes, and the Spicy Chicken ($13.00) with sweet peppers, tomatoes, fresh cilantro, and parmesan.

For those looking for a heartier meal than sandwiches, salads, or pizzas, there are also several "Wolfgang's Classics" to choose from. These include a Half Rotisserie Chicken ($16.00) topped with garlic butter and rosemary and accompanied by mashed potatoes, Oven Roasted Salmon ($18.00) topped with fennel, tomatoes, arugula, and a horseradish cream, Spaghetti ($12.00), Spaghetti and Meatballs ($16.00), Spaghetti Bolognese ($15.00), Chicken Alfredo ($15.00) with peas and bacon, Macaroni and Cheese ($11.00), and Bacon Wrapped Meatloaf ($15.00) topped with a port wine sauce and crispy onion rings and served alongside mashed potatoes.

For my meal I started with the Butternut Squash Soup ($6.00), which was absolutely delicious. Smooth and creamy, it was just the right consistency. The soup came garnished with chives and a roasted pepper swirl, which proved to be the perfect complement to the squash by adding a little kick of spiciness. The soup itself was somewhat sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, and the red pepper and chives actually helped to enhance the flavor without being too overpowering. The soup was thick, rich, and filling and also came with a small slice of bread which was perfect for dipping. The serving size is large enough that this could easily be split between two people.

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Next I chose the Barbeque Chicken Pizza ($13.00). The barbeque sauce itself had a little hint of smokiness, but it certainly did not overpower the other ingredients. In fact, I would not have minded if there had been a little more barbeque sauce on the pizza. The pizza came topped with a good amount of chicken and red onions that paired very well with it and added even more flavor. I was worried that the cilantro would be too strong, but there was just the right amount to compliment the other flavors and provide an added little kick. The pizza itself had a very thin crust, nice and crispy along the edges but softer toward the center. The dough was light and cooked to perfection, with the edges of the pizza just slightly burned enough that it added to the flavor. Again, this is another dish that could easily be shared, especially if starting with a soup or salad beforehand.

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Service:
At a counter service restaurant one of the things you expect is fast service and the two servers taking orders were very efficient so the line of Guests ordering never became too backed up. Because of the way the restaurant works, once you place your order at the counter you then find a table in the dining room and have your food delivered to you. While the food was brought out in a timely manner and the server asked me if I needed anything when he first delivered my meal, it seemed as though all the servers walking about the dining room were most concerned with getting the tables cleaned and turned over rather than checking in on the Guests who were eating. While this is certainly important in a quick service restaurant that has a high turnover rate, it seemed to come at the expense of their interaction and attention to the Guests who were currently dining there.

Dining on a Budget:
The Wolfgang Puck Express is a great option for dining on a budget, especially if you want an experience similar to the Wolfgang Puck Café (also found at Downtown Disney) at a more affordable price. For example, the Butternut Squash Soup that costs $6.00 at the Express is $8.00 at the Café. While the menu selections are fewer and simpler than the Café, the quality and taste are just as good. In addition, you will find that the portion sizes at Wolfgang Puck Express are big enough that sharing a dish between two people becomes an easy way to save even more. If each person were to get a soup or a salad, splitting a sandwich or a pizza would be more than enough for a meal. If you are still hungry, you could always get a dessert as well, all of which are also reasonably priced.

If you are on the Disney Dining Plan, the Wolfgang Puck Express is one of the best values for your counter service credits as the meals you will find here are of tremendous quality (certainly better than just getting a burger or hot dog in the park) and the serving sizes large enough that you will almost certainly have leftovers. The best way to maximize your Disney Dining Plan is finding those restaurants that will get you the most for your money. For example, you could get a cheese pizza from Pizza Planet for $9.00 or you could go to Wolfgang Puck Express and get the Barbeque Chicken Pizza for $13.00 or even something like the Oven Roasted Salmon for $18.00 all for the same one counter service credit. In many ways, dining at Wolfgang Puck Express is almost like dining at a table service restaurant for a counter service credit.

The Overall Experience:
At this point I should note that while this review is of the Wolfgang Puck Express located in the Downtown Disney Marketplace, there is also one on the West Side as well. However, the West Side location is smaller and its menu options are more limited. The Wolfgang Puck Express is a great place to grab a quick bite to eat and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Downtown Disney who does not feel like waiting a long time for a table at one of the sit-down restaurants. Bearing the name of Wolfgang Puck, you know that the food is going to be of a high quality and the Wolfgang Puck Express certainly delivers, offering a calm and relaxing meal in a quiet and laid-back environment. Not only is it one of the better counter service restaurants to be found in Downtown Disney, but I would consider it one of my favorites among all quick service restaurants in Disney World.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of the Wolfgang Puck Express and post your own too!

February 3, 2013

A Quiet and Casual Lunch at the Grand Floridian Café

Andrew Rossi

When it comes to fine dining the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa has some of the most exclusive restaurants in all of Disney World. First and foremost among these restaurants is Victoria and Albert's. An eleven time recipient of the prestigious AAA Five Diamond Award, this restaurant offers innovative cooking with a menu that changes daily, impeccable service, and opulent décor. Narcoossee's specializes in seafood and features a breathtaking location with stunning panoramic views of the Seven Seas Lagoon. Citricos features a Mediterranean-inspired décor and menu in addition to an award winning wine list that is one of the most extensive in all of Disney World. Each of these restaurants are what Disney classifies as Signature dining locations. Signature restaurants are the cream of the crop amongst the numerous dining locations to be found all across Disney World, offering elegant and refined settings that create truly unique and memorable dining experiences.

Overshadowed by its more prestigious neighbors, the Grand Floridian Café is easily missed even by those who are staying at the resort. Although it might not have the same name recognition, this restaurant provides a great alternative for those who may not be looking to dine in as formal a setting nor have the budget for these other Signature dining locations.

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Overview:
Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa certainly lives up to its namesake. When it comes to Disney resorts, its grandeur is second to none. The Grand Floridian is all about elegance as soon as you enter the lobby and this is carried throughout the rest of the resort.

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While the Grand Floridian Café ties into the overall Victorian theming and charm of the resort, it does so in a more casual and subdued way, which helps to create a comfortable and calm setting in which to enjoy your meal.

The Grand Floridian Cafe is located in the main building of the Grand Floridian. Situated in an un-imposing location tucked away from the lobby, it can easily be passed by as one makes their way toward the resort's marina. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, easily accessible by boat or monorail from the Magic Kingdom, and located at one of Disney World's marquee resorts, it is surprising that the Grand Floridian Café is largely overlooked when it comes to Disney dining locations. This, however, is part of its allure. The restaurant's relative obscurity makes for a quiet and relaxing atmosphere, often without need of a reservation, which provides a much-needed escape from the crowds as well as the hustle and bustle of the theme parks.

Atmosphere:
The Grand Floridian Café has an atmosphere that I can best describe as casual elegance. It has the same Victorian style as the rest of the resort, but with a more comfortable and laid-back feel. The restaurant's dining room is bright and inviting, featuring a color palette of white and cream.

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Its high ceilings give the restaurant a very open feel, which is also aided by its large windows.

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Not only do these windows allow in ample sunlight throughout the day, but they also offer stunning views of the resort's courtyard and rose garden.

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These windows really help to bring the outdoors into the restaurant, with the roses from the garden continuing onto each table top. This flower motif is also continued on the wallpaper and carpeting as well.

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Subtle touches like the restaurant's lace curtains and beautiful floral arrangements lend a sense of sophistication, but overall this is a very inviting setting to dine with the entire family including small children.

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The overall décor is very subdued and simple. The dining room's curtains, floral wall paper, and light fixtures all add a sense of Victorian charm.

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In addition, a variety of water-color paintings of fruits and vegetables as well as several weather vanes featuring farm animals give the restaurant a little character and whimsy.

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The Grand Floridian Café compliments the look and feel of the resort as a whole but it also provides a nice change from the elegance and refinement of the rest of the resort and its other Signature restaurants. Overall, there is really nothing about the restaurant's atmosphere that is going to make you say "wow," but it provides a tranquil and relaxing setting in which to enjoy your meal. This is aided by the fact that the restaurant is not usually very crowded, especially during lunchtime hours. Dining here is truly a great escape; you really have no idea that you are just minutes away from the Magic Kingdom.

The Menu:
The Grand Floridian Café's menu presents classic American fare, but with a little flair. Breakfast is served from 7am until 11am and the menu features traditional items such as the American ($13.49) featuring two Eggs served with biscuits, bacon, sausage and breakfast potatoes. There is also a Mickey Waffle ($10.99) served with bacon or sausage and a Ham and Cheese Omelet ($11.49) served with breakfast potatoes. There are, however, some breakfast items that are given a little twist, such as the Lobster Eggs Benedict ($17.99), Citrus Pancakes ($12.49) with roasted pecans and sun-dried cranberries topped with orange butter, and Vanilla-Laced French Toast ($11.99) which is dipped in a vanilla-flavored batter and served with bacon or sausage.

Lunch, served from 11:45am until 2pm, features a menu dominated by a lighter fare of sandwiches and salads. These include two of the restaurant's signature lunch items. First is the Grand Floridian Burger ($19.49) that is topped with butter-poached lobster with a red onion marmalade, crispy prosciutto, and arugula and there is also The Grand Sandwich ($13.49) served open-faced with hot ham, turkey, bacon, and tomato with a rich Boursin cheese sauce and fried onion straws.

Additionally, there is the Rustic Chicken Sandwich ($12.99) topped with a sun-dried tomato pesto and Dijon mayonnaise, a traditional Reuben Sandwich ($10.99), a Tuna Nicoise Salad ($18.49) with mixed greens, fingerling potatoes, green beans, kalamata olives, and tomatoes , Caesar Salad with shrimp ($15.49) or grilled chicken breast ($14.49), and a Cobb Salad ($15.49) with diced turkey, bacon, avocado, blue cheese, eggs, chives, and tomatoes.

If you are looking for a heartier lunch there is the Orecchiette Pasta of the Day ($15.99) that can also come served with shrimp ($19.99) or grilled chicken ($17.99) as well as the New York Strip Steak ($26.99) served with mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables.

Dinner is served from 5pm until 10pm. The menu's appetizers are the same for both lunch and dinner, including Pan-Seared Lump Crab Cakes ($11.49), Shrimp Cocktail ($12.99), Caesar Salad ($5.49), a Seasonal Salad ($5.99), French Onion Soup ($7.49), and a Seasonal Soup ($5.99).

For entrees, the dinner menu replaces all the sandwiches and salads on the lunch menu with exception of the Grand Floridian Burger. The menu instead features Pan-Roasted Chicken Breast ($18.99) with a mushroom risotto, roasted mushrooms, and chicken pan juice, Shrimp and Grits ($19.99) served on top of creamy mascarpone cheese grits, a New York Strip Steak ($29.99) accompanied by crushed fingerling mashed potatoes and a brandy-green peppercorn sauce, a Grilled Pork Chop ($21.99) with sweet potato-smoked gouda gratin and sautéed spinach topped with chimichurri, and Orecchiette Pasta of the Day ($18.99).

The dessert options are the same for both lunch and dinner and include Chocolate Fondue ($6.99) served with dark chocolate ganache and fresh fruit, Key Lime Tart ($3.29) with a chocolate crust, New York-Style Lemon Cheesecake ($3.49), Boston Cream Pie ($3.49), Fresh Berry Tart ($3.49) with a layer of almond cake topped with seasonal berries and an apricot glaze, and Seasonal Sorbet ($4.99).

For my lunch I inquired as to what the Seasonal Soup was for the day and was told that it was a Butternut Squash Soup. I immediately decided to order this because it is a type of soup that I greatly enjoy but is not found in too many restaurants. This was butternut squash soup with a twist, however, as it was served with diced apples and bacon and came topped with a whipped maple cream.

GFC Butternut Squash Soup

The soup was presented with a fairly generous dollop of this whipped cream in the center and was then mixed in. The soup itself was so rich and creamy, but I found it to be not quite as sweet as other butternut squash soups I have had in the past. Some added sweetness was provided by the diced apples as well as the maple whipped cream. I was really surprised at how well the flavor of the apples blended with the butternut squash and complimented the slight saltiness of the bacon (whose flavor was not nearly as overwhelming as I had thought it would be). These added components really helped to make this butternut squash soup unique.

I was very undecided about my entrée as both the Grand Floridian Burger and The Grand Sandwich sounded very intriguing. Instead, I chose to go with the Orcchiette Pasta of the Day. On this particular day the pasta was served with green beans, peas, carrots, mushrooms, and sun dried tomatoes topped with a creamy asiago cheese sauce.

GFC Pasta

The sauce was the real highlight of the dish as it had such a rich and creamy flavor to which the vegetables provided a light and refreshing contrast. Of all the vegetables, the flavor of the sun dried tomatoes really popped. The pasta was also seasoned generously with crushed black pepper that helped to provide an added kick. I was also very impressed with the portion size as well as the amount of vegetables that were mixed into the pasta. One of the great things about this particular dish is that it is always changing depending on what is fresh.

Service:
One of the aspects of the Grand Floridian Café that really impressed me the most was the impeccable service. The Cast Members at this restaurant were some of the friendliest and most personable that I have experienced at any Disney dining location. It started as soon as I approached the entrance of the restaurant and the hostess immediately struck up a conversation with me when I told her it was my first time dining there and we continued to chat as she showed me to my table.

My server was extremely helpful in explaining the various menu items, including descriptions of the soup of the day and the orcchiette pasta that both won me over to ordering these dishes. We discussed a variety of topics including the Grand Floridian resort, Disney World, and living in Florida. He always seemed to be nearby whenever I needed anything. This is one of the primary advantages to dining at a restaurant that is typically less crowded. My server only had a couple of tables to wait on and there was really no rush to get tables turned over in order to seat additional parties as is evident at some of the more popular restaurants. This allows for the servers at the Grand Floridian Café to provide very personal and attentive service and it is something that makes it very likely for me to dine here again in the future.

Dining on a Budget:
Of course, when compared with the other dining options at the Grand Floridian, the Grand Floridian Café is a far more reasonable dining option. This is especially true at lunch time where the menu's variety of sandwiches and salads are all good values by Disney standards. To put it into perspective, if you were at Magic Kingdom and went to Pecos Bill's to order the Deluxe 1/3 Pound Angus Cheeseburger it would cost you $10.59. For just a few dollars more you could escape from the crowds and enjoy a meal in a far more quiet and relaxing setting with higher quality menu items such as the Rustic Chicken Sandwich for $12.99. Not only are the prices reasonable, but the portion sizes are very generous.

The Grand Floridian Café is on the Disney Dining Plan and is worth one table service credit for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The restaurant also participates in Tables in Wonderland, offering members a 20% discount. In addition, Annual Passholders can receive a 10% discount on lunch Mondays through Fridays. Disney Vacation Club members get a 10% discount on breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The Overall Experience:
This was my first time dining at the Grand Floridian Café, but after my experience there I know that it will not be the last. With its quiet, casual elegance that incorporates the resort's Victorian charm, a reasonably priced menu that features a variety of different options from sandwiches to salads to full entrees, and friendly and attentive servers, the Grand Floridian Café is certainly worth a visit and not only if you are staying at the resort.

With such easy accessibility by boat or monorail from the Magic Kingdom, the Grand Floridian Café would be a great option for a middle-of-the-day break from the park, giving you the chance to relax and reenergize and enjoy some peace and quiet. In addition, since dining reservations can sometime be hard to come by in the Magic Kingdom, the Grand Floridian Café is the type of restaurant that you do not need to make reservations for months in advance. Overall, I was very impressed by the Grand Floridian Café. It is a dining location worthy of being located at one of Disney World's marquee resorts.

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Grand Floridian Cafe and post your own too!

January 12, 2013

Earl of Sandwich: Perfecting Sandwich-Making Since 1762

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.

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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.

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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, avocado, 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.

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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).

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 at 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 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 an entire meal for a very reasonable price. If you are dining on a budget, Earl of Sandwich is definitely the place to go.

If you have a AAA card, you will receive a 10% discount on your items.

It should also be noted 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 with locations across the country, Earl of Sandwich has become synonymous with Downtown Disney. Next time you are looking for somewhere to eat while at Downtown Disney, especially if 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 very affordable. After trying 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!

October 21, 2012

Nine Dragons: World Showcase's Overlooked Restaurant

Andrew Rossi

I have had the opportunity to dine at nearly all of the restaurants in World Showcase, but there has been one that has continually eluded me. With all the various cuisines and dining options available throughout World Showcase the idea of dining in China has always been low on my priority list. After all, Chinese restaurants are so common and I could even have Chinese food delivered to my own house rather than going to Epcot. When dining at Disney World I tend to prefer the types of dining experiences that are less common, but recently I finally decided to give Nine Dragons at Epcot's China pavilion a try.

I realized that, even though I have had Chinese food at numerous locations, I should not be so quick to group Nine Dragons together with all of them. Italian restaurants are just as common as Chinese restaurants and yet I still greatly enjoy Via Napoli for its authentic pizza and hibachi-style Japanese restaurants are becoming much more prevalent but I still continue to dine at Teppan Edo. I hoped that the same would hold true for Nine Dragons.

Nine_Dragons_Signage

Overview:
One of the primary goals of World Showcase is deepening Guests' understanding and appreciation of the countries they are visiting. World Showcase is a place to educate and entertain, somewhere Guests can experience first-hand the cultures, histories, sights, and sounds of eleven different nations. As such, every aspect of these World Showcase pavilions helps to offer insight into their country's culture and people; their attractions, shops, and restaurants all have different stories to tell. With Nine Dragons this story starts with the restaurant's name.

The name Nine Dragons is very fitting because both the number nine and dragons have special significance in Chinese culture. In China, dragons traditionally symbolize potent and auspicious powers such as control over water, rainfall, hurricanes, and floods. The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength, and good luck. Throughout the country's history, the Emperor of China has used the dragon as a symbol of his imperial power and strength.

The number nine is likewise special in China, as it is the largest possible single digit, and is considered to be an extremely lucky number. Dragons are frequently connected with the number nine. Dragons are usually described as having nine characteristics: its head is like a camel's, its horns like a deer's, its eyes like a hare's, its ears like a bull's, its neck like an iguana's, its belly like a frog's, its scales like those of a carp, its paws like a tiger's, and its claws like an eagle's. Chinese dragons also traditionally have 117 (9x13) scales and have nine offspring. Throughout China, Nine Dragons Screens (walls with images of nine different dragons) are typically found in imperial palaces and gardens. Thus Nine Dragons at Epcot is firmly rooted in Chinese history, culture, and traditions which is reinforced even more with the visual imagery used throughout the restaurant.

Atmosphere:
Visually, China has one of the most beautiful pavilions in all of World Showcase. The architectural beauty and attention to detail is truly breathtaking. Thus, you begin to be immersed into Chinese culture before even setting foot inside any of the buildings. A lively color palette of red, green, blue, and gold really make the buildings stand out and then all the tiny details lend an added sense of authenticity.

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Some people may pass these buildings by without giving them a second look, but if you really take your time you can fully appreciate all the craftsmanship that went into their design. One of my personal favorite touches is the figures on the corners of the roof:

Nine_Dragons_Exterior_Details

The interior of the restaurant is a blend of traditional and contemporary and dragon imagery is carried throughout. This is evident from the moment you enter the restaurant and are greeted by a beautiful glass mural depicting two dragons chasing a glowing pearl.

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Even more impressive is when you look up and see the decorative artwork on the ceiling featuring a golden dragon motif. The intricate details in this are truly something to behold.

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Even the woodwork continues the dragon imagery and serves to highlight the skill and craftsmanship of the Chinese artisans who created the works.

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Along the one of the walls of the dining room is a display featuring a variety of delicately crafted glass artwork, all of which pays tribute to the more classical Chinese style.

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Despite all these traditional Chinese touches, the dining room has more of a modern feel. Sleek and streamlined, the dining room itself is a nice reflection of modern-day China where old and new, classic and contemporary, blend together harmoniously. The tables are all aligned in straight rows, but I felt as though they were placed very close together. I dined here at lunch when it was not very crowded, but I can imagine it might feel slightly tight and cramped during the busier times of the day.

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The dining room itself is very large, but it is divided into a series of smaller sections by rosewood wall panels.

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One of my favorite aspects of the décor was the restaurant's lighting, which provides a modern spin on classic Chinese lanterns. The lanterns add a splash of color to an otherwise restrained color palette. Also, the more subdued lighting adds a touch of intimacy to the dining room.

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Another nice aspect of the dining room is its huge windows overlooking the World Showcase promenade and lagoon. If you are dining here I would definitely recommend requesting a seat by the windows. It is a great place for people watching during the day and at night would offer a nice, although somewhat obstructed, view of Illuminations.

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Overall, the detail and theming of Nine Dragons exceeded my expectations. While the contemporary touches give it a more upscale feel it is still a calm and relaxing setting to enjoy your meal. If you are looking for a more quiet dining experience I would definitely recommend going for lunch rather than dinner, but it is an atmosphere that can be enjoyed by families with children and adult couples alike.

The Menu:
Nine Dragons features separate menus for lunch and dinner, but both are very similar with just a couple of dishes that are exclusive to dinner. The appetizers are divided between hot and cold. The Cold Appetizers include Cucumber Salad ($5.98), Fragrant Chicken ($5.98) served with a fragrant green onion dipping sauce, and Spicy Beef ($8.68) tossed with a cilantro-chili dressing. For those who cannot decide on just one, there is the Appetizer Trio ($11.98) that features all three.

Hot Appetizers feature several traditional Chinese favorites in addition to some less conventional items. For the traditional there are Pot Stickers ($6.98), which are sautéed pork and vegetable dumplings, as well as Shrimp and Chicken Egg Rolls ($7.98). For someone looking for something a little different there is the Walnut Shrimp Toast ($7.98), which is actually classic Chinese snack. Other appetizers include Shrimp and Taro Lollipops ($9.98) that present a playful take on a traditional dim sum favorite and General Tso's Chicken Dumplings ($10.98) which provides an innovative twist on a classic, featuring steamed dumplings drizzles with a tangy Chinese Red Sauce.

While many of the entrée selections are the same for lunch and dinner, the prices are different. For the following entrée, the first price listed is lunch and the second is dinner. Among the entrees featured are Honey Sesame Chicken ($16.98, $18.98), Sweet and Sour Pork ($15.68, $16.98) served with lightly spiced spinach noodles, Peppery Shrimp with Spinach Noodles ($17.98, $21.98), Kung Pao Chicken ($15.98, $17.98) accompanied by peanuts and dried chili peppers, Canton Pepper Beef ($15.98, $18.98) stir-fried with onions, green, and red peppers in a savory broth, Fragrant Five-Spiced Fish ($21.98), Nine Dragons Fried Rice ($15.98) stir-fried with shrimp, chicken, ham, eggs, vegetables and touch of chili spice, and Chinese Chicken Salad ($12.98) featuring savory sliced chicken, mixed greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, golden raisins and walnuts with your choice of sweet ginger or peanut-coconut dressing.

Among those entrees available just for dinner are Spit Roasted Beijing Chicken ($18.98) served with a side of smooth mashed taro, Shrimp and Steak ($26.98) featuring grilled shrimp and steak served with bok choy and drizzled with sweet lightly spiced Chinese red sauce, and the Zha Jiang Noodles Sampler ($19.98) which allows you to mix and match your noodles with fresh vegetables and two classic sauces: sweet and savory minced pork and spicy diced chicken.

The dessert choices are somewhat limited and include Coconut Rice Pudding ($7.98) topped with cinnamon and wonton crisps, Chinese Ginger Cake ($6.68), and two choices of ice cream, either Strawberry-Red Bean or Caramel-Ginger ($3.98).

For an appetizer I was very tempted to try the Pot Stickers, but I have had these at so many other Chinese restaurants and wanted to try something a little different and instead opted for the Walnut Shrimp Toast. When it was served to me it did not look at all like I was expecting. I had thought it would be similar in appearance to a bruschetta, with thin slices of toasted bread topped with shrimp and walnuts. Instead the bread was cut much thicker, although it was still nice and crusty.

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What was very surprising was that I did not immediately notice any shrimp. However, I quickly found that the entire top of the toast was coated with a finely-chopped layer of shrimp which at first glance had actually looked like cheese. While it may not be the most visually impressive appetizer it was very tasty. I really liked the combination of the shrimp and walnuts, which presented a nice contrast in flavor and texture and yet went together really well. The toast came served along with sweet and sour sauce for dipping which provided even extra flavor.

For my entrée I chose the Sweet and Sour Pork. I really liked the presentation of the dish, simple yet effective. The bold reddish-orange color of the pork really popped on the white plate. The pork was lightly battered, cut into small, bite-sized pieces, and was very tender. Looks can be a little deceiving. Because of the small pieces of pork and the large size of the plate it first looked like the portion size was not very big, but when I actually started eating I was surprised to find there was much more food than first appeared. I found the sweet and sour sauce to be slightly more on the sweet side and had a fairly thick consistency, which I really enjoyed. Accompanying the pork were cubes of pineapple, which added a light and refreshing flavor to the dish the complimented the pork extremely well.

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Also served alongside the pork were what the menu called lightly-spiced spinach noodles. I think the lightly-spiced is a little of a misnomer because the noodles had a ton of flavor. If you are not a fan of garlic you would probably not care for these noodles because that was the predominant flavor along with a slight hint of crushed red pepper. These noodles had a definite kick to them and they presented a nice contrast to the sweeter-flavored pork.

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Overall, it was a very good meal that offered something a little different from what I normally order at Chinese restaurants.

Service:
I think the service at Nine Dragons can best be described as courteous but quiet. My server was certainly attentive to all my needs and quickly responded whenever I needed anything, but she was also very reserved and almost shy. I think this can be attributed more to cultural differences than anything else. This is one of the things that I enjoy most about dining in World Showcase. It does not matter what country you are dining in, the servers there will be natives of those countries. This makes them more than just waiters and waitresses, but rather cultural representatives who, along with the atmosphere and the cuisine, help with the overall sense of immersion into that particular country. At other restaurants around World Showcase I have had great conversations with my servers about their homes and have been able to gain a little more insight into their various cultures. I was not able to have that same type of interaction at Nine Dragons, although I did find that my server's English was very good and easy to understand (which is not always the case when dining in World Showcase).

Dining on a Budget:
When it comes of dining at Nine Dragons, I would definitely recommend going there for lunch rather than dinner. Not only is the restaurant less crowded, but the menu is largely the same and the prices a little less expensive. Some dishes, like the Fragrant Five-Spiced Fish for $21.98 and the Nine Dragons Fried Rice for $15.98, are the same price for both lunch and dinner. However, others like the Honey Sesame Chicken, $16.98 for lunch and $18.98 for dinner, are a little less expensive.

Another good value, for both lunch and dinner, is the Treasures of the Dragon prix fixe menu. The lunch option is $29.68 and includes an option of Hot and Sour Soup or Chicken Consomme for an appetizer, Fragrant Five-Spiced Fish, General Tso's Chicken, or Beef Sichuan for an entrée, and Chinese Ginger Cake, Strawberry-Red Bean Ice Cream, or Caramel Ginger Ice Cream for dessert. The dinner option is $33.68 and includes a Chinese Dim Sum appetizer featuring pot stickers and vegetable spring rolls, an entrée option of either General Tso's Chicken, Fish Sichuan, or the Happy Family Duet, which is comprised of stir-fried slices of beef and chicken with water chestnuts and vegetables alongside spicy and tangy shrimp, and either Chinese Ginger Cake, Strawberry-Red Bean Ice Cream, or Caramel Ginger Ice Cream for dessert. These prix fixe menus are a good way of sampling a greater variety of the countries cuisine. While you do not save a ton of money, it usually works out as though you are getting the dessert for free as oppose to ordering each of the items separately off the menu.

Nine Dragons 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. Annual Passholders can also save 10% on food and non-alcoholic beverages Monday through Friday during lunch hours. Disney Vacation Club members receive the same 10% discount for both lunch and dinner.

The Overall Experience:
Nine Dragons definitely exceeded my expectations. It is more than just your typical Chinese restaurant that you might find in your home town and get take-out or delivery from. Everything from the atmosphere's fine details and intricate craftsmanship to the cuisine and even the service all helped to immerse you into Chinese culture. While the menu did feature many traditional Chinese dishes that are common on the menus of many other restaurants, I was also pleased to see that they had some less-conventional items as well.

All that being said, there are so many restaurants in World Showcase that there are quite a few that I would choose to dine at before going back to Nine Dragons again. I am not saying that my meal here was bad. In fact, it was quite the contrary. It just does not have the same level of uniqueness that makes some of the other World Showcase restaurants so special and popular. If I am making the trip to Epcot, I have several other restaurants that I like a lot more than Nine Dragons. I am certainly glad that I tried the restaurant because it was something new and different for me, but it will probably be some time before I dine there again. If you have never tried Nine Dragons before, it is certainly a possible alternative if you are not able to obtain reservations at some of the other World Showcase restaurants.

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Nine Dragons and post your own too!

September 25, 2012

Enjoy a Taste of Southern Comfort Food at Boatwright's Dining Hall

Andrew Rossi

When it comes to dining at Disney World, the resort restaurants tend to fly a little more under the radar than those at the parks. Certainly there are quite a few of these restaurants that receive much notoriety, such as Ohana, California Grill, or Yachtsman Steakhouse, but there are also hidden gems to be found. One such restaurant is Boatwright's Dining Hall at Port Orleans Riverside. The restaurant's more out-of-the-way location may mean that it is a little more difficult to get to, but it also makes for a more quiet and calming dining experience.

I often find that restaurants at the various resorts help provide more of an escape from all the hustle and bustle of a Disney vacation. Here you can get away from all the crowds and just relax. It really makes for a great change of pace. A restaurant like Boatwright's may not have the same name recognition or draw in the same number of guests as other restaurants across Disney World, but that is part of its allure. This is one of the best parts about dining at Disney World. While there are numerous popular and well-known dining experiences, there are also many other lesser-known restaurants for you to discover that will really surprise you.

Overview:
When it comes to quiet and relaxing, the Port Orleans Riverside resort certainly fits the bill. Combining the luxury of the old South with the rustic charm of the Louisiana bayou, Port Orleans Riverside is a far cry from the fast paced atmosphere of the theme parks.

Mansion


Bayou

Whether you want to enjoy a leisurely bike ride, take a boat down the Sassagoula River, or merely sit by the pool on Ol' Man Island, this resort provides a quiet and intimate setting that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike. There is really enough to do at the resort that you could spend a whole day there and not even worry about going into the parks. While the resort provides plenty to do in terms of recreation and entertainment, it also features a couple of dining options whose Southern cuisine fits in perfectly with the resort's theme.

Port_Orleans_Exterior

The Riverside Mill is the resort's food court and offers a wide variety of dishes ranging from grilled items to pizzas, pastas, salads, and sandwiches. If you are staying at Port Orleans Riverside, however, the must-do dining experience is Boatwright's Dining Hall. In fact, it is worth the trip even if you are not staying at the resort. Port Orleans is easily accessible via bus from any of the parks or by boat from Downtown Disney. One of the only drawbacks of Boatwright's is that it is just open for dinner and thus has limited hours from 5:00-10:00pm daily.

Boatwrights_Outside

At the entrance of Boatwright's is a plaque that explains a little about the history of the restaurant. Here it states that it is the goal of the restaurant to offer a unique dining experience that combines quality and attention to detail with authentic cuisine and unmatched service. After dining there for the first time I can say that Boatwright's delivers on all counts.

Boatwrights_Signage

Atmosphere:
The history of Boatwright's is very interesting. Designed to resemble a turn-of-the-century boat shop, the story of Boatwright's actually begins at the Brewers Dauntless Ship Yard in Essex, Connecticut. When they were first planning the restaurant, Disney obtained from the Smithsonian the original blueprints of a 46-foot Lugger. Brewers Ship Yard was then commissioned to partially-build the ship, a sturdy, wooden watercraft that was used to haul cotton up and down the Mississippi River. This partially-built ship feels right at home in the middle of the Boatwright's dining room. In fact, if you arrive at the restaurant just as it opens the servers ring a large dinner bell and declare all boat-building done for the day so dinner can begin.

Boat

In terms of theming and attention to detail Boatwright's offers so much more than just the massive 46-foot boat at its center. All across the restaurant the walls are filled with various ship-building tools, such as hammers, saws, and axes. It makes you feel as though if at any moment a group of boat builders could enter the restaurant, pick up the tools, and continue working on the partially-built ship.

Tools1

Tools2

Tools3

There are also blueprints of various ships that add to the authenticity that this is indeed a working boat shop.

Blueprints1

Blueprints2

The main dining room, which is dominated by the 46-foot ship, features high, lofted ceilings and receives plenty of natural light.

Main_Dining_Room

My preference, and where I was seated for my meal, was the smaller, more intimate dining room off to the side that offers a more cozy and homey feel.

Boatwrights_Dining_Room

This area of the dining room to me felt almost reminiscent of the Liberty Tree Tavern at Magic Kingdom, more like you were dining in someone's home than in a restaurant. Everything from the honey-colored wooden tables and spindle-backed chairs to the hardwood floors and checkered cloth napkins all lend to the restaurant's feeling of nostalgia.

Tables_and_Chairs

The tables even come topped with a small lantern to provide some additional light during your meal.

Boatwrights_Table_Setting

Another nice touch in this part of the dining room is a working fireplace.

Boatwrights_Fireplace

Overall, Boatwright's features a calm, laid back, and relaxing atmosphere. It is a casual, family-friendly setting that makes it a great option if you are looking for somewhere to dine with the entire family. At the same time, it's cozy, quiet, and rustically intimate feel also make it an good option for couples dining without children. The restaurant's success lies in something that Disney prides itself on, creating a well-themed and immersive atmosphere that helps transport Guests to an entirely different time and place. However, this immersion does not just stop with the restaurant's atmosphere but continues on with its cuisine.

The Menu:
Boatwright's menu is nothing flashy, but it features an array of Southern comfort food influenced heavily by Creole and Cajun dishes of Louisiana that makes it fit perfectly with the restaurant's theme.

For appetizers there is Bourbon Barbecue Shrimp ($10.99) served with a grilled grit cake, Spinach Salad ($6.49) topped with grape tomatoes, raspberry vinaigrette, roasted beets, candied pecans, and goat cheese, Cajun-Seasoned Crawfish Bites ($10.49), Romaine Salad ($8.49) with parmigiano-reggiano croutons and prosciutto served topped with a house dressing, French Onion Soup au Gratin ($6.49), and the Chicken and Andouille Gumbo ($6.49), which I was told was the restaurant's most popular appetizer.

The entrees are not necessarily going to offer you a gourmet meal, but feature dishes reminiscent of a home-cooked meal, the type of food that will leave you feeling full and satisfied at the end of the meal. Leading off the entrees is a Louisiana favorite, Jambalaya ($17.99) with spiced chicken thighs, Andouille sausage, shrimp, rice, and vegetables. The menu also features Grilled Tenderloin Medallions ($27.49) served with mac and cheese, crayfish beignets, and a red wine demi-glace, a Grilled Pork Chop ($21.99) with an amber ale barbecue sauce, cheesy grits, and onion rings, Pasta with Shrimp ($19.99) mixed with spinach, olives, eggplant, shallots, goat cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes. This can also be served with chicken for $18.99 or as a vegetarian entree for $16.99.

Other entrees include Andouille-Crusted Catfish ($15.99) with a cayenne butter sauce and chive aioli, a Slow-Roasted Prime Rib ($27.99) accompanied by a red wine demi-glace with Yukon gold potatoes, watercress, and balsamic vinaigrette, Voodoo Chicken ($17.99) served alongside red beans, rice, and collard greens, a Blackened Fish Fillet ($20.99) with a grilled grit cake and stewed green tomatoes, and a Vegetarian Jambalaya ($15.99) featuring asparagus, mushrooms, peppers, onions, and tomatoes with rice.

The menu also features a good variety of desserts. There is a Chocolate Cake ($5.99) with a raspberry sauce, Pecan Pie ($5.49), which is a traditional Southern favorite, New Orleans Bread Pudding ($5.49) with rum raisin ice cream and a bananas foster sauce, Butterscotch Creme Brulee ($5.99), and Bananas Foster Angel Food Cake ($6.49).

The server first brought out some freshly made cornbread. Served warm, this was a great way to start the meal and its sweetness provides a nice contrast to the spicier dishes found on the rest of the menu. It was hard not to fill up on the cornbread before the rest of the meal was even brought out.

Cornbread

For my entrée I decided on the Jambalaya. This is a dish that I have tried at several other restaurants, but this was one of the better ones I have had. This is certainly not a meal that is going to leave you feeling hungry. Not only is the dish very filling, but the portion size is extremely generous. I was able to get two full meals out of it.

Jambalaya

Overall, I found the jambalaya to be spicy, but not overwhelmingly so. I have had other jambalayas that leave you sweating because of the spiciness. The one at Boatwright's had a definite kick (I went through quite a few glasses of water throughout the course of the meal) but it was not unbearable. Still, if you do not like spicy foods I would probably not recommend this dish. The jambalaya was full of pieces of chicken and came topped with two large slices of Andouille sausage and two jumbo-sized shrimp. My only complaint was that I wish there had been a few more shrimp.

I am a lover of bread pudding and have had it at numerous restaurants across Disney World, so I jumped at the chance to try the New Orleans Bread Pudding. There was nothing spectacular about the bread pudding in itself, although I did appreciate that it was served nice and warm.

Boatwright_Bread_Pudding

What really made this dessert special was the combination of the rum raisin ice cream and the bananas foster sauce. The sauce had a little kick to it and provided a lot of sweetness to the dessert. While the sauce had a slight banana flavor there were no actual bananas topping the bread pudding. The rum raisin ice cream provided a light and refreshing compliment to the sweet sauce and was very smooth and creamy in texture. While not my favorite bread pudding at Disney World, this was still a very good dessert.

Service:
This was the only aspect of my meal that was a little disappointing. I hardly ever saw my server throughout the course of the meal. He came to take my order, brought out the cornbread, and brought out the check at the end of the meal. He did check in on me once as I was eating my jambalaya to make sure I was enjoying everything, but he was not very personable. That being said, I witnessed the table next to me getting impeccable service. They had a child who had a food allergy and the chef personally came to the table and talked with them about what different dishes they could prepare for the child. This is something that Disney does very well. It does not matter what restaurant you are dining at, I have friends with food allergies that say that Disney is always extremely accommodating when it comes to food allergies.

Dining on a Budget:
Boatwright's is fairly reasonable by Disney standards. With most entrees ranging from $16 to $20, you can enjoy a good meal at an affordable price. I found that all the dishes I saw being brought out of the kitchen were generously portioned, so you are certainly getting your money's worth in terms of quantity but also quality. Likewise, the desserts are mostly around $6 a piece and give you very good value for your money. If you want to save a little extra I saw someone at a nearby table order the Bourbon Barbecue Shrimp appetizer which comes served with a grilled grit cake. For $10.99 this looked as though it could be a meal unto itself. If you are looking for a lighter meal, the Chicken and Andouille Gumbo for $6.49 is likewise generously portioned and combined with a dessert might make a good meal for someone who does not have a large appetite.

Boatwright's is on the Disney Dining Plan and is worth one table service credit. The restaurant is also a participant in Tables in Wonderland and offers members the 20% discount. However, there are no discounts offered to Disney Vacation Club members or Annual Passholders.

The Overall Experience:
Being my first time dining at Boatwright's I really was not sure what to expect and I am pleased to say I was pleasantly surprised. This is a restaurant that can make you totally forget that you are in Disney World. Offering a cozy, comfortable, and relaxing atmosphere, it is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the theme parks. At the same time, the dining room features all the great little details that you would expect from a Disney restaurant and really helps to immerse you in the theme. This is probably one of the best-themed restaurants to be found at any of Disney's moderate resorts and better than some I have experienced at deluxe resorts. The menu is not going to blow you away with glamorous, gourmet dishes, but it features some good, old fashioned Southern comfort food that leaves you feeling very satisfied at the end of your meal. With a number of intriguing menu items available, I will definitely want to be dining at Boatwright's Dining Hall again in the future.

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Boatwright's Dining Hall and post your own too!

July 22, 2012

These Are A Few Of My Favourite Disney Things

GaryCruisebanner.jpg

What is your favourite park at Walt Disney World?

What are your "must-do" rides or activities?

What are the things you only do once in a while?

Main Gate

One of the greatest things about Walt Disney World is the diversity of experience you can enjoy there. With the four theme parks, two water parks, golf courses, hotels, campground, scores of restaurants and all the surrounding attractions there is virtually no limit to the things you can enjoy.

Many of our friends who, like Carol and I, are frequent visitors have established some favourite attractions and activities, things they "must-do" every time they visit Walt Disney World.

Here's my list of favourites. Let's start with my favourite park, the Magic Kingdom.

Magic Kingdom

Why does this park top my list? Well, it's the classic, the first Florida park. This is where I first took my children in 1977. It is chock-full of good memories and will probably always be my "special place"! I remember the huge grins on both my daughter Michelle and son Steve's faces as we rode Dumbo together all those years ago. They loved It's A Small World and Peter Pan's Flight.

Peter Pan

About two years ago my son Steve took his family and they stood in line for 90 minutes to see Peter Pan. His comment? "What a hokey ride . . . why did I stand in line an hour and a half for that?" It will never be hokey for me because I'll always remember Steve's reaction when we rode it together in 1977. Peter Pan is one that Carol and I ride every visit.

The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean are two more that we never miss.

Mansion

Pirates

These rides are not "hi-tech" like some of the newer attractions but they still transport me to another world or another time. As I ride I sing along with the 999 happy haunts and the scallywag pirates. "Yo-ho, Yo-ho, a pirates life for me!" As we pass through Adventureland we are always compelled to savour a cold treat. Carol heads to Sunshine Tree Terrace to pick up a Citrus Swirl while I scoot to Aloha Isle for a Pineapple Float. We meet in the middle somewhere and try to achieve simultaneous brain-freezes.

We take a spin with Buzz Lightyear almost every trip.

Buzz

This ride brings out the worst in us. We become ultra-competitive, each trying to outscore the other as we blast Emperor Zurg into the next galaxy! It's great fun!

We enjoy many of the other rides as well but we don't feel compelled to enjoy them every time we visit. Once in a while is good for most of them. Of course, Wishes, the fireworks spectacular, is a "must-do" as well. We try to position ourselves at the back of The Hub, near Casey's Corner to get the best view of the show with Cinderella Castle in the foreground. That leads me to the one other snack we always stop for . . . a Casey's hot dog. Yum!

Many will probably be surprised at my second place ranking. Disney's Animal Kingdom ranks second for me. Why? Well, it's all about the animals.

Tiger

Meercat

Both Carol and I love seeing the animals. We walk all the back trails around the Tree of Life to see and photograph things most visitors miss. Hint: If you walk these trails at noon you will often see cast members feeding the animals and the animals will be front and center for you. There are plenty of photo-ops around noon on the Tree of Life Trails.

Kilimanjaro Safaris is an irresistible draw for us. We sometimes ride it twice, once in early morning and then again just before the park closes. Hint: You can get better pictures from the back row of the truck, but be prepared for the bouncing! It's the bumpiest seat!

Lion at Coppies

Carol is not a fan of roller coasters; she does not like the upside-down experience, but for some reason she really enjoys Expedition Everest. I don't understand why, but I'm glad she does. We ride together once and that's enough for her. I sometimes go directly to the single-rider line and take another spin.

Expedition Everest

After coaxing for a while I finally convinced Carol that coasters are smoother and less stressful if you raise your arms and stop fighting against the rocking and shaking motion. Once she tried it she agreed with me and now she often rides with her arms in the air. The only problem is that she cannot stop giggling when her arms are up. So if you see a woman on Everest, arms in the air and giggling like crazy - that's Carol!

Flights of Wonder is another great show we always enjoy. It always surprises us how many people walk by and skip this awesome performance. The need for conservation is delivered in an entertaining and inspiring fashion. Carol has co-starred in the show four times.

Flights of Wonder

When they ask for volunteers in the owl segment she is always up and waving her hands. Another regular stop is at the gibbon habitat near Kali River Rapids; we love to watch them swinging around their island. If you ever hear them calling to each other you will never forget the experience!

Gibbons

If we have lunch at Animal Kingdom it is almost always egg rolls from the quick service counter at Yak & Yeti; try them - they're great!

Third for me is EPCOT. This park is all about education . . . but the learning at EPCOT is all bundled up in a package of fun so you really don't notice. Educators need to look into this to see how it's done . . . learning can be fun!

Our first "must-do" is the very first attraction, Spaceship Earth.

Spaceship Earth

History, communication and science in one easy lesson; we seldom miss it. Another regular is Soarin'.

Soarin

I like the hang-glider ride one more than Carol but she humours me and rides along with me. It all evens out when I stifle my yawns as I wander through Germany's Der Teddybar shop with her.

We always look for Off Kilter, the celtic rock group who play beside the Canada pavilion, we both enjoy them.

Off-Kilter.jpg

When I hear the Jamitors or The British Revolution I stop to listen while Carol dashes off to shop. Our interests aren't always the same but there are so many things to do that we can both enjoy ourselves at all times.

Dining at EPCOT is great, there are so many good restaurants, but our favourite is Canada's Le Cellier. We seldom miss having dinner at Le Cellier.

Last, but certainly not least is Disney's Hollywood Studios. This is also a wonderful park full of many terrific attractions, rides, sights and sounds. I love the "Streetmosphere", the many street entertainers who put on such entertaining shows.

Streetmosphere

I can sit and watch them again and again, which works out well because Carol can shop again and again!

Studios is home to the newest ride at Walt Disney World, Toy Story Midway Mania. Similar to Buzz Lightyear it's a giant video game that places you in the middle of the action. We try to ride Toy Story several times each trip if we can.

Toy Story Potato Head

We don our 3D glasses and turn into shooting demons, each of us once again striving to totally annihilate our beloved spouse. "I am not your mother . . . break those plates!"

We both enjoy the Tower of Terror and after riding it Carol generally heads down Sunset Boulevard to explore the Villains in Vogue shop while I head to the single-rider line for a spin on Rock 'n Roller Coaster.

Another "must-do" at Studios is a trip to the Animation Courtyard and a visit with David Rippberger, the Disney Ink and Paint artist who works in the Animation Gift Shop. David creates the hand painted animation cels which Carol collects and we like to visit with him to keep abreast of what's coming up next.

Our final irresistible lure at Studios is a relatively new discovery for us. Italian sausage in a bun at Min & Bill's Dockside Diner. We shared our first sausage in a bun about a year ago . . . as soon we bit into it we agreed we would never share one again. They are just too good to share! Don't miss this delicious lunch treat.

Of course no vacation would be complete without a trip to Downtown Disney. I always take my book along and find a spot to sit while Carol shops.

Days of Christmas Store

I read and people-watch while she scours through the Art of Disney Shop, the Disney Days of Christmas Shop and of course Disney's Pin Traders. Once she has worked up a good appetite she joins me and we head directly to the Earl of Sandwich.

Earl of Sandwich

This place has elevated the simple sandwich to an art form. Wow they're good! We often get back to "Earl's" several times during our stay!

There is so much to do outside the parks that I may make that the subject of another blog sometime. For now I will just mention two more of our favourite "non-park" things. First is dinner at 'Ohana in the Polynesian Resort . . . we never miss it. Great food, great location, great value! If you time it right and get a window table you can watch the Wishes fireworks extravaganza from your table. They pipe in the soundtrack too!

Second is a camping favourite, if we're staying in our RV at Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground we head to the beach at the campground a few evenings during our stay. There is a nice little patio beside the dock and we relax at a patio table as we watch Wishes. They pipe in the soundtrack here as well and as an added treat the fireworks are reflected on the waters of Bay Lake. It's a terrific place to watch the show with no crowds! Shortly after Wishes is over the Electrical Water Pageant sails past . . . what a great way to end a day!

So those are a few of my favourite things! There are so many things to do at Walt Disney World that it just never gets stale for us and I doubt that it ever will!

What are your favourite things?

June 26, 2012

Dining Under the Sea at the Coral Reef Restaurant

Andrew Rossi

For years the Coral Reef Restaurant was a mainstay whenever I visited Disney World; no vacation was complete without dining there. Whenever someone would ask what one of my favorite Disney restaurants was I would answer without hesitation saying the Coral Reef Restaurant. However, a few years ago I had a couple of less-than-stellar experiences there; the food quality and quantity, the menu choices, and even the service was not nearly as good as I had been accustomed. It was not just me. I discovered that other friends and family members had disappointing experiences at the Coral Reef Restaurant. As a result, I stayed away for quite some time but recently decided to give it another try. Much to my surprise and delight, I found that the Coral Reef Restaurant had vastly improved since my previous visits and was once again how I remembered it when it was among my favorite restaurants at Disney World.

Coral Reef Signage

Overview:
The Coral Reef Restaurant is truly a unique dining experience among all the restaurants at Disney World. While the food certainly contributes to the overall experience, it is the view into the aquarium that makes dining here so special.

Underwater1

The 5.7 million gallon aquarium is the second largest in North America (next to Atlanta). It is so big that Spaceship Earth could fit inside of it with enough room to spare to drive a Disney bus around the perimeter.

Underwater2

In fact, if you were to take an inch of water from the surface of the aquarium it would be enough to fill a standard size swimming pool.

Underwater3

The glass through which diners look through is eight inches thick and is made of special acrylic designed not to magnify or distort the view.

Underwater4

Inside, the aquarium contains nearly 3,500 individual specimens of marine life comprising 65 species, including everything from sea turtles to sting rays to sharks. Each table in the restaurant has a fish-finding guide to help diners identify the different types of marine life they see swimming by. This is the same underwater environment that be viewed on The Seas with Nemo and Friends attraction as well as from the observation deck of Seabase, providing a different angle from these other locations. This massive aquarium gives the restaurant a certain sense of grandeur and wonder; there is just something about the underwater world that fascinates us.

Atmosphere:
I would describe the Coral Reef Restaurant as being family-friendly upscale. The restaurant's subdued lighting and predominantly blue-green color palette give the restaurant a more elegant and intimate feel.

Coral Reef Dining Room1

At the same time, however, there are more whimsical touches (such as the light fixtures shaped like shells) and children of all ages are greatly entertained watching the various marine life swimming past throughout their meal.

Light Fixture

In this way, the Coral Reef Restaurant provides a great atmosphere for those couples looking for a romantic night out but at the same time provides a fun and entertaining environment that can be enjoyed by the entire family.

Coral Reef Dining Room2

The restaurant has a definite underwater theme, but with a more artistic and abstract flair. This is evident as soon as you enter the waiting area. It is this area that helps set the tone for the rest of the restaurant and begins to immerse you in the undersea environment. Here you will notice that walls move in a curved, wave-like pattern and the floor is covered with a beautiful and intricate seashell mosaic of blues and greens that is carried throughout the rest of the restaurant.

Coral Reef Entrance Hall

There is also a variety of artwork meant to resemble various fish and marine life.

Coral Reef Decor

The aquarium is certainly the main allure of the Coral Reef Restaurant and, despite the dining room's large size, every table offers a great view.

Coral Reef Dining Room3

The tables are all positioned to face the aquarium and arranged on multiple levels. As you move further away from the aquarium windows the tables become more elevated, meaning that tables even at the very back of the dining room have an unobstructed view.

Coral Reef Dining Room4

Coral Reef Dining Room5

In fact, it might actually be better to be positioned further away from the windows as that affords a larger perspective of the aquarium as opposed to being right up against the glass.

The constant visual of the fish swimming by makes for a very calm and serene environment for your meal. The restaurant's subdued lighting and predominantly blue-green color scheme make the dining room a cool escape from the hot Florida weather. The Coral Reef Restaurant is a perfect example of how Disney restaurants help to transport and completely immerse you in a new environment; dining here almost makes you forget you are in the middle of a theme park. This restaurant is a great way to take a break from the all the hustle and bustle and all the crowds. It provides an upscale and quiet, yet relaxing, environment to enjoy a meal while at the same time taking in the majestic beauty of the undersea world.

The Menu:
It should come as no surprise that the Coral Reef Restaurant features a menu that is predominantly comprised of seafood dishes. That being said, there are still a variety of choices that will appeal to seafood and non-seafood lovers alike. While the lunch and dinner menus contain some subtle differences, the appetizer offerings are the same for both.

The appetizers include several different seafood offerings such as Crispy-Fried Shrimp ($11.99) with Coral Reef slaw and a spiced rémoulade, Crab Cakes ($11.99) with a tropical fruit salsa, Fish Tostadas ($8.99) with cabbage, avocado-cilantro cream, and fresh lime, a Rustic Seafood Stew ($11.99) with clams, mussels, white fish, and toasted ciabatta, Creamy Lobster Soup ($7.99) made with tarragon and brandy, Mixed Field Greens ($6.99) with seasonal fruit, blue cheese, candied walnuts, and a balsamic vinaigrette, and, for those who might have difficulty picking just one appetizer, the Appetizer for Two ($16.99) that includes the crab cakes, crispy-fried shrimp, and the creamy lobster soup.

The entrée offerings, for both lunch and dinner, tend to lean more toward the gourmet side, with an emphasis on presentation, the combination of different flavors, and the use of lesser-known ingredients that help give their dishes a little more exotic flair. If you are in the mood for seafood, this is certainly the restaurant for you. Both the lunch and dinner menus offer a wide variety of fish prepared in many different ways including an Orange Ginger-Glazed Scottish Salmon ($22.99) with a vegetable stir-fry, Grilled Mahi Mahi ($24.99) with shrimp, hearts of palm, jasmine rice, cilantro, and a coconut-lime sauce, Seared Rainbow Trout ($19.99) with a warm salad of white beans, arugula, tomatoes, crispy bacon, aged balsamic vinegar, and brown butter, and the Coral Reef Lobster Orecchiette Pasta ($26.49) with white cheddar cheese and basil oil.

If you are in the mood for something other than seafood there is the Seared Chicken Breast ($21.99) served over spaetzle finished with smoked Bacon and chicken broth, Braised Pork Shank ($25.99) with couscous and spring vegetables, Grilled New York Strip Steak ($31.99) served with roasted potatoes, mushrooms, spinach, and a red wine sauce, and, for vegetarians, the Vegetable-Potato Strudel ($18.99) with a tomato compote and basil oil.

The only difference between the lunch and dinner menus is that the lunch menu features a Caesar Salad ($11.99) that can be served with chicken breast ($15.49) or with shrimp ($17.49) while the dinner menu contains a Pan-Seared Sustainable Seasonal Catch (market price) served on basil risotto with bay scallops, a warm tomato salad, and a white wine butter sauce.

There are a good variety of dessert options as well including the restaurant's famous Chocolate Wave ($8.49), a Key Lime Mousse ($7.99) with roasted pineapple and mango sauce, Classic Vanilla Crème Brûlée ($7.99), a Baileys and Jack Daniel's Mousse ($7.99), and a Cherry Cheesecake($7.99).

Whenever I dine at the Coral Reef Restaurant I always start my meal with the Creamy Lobster Soup. This is my favorite lobster bisque that I have had anywhere in Disney World and maybe anywhere outside of Disney as well. For me, the best kind of lobster bisque is that which has a definite lobster flavor but without having too strong of that seafood/shellfish taste. I like bisques that tend to be more on the thicker, creamier side and that is exactly what the lobster soup at Coral Reef Restaurant is like.

Creamy Lobster Soup

In addition to its creamy consistency and flavor, there is just the slightest hint of brandy that gives the soup just a little kick. In addition, there are very large chunks of lobster meat that ensure the flavor of the lobster is still present. This is one appetizer that is certainly very rich and filling. Having one bowl all to yourself could easily fill you up before even having your entrée. The soup is big enough that it can be enjoyed by two people.

When deciding on my entrée I enquired as to what the Pan-Seared Sustainable Seasonal Catch was and was informed that it was salmon. I immediately decided that this was what I was going to get for my meal since salmon is one of my favorite types of fish. This entrée has changed slightly since I got it just about a month ago. The fish now comes served on basil risotto with bay scallops, a warm tomato salad, and a white wine butter sauce. When I got this entrée, however, it was served with a wild mushroom risotto with bay scallops and a parsley-truffle oil.

Salmon

The salmon was prepared absolutely perfectly so that it was slightly crispy on top but still nice and moist inside. It was also a very generously-sized piece of salmon, large enough that I was not able to finish it all. Salmon itself is a fairly mild-flavored fish, so it was the risotto that really enhanced the overall taste and really made the dish what it was. It is no stretch to say that the wild mushroom risotto was one of the richest, creamiest risottos I have ever tasted. I am not usually the biggest fan of mushrooms, but here they really complimented the salmon quite nicely without overpowering the flavor of the fish. The bay scallops in the risotto were very tender and were small enough that they might have gone unnoticed if not mentioned on the menu, but they added just the slightest bit of extra flavor to the dish. The parsley-truffle oil had almost the flavor of a light pesto, which paired very nicely with both the risotto and the salmon. Overall, this was a very elegant dish, not only presented beautifully but also featuring a tremendous combination of flavors and textures.

For dessert I chose one of the menu's signature items, the Chocolate Wave. This dessert is akin to a chocolate soufflé and features a warm dark chocolate cake with a white chocolate Grand Marnier center that oozes out when you cut into the cake. The cake itself is so moist that it seems as though it can literally melt in your mouth. While the white chocolate filling has a slight hint of Grand Marnier I did not find it to be too overwhelming, its slight citrusy flavor giving the dessert just an extra little kick. This is definitely a rich, decadent dessert and, after having a filling meal, can easily be split and enjoyed by two people.

Chocolate Wave

Service:
The tremendous service I received was something that definitely stood out on my most recent visit to the Coral Reef Restaurant. While I have never had bad service here in the past, I found my server on this visit to be especially attentive. Even though she was waiting on several tables, my sever took time to explain several dishes on the menu and offer her own recommendations. She was also very accommodating. When another member of my party noted that we would be splitting the lobster soup she immediately offered to bring it in two separate bowls instead of sharing out of the same one. She also had no problem with substituting various items on the menu when another member of my party wanted to try the grilled mahi mahi but have it with the mushroom risotto instead of the jasmine rice that was listed on the menu.

I also found my server to be very pleasant and personable. She was from Hawaii and we quickly struck up a conversation about the new Aulani resort. Most importantly, my server was constantly checking in on us to make sure we were enjoying everything with our meal. I could tell she was truly passionate about her job and it made my experience here all the better.

Dining on a Budget:
The Coral Reef Restaurant is certainly not the cheapest dining option at Epcot, but you definitely get what you pay for in terms of both atmosphere and food quality. If you are looking for a truly special and unique dining experience that can be enjoyed by your entire family, then it is worth splurging a little to dine here. That being said, there are some ways to dine here without completely breaking the bank. One option that I would recommend is making a meal out of appetizers. The Creamy Lobster Soup for $7.99 is absolutely huge and very filling. Combining that with another appetizer would most likely be more than enough for a meal. The Crispy-Fried Shrimp for $11.99, the Crab Cakes for $11.99, and the Rustic Seafood Stew for $11.99 are all other appetizer offerings that are more economical than ordering an entrée. The best value is probably the Appetizer for Two ($16.99) that includes the crab cakes, crispy-fried shrimp, and the creamy lobster soup. Ordering this as a meal for one person would probably be more than enough food.

The Coral Reef Restaurant is on the Disney Dining Plan and is only one table service credit for both lunch and dinner. This restaurant is definitely one of the better values when using the dining plan, a great way to get the most for your money. The restaurant also participates in Tables in Wonderland and thus offers members a 20% discount. Unfortunately, the Coral Reef Restaurant does not offer discounts for either Annual Passholders Disney Vacation Club members.

The Overall Experience:
The Coral Reef Restaurant is truly a dining experience; while the food is fantastic, it is just one aspect that makes the restaurant so special. The atmosphere is like none other found in Disney World, one that is so unique and so immersive that you will almost completely forget that you are in the middle of a theme park. This is a restaurant that I have dined at many times, having some great experiences but also some less-than-stellar experiences in recent years. After staying away for a while I am happy to say that the Coral Reef Restaurant has returned to a position of prominence that it once enjoyed. Although it had fell out of favor with me for some time, I can now say that the Coral Reef Restaurant is back on my list of must-do Disney restaurants.

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

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

May 19, 2012

Aspiring young chefs can learn to cook at 3 Downtown Disney restaurants

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Young chefs work with about 30 feet of fresh pasta dough.

UPDATE: The class on June 23 has sold out. Levy Restaurants has added a second class on June 24 at the same time and price.

It's probably no surprise that many kids love to help their parents in the kitchen, but it's often with baking. Stirring and then sampling sweets is fun for all ages, right?

Levy Restaurants, however, is offering kids ages 6 to 12 the opportunity to make three delicious dishes at three different Downtown Disney restaurants at Walt Disney World. The kid-friendly cooking class takes place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, June 23, at Fulton's Crab House, Portobello Restaurant and Wolfgang Puck Café.

So, what will the budding chefs create? The professionals at each restaurant will help kids make Goin' Fishin' snack mix, ravioli gigante and dessert sushi, and then they will sample what they have created.

"Last year we had about 30 feet of fresh pasta dough spread out with kids elbow to elbow filling, forming and cutting ravioli to simulate what we do in our kitchen every day for one of our signature items, 'Ravioli Gigante'," said Steven Richard, area chef for Levy Restaurants and former executive chef at Portobello. "It was a huge hit, and we are doing it again this year."

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Kids ages 6 to 12 learn to make sushi.

This is the third year that Portobello, Fulton's Crab House and Wolfgang Puck Café have teamed up to offer a spring cooking class for children. Richard said the young chefs have learned to prepare "variations of sushi ranging from the well-known, such as California rolls, to chicken finger rolls and this year's dessert sushi at Wolfgang Puck's. We've done pizza and homemade ravioli at Portobello. Fulton's has also done a range of things from chocolate chip cookies to the " Goin' Fishin' " snack mix that we will do this year."

Parents who might be hesitant to drop off their younger children are welcome to observe and even participate in the class. Others might seize the four hours that they know their kids are well-supervised and having fun to enjoy their own lunch and shopping at Downtown Disney.

"What we try to do for adult, as well as kids', cooking classes is to simplify and remove the mystery from things that people might not otherwise try at home. There is no reason why you can't make sushi, homemade pizza or fresh pasta at home, yet many people are intimidated to try it," Richard said. "Exposing children to a culture of home cooking is a very positive thing, and it can broaden the way that they look at food and inspire a healthy curiosity."

"Last year I made sushi for 16 second-graders [in his wife's elementary-school class] who had never tried it before. Most had never heard of it. By the end of the class, every one of them tried it and loved it," he said. "We get much of the same reaction when we do the classes in the restaurants. Imagine having your six-year-old asking for sushi instead of a burger and fries."

The Levy cooking class is $36 per child. Registration is on a first-come, first-served basis until the class is full. To sign up, call 407-828-8996.

March 28, 2012

Cap'n Jack's Restaurant: Downtown Disney's Overlooked Dining Location

Andrew Rossi

When it comes to dining at Downtown Disney, I have a certain group of restaurants that are my favorites which I tend to go to again and again. On a recent trip to Downtown Disney, however, I decided to try a restaurant that I have never even set foot in despite the countless times I have walked past it or seen it from across the lake. Cap'n Jack's Restaurant certainly does not have the name recognition of some of the other dining locations at Downtown Disney and curiously, amongst my friends, family, and coworkers, no one I talked to had ever dined there either; all I really knew about it was that it is primarily a seafood restaurant.

Signage

With the wide variety of dining choices at Downtown Disney, Cap'n Jack's seems to get overlooked. However, sometimes these lesser-known restaurants can surprise you and turn out to be some of the best. Given the restaurant's relative obscurity, I was very curious to finally give it a try, especially since I am the type of person always willing to try something new.

Restaurant Exterior1

Overview:
The area that is now the Downtown Disney Marketplace actually dates all the way back to March 22, 1975 when the area first opened as the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village. The area was first promoted as a "restful shopping atmosphere similar to a New England seaside village" and included a wine cellar, tobacco shop, pharmacy, pet store, and small kiosks to watch craftspeople make candles, pottery and candy. If you look closely at the design of the buildings in the Marketplace section of Downtown Disney, you can still see remnants of that original seaside village theme and, of course, no seaside village would be complete without a seafood restaurant.

I never realized this, but Cap'n Jack's was one of the original restaurants at the Shopping Village when it opened in 1975, making it one of the older dining locations in all of Disney World. Being a Disney history buff, this gave me much more respect for the restaurant knowing that it had been around for that long. While numerous other restaurants at Downtown Disney have come and gone, Cap'n Jack's has withstood the test of time, so clearly they have to be doing something right.

Atmosphere:
The first thing that really stands out about Cap'n Jack's is its location; the restaurant literally sits right on top of the water. Its shape and location give the restaurant an appearance similar to that of Narcoossee's at the Grand Floridian.

Restaurant Exterior2

Restaurant Exterior3

Once you have entered Cap'n Jack's the atmosphere is quintessential nautical New England. The hardwood floors and wood-paneled walls set the tone for the dining room, but the theming is taken even further with all the little details of the décor.

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All around the restaurant you will find various bits of seafaring and nautical touches, ranging from ship's wheels, compasses, and other navigational equipment to lobster traps.

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Nautical Theming2

Along the walls of the dining room are numerous black and white photographs and paintings of sailing vessels, steamships, and lighthouses, all of which lend an added degree of authenticity to the dining experience. There were certainly elements of the dining room that reminded me of seafood restaurants I have been to back home in Rhode Island.

Nautical Painting

Lighthouse Painting

The only element that betrayed the theming of the restaurant was the music that was playing. I found it odd that despite the New England-style décor the music was predominantly tropical. I entered the restaurant hearing Jimmy Buffett singing Margaretville and throughout the course of my meal there was various calypso, reggae, and other Caribbean-sounding music. One song I heard that I found to be both a funny and ironic twist on the restaurant's theme was "Come Sail Away" by Styx.

The real allure of the restaurant, however, rests not in its nautical décor but with the tremendous views offered from its numerous windows. As noted earlier, the restaurant juts out into the lake, which means that the dining room's circular shape offers great panoramic views from all sides of Downtown Disney and Saratoga Springs. In addition, the tables are positioned in such a way that no matter where you sit you will have a good view outside.

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View2

The overall feel of the restaurant is casual and laid-back. The dining room even features a large bar that makes the perfect place to come and enjoy a drink while taking in the beautiful views.

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It is certainly a restaurant that can be enjoyed by families travelling with smaller children, but also by adults. In this way, Cap'n Jack's offers a nice alternative for those in the mood for seafood but looking for something a little more family-friendly and relaxing than Fulton's Crab House located just across the lake.

The Menu:
Originally being from New England I love all types of seafood, so I was excited to see what Cap'n Jack's menu had to offer. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed with the selection. I found the menu to be pretty straight forward, featuring many standard seafood dishes with nothing too exotic or extreme.

There were not too many appetizer offerings to choose from and they included Peel N' Eat Shrimp for Two ($13.99) served with cocktail sauce, Smoked Trout Fillet with Horseradish Cream ($8.99), Spinach & Artichoke Dip ($7.49), a Mixed Greens Salad ($5.49) with a choice of ranch dressing or papaya vinaigrette, Hearty Vegetable Soup ($3.99), and New England Clam Chowder ($5.49).

Because I went during lunchtime, there are some offerings that are only available during the day. These sandwiches provide some additional choices to a menu that is not too large. The lunch options include an Open-Faced Crab Cake Melt Sandwich ($18.99) served on top of garlic focaccia bread topped with tomato, tartar sauce, and melted provolone, a Cajun Tilapia Sandwich ($12.99) on a toasted hoagie roll with a house-made tartar sauce, topped with sliced tomato and onion, an Open-Faced Chicken Parmesan Sandwich ($13.99) on top of garlic focaccia bread, a Pot Roast Sandwich ($12.99) served on a toasted garlic hoagie roll and topped with onions and melted provolone cheese, and a Tuna Nicoise Sandwich ($11.49) which includes white albacore tuna mixed with potato, green beans, eggs and a vinaigrette dressing served on a croissant with sliced tomato, onion, and lettuce.

The rest of the items on the menu are available for both lunch and dinner and consist of primarily seafood offerings. However, being originally from New England and having been exposed to so many varieties of seafood dishes while living there, I was very disappointed with the limited scope and diversity of the menu.

The entrée offerings include Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes ($24.99) with Cajun mustard aioli, green asparagus tips, and roasted garlic red skin potatoes, Roast Chicken Breast ($18.99) with sherry wine sauce, mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables, Citrus Shrimp Salad ($15.99) that includes assorted greens, marinated shrimp, papaya, apple, and tomato with a citrus vinaigrette, a Baked Salmon Fillet ($19.99) with citrus-caper butter sauce, buttered steamed potatoes, and seasonal vegetables, a Baked Tilapia Filet ($19.99) with a cool mango salsa, rice pilaf, and seasonal vegetables, Caesar Salad with Blue Crab Meat ($15.99), with Grilled Chicken Breast ($12.99), with Salmon Fillet ($16.49), or with Shrimp ($14.49), Penne Pasta Alfredo ($13.99), with blue crab meat ($19.99), with grilled chicken breast ($19.99), or with Shrimp ($18.99), Old Fashioned Beef Pot Roast ($17.99) with onion ragout, red-skin mashed potatoes, and seasonal vegetables, and Shrimp and Penne Pasta ($19.99) in a creamy lobster sauce.

The dessert offerings are limited and fairly uninspired. Among the choices are a Double Chocolate Cake with Ice Cream ($5.99) drizzled with Caramel Sauce and Raspberry Sauce, Key Lime Pie ($5.49), White Chocolate Raspberry New York Cheesecake ($5.49), and a Fresh Fruit Salad ($4.99). I would much rather pass on dessert altogether here and head to the nearby Ghirardelli Soda Fountain for one of their delicious sundaes.

For an appetizer I decided to try the New England Clam Chowder. I am very picky when it comes to chowder and have had it in more restaurants than I can count. The chowder at Cap'n Jack's was not bad, but it was certainly not something to write home about; there was nothing really special about it that made it stand out. I prefer my chowder to be a little on the thicker side and this one was a little thin, but it still had a nice creamy flavor. While the chowder had a generous amount of clams and potatoes, they were chopped up into very small pieces. Personally, I think having larger pieces of potato and clams in chowder allows you to enjoy their flavors more because they stand out and don't get lost in the flavor of the broth.

Clam Chowder

A big test for me when it comes to chowder is how much pepper I need to add. The best chowders are those that can stand alone by themselves and don't need any pepper for extra flavor. The chowder at Cap'n Jack's was just a little bland and I needed to add a bit of pepper to kick it up a notch.

For my entrée I decided on the Open-Faced Crab Cake Melt Sandwich. This dish is really a sandwich in name only as it would be difficult to eat without the assistance of a knife and fork. I was happy to find that this dish was much more flavorful than the chowder. To start, the focaccia bread was toasted to a nice golden brown so that it was crispy on top but still soft inside. The bread was flavored with herbs and garlic, but I did not find these to be too strong so as to overpower the crab cake. Instead, the focaccia paired very well with the crab cake while also providing a nice contrast in texture.

Crab Cake Melt

The crab cake itself was very good. I have had crab cakes elsewhere that combine so many other ingredients with the crab that they actually start to take away from the crab's flavor. This was not the case here. Not only did the crab cake have nice-sized chunks of crabmeat, but it was also extremely moist. I was not sure how the provolone cheese was going to pair with the crab cake and was scared that it might be too strong and overpower the crab. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the flavor of the cheese actually went along very well with the crab. The only part of the sandwich that I did not care for was the tomato that topped the crab cake; its flavor just stood out too much and took away from that of the crab.

Overall, I was pleased with my meal. Was it the best meal that I have ever had at Disney? No, but I would not say it was bad by any means. However, I do feel that the restaurant is missing a golden opportunity by not offering a wider array of seafood dishes. The menu is very simple and if I am really in the mood for seafood there are several other restaurants at Disney World that I would go to before coming back here because of their more diverse offerings.

Service:
The one thing that stood out most about the service at Cap'n Jack's was how slow it was. I did not have a reservation but was still seated right away, which was great especially considering that it was a Saturday afternoon. Once I was seated, however, it was a very long time before my server ever came to my table. This was a constant theme throughout the course of the meal. It took a long time for me to get my drink, my appetizer, my entrée, and my bill at the end of the meal. I really cannot understand why the service was so slow either because the restaurant was not exactly crowded. I am all for having a calm and relaxing meal when I go out to eat, but this was bordering on being unbearable. If you are in a rush and looking for a quick meal, this is definitely not the restaurant for you.

Dining on a Budget:
One positive thing about Cap'n Jack's menu is that all the dishes are fairly reasonable by Disney standards. If going for lunch the sandwiches are an especially good value. If you have your heart set on crab cakes, I would definitely recommend getting the sandwich for lunch as it is $6 cheaper than the crab cake meal and is still very filling. Even other items like the Citrus Shrimp Salad for $15.99 or the Caesar Salad with Shrimp for $14.49 are a good deal. It is prices like these that make Cap'n Jack's an alternative if you are at Downtown Disney, in the mood for seafood, but do not necessarily want to have an expensive meal at Fulton's Crab House.

Cap'n Jack's does participate in the Disney Dining Plan and is worth one table service credit for both lunch and dinner. In addition, Annual Passholders receive a 10% discount for lunch as do Disney Vacation Club members. Cap'n Jack's also participates in Tables in Wonderland, offering its members a 20% discount.

The Overall Experience:
This was my first ever experience with Cap'n Jack's and, while I am glad that I tried it at least once, I have other restaurants at Downtown Disney that I enjoy much more. However, if you have a situation where you are looking for somewhere to eat at Downtown Disney and there are long waits at all of the restaurants, Cap'n Jack's lesser-known status makes it easier to get a table. This is probably the only way that I would find myself eating at Cap'n Jack's again; this is not a restaurant that I would specifically plan a trip to Downtown Disney to go an eat at.

The restaurant has a lot of nice things about it, such as its beautiful location right out on the water and its charming New England nautical theme, but there are other aspects that leave more to be desired (such as the menu needing a complete makeover). One of the great things about Disney World is that there are so many different dining locations available, so even if you try Cap'n Jack's and find that it is not quite to your liking there are several other restaurants across property that specialize in seafood available for you to try.

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Cap'n Jack's Restaurant and post your own too!

March 2, 2012

Rediscover Disney Through the Eyes of a First-Timer

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You are a die-hard Disney fan, a lot like me! I know this is true because you are reading this blog. You must be a devoted fan if you are here at AllEars.net and discovered this link.

You know the Disney parks like the back of your hand. You have visited them so many times that you know the quickest way to get from the Haunted Mansion to the Pirates of the Caribbean. That's right . . . just past the Diamond Horseshoe you turn left, duck through the alley, pass the rest rooms and turn right into Adventureland.

You are aware that as you leave Frontierland and enter Adventureland things change. The background music changes, the plant life changes, the building facades change, even the texture of the concrete you are walking on changes. You have moved from one world and into another. You are in another place and another time.

There are so many little factors that all add up to what we call "The Disney Magic" . . . and you understand them. You feel The Disney Magic. You "get it".

You appreciate how the parks are designed to immerse you in magic. You notice all the little things that they really didn't have to do when they designed and built the attractions. But they built them in anyway; it's all part of the magic.

There are lots of people who don't get it. They don't feel the magic and they will never understand why you do. You probably have friends who say, "Why do you always go to Disney World? It's a place for kids." Others will tell you, "I went to Disney World (or Disneyland) one day. It was too crowded and there wasn't much to see." These people probably annoy you; they annoy me too.

Now cast your memory back to your first trip to a Disney park. Wasn't it overwhelming? Oh yes, it was wonderful, but there was so much to see and you didn't know where to start. I see those people in the parks all the time, just like I was back in 1977, confused or frustrated looks on their faces, looking at a guide map, bewildered.

Wouldn't it be nice if you could go back and do your very first trip over again, but this time do it with the benefit of all you now know about Disney? How much more could you have seen and enjoyed that first time if you knew your way around like you do today?

I wish I could make that happen, I'd sure like to have a "do-over" too.

But there is a way to enjoy that kind of experience. Take a friend who's never been there before and act as their tour guide. Give them the benefit of all you have learned. Pay it forward!

If you are at all like me you will enjoy watching them see it all for the first time. It's like a vicarious first time for me; I take pleasure in every oooh and aaah. It even works with someone who has not been there in a number of years as they see the new attractions and take delight in seeing their Disney favorites again.

My wife Carol and I have had the chance to do this several times. Each time it was a unique experience for us.

Over ten years ago we treated her parents to a week-long trip to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. We acted as their tour guides. Carol's Mom had been there a number of times, most recently in 1993, but for her Dad it was a first.

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He just loved the theming at the Port Orleans French Quarter resort and beamed as we took the boat ride to Downtown Disney. He soaked in every experience we threw at him and looked happier than I had ever seen him. My most vivid memory from the trip was watching him enjoy MuppetVision 3D. Visualize a seventy-two year old man giggling throughout the show . . . there is an inner child in all of us and its magic when we let that child loose!

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They enjoyed it so much that they have gone back six times on their own and also gone on three Disney cruises.

About six years ago we had just returned from the annual EPCOT Pin Trading Event and were telling my mother about the fun we had. She sighed wistfully and said, "I sure would like to get back there one more time." She had been there twice, the last time was 22 years prior in 1983. We decided to grant her wish and within a month we were back at our favourite place. We spent five glorious days racing around the parks pushing her in a wheelchair . . . she could walk, but we made much better time with the chair. In five days we saw virtually every attraction in each park. She was beaming, grinning from ear to ear the whole time.

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What was my seventy-six year old mother's favourite thing? Lets see . . . was it the banana split she had for lunch at the Plaza Restaurant? No. Was it riding in the front on the monorail? No. Was it Mickey's PhilharMagic where she reached out to grab the jewels as Ariel sang about "whoosits and whatsits galore"? No. When we were all done, we had seen it all, we asked what she would like to see again on the sixth day, our last day there. She quickly replied, "The Hall of Presidents." I thought it an odd thing for a Canadian to ask, but off we went . . . after all, it was her dream!

Recently, while we were camped at Fort Wilderness, we got a phone call from some long time friends from our home town. They were just leaving Nashville in their RV and decide to stop in to see us for a few days on their way to Key Largo. We arranged to have them assigned the campsite right beside us and they pulled in a few days later at noon. He had never been to Walt Disney World and she had not been there since the 1980's. They had a day and a half until they had to leave. Wow . . . what to do? We asked what they wanted to see, the reply was, "You are the experts, bring it on!" So we did.

The first day, after they had their RV set up, was all about resorts. Since they are campers we showed them around Fort Wilderness, then caught the launch to Wilderness Lodge and the Contemporary Resort Hotel.

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We took a quick spin around the resort monorail loop and pointed out the sights as we passed them by. After dinner at Trail's End we drove around in the golf cart and enjoyed the awesome Christmas decorations at "The Fort". We finished our day by watching Wishes and the Electric Water Pageant from the Fort Wilderness beach. Their comment at the end of the night? "Wow, we had a lot of fun today and it was all free!"

The next morning we hit the ground running. EPCOT! We covered the entire park in a day; we saw every attraction and rode every ride except Imagination.

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It was a whirlwind, but a great time. The highlights? Well, they are both car buffs so naturally they enjoyed Test Track but I really enjoyed watching them as they smelled the pine forest and the orange grove in Soarin'. He had a huge grin when we stopped near the archway at Innoventions to watch the Jam-itors play. In Canada we watched the CircleVision movie. You can almost see their cottage in the movie. Its near that bridge in the Thousand Islands. "Look," they said, "there's Smuggler's Bay." They were both tapping their toes as The British Revolution played behind the UK pavilion.

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After a great dinner at Chefs de France we continued our way around World Showcase and finished just in time to watch Illuminations. He asked, "Do they do this every night?" Yup . . . every night.

The next morning, as they pulled out, the thanks were effusive. But they didn't need to say thanks; just being able to watch them enjoy themselves had been thanks enough.

Our latest experience with a "first-timer" was just a few weeks ago. Carol used to visit Walt Disney World with her good friend Judy when the children were young. Judy had not been there since 1997 and her husband Scott had never been there. They booked a two-week trip and stayed at Port Orleans French Quarter; we decided to take the RV to Fort Wilderness and enjoy some time there with our friends. We had a great time and so did they!

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We didn't spend a great deal of time with them; they mostly explored on their own. We got them oriented at the parks Judy had not seen before and then let them enjoy it, at their own pace. Most evenings we met for dinner and I really enjoyed hearing Scott recap all the things they did each day.

I interviewed Scott after the trip so he could tell you about his experiences in his own words:

Gary: Your wife Judy had told you many things about Walt Disney World before you went. When you actually got there was it what you were expecting?

Scott: I was not expecting the size of the complex, I figured that the individual parks were quite large and that it would take a number of days to fully appreciate what they had to offer, but the space between each was huge! I had no idea the Disney property is so big.

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G: What was the most surprising thing during your visit?

S: First I was surprised to see so many school-aged children there during the school term and not on a school holiday. Secondly I was amazed at the sheer number of people there on a daily basis. And lastly I saw lots of old grey haired people there too!

G: What was your favourite experience or attraction?

S: My most enjoyable part of Disney was the EPCOT Park. There I was able to see, hear, smell, taste and learn all about different countries that I no doubt will never visit, and I was able to do this, for the most part, at a very leisurely pace.

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G: Is there anything you would like to do at Walt Disney World but didn't have a chance to do this time? Will you do it if you go back?

S: That's an easy question! I would like to play golf at two or three of the courses there. We're already talking about going back this October and I hope to play a round or two with my son-in-law.

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G: Was there anything you didn't like?

S: There was only one thing I didn't like about my vacation in Disney and that was leaving the lovely weather and returning to possibly two more months of winter here in Canada.

G: Is there anything you would do differently if you visit again?

S: If I was to visit Disney again I probably would not spend as much time in the Magic Kingdom. I found it quite confusing to navigate around. I am not a big fan of the Disney characters and I have not been brought up in a "magical atmosphere"; that's probably why I don't appreciate what the Magic Kingdom has to offer. The crowds there were larger too! I would shorten my stay at Disney Studios as well. There were a few things there that I found interesting. I really enjoyed Toy Story and Lights, Motors, Action. But for the most part I found it too was a little confusing to get around. The Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios weren't my favorites; EPCOT and Animal Kingdom had a lot more to suit my taste.

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G: What advice would you give to someone else who is visiting for the first time?

S: I would suggest that 2-3 weeks are required to completely see and do everything there is to enjoy. I would also recommend that you try all forms of transportation Disney offers as each is unique and each offers a different visual perspective on the way the complex was built. I really enjoyed the boat ride from Port Orleans to Downtown Disney. As we sailed past all those resorts and golf courses on our way to the shopping, dining and entertainment area I developed a real appreciation for the diversity of this amazing vacation destination. Oh yeah, also make sure you have reservations for dinner at 'Ohana. I sure loved those shrimp!

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G: People often say that Walt Disney World is only for children. How would you reply to them?

S: I felt that the main theme of Walt Disney World was to make children happy and it did! It also made it very easy for the parents to achieve that goal. It is a terrific spot for children. But I also felt that it was a great place to go for an adult vacation. It offers a great selection of accommodations and excellent dinning options. It certainly offers plenty of things to see and plenty to learn in a very safe and clean environment. Having seen everything for the first time I now look forward to going back for another relaxing vacation at Walt Disney World.

Every time Carol and I visit Walt Disney World with a "first-timer" we see something fresh, something brand new. Sure, we've seen it many times before but now we're looking from a fresh perspective. It really is like seeing it all again for the first time.

So if you're looking for a way to see "The Disney Magic" again for the first time, try visiting with a "first-timer". Take all that Disney expertise you have gathered over the years and Pay it Forward. We enjoy the experience and I think you will too!

December 22, 2011

San Angel Inn: From Mexico City to Epcot

Andrew Rossi

When it comes to the countries of World Showcase, Mexico is one of my favorites to spend time in. While the pavilion's Mayan pyramid exterior is certainly impressive, it is what lies inside that makes Mexico truly unique among all the countries. It is unfortunate that more than a few guests to Epcot do not even know that there is an indoor portion to the Mexican pavilion and just pass by without getting to experience one of World Showcase's most immersive atmospheres. When it comes to transporting guests to a totally different time and place, no country does it quite as well as Mexico. From the minute you step inside you will almost forget that you are in Disney World and become completely immersed in the sights and sounds of a bustling Mexican nighttime marketplace.

Of course, no journey to Mexico would be complete without sampling the country's cuisine. Fortunately for guests, the pavilion offers a variety of dining options, from La Hacienda de San Angel and La Cantina de San Angel along the shores of the World Showcase Lagoon to the pavilion's tequila bar La Cava del Tequila. Each dining location has a something a little different to offer, but my personal favorite is the San Angel Inn. Not only does this restaurant deliver authentic Mexican cuisine, but it features an atmosphere unlike any other at Disney World.

San Angel Signage

Overview:
The San Angel Inn has its roots in Mexico itself and has a very fascinating history. The origins of the San Angel Inn in Mexico City actually go all the way back to 1692 when a beautiful hacienda was built near the town. Originally intended to be a monastery, the hacienda served as a tranquil retreat for the Mexican aristocracy. Among some of the more notable figures to visit the hacienda were General Santa Ana and Pancho Villa. The hacienda actually became a pulque (an alcoholic cactus beverage) factory before being purchased by the San Angel Land Company in 1906. The hacienda was then converted into a hotel and restaurant and named the San Angel Inn.

The San Angel Inn at Epcot's Mexico pavilion looks to continue the legacy of the original in Mexico City and deliver a dining experience which is truly authentic. As is stated on the restaurant's menu the San Angel Inn strives to "present the subtle flavors and surprising tastes which are genuinely Mexican." However, this is a restaurant that delivers an experience which is about so much more than just the food and this is what so successfully helps to create a complete sense of immersion into Mexican culture. The San Angel Inn is a restaurant that combines the "style and spirit of old Mexico, the warmth of hacienda hospitality, and the assurance of exceptionally fine food." Together, this is what makes the San Angel Inn a truly memorable dining experience.

Atmosphere:
The mood is set as soon as you step into the pyramid and make your way to the Plaza de los Amigos (Plaza of the Friends). The nighttime setting of the marketplace was specifically chosen by Disney Imagineers because it would be more authentic to the operating hours of a typical Mexican market. The marketplace is crammed with various carts and stands selling traditional Mexican items ranging from sombreros and piñatas to blankets, ceramic pottery, jewelry, and other hand-made goods.

Marketplace

As you meander your way through the marketplace toward the rear of the pavilion you will eventually come to the San Angel Inn. The restaurant's out of the way location may sometimes cause it to go overlooked by those not specifically seeking it out.

Dining Area1

One of the most notable features of the San Angel Inn is its position along the banks of the Grand Fiesta Tour boat ride. Guests sitting at tables on the water's edge dine as they watch other guests in their boats passing by. The Mayan pyramid and lush tropical jungle on the opposite side of the river serve as an impressive backdrop for the restaurant. There is even a smoldering, smoking volcano that erupts occasionally as well. It is certainly a beautiful setting to enjoy your meal.

Boat Ride

This is a concept the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else in Disney World, but most likely has its roots in Disneyland with the Blue Bayou Restaurant which sits inside of Pirates of the Caribbean.

The nighttime setting of the restaurant gives the San Angel Inn an intimate, slightly romantic feel. The atmosphere is so effective in creating an open-air, outdoor feel that you may actually forget that you are dining inside. Despite being right next to the Grand Fiesta Tour and adjacent to the busy marketplace, the restaurant is surprisingly quiet. This is a great restaurant if you are looking for a romantic meal, whether celebrating an anniversary or just wanting to spend some time alone away from the kids. At the same time, it is still a restaurant that is perfect for the entire family. Children will be greatly entertained watching the boats sail by on the river and the restaurant, although more upscale and refined, still has a warm and inviting feel.

Dining Area2

San Angel Inn not too long ago underwent a minor change in its décor, one that might go unnoticed by most but still had an impact on the overall feel of the restaurant. Prior to this, the San Angel Inn featured tables and chairs that were very bright and vibrant in color.

Old San Angel

These yellow tables with their green, pink, red, and yellow chairs were replaced by tables draped with white tablecloths and natural-colored wooden chairs. Even the layout of the tables in the restaurant was changed, with tables now positioned in straight rows.

New San Angel

On the tables themselves, the place settings now feature new flatware and china that is inspired by those found at the original San Angel Inn in Mexico City.

Table Settings

These changes not only help give the restaurant more of an upscale feel, but also increase the sense of authenticity. You really feel as though you are dining in the middle of Mexico.

The Menu:
Just as the San Angel Inn's décor was recently changed, the menu also underwent some transformations to deliver more authentic Mexican dishes similar to those found at the restaurant's Mexico City counterpart. The lunch and dinner menus are relatively similar with the major difference between the two being the price. The prices that I include here reflect those found on the dinner menu.

The menu features many intriguing appetizer offerings including Coctel de Camaron ($12.00), an Acopolco-style shrimp cocktail with a spicy marinated tomato sauce. Other items are the Tostadas de Tinga ($10.00), pulled chicken seasoned with roasted tomato and chipotle served on tostadas with refried beans, green tomatillo sauce, queso fresco, and sour cream, Tlacoyos de Chilorio ($11.00), corncakes topped with refried beans, pork, queso fresco, green tomatillo sauce, and sour cream, Tacos de Filete ($13.00) featuring beef tenderloin served on soft flour tortillas topped with a chipotle pepper sauce, Sopa Azteca ($7.00) served with fried tortilla strips, avocado, cheese, and pasilla pepper, and Ensalada Cesar ($10.00). It might seem unusual to see a Cesear salad at a Mexican restaurant, but it was actually created in Mexico in the 1920's by a restaurateur named Caesar Cardini and has been served at the San Angel Inn in Mexico City since 1963.

The entrée selections offer a little something for everyone with a variety of meat and seafood dishes. One common thread throughout all the dishes is their tremendous flavor, using a variety of herbs and seasonings you may not be familiar with. While there are many spicy selections on the menu that are certainly not for the faint of heart, there are others that are a little more mild in flavor. If you are an adventurous eater who likes to try new and different dishes this is a great restaurant for you, if not, my best advice would be to ask your server to provide recommendations as to which of the menu items are on the milder side.

Entrée selections include Mole Poblano ($23.00), a grilled chicken breast served over poblano rice with a mole sauce made of nuts, spcies, chiles, and a hint of cocao, Pollo a las Rajas ($23.00) featuring a grilled chicken breast served with a red pepper and onion cream sauce over poblano rice, Mahi Mahi a la Veracruzana ($23.00) prepared with capers, olives, bell peppers, Spanish onions, and tomatoes, seasoned with white wine and spices, and served over poblano rice, Tilapia al Huitlacoche ($25.00) served over poblano rice and finished with a corn mushroom sauce, Carne Asada a la Tampique ($28.00), featuring a grilled beef tenderloin topped with red bell pepper and onions served with a cheese enchilada, refried beans, Mexican rice, and guacamole, Chile Relleno ($24.00), a poblano pepper stuffed with pork, pine nuts, and almonds topped with a roasted tomato sauce, Lomo de Puerco en Pipian ($26.00), a pork tenderloin served over roasted vegetables and a "pipian" of pumpkin, chilies, and almond sauce, and Camarones a la Diabla ($26.00) featuring roasted shrimp and poblano rice served over a yucca puree and topped with a chile sauce.

You might want to save room for dessert because there are several delectable options available including Crema Bavaria ($8.00), a creamy Bavarian mousse served with mixed berries, cinnamon, and orange liqueur, Isla Flotante ($8.00), a caramelized lime meringue served over vanilla sauce with mixed berries, Helado de Dolce de Leche ($7.00), which is caramel ice cream, and Crepas de Cajeta ($8.00) featuring warm crepes topped with caramel sauce and toasted almonds.

For my entrée I decided on the Carne Asada a la Tampique. What drew my attention to this entrée was not only the steak itself, but also the variety of accompaniments that it comes served with. The steak itself was extremely tender and juicy, grilled just the way I ordered it (medium-well so that it was just slightly pink in color on the inside). The steak had a great taste on its own, but it also came topped with grilled red peppers and onions the provided even extra flavor. The steak had the noticeable taste of crushed black pepper and was probably seasoned with the pepper before being grilled. While this flavor was certainly not overpowering by any means, it did provide a nice little kick to the steak without taking away from it.

Carne Asada

Alongside the steak was a generous portion of Mexican rice and refried beans. I found the rice to be a little on the dry side, but it still had good flavor and a slight spiciness. I was very impressed with the refried beans. I am not the biggest fan of refried beans, but these were extremely good, providing a nice contrast in flavor and texture to that of the steak. Also served with the steak was a cheese enchilada. While this is a less conventional item to have with a steak, I actually found the two went along well with each other. The softness and cheesiness of the enchilada provided a contrast to the flavor of the steak and gave the dish a distinctly Mexican feel. Overall, I found the serving size to be very generous, the steak and its accompaniments making for a very filling meal.

For dessert I ordered the Crepas de Cajeta and it was one of the sweeter desserts I have had. The crepes come completely smothered in caramel sauce. While the crepes themselves were nice and light, the sauce was extremely rich and filling and I was not even able to finish the entire dessert. The crunchiness of the almonds provided a nice contrast in texture to the softer crepes and they helped add a little extra flavor to the dish.

Crepes

I do not usually say this, but this was a dessert that was almost too sweet. I love caramel, but the sauce really overpowered the crepes. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the dessert, I think a little less caramel sauce would have actually been better . Also, a scoop of vanilla ice cream would have gone a long way in providing a much needed light and refreshing contrast in flavor.

Service:
As with all the restaurants around World Showcase, the servers at San Angel Inn are actually from Mexico. This is something that helps to add an extra degree of authenticity to your dining experience. The severs here do much more than take your order and deliver your food, but they actually help transport you to Mexico; they are cultural representatives that can give insight into what life in Mexico is actually like. I have had several experiences here and other restaurants across World Showcase where severs will openly talk about life in their native countries and how things in the United States are different from their homes. This really helps add a whole other element to your dining experience and enables guests to gain greater appreciation of these foreign cultures; it is something that makes dining in World Showcase unique.

As with any restaurant, you will have some severs that are more talkative and personable than others. One downside to having severs with English as their second language is that there is sometimes a language barrier. Your server might not fully understand some questions you may be asking and guests can sometimes have difficultly understanding what the servers are trying to say. That being said, I found all the servers at San Angel Inn to be very courteous and respectful, seeking to deliver the best dining experience possible.

Dining on a Budget:
My best advice if you are looking to save some money would be to dine at San Angel Inn for lunch rather than dinner. While the menus are very similar, the lunch items are generally cheaper. Even those items that are found on both the lunch and dinner menus are cheaper at lunch. For example, the Pollo a las Rajas costs $17 for lunch, but for dinner the price jumps to $23.

One of the best values on the menu is the Traditional Mexican Lunch/Dinner. This is a prix fixe selection that includes an appetizer, entrée, and dessert and, even though there are no substitutions allowed, it is very reasonable price. The lunch offering includes Sopa Azteca (a traditional tortilla soup), Falda, which is a grilled skirt served with corn, spring onions, and black refried beans, and Flan for dessert all for just $25. The dinner is comprised of Tostadas de Tinga, which is pulled chicken seasoned with roasted tomato and chipotle served on tostadas with refried beans, green tomatillo sauce, queso fresco, and sour cream, Tacos de Pescado (fish tacos with cabbage, lime, and a green tomatillo sauce), and the Crema Bavaria dessert all for $34.

If you were to order just the Tostadas de Tinga and Crema Bavaria off the dinner menu individually the cost would be $18 alone, so it is like you are getting the entrée for $16. Making the deal even better is that both lunch and dinner offerings come with a soft drink included in the price. These three course meals are a great way to sample a greater variety of Mexican flavors for a very reasonable price.

The San Angel Inn is a slightly less expensive option, for dinner and especially for lunch, than La Hacienda de San Angel located outside on the shores of the World Showcase lagoon. However, it should be noted that the menus and dishes offered at the two restaurants are totally different from each other. If you are in the mood for Mexican food but just want a quick and relatively inexpensive meal, I would highly recommend La Cantina de San Angel (also located outside along the lagoon) which has a variety of offering ranging from tacos and nachos to empanadas. This is one of the better-quality quick service dining locations you will find at Epcot with prices ranging from $10 to $12.

The San Angel Inn 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 no discount for Disney Vacation Club members, however. The San Angel Inn does participate in Tables in Wonderland and thus offers the 20% for members.

The Overall Experience:
The San Angel Inn delivers a truly memorable dining experience on multiple levels. The restaurant features a menu of flavorful, authentic Mexican cuisine, a group of dedicated and passionate servers from Mexico itself, and a breathtaking, one-of-a-kind atmosphere that is unmatched by any other dining location in Disney World. All these things combine help make the San Angel Inn one of the most immersive restaurants in World Showcase. You are so completely wrapped up in the sounds, sights, and tastes of Mexico that you will easily forget that you are actually sitting in the middle of a theme park.

While both the food and service are extremely good, it is the restaurant's atmosphere that keeps making me want to go back again and again. It is a restaurant that enables you to feel as though you are dining outside under the stars, but without having to put up with insects or the elements. Calm and quiet, with a slightly refined and romantic feel, the San Angel Inn is certainly one of the most beautiful restaurants you will find in all of Disney World. Dining here is about so much more than just the food, it is about the complete dining experience; it is a little bit of Mexico in the middle of Florida.

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of San Angel Inn and post your own too!

November 27, 2011

Have a Jolly Good Time at the Rose and Crown

Andrew Rossi

When it comes to truly immersive dining experiences, Epcot's World Showcase offers a tremendous variety of restaurants to try. While each country's restaurants offer something a little different for guests, they share a common thread in that they all strive to achieve a level of authenticity that helps immerse guests into that country's cuisine and culture. The restaurants in World Showcase are among the most unique in all of Disney World. These are restaurants that are about so much more than just the food they serve; it is truly about the complete dining experience.

These are all restaurants help to transport guests, introducing them to cultures that can sometimes be very different from our own. They are able to do this not only through their unique cuisine, but also through tremendously detailed decors and servers who are actually from that country. My next few reviews will highlight several of these restaurants beginning here with the Rose and Crown, a restaurant that will truly immerse you in the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the United Kingdom.

Rose and Crown Entrance

Overview:
When it comes to all the various cuisines found around World Showcase, the United Kingdom is probably not on the top of many lists. Overshadowed by the more well-known foods of other countries such as Italy, Mexico, and France people might tend to overlook the Rose and Crown or dismiss it for one of these other options instead. It is true that the United Kingdom is probably known more for its beer than its food, but a meal at the Rose and Crown will certainly help to open your eyes to the different dishes and flavors of English cuisine.

Here in lies one of the great values of World Showcase, and specifically its restaurants: the ability to allow guests to experience cultures and cuisines that they may have never experienced before. It is restaurants, like the Rose and Crown, that allow guests to step out of their comfort zone and be adventurous, trying new foods and experiencing new flavors that they may never have tasted before. If you have never really sampled English cuisine, the Rose and Crown is certainly worth a visit, delivering a truly authentic and immersive dining experience unlike any other in Epcot.

Atmosphere:
The Rose and Crown's high degree of immersion and attention to detail start before you even set foot inside the restaurant. Even though there is just one restaurant inside, the building's exterior has the appearance a several different structures. The varying architectural details and designs found on the building's facade are meant to reflect four distinct pub styles found in different areas of the United Kingdom (and each is also reflected with a corresponding room inside the restaurant as well). The first style is the "city" or "street" pub that dates from the Victorian era of the 1890s and is distinguished by a facade of brick and wood paneling.

City Pub Exterior

Next comes the Dickensian pub, its Elizabethan-styled exterior includes the restaurant's large brick-walled, flagstone terrace, a slate roof, and a timbered facade. Also featured is the "waterfront" or "river" pub. Located on the rear of the restaurant, facing the water, it is a modest stone building with a clay tiled roof and decorative doorways.

Waterfront View

The final section of the building's exterior is the "country" or "provincial" pub found in the suburbs of the 17th and 18th centuries, featuring a slate roof and plaster facade with stone-quoined corners.

Provincial Exterior

The Rose and Crown is unique among World Showcase dining locations because it functions as both a sit-down restaurant and a walk-in pub. If you enter Rose and Crown through its front entrance you will find yourself in the pub, featuring a large bar as well as some additional seating that is available at a first-come-first-serve basis. Guests can order drinks at the bar to either to have inside the pub or take with them to go. This pub section of Rose and Crown can become very crowded, especially at night and on weekends, and its boisterous, lively atmosphere is carried throughout the rest of the restaurant. This really helps to give Rose and Crown a lively and energetic atmosphere that really makes it feel like an authentic English pub.

As with the pub section of the restaurant, the main dining room (which is actually entered into through a side entrance) features a decidedly laid-back, relaxing feel. In fact the motto of the Rose and Crown, as seen on the restaurant's entrance and on the menu, is "Otium cum Dignitate," Latin for "Leisure with Dignity," which perfectly describes the overall feel of the restaurant.

Rose and Crown Signage

The dining room, just as with the restaurant's exterior, is divided into a series of smaller rooms and as you pass from one to another you are transported to a different styles of pubs found in various part of the country. Each room has its own distinct feel and character along with a wide array of tiny details and theming that help to truly immerse you into different aspects of British culture from different time periods.

The first section is reflective of the Victorian era "city" or "street" pub, the likes of which would have been found in London. This is the grandest and most elaborate of the restaurant's rooms, featuring a large mahogany bar, etched glass, and a molded plaster ceiling.

City Pub1

City Pub2

The next room is far smaller and is reminiscent of the "country", "provincial" pubs of the English suburbs. This section has a far more intimate and modest feel. Here you can find many more outdoor, rustic touches such as antlers, a hunting horn, as well as pewter cups and teapots. This part of the restaurant actually feels more like an English country home than a pub.

Provincial Room1

Provincial Room2

Moving through the restaurant you next come to the room representing the Dickensian pub of the Elizabethan era. This room is not only larger in size, but also features more elaborate and intricate decorative elements. One of the main features of the room is its wood-paneled walls that really help to give the room more of an upscale feel.

Elizabethan Room

Adding to this is the room's large fireplace (although this is just decorative in purpose).

Elizabethan Room Fireplace

Along the tops of the wall are numerous porcelain dishes of various colors and styles, their intricate details adding a sense of refinement to the room.

Porcelain Dishes1

Porcelain Dishes2

The final room is reflective of the "waterfront" pub and has a distinctive inn-styled feel. Here the walls are completely covered with various knick knacks that reflect the pub's river locale, such as black and white photographs of sailboats, knots, compasses, and other seafaring items. Also adorning the walls are framed newspapers that lend an even greater sense of authenticity to this section of the dining room.

Waterfront Dining Room1

Waterfront Dining Room2

No matter what section of the dining room you are seated in there are large windows that let in ample amounts of sunlight during the day and offer tremendous views of the World Showcase lagoon.

Outside View1

Outside View2

One of the main allures of Rose and Crown is its tremendous location and the ample outdoor seating found on its patio. The restaurant's patio is fully covered and wraps around the entire side and rear of the building; it is a great place to enjoy your meal with a great view.

Patio Seating

The covered seating along with the breeze coming off the lagoon means that, even during the hottest months of the summer, the patio is a relatively cool location to enjoy your meal. The patio seating is in high demand during the day, but even more so at night when it is a prime viewing location for Illuminations. While outdoor seating cannot be guaranteed when making reservations at the restaurant, you are able to request a table outside.

Of course, no English pub would be complete without some live entertainment and at the Rose and Crown this is provided by the Hat Lady. With her numerous, crazy, colorful hats, the Hat Lady performs at select times throughout the day in the pub entertaining guests with jokes and encouraging everyone to sing along to well-known songs. One of the loudest moments I ever heard inside the Rose and Crown was when the Hat Lady started playing "Don't Stop Believing" and nearly everyone joined in the chorus.

Hat Lady

This entertainment helps provide an added degree of energy and excitement and helps to establish the restaurant's authentic English pub feel. This is not necessarily the type of restaurant to go to if you are looking for a quiet, romantic meal, but if you are looking to have a good time with friends or family the Rose and Crown is definitely a dining location that you want to try and is great for the entire family.

The Menu:
The Rose and Crown features three distinct menus: one for lunch, another for dinner, and a third just for the pub section. The lunch and dinner menus are similar, but have some items that are exclusive to one or the other.

When it comes to appetizers the menus for both lunch and dinner are the same and feature several intriguing choices, some familiar and others unfamiliar. There is a Trio of United Kingdom Pasties ($16.99) featuring a sausage roll, mushroom wellington, and beef pasty, Pan-Roasted Mussels ($10.99) with tomatoes, herbs, and a bass ale reduction, a Trio of United Kingdom Cheese ($9.99), Winter Squash Bisque ($4.99), and Potato and Leek Soup ($3.99), Mary and the Lads ($9.99), shrimp cocktail served with a spicy Bloody Mary mix, and Scotch Eggs ($8.99) which are fried hard boiled eggs wrapped in sausage meat and served with a mustard sauce.

For entrees, the lunch menu includes a Grilled Pork Brisket ($15.99) served with marble mashed potatoes, green beans, and a mushroom ragout, there is also the Sunday Roast ($16.99) accompanied by Yorkshire pudding, roasted potatoes, and seasonal vegetables with a shallot gravy, Bangers and Mash ($14.99), the United Kingdom Pub Burger ($13.99) topped with bacon, cheddar cheese, and crispy shallots, Fish and Chips ($16.99), a Romaine Salad ($13.99) with chicken, bacon, and a mustard vinaigrette served with cheddar cheese scones, Shepherd's Pie ($17.99) with lamb, onions, carrots, and mushrooms topped with mashed potatoes and cheddar cheese, and a Corned Beef Sandwich ($11.99) served on toasted sunflower bread with cabbage, Swiss cheese, and spicy mustard.

The dinner menu features several of the same dishes, but also includes some additions as well. There is a Grilled Salmon ($20.99) with caramelized marble potatoes, baby carrots, and a malt vinegar reduction, Grilled Sirloin and Fried Fish ($26.99) served with Yorkshire pudding, roasted potatoes, seasonal vegetables, and a red wine sauce, Pan-Roasted Cornish Hen ($18.99), and a Pork Duo ($15.99) featuring grilled brisket with a mushroom ragout and braised pork with mashed potatoes and a red wine sauce.

The dessert menu is the same for both lunch and dinner and includes Cheesecake ($5.49) with a Drambuie ganache, Irish Whiskey Caramel Custard ($5.99) a Bakewell Tart ($5.49) with a cherry compote, Sticky Toffee Pudding ($4.99) served with a warm vanilla custard and hot butter-rum sauce, and a No Sugar Added Fruit Tart ($5.49) with layers of yellow sponge cake, fresh fruit, and custard topped with whipped cream.

If you do not have dining reservations and are not able to get a table in the restaurant's main dining room, or if you are just looking for a quick bite to eat, there is the option of eating in the pub section. The pub menu is simple and features items on the regular lunch and dinner menu that pair particularly well with a beer from the bar. There is Fish and Chips ($7.99), Scotch Eggs ($8.99), the Trio of United Kingdom Cheese ($9.99), and the Corned Beef Sandwich ($11.99). One item that is unique to the pub menu is the English Bulldog ($6.99), a split banger stuffed with mashed potatoes, chopped bacon, Irish cheddar, and a spicy mustard sauce.

For my entrée I decided on the Sunday Roast. When I placed my order my waitress commented that it was her favorite item on the menu, something she recommends to everyone, and I am happy to say that it lived up to her high praise. When the dish was set in front of me I was first impressed with the large portion size, with a generous helping of roast beef and equally large amounts of potatoes and vegetables. The roast beef was very tender, the meat nice and moist. The flavor of the beef was greatly enhanced by the shallot gravy that complimented it extremely well. I did not find the flavor of shallots to be too overwhelming, but it did add a nice bit of extra flavor to the dish.

Sunday Roast

I was surprised to find that the dish came with not only roasted potatoes but also mashed potatoes as well. I was initially a little disappointed that there were only two roasted potatoes, but I actually liked the mashed potatoes more. The mashed potatoes were smooth and creamy and had a decidedly buttery taste. I really enjoyed the string beans especially because they were cooked perfectly so as not to be too mushy nor too crunchy.
What interested me most about the dish was the Yorkshire pudding, something which I had never tried before. I found the Yorkshire pudding to be very similar in flavor, texture, and consistency to a popover. It was a light, fluffy pastry that provided a nice contrast to the heartier roast beef.

For dessert I was very intrigued by the Sticky Toffee Pudding and I will not hesitate to say that it was one of the better desserts that I have had in all of Disney World. This dessert is not the type of pudding that you may be familiar with, but more like a soft, moist cake. This is a dessert with tremendous flavor and I really enjoyed the way that the contrasting flavors of the warm vanilla custard and hot butter-rum sauce combined with one another. I found that there was just the slightest flavor of rum, not overwhelming but just enough to give the dessert a little bit of a kick.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Service:
One of the great things about the restaurants of World Showcase is that you get to interact with people actually from these countries. The Cast Members working at each of the restaurants are more than just servers, but rather are "cultural representatives" who help give us some insight into the lives and customs of the countries they are from. I found the servers at Rose Crown to be extremely pleasant, peppy, and friendly. My server in particular was very talkative. We had a long conversation about how she was making the transition from England and getting used to the different environment and culture of Disney World and the United States.

I also found the servers here to all be very polite and courteous. When I asked my server about the Yorkshire pudding she went out of her way to explain how it was prepared. She also offered explanations of other items on the menu and gave recommendations of her own personal favorites. I found it a little funny at first that my waitress kept referring to me as "hun," "sweetie," or "my love," but then I realized that the servers at other tables were referring to their guests the same way. I found this to be a reflection of English culture and how the servers at Rose and Crown were genuinely concerned with making their guests feel welcome; it showed that they really cared about ensuring their guests had the best dining experience possible.

Dining on a Budget:
When it comes to the sit-down restaurants around World Showcase, Rose and Crown is actually one of the more affordable for both lunch and dinner. The lunch menu, however, does feature some cheaper options. Less expensive items on the lunch menu such as the United Kingdom Pub Burger ($13.99), Romaine Salad ($13.99), and Corned Beef Sandwich ($11.99) are replaced with pricier items at dinner such as the Grilled Sirloin and Fried Fish ($26.99) and the Grilled Salmon ($20.99).

One item I would not suggest ordering at Rose and Crown is the Fish and Chips largely because of its $16.99 price tag. Located just outside of the Rose and Crown is the Yorkshire County Fish Shop which offers Fish and Chips for $8.19. If you are in the mood for Fish and Chips I would go here instead. While the size may not be as large as the one served inside the Rose and Crown dining room, it is still a good-sized portion and filling enough to be a meal unto itself.

In addition, Fish and Chips can also be found on the Rose and Crown's pub menu for $7.99. The pub menu, while not as extensive as the dining room's lunch and dinner menus, is a great alternative if you are looking for an authentic English meal at a more affordable price while still enjoying the immersive atmosphere that Rose and Crown has to offer. In addition to the Fish and Chips the pub menu also features a cheaper version of the Scotch Eggs appetizer for $8.99, the Corned Beef Sandwich for $11.99, and the very intriguing English Bulldog for $6.99.

The Rose and Crown is on the Disney Dining Plan and is worth one credit for both lunch and dinner. While there are no discounts for Disney Vacation Club or Annual Passholders, the restaurant is a part of Tables in Wonderland and offers its 20% discount.

The Overall Experience:
English food might not be my favorite type of cuisine, but dining at the Rose and Crown has showed me that it can deliver a wide range of great-tasting and flavorful dishes. This is the type of restaurant that is great for trying something new, to break away from foods you are used to eating in your everyday life. The Rose and Crown is a nice change of pace from the other restaurants around World Showcase, not only in terms of the food on its menu but also because of its very distinct atmosphere.

With its pub-like feel, the Rose and Crown is one of the more lively and energetic dining locations in all of Epcot. Combined with its immersive theming and attention to detail, you really feel as though you have been transported to England. Only adding to the restaurant's allure is its tremendous location right on the World Showcase lagoon, offering tremendous views by day and an ideal location for watching Illuminations at night. Dining at Rose and Crown is a fun, laid-back, relaxing dining experience that is great for everyone in the family, kids and adults alike. Not being too familiar with English cuisine, Rose and Crown certainly exceeded my expectations in every facet of my dining experience and I look forward to returning there again in the future.

See past restaurant reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Rose and Crown and post your own too!

September 6, 2011

Yachtsman Steakhouse: One of Disney's Best

Andrew Rossi

I am always excited to try a new restaurant that I have never dined at before, especially when I constantly hear people singing its praises. However, all this hype can be a double edged sword because it puts you into a mindset where your expectations are so high that no restaurant could possibly meet them. This was the situation I faced prior to dining at the Yachtsman Steakhouse at Disney's Yacht Club Resort.

Yachtsman Sign

Talking with friends and family, as well as reading other reviews, people always rave about the Yachtsman Steakhouse as one of their favorite restaurants in all of Disney World. Even Disney itself sets Yachtsman apart by classifying it as a Signature dining location, one of few such restaurants across Disney property that are noted for their high quality selections of food and wine in addition to their refined atmospheres. For this reason, I went into my meal at the Yachtsman Steakhouse expecting something truly special and it is safe to say that I was not disappointed at all.

Overview:
Disney defines its Signature restaurants as dining experiences that "provide unparalleled cuisine served in elegant and relaxed settings." These are restaurants that Disney considers to be the best of the best and they seek to offer guests a meal unlike any other. For this reason, Disney's Signature restaurants feature a dress code to accompany their more refined settings. For men, Disney recommends khakis, slacks, jeans, or dress shorts along with collared shirts. Women are asked to wear capris, skirts, dresses, jeans, or dress shorts. Among the articles of clothing not permitted in the dining room are tank tops, swimwear, hats, cut-offs, or torn clothing.

Personally, I have no problem with these restaurants having a dress code and applaud Disney for attempting to create a more upscale atmosphere by putting these criteria in place. However, I was greatly disappointed to see that this dress code was not very strictly enforced. Seeing so many people casually dressed really did take away from the ambiance of the meal.

Located at Disney's Yacht Club Resort, the Yachtsman Steakhouse certainly lives up to its Signature status. The Yacht Club brings the grandeur and grace of nautical New England to the middle of Florida and, next to the Grand Floridian, might be the most upscale resort on Disney property. The Yachtsman Steakhouse matches this overall feel of the resort and, combined with its Signature status, makes for the perfect dining location if you are looking for an escape from the hustle and bustle of the theme parks.

This is a restaurant that can make you forget about all the crowds and possibly make you forget that you are in Disney World altogether. If you are looking for a romantic night out this is certainly the restaurant for you. While there were some families with young children present during the course of the meal, the predominant demographic were couples or families with teenagers and older children. Whether on a date, celebrating an anniversary, or just looking for a quiet meal with a spouse, friends, or family, the Yachtsman Steakhouse is sure to deliver a truly special dining experience.

Atmosphere:
The Disney World website describes the Yachtsman Steakhouse as having a New England theme and with the restaurant's location at the Yacht Club resort one would expect this to be the case. However, I think Disney is a little mistaken with this description. I am originally from New England and I found very little in the Yachtsman Steakhouse that reminded me of home. Unlike the rest of the resort, there are few nautical touches to be found in the décor besides a sailboat on the restaurant's sign. I felt the restaurant focused more on the steakhouse angle rather than a seafaring theme. Instead of having the feel of nautical New England, I would describe the restaurant's atmosphere as having more of an upscale rustic feel.

From its wooden floorboards and wood-paneled walls to the wooden beams supporting the ceiling, the Yachtsman's dining room suggests more of being on the prairie or the frontier rather than at a pier or wharf along the seashore.

Dining Room1

Even the artwork adorning the walls reinforces this theme, with paintings of cattle, cowboys, and rodeos.

Cattle Painting

Nowhere in the restaurant will you find model sailboats, oars, anchors, brass compasses, or any other details you would normally associate with a nautical theme. That being said, the overall décor of the restaurant is fairly simple and plain. This is a restaurant that truly lets its food do the talking because there is really nothing about the atmosphere of the dining room that makes it special.

I found the restaurant to be fairly dimly lit and, although it features some large windows that let in natural light, after sundown it is somewhat dark inside. This helps create a more mature, intimate, and romantic setting that is great for adults and probably not the best choice if dining with small children.

Dining Room2

Although the dining room is large, it is divided into a series of smaller rooms and the tables are spread out rather than right on top of one another. This adds to the restaurant's intimacy and creates a quiet, relaxing environment in which to enjoy your meal.

Dining Room3

While there is nothing spectacular about the Yachtsman's décor or atmosphere, there are a couple of things that stood out. First, as soon as you enter the restaurant you are greeted by a large butchering room where all the steaks served in the restaurant are hand-cut. It is very interesting to see the different types of steak that are served and there is also a very useful diagram that lets you see from which parts of the cow certain cuts of beef come from.

Butchering Room

Cuts of Steak

Beef Diagram

Another nice feature is an open kitchen where you can see the chefs hard at work preparing steaks on the grill. The aroma that comes from the kitchen is amazing and gets you very hungry before even being seated at your table. Restaurants that feature open kitchens can sometimes get a little noisy with all the hustle and bustle, but I did not find that to be the case here; there was no loud crashing of pots and pans, no shouting among the chefs, but instead just the sizzle of cooking steaks.

Open Kitchen

The Menu:
One of the hallmarks of a Signature restaurant is that the menu changes very frequently in accordance with the seasons and what ingredients are most fresh at the time. Being a steakhouse, steaks are always going to be a constant on the Yachtsman's menu, but how the steaks are prepared and what accompanies them can change regularly. The following is what the menu was like when I dined here at the beginning of August.

The appetizer selections offer a little taste of New England not found in the restaurant's atmosphere, with seafood predominant among the various choices. There is an Ahi Tuna Crudo ($16.00) with celery mignonette, salt cod aioli, and American osetra caviar, Escargot ($15.00) with pork sausage, garlic, and herbs, Lobster Bisque ($11.00), and the Pan-Seared Diver Scallops ($14.00) accompanied by a roasted pepper hummus, olive chermoula, and summer radish.

If you are looking for something other than seafood there is the Charcuterie Board ($15.00) featuring smoked duck sausage, venison terrine, black and blue beef tartare, and artisanal cheeses. On the lighter side there is the Caesar Salad ($9.00), Heirloom Tomato Salad ($13.00) topped with a lemon-basil emulsion, olive tapenade, and goat brie cheese, the Summer Beat Salad ($11.00) served with assorted baby greens, prosciutto, avocados, and a sherry-mustard vinaigrette, as well as the Assortment of Artisanal Cheeses ($14.00) accompanied by a toasted sourdough baguette.

When it comes to entrees, steak is the star of the menu. I am not really picky when it comes to particular cuts of beef, so I based my selection on what accompanied the steak; the sauces and sides are just as important to the entree as the actual steaks themselves. The steaks on the menu come in different cuts and different sizes (which is another factor to consider when ordering). It should also be noted that if you have your heart set on a particular type of steak and do not like its accompaniment substitutions can be made (including baked potatoes which are not found on the menu).

In order from smallest to largest there is the 8oz Center-Cut Filet Mignon ($40.00) accompanied by mashed potatoes and a cabernet wine sauce, the 12oz Prime New York Strip Steak ($42.00) served with carmody potato gratin and a peppercorn brandy sauce, the 16oz Boneless Ribeye ($43.00) which comes with sweet potato beignets and red wine butter, and the 24oz Center-Cut Porterhouse ($44.00) accompanied by smoked paprika fries and roasted garlic butter. The menu also featured a Beef Wellington Deconstructed ($47.00) served with a trio of wild mushroom duxelles, puff pastry, parsnips, potatoes, carrots, and cabernet wine sauce.

If you are not in the mood for steak, there are still plenty of other options on the menu. There is a Braised Beef Ravioli ($32.00) with crispy wild mushrooms and summer radishes, Copper River Stockeye Salmon ($38.00) with white asparagus puree, English peas, fava beans, olive oil, and herbs, a Young French Hen ($30.00) accompanied by wild rice hash, rhubarb preserve, and a poultry jus, and the Parmigiano Reggiano-Riccotta Gnudi ($29.00) which is a type of gnocchi made with ricotta cheese and comes served with heirloom tomatoes, artichokes, eggplant, sage, peaches, and a garlic emulsion.

The menu also features a variety of intriguing side dishes. Among these are the Truffle Mac & Cheese ($9.00), Pot-Roasted Root Vegetables ($9.00) that includes turnips, carrots, and onions, Caramelized Onions ($6.00), Sautéed Mushroom Caps ($7.00) with garlic, cream, and a cabernet wine sauce, Sautéed Green Beans ($9.00) with a butter and garlic crumb topping, and Creamed Spinach ($8.00).

If you still have room for dessert there is an assortment to choose from including the Creme Brulee($8.00) topped with fresh berries and rolled chocolate, a Sorbet Trio ($7.00) that includes pineapple-chili, blueberry-cassis, and strawberry-basil sorbets, the Yachtsman Sundae ($8.00) featuring a trio of gelato topped with amarena cherries, and the Chocolate-Peanut ($11.00) which features a flourless chocolate cake topped with peanut butter mousse and served with vanilla gelato.

For an appetizer I chose the Lobster Bisque. I have had lobster bisque at multiple dining locations across Disney World, and while the one at Yachtsman Steakhouse was very good it was not my favorite. I could tell from its dark orange color that this would be a more strongly flavored bisque. I prefer my lobster bisques to be on the more cream-flavored side and the one at Yachtsman had a very distinct lobster taste. I am not saying that the bisque was bad, just not the type that I enjoy most. My favorite lobster bisque in Disney World continues to be that found at the Coral Reef Restaurant in Epcot.

Lobster Bisque Bowl

That being said, the bisque at Yachtsman was extremely smooth and creamy in texture and had large chunks of lobster. Accompanying the bisque was a delicious pepper biscuit that was especially good when dipped in the soup. Something that I also thought was a nice touch was that when two members of my party said they would be sharing a bowl of the lobster bisque, instead of bringing out one bowl and two spoons they actually divided the bisque into two smaller cups.

Lobster Bisque Cup

It took me some time to decide upon which steak I wanted to order because many of the sides sounded unique and tasty. I finally chose the 12oz Prime New York Strip and I was certainly not disappointed. I would not hesitate to say that this was the best steak I have had at any restaurant in Disney World or elsewhere. Everything about this dish was top notch. The steak itself was extremely tender and seemed as though it could almost melt in your mouth. In addition, there was hardly any fat to be found and it came cooked perfectly just as I had ordered it, medium-well with just a little bit of pink inside.

New York Strip

The steak came topped with a peppercorn brandy sauce that really added a nice kick. This sauce is certainly not for the faint of heart and the peppercorns give it a strong and distinct flavor. If you are not a big fan of pepper, you may want to opt for a different sauce. That being said, I did not find that the sauce overpowered the steak, but rather enhanced and complimented its flavor. The steak was also accompanied by a generous portion of carmody potato gratin, which was made up of thinly sliced potatoes layered with cheese. This was a very rich and filling side and a nice change of pace from your average mashed or baked potato. The only disappointing aspect of the meal was that it did not come with a vegetable (however there are vegetable side dishes available for an additional charge).

Dessert was the big disappointment of the night. After such a delicious entrée I really was not very hungry, but the Chocolate-Peanut sounded so tempting. This dessert was a classic case of something sounding better than it actually is, described as a flourless chocolate cake topped with peanut butter mousse and accompanied by vanilla gelato.

Chocolate Peanut Dessert

When the dessert was placed in front of me I thought, "This is it?" It was so tiny that I had trouble believing that they would actually serve it to people. That being said, the chocolate cake was very rich, the peanut butter mousse smooth and creamy, and the vanilla gelato provided a nice refreshing contrast. The dessert itself was good, but just not at all what I was expecting. After being blown away by my steak entrée, the dessert just did not live up to my expectations and certainly was not worth the $11 price. The next time I dine here I will probably just skip dessert altogether.

Service:
A Signature restaurant is marked not only by its fine atmosphere or exquisite foods and wines, but also by some of the most attentive service you will receive at any Disney restaurant. I was very impressed by my server because he really took his time to describe the various items on the menu. He went almost item by item on the menu and offered a little description along with his own opinions on which were his favorites and which were the most popular. Throughout the course of the meal he would constantly check-in to make sure everything was to my liking. Even though he was serving other tables, his attentiveness made it seem as though he was my own private server.

Another nice touch during the meal came when one of the members of my party had to send back her steak because it was not cooked well enough for her. Rather than the waiter returning the steak to the table it was actually one of the chefs who brought it to her. He apologized and then stood by the table while she cut into the steak to make sure it was completely to her liking. To me this was something that truly separated the Yachtsman Steakhouse from any other restaurant I have been to in Disney World. The service here was impeccable. You can tell that the entire wait staff truly cares about creating a memorable dining experience for their guests.

Dining on a Budget:
This is something that is a little difficult to do at the Yachtsman Steakhouse. 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 the restaurant to do it at because you certainly get what you pay for.

That being said, if you choose to eat at Yachtsman Steakhouse 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 dessert and coffee. The entrees are certainly big and filling enough that you do not really need to have a dessert and this will also help in keeping the cost of your meal down.

If visiting or staying at the Yacht Club Resort and looking for a slightly cheaper option for dinner, you may want to consider the Captain's Grille, which offers a menu featuring several steak and seafood options for a cheaper price in a slightly more casual, but still quiet, setting. On the menu here you can find a Grilled New York Strip served with cheddar-bacon mashed potatoes, seasonal vegetables, and red wine sauce for $28.99 or a Grilled Rib-Eye with horseradish mashed potatoes, seasonal vegetables, and herb butter for $27.99. While still slightly expensive, these dishes are far cheaper than those found on the Yachtsman's menu. In addition, the Captain's Grille offers some dishes that cannot be found at the Yachtsman Steakhouse, such as the Lump Crab Cakes with fennel, arugula, and fingerling potatoes and a mustard sauce for $23.99. While I am not saying that the Captain's Grille is on the same level as the Yachtsman Steakhouse, it does offer a viable alternative if you are looking to save some money but still looking for an intimate and relaxing meal.

The Yachtsman Steakhouse is on the Disney Dining Plan, but its Signature status means that it will cost two dining credits rather than one. Also, the restaurant does offer the 20% Tables in Wonderland discount. No Annual Passholder or Disney Vacation Club discounts are offered, however.

The Overall Experience:
After dining at the Yachtsman Steakhouse for the first time I can say, without hesitation, that it is now one of my favorite restaurants in all of Disney World. I have always said that Le Cellier in Epcot's Canada pavilion is my number one restaurant, but Yachtsman Steakhouse is certainly challenging it for that spot. That, however, is a debate for another day. I went here with extremely high expectations based on all the hype I had heard and the Yachtsman Steakhouse delivered by exceeding my expectations in every way.

While it is not the type of restaurant that is going to blow you away with a brilliantly themed atmosphere and detailed décor, it relies on its fresh, high quality food as well as its passionate and dedicated service to create a dining experience that is unforgettable. Not only was it one of the most refined meals that I have had at any restaurant in Disney World, it is also one of the best tasting. While it may be expensive, if you want a dining experience on your vacation that is truly special the Yachtsman Steakhouse is certainly worth a try. You definitely will not be disappointed. Personally, I cannot wait for the opportunity to dine here again.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of the Yachtsman Steakhouse and post your own too!

August 13, 2011

A Quiet Meal at the Turf Club Bar & Grill

Andrew Rossi

Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort is a little bit of upstate New York in the middle of Florida. The resort's theme seeks not only to transport guests to entirely different part of the country but also a completely different time period, with its Victorian architecture reminiscent of the heyday of New York's countryside retreats in the late 1800s. Closely tied into this theme is the historical significance and influence of horse racing; the resort's motto is actually "Health, History, Horses." There are numerous locations throughout the resort that incorporate the theme of horseracing. Guests check-in at the Carriage House and may have a room in the Paddock or Grandstand sections of the resort. It comes as no surprise that this theme is carried into one of the resort's restaurants.

Saratoga Springs Resort

The Turf Club Bar & Grill is centrally located right by the High Rock Spring Pool (the resort's feature pool) and is adjacent to Artist's Palette (the resort's food court), but it is tucked out of the way and can sometimes be overlooked by guests. It is here that the theme of horseracing combines with the flavors of New York State in a quiet and relaxed setting that offers a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the theme parks.

Turf Club Signage

Overview:
As I have noted in the past, many restaurants found at Disney's resorts are usually far less crowded than those at the theme parks, but this does not necessarily make them inferior in terms of quality. The Turf Club Bar & Grill certainly fits into this category. This restaurant is probably not known by many of the guests staying at Saratoga Spring let alone those staying at other Disney resorts. With Saratoga Springs's close proximity to Downtown Disney, many of the guests staying at this resort probably opt for a meal at one of the restaurants there. It is this lack of publicity and hype that makes the Turf Club so appealing because you can expect a calm, quiet, and relaxing meal whenever dining there. While dining reservations are always recommended for Disney restaurants, the Turf Club is the type of dining location that you can most likely get a table without having to plan it out far in advance.

If staying at Saratoga Springs, the Turf Club is the perfect restaurant to go to if you are looking to just spend some time at the resort away from all the crowds and craziness of the theme parks. Also, located right next to the clubhouse of the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course, it is a great place to relax after a round of golf and enjoy a good meal. While it might not deliver the unique type of experiences you can find at other Disney restaurants, the Turf Club's tranquil setting and out-of-the-way location make it the type of care-free, stress-free dining experience that you sometimes need on vacation; it is a nice change-of-pace from many other Disney dining locations.

Turf Club Exterior

Atmosphere:
While centrally located at the Saratoga Springs Resort, the Turf Club can be difficult to locate. To get there, you need to walk through the Artist's Palette food court and then down a long entrance corridor.

Entrance Corridor

Once at the end of the corridor, you enter not into the restaurant but into a little lounge area with a bar. The lounge includes a seating area with couches and chairs, a television, and even a pool table. This hidden area is a great place to come and relax and enjoy a drink or a game of pool even if you are not planning on eating at the restaurant.

Lounge

The Turf Club dining room itself is actually fairly small. The dining room's shape is long and narrow and its small size combined with the dark-paneled walls and ceiling give the restaurant a very intimate feel.

Indoor Seating1

While the restaurant does feature large windows that allow in some natural light, the amount of sunlight entering the dining room is largely blocked by the canopy on the patio. Combining this with the low-level lighting inside, the dark-wood furniture, the dark-colored upholstery and carpet, and the stained glass along the upper edge of the windows all help to give the restaurant a more upscale and refined feel. It is a throwback to the kind of upscale clubs you would find at horseracing track around the turn of the century.

Indoor Seating2

The theme of horseracing is certainly evident, but by no means over-the-top. As one enters the restaurant you are greeted by a variety of vibrantly colored jockey jerseys (including one featuring a familiar shape).

Mickey Jockey

Inside the restaurant there are old black and white photographs of jockeys and their horses, antique racing equipment, and framed newspapers featuring stories and photographs about horseracing. These touches are just enough to solidify the restaurants theme and tie it in with the rest of the resort, but this restaurant's atmosphere is more about its calm, relaxing feel than its theme.

Jockey Photograph

Framed Newspaper

The real allure of the Turf Club is its outdoor dining. The restaurant features a huge covered patio and probably has just as much seating outside as inside. Even though I went in the middle of a hot July day, the patio's awning and fans created a shady and comfortable dining atmosphere. I can imagine this area being even more appealing on balmy summer nights.

Outdoor Seating1

Outdoor Seating2

Seating on the patio offers beautiful natural views of flowers, trees, and even a little glimpse of the lake and Downtown Disney on the opposite shore. Its secluded location makes for a quiet meal (there is not even any background music playing) and can really almost make you forget you are in Disney World altogether.

View from Patio1

View from Patio2

The Turf Club's calm and quiet atmosphere might not make it the best restaurant when dining with children, but it is not so formal that families would be uncomfortable dining here. That being said, if planning on dining here with children I would suggest going for lunch as the restaurant offers a more relaxed, laid-back atmosphere. I would suspect the restaurant to become much more intimate and refined at night (as evidenced by differences in the menu which I will talk about next), making dinner here a great option for couples looking to spend a little time away from the kids and have a romantic night out.

The Menu:
Going into my meal at the Turf Club I was not really sure what to expect from the menu, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a wide selection that offers something for everyone. Whether you are in the mood for just a sandwich or salad, chicken, fish, or pasta, the menu at the Turf Club features a variety of dishes ranging from traditional favorites to some more unique items. It should also be noted that the menus for lunch and dinner offer vastly different options. Lunch features primarily a lighter fare of burgers, sandwiches, and salads while dinner features heartier meals.

One thing that stays consistent on the menu for both lunch and dinner are the appetizers. For soups there is a Tomato Bisque ($5.49) topped with herb goat cheese as well as a French Onion Soup ($6.49). Among the salad selections are an Iceberg Wedge Salad ($6.99) with blue cheese, bacon, and cherry tomatoes and the Turf Club's Signature Grilled Romaine Salad ($5.49) which features lightly grilled hearts of romaine with Caesar dressing, balsamic vinegar reduction, and cherry tomatoes. Other appetizer offerings include Fried Calamari ($9.99), Steamed Prince Edward Island Mussels ($11.99), Crab Cakes ($10.49), Buffalo Chicken Dip ($8.49), and Onion Rings with Dips ($5.99).

When it comes to entrees, lunch at the Turf Club features several intriguing burger and sandwich options. For burgers there is a standard Angus Chuck Cheeseburger ($12.99) topped with cheddar and applewood smoked bacon, but also a Bacon-Barbecue Angus Chuck Burger ($13.99) topped with smoked bacon, barbecue sauce, crispy fried onions, aged cheddar cheese, and cilantro mayonnaise. For the more adventurous there is the Surf & Turf Angus Chuck Burger ($18.99) which comes topped with watercress, lobster, and bernaise sauce.

Other sandwiches on the menu include the Crispy Chicken Breast Sandwich ($13.99) with herbed goat cheese, balsamic-marinated tomatoes, and onions served on rosemary foccacia, the French Dip ($14.99) featuring shaved prime rib, au jus, horseradish cream, and watercress on a baguette, the Classic Reuben Sandwich ($10.99) with corned beef, thousand island dressing, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut on marble rye bread, and a Barbeque Pork Tenderloin Sandwich ($10.49).

If you are not in the mood for a sandwich the lunch menu also includes several other entrée options. There is the Greek Salad ($12.99) with mixed greens with grilled chicken, tomato, cucumber, pepperoncini, kalamata olives, feta, and a lemon vinaigrette (substitute grilled shrimp for $15.99), the Turf Club Pasta ($16.99) that comes topped with shrimp, garlic, olive oil, vegetables, and fresh herbs, the Turf Club Fish and Chips ($13.99), and a Spiced Salmon Salad ($15.99) on tossed arugala with vine-ripened tomatoes, smoked bacon, and a roasted garlic mayonnaise.

Dinner at the Turf Club features a more upscale and elegant fare as the burgers, sandwiches, and salads are replaced with more substantial dishes. The dinner menu features Prime Rib ($25.99) served with Yukon gold mashed potatoes, Swiss chard, and a red wine demi-glace, a Grilled New York Strip ($30.49) with lump crabmeat, asparagus, bernaise sauce, and red bliss potatoes, Grilled Salmon ($19.99) served with cauliflower puree, fingerling potatoes, fennel, onion, and tomato, Mint-Crusted Lamb Chops ($22.99) with a smoked gouda polenta, a Roasted Free-Range Chicken Breast ($17.99) accompanied by a shiitake mushroom risotto and topped with a sweet-and-sour cherry glaze, and a Pork Chop ($21.99) served with a three cheese casserole and red onion jam.

The dessert offerings are the same for both lunch and dinner, although there was nothing that really stood out to me. Among the desserts are Cheesecake ($5.49) with seasonal toppings, a Chocolate Espresso Torte ($5.99) with raspberry sauce and vanilla port wine ice cream, and a Warm Apple Crisp ($6.49) with vanilla bean ice cream.

When perusing the menu there were a couple of appetizer selections that stood out to me, but I decided to start my meal with the Buffalo Chicken Dip ($8.49) which featured pulled buffalo chicken in a spicy wing sauce topped with blue cheese and celery and served with Saratoga chips. As a warning, this appetizer is not one for the faint of heart. I am a big fan of spicy foods and even I considered this to be a very spicy dish.

Buffalo Chicken Dip

First off, I was very impressed by the portion size, not only the amount of dip but also the large serving of chips that accompanied it. The chicken had the consistency and stringiness of a pulled pork sandwich, but was still tender. I am not the biggest fan of blue cheese and there was a layer on top of the chicken that was a little too much for my taste. I felt the blue cheese was too overpowering and ended up picking some of the cheese off the top. Also, once I had mixed the cheese with the chicken it helped to subdue the strong flavor of the blue cheese. The chicken also came topped with shredded celery. While this did provide a light and refreshing contrast to the spiciness of the chicken and the strong-flavored blue cheese, I felt that there was too much of it and I likewise ended up taking off a lot of the celery.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the dip I kept thinking that it would have been nice if it was served with something that would tone down the spiciness slightly; I had to drink a lot of water while eating this appetizer. A side of ranch dressing would have been the perfect compliment. What made the dip even better were the Saratoga chips with which it was accompanied. The chips are freshly made and were served warm. They were cut a little thicker than your average potato chip with made them perfect for dipping. The chips had a beautiful golden-brown color and were not greasy at all. They were also seasoned slightly with salt, pepper, and chili powder to give them just a little kick.

For my entrée I chose the Barbeque Pork Tenderloin Sandwich ($10.49). Much to my delight, the sandwich came with another health portion of Saratoga chips. The pork itself was basted with an ancho-coffee barbeque sauce, but I did not find the coffee flavor to really stand out. Rather than overpower the flavor of the pork, I felt that this barbeque sauce actually enhanced its flavor; the two paired together very well. The pork itself was extremely tender and was grilled to perfection so that it was slightly charred so as to add just a little extra flavor.

Pork Tenderloin Sandwich

What made the sandwich unique was that it came topped with coleslaw. I have heard of coleslaw as an accompaniment, but never as a topping for a sandwich. I was pleasantly surprised. The slight sweetness of the coleslaw provided a light and refreshing contrast to the stronger, heavier flavor of the pork and barbeque sauce. The bread that the pork was served on was soft and fresh, but I would have liked it even better if it had been lightly toasted. Nevertheless, this was a very tasty and filling sandwich and the portion size was substantial enough that I was too full to consider having anything for dessert.

Service:
Overall, I found the service at Turf Club to be very pleasant and it started as soon as I entered the restaurant. Everyone from the hostess that sat me at my table to my server and all the other servers I witness all seemed to be in a cheery mood. My server was very energetic and enthusiastic, although not necessarily the most personable. She explained some items on the menu and took my order, but did not really try to strike up any type of conversation. Because the restaurant was not very crowded for lunch, my server did not have too many other tables to wait on and was able to pay close attention to my needs, regularly refilling my drink and checking in on me multiple times to make sure I was enjoying my meal. The meal itself progressed at an efficient but relaxed pace; I certainly did not feel rushed and there was just the right amount of time between courses to enjoy the scenery while sitting on the patio.

Dining on a Budget:
While dinner at the Turf Club can be a little pricey, lunch is very affordable. It starts with appetizers including the Fried Calamari for $9.99, which is an particularly good deal when considering the same appetizer is $14 at both Tutto Italia and Via Napoli and $13 at Mama Melrose's. There is also the Buffalo Chicken Dip for $8.49 and a great value on Onions Rings for $5.99, especially since onion ring appetizers at other restaurants like 50's Prime Time Cafe and Sci-Fi Dine-In cost $7.99. If you are looking for a light lunch, just getting a couple of appetizers to split amongst a group would be a very affordable option.

The rest of the lunch menu also includes several economical choices. The Barbeque Pork Tenderloin Sandwich might be the best deal on the menu for $10.49, but other sandwiches like the Classic Rueben for $10.99, Crispy Chicken Breast Sandwich for $13.99, and Bacon-Barbecue Angus Chuck Burger for $13.99 are also very affordable. Even if you are not in the mood for a sandwich, the Fish and Chips for $13.99 is a good value when you consider that the same dish at the Rose and Crown in Epcot would cost you $15.99 and at Raglan Road at Downtown Disney would cost $17 for lunch and $19 for dinner. They may not necessarily be of the same quality, but it is a viable alternative if looking to save a little money.

The Turf Club is on the Disney Dining Plan, but you would definitely get better value if using the dining plan here on dinner rather than lunch. The restaurant also offers a Tables in Wonderland 20% discount and both Annual Pass holders and Disney Vacation Club members receive 10% discounts for lunch.

The Overall Experience:
The Turf Club Bar & Grill is another one of those resort restaurants that tend to get overlooked because they are removed from the hustle and bustle of the theme parks. In the case of the Turf Club, however, that is what makes it so appealing. This restaurant is the perfect place to go if you are looking for a clam and relaxing meal in a tranquil, quiet setting; it is really an escape, a great place to unwind. While you might not want to make a special trip all the way to Saratoga Springs just to dine here, it is definitely worth a visit if staying at the resort. In addition, its proximity to the clubhouse of the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course makes it the perfect spot to visit after a round of golf to enjoy a good meal at an affordable price. While this is not a restaurant that may have the same detailed, immersive theming of other Disney dining locations, it still delivers the same high quality food and service that you would typically expect from any Disney restaurant.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of the Turf Club Bar & Grill and post your own too!

August 10, 2011

Afternoon Tea at the Grand Floridian’s Garden View Tea Room

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My two teenage daughters and I recently had a "girls only" trip to Walt Disney World, and I thought it would be fun to try something new, that Dad might not necessarily be upset about missing out on (it turns out that I was wrong about THAT assumption!), so I booked us for Afternoon Tea in the Grand Floridian's Garden View Tea Room (Garden View Lounge).


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The Tea Room is located on the first floor of the Grand Floridian, just off of the lobby.
It has lots of windows and is full of light and comfortable seating.

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As you enter, be sure to look down to see the lovely mosaics in the floor.


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Afternoon Tea is served daily from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. I decided that we would make the tea one of our main meals of the day, so I booked our Advance Dining Reservation for 4:30 p.m.
We arrived at about 4:15, because we had had a light early lunch, and we all very hungry. Although the Tea Room was not full and there were a number of empty tables, I was surprised when the hostess asked us to take a seat and that it would be a 10 to 15 minute wait. About 10 minutes later, we were escorted to a lovely round table near the window. The table could have seated up to six guests, and I could see that the reason for our wait was that the folks at the smaller tables in the room were still lingering over their tea and goodies. Because we were the last party seated for the day, I am not quite sure why this was a problem.

In any case, we WERE seated, and after a short wait, were handed our menus. I must say that it took some time to read through the menu to decide what we wanted to order, as it is extensive.

The menu includes the Tea Room's tea selections (green, white, black and infusions), selections for "full" afternoon tea service (including a savory selection like tea sandwiches or cheeses and pates, scones, jam tarts, pastries, tea and an alcoholic beverage, priced from $23 to $38) and a la carte items (scones, jam tarts, strawberries and cream, tea sandwiches, etc. priced from $3.50 to $14.50). We decided to go for the full service, since this would be an early dinner for us.

For our tea selections (which, a la carte, are $6.25 per person), I chose the Gardenview Blend: "A signature blend made exclusively for Gardenview Tea Room. It was a lovely, traditional black tea. Daughter Number 1 (DN1) chose the Nobo Whole Fruit: "Full bodied and rich in sweetness. An array of berries and apple, accompanied with hibiscus, rose hips, and cornflowers, and Daughter Number 2 (DN2) chose the Harmony: "A tranquil blend of sweet chamomile blossoms, peppermint, allspice and orange blossoms for a mild and sweet taste."�

It appeared that the other diners were being served their tea from traditional ceramic pots covered with velvet tea cozies to keep the tea warm (sorry, I wanted to get a picture of those, but somehow didn't). They must have run out of the ceramic pots, as our tea was served from glass press pots.


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I chose the Prince Edward's Tea: "A delicious array of assorted pates and English Blue Stilton, the "King" of English cheeses, served with marinated fresh berries, and Cumberland sauce. We then offer our delicious freshly baked scones served with rich Devonshire cream. Served with your choice of tea and a glass of our Fonseca Bin 27 Character Port. $24.50 per guest. Cockburn 20 yr Tawny Port $2.00.

Yummy! I love Stilton, and it, the pates and the berries did not disappoint. I had to Google Cumberland sauce when I got home: "Cumberland sauce is a fruit-based sauce, usually used on non-white meats such as venison, ham, and lamb. Created sometime in the late 19th century, the sauce was named after the Duke of Cumberland who had ties in Hanover, Germany, where the sauce was invented. Who knew? Anyway, it tasted great, and really worked well with all of the items on the plate.


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DN2 chose the Princess Kate Tea: "A Spring tea served with a classic dish of potted shrimp followed by a medley of cheeses, an array of seasonal fruits, and cheddar cheese biscuits. A scone, jam tart, and a selection of delicate pastries is accompanied by a glass of Veuve Cliquot champagne and your choice of tea. $38.00 per guest.


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Since DN2 is not of an age to appreciate (nor legally imbibe) a lovely Veuve Cliquot, the waitress was nice enough to serve her glass of champagne to me


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and to substitute the port that was supposed to come with my meal for a nice glass of Martinelli's sparkling cider for her. DN1 decided that she would like a glass of sparkling cider too, please, thank you very much.


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The potted shrimp were to die for. DN2 usually won't touch shrimp, but she devoured these, and only shared one very small bite with her mother!


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DN1 decided that she "only" wanted the British Cheese Plate: "A selection of traditional British cheeses, served with an array of seasonal fruits. $14.50. As you can see, there were plenty of wonderful cheeses and fruits on the plate, including the wonderful Stilton (which DN1 doesn't really like, so I got even more for myself!).


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Once DN2 and I finished our first courses, we were each served a scone with clotted cream and jam, and DN2 also got a jam tart, and some pastries. I think that it is a very good thing for my waistline that I cannot get clotted cream at my local grocery store, I love it SOOO much! The girls didn't quite get it.


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At the end of the meal, we were each brought a lovely, long-stemmed rose.


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Mad Hatter: Would you like a little more tea?

Alice: Well, I haven't had any yet, so I can't very well take more.

March Hare: Ah, you mean you can't very well take less.

Mad Hatter: Yes. You can always take more than nothing.

Note: The Tables in Wonderland card can be used for a discount for tea in the Garden View Tea Room. There are no other discounts currently available, and the Disney Dining Plan is not accepted.


Garden View Lounge Afternoon Tea Menu

Rate and Review the Afternoon Tea


July 18, 2011

A Taste of the Americas at Paradiso 37

Andrew Rossi

Pleasure Island at Downtown Disney may no longer be the nighttime hotspot that it was in its heyday when clubs like the Comedy Warehouse and the Adventurers Club entertained guests on a nightly basis, but that does not mean that the area is completely devoid of life. As Disney works to develop and breathe new life into the former club district, there are still locations on the island worth visiting. Raglan Road is one such establishment that has helped provide some new energy and excitement to the area with its combination of food and live entertainment.

While Raglan Road brings a little taste of Ireland to Disney World, another restaurant on Pleasure Island provides guests a similar experience but with a much different feel (and one that is a little closer to home). Located next to some of the now-closed clubs, Paradiso 37 is another step in Disney's effort to reinvigorate this area of Downtown Disney.

Paradiso Sign

Overview:
Paradiso 37 is a very eclectic restaurant. Rather than highlighting the cuisine of one specific country or region, the restaurant offers diners a far larger scope that encompasses the varied cuisines of two continents. A meal at Paradiso 37 allows guests a taste of North, Central, and South America as well as the Caribbean. The result is a wide array of dishes and flavors that contrast and compliment each other.

The name of the restaurant itself is significant. The 37 acknowledges the thirty-seven different cuisines highlighted on the menu from countries all across the Americas. The restaurant also presents these cuisines in a unique way. Rather than focusing on the gourmet aspects these various cultures have to offer, the restaurant chooses to emphasize what it calls the "street foods" of the Americas. This is the type of cuisine you would find at stands and carts at markets, festivals, and on the streets in the countries of North, South, and Central America. There is nothing really flashy or elegant about the items on the menu, but it does feature many traditional favorites.

This is a restaurant that offers diners a culinary journey from start to finish, sampling foods from many diverse and different areas; you may choose to start with an appetizer of corn dog bites reminiscent of the streets of New York City then travel to South America with an entrée of Chilean Salmon or Argentinian skirt steak and finish your meal with some traditional Mexican churros.

Paradiso 37 is more than just a restaurant and in many ways is similar to Raglan Road except with a Latin rather than Irish spin. Inside the restaurant you can find two bars, including one with a tequila tower featuring (not surprisingly) thirty-seven different kinds of tequila. Other specialties from the bar include a variety of margaritas and what they claim to be the "world's coldest draft beer," served at a chilly twenty-nine degrees. In addition, Paradiso 37 features nightly entertainment with a live band performing starting at 6pm until close. It is definitely a restaurant that offers a little something for everyone, not only in terms of its cuisine, but also with its variety of beverages and entertainment.

Paradiso Exterior1

Atmosphere:
Paradiso 37 is a restaurant that highlights all of the Americas, but it has a distinctly Latin flair. This is evident from the moment you enter with the restaurant's lively music and vibrant color scheme. The walls throughout the restaurant feature bright red, yellow, orange, green, and blue, giving Paradiso 37 a very vibrant feel.

Interior Color Scheme

The colorful interior of the restaurant is a contrast to its rather bland-looking, brown exterior.

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Also as you enter, be sure to take notice of the very unique light-fixture, a chandelier featuring martini glasses and bottles of tequila.

Entrance Chandelier

Another distinguishing feature of the restaurant is its very open, airy feel. Contributing to this are large windows that let in ample amounts of natural light and offer great views of the water in addition to the restaurant's high ceilings.

Paradiso Ceiling

The interior of Paradiso 37 is divided into an upper and lower level. I was surprised to see that they actually had a small elevator for guests travelling in wheelchairs that made the upper level accessible to them. The upper level features tables with brightly colored chairs and booths.

Upstairs Seating

There is also a beautiful mural depicting a vineyard and shelves displaying bottles of wine.

Vineyard Mural

The bar in this section of the restaurant is really a site to behold and is almost like a piece of art in itself, crafted out of melted glass wine bottles.

Upstairs Bar

I found this upper section of the restaurant to have a quieter, more intimate feel compared with the rest of the restaurant.

The lower level is more open and its distinguishing feature is its bar and tequila tower. This part of the restaurant had more of a bar-type feel about it and, although it was not crowded when I was there for lunch, I can imagine this part of the restaurant getting very loud when crowded at dinner, especially when the live entertainment starts.

Downstairs Seating

Downstairs Bar

Tequila

The restaurant's décor is fairly simple. Just as the restaurant's cuisine offers a culinary journey featuring dishes from many different countries, travel plays a large role in the theme of the dining room. In addition to their bright colors, the walls are adorned with vintage travel posters from all across the Americas, ranging from locations in Florida and California to Mexico, South America, and various Caribbean islands.

Travel Poster

There are also large passport stamps printed on the walls highlighting some of the countries whose cuisine you are able to sample on the menu.

Passport Stamps

One of the main draws of Paradiso 37 is the restaurant's location overlooking the water and the restaurant features ample outdoor seating that takes advantage of the spectacular views. While outdoor seating might not be the most appealing option during the hot, humid days of summer it becomes a very desirable place to dine on balmy Florida nights.

Outdoor Seating

The restaurant also features an outdoor bar for those who do decide to sit outside.

Outdoor Bar

Overall, Paradiso 37 is a restaurant with a very laid-back, relaxing, casual feel that goes along well with the cuisine that the restaurant features. It is the type of restaurant that you would feel comfortable dining at with the entire family, but at the same time would be a nice place for a night out for couples looking to get away from the kids or if you are looking for somewhere to have good food and drinks with some friends and enjoy the entertainment.

It should be noted that if you are planning on dining here with children it is probably best to come for lunch or an earlier dinner as the restaurant becomes louder and more bar-like as it gets later into the night.

The Menu:
Since Paradiso 37 highlights the cuisines of countries from all across North, Central, and South America as well as the Caribbean, the menu features something for almost everyone. As with the restaurant's atmosphere, however, the menu does have a heavy Latin influence.

Since the restaurant highlights street foods from the Americas, I felt that the appetizers were definitely the strongest part of the menu and offered some of the most intriguing options.There are some traditional offerings such as Quesadillas ($12.99) with your choice of chicken or steak, P-37 Nachos ($13.99), North American Corn Dogs ($8.50) served with honey dijon mustard dipping sauce, and Chili Con Carne ($7.00).

There are also several more unique appetizers such as the Caribbean Crab and Fish Fritters ($9.50) served with a coconut lime dipping sauce, Chorizo & Beef Skewers ($15.99) accompanied by chimichurri pita bread, marinated mushrooms, and citrus yogurt sauce, Shrimp Ceviche ($9.75) featuring shrimp topped with lime juice, tangy tomato sauce, fresh chilies, cucumber, and avocado, Mac & Cheese Bites ($8.50) served with a jalapeno and cilantro dipping sauce, and Central American Crazy Corn ($8.50), which is fire-roasted corn on the cob topped with a spicy yellow pepper sauce and imported cheeses.

There is also an entire section of the menu dedicated just to Chips & Dips. These items are great for sharing if eating out with a group. There is the Mexican Dipping Trio ($7.99) of chunky guacamole, chili con carne, and spinach queso dips, the Salsa Trio ($7.99) featuring pineapple salsa, tomatillo salsa verde, and fire roasted salsa diablo, the Paradiso 37 Queso ($8.50) featuring imported cheeses flavored with spinach, cilantro, peppers, chiles, and onions, Guacamole (Regular: $4.99, Large: $7.99), and just plain Chips and Salsa ($3.99).

The menu also includes a variety of salads, sandwiches, and burgers. For salads there is the exotic Skewered Shrimp & Jicama Orange Salad ($16.99) featuring three jumbo shrimp with mixed greens and tossed with orange slices, jicama, dried apricots, raisins, toasted almonds, and pumpkin seeds and topped with a prickly pear vinaigrette, or the Grilled Chicken Tortilla Salad ($13.99) featuring mixed greens tossed with roasted corn, diced tomatoes, crispy tortilla chips, and queso fresco in a citrus vinaigrette, as well as a traditional Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad ($13.99).

The sandwich offerings include the Grilled Chicken Sandwich ($14.99) topped with bacon, guacamole, queso fresco, borracho beans, and serrano slaw and the Blackened Mahi Mahi Sliders ($13.99). Even the burgers have an exotic flair including the Bacon and Pineapple Burger ($14.99) topped with smoked gouda, grilled pineapple, honey glazed bacon, borracho beans, and serrano slaw in addition to the Jalapeno Burger ($14.99) topped with cheddar cheese, guacamole, marinated jalapenos, and pico de gallo.

The final section of the menu is what they call Platters of the Americas, featuring a variety of entrees from different parts of North, Central, and South America. Among the offerings are Chicken or Beef Enchiladas ($14.99) accompanied by cilantro rice and black beans, Baja Fish Tacos ($14.99) topped with roasted corn salsa, lime crema, and spicy slaw, Chicken or Beef Burritos ($14.99) with sautéed peppers, squash, red onions, imported cheeses, and sweet chipotle barbeque sauce served with cilantro rice and black beans, Chilean Style Salmon ($20.99) fire-roasted and served with roasted potatoes and seasonal vegetables, Colombian Style Crispy Hen ($19.99) marinated with onions, garlic, lemon, and cilantro, topped with fresh citrus marmalade, and served with grilled corn cakes, Char Broiled Filet ($29.99), Citrus BBQ Pork Ribs ($22.99), and Argentinean Skirt Steak ($23.99) topped with caramelized onions and chimichurri sauce.

Be sure to save some room for dessert as the menu features several tantalizing options including the Paradiso 37 Chocolate Stack ($7.99), which is layers of chocolate cake and chocolate mousse served on a bed of warm caramel sauce and topped with vanilla ice cream, the Churros & Sopapillas Combo ($5.99) served with caramel and chocolate sauces, Mini Ice Cream Cones ($6.99) with vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and cookies & cream ice creams, Tres Leches ($5.99), which is layers of white cake soaked in sweet milks and layered with fresh strawberry mousse and topped with meringue, and Seasonal Fruit Empanadas ($6.99) served with caramel and fresh fruit marmalade dipping sauces.

When I was looking at the menu there was no one entrée that really stood out to me, but there were several appetizers that sounded very interesting. Therefore, I decided just to order a couple of appetizers for my meal. The only question was which appetizers I wanted to order. I decided on the Mac & Cheese Bites and the Caribbean Crab and Fish Fritters.

The Crab and Fish Fritters were smaller in size than I expected, but the overall portion was still substantial. The fritters themselves included not only crabmeat and fish, but also shrimp as well as bell peppers and cilantro. The flavors of the crab, fish, and shrimp blended together perfectly so that no one flavor really stood out in relation to the others. The peppers added just the slightest kick to the fritters and the cilantro was barely noticeable at all. The fritters were fried to a beautiful golden brown, but they were only slightly crispy on the outside and still soft and moist on the inside.

Crab and Fish Fritters

The fritters came served with a coconut-lime dipping sauce which really helped to kick the dish up a notch. The sauce had a slight sweetness that presented a light and refreshing contrast to the heavier fried fritters. While the sauce had a very distinct flavor, I felt that it served to actually enhance the flavor of the fritters rather than overpower them.

The Mac & Cheese Bites were something I had never seen before. I have had baked macaroni and cheese and this was somewhat similar except served in a ball-shape and deep fried. The bites were fried perfectly so that they were crispy on the outside, but when you cut them open the cheese oozed out. The macaroni inside was small elbow pasta cooked al dente while the coating to the bites themselves was standard breadcrumbs. While the bites may not have appeared very big, they were very filling and I was not even able to finish all of them.

Mac and Cheese Bites

My only complaint about the dish was the jalapeno and cilantro dipping sauce that accompanied the bites. I thought that the sauce was far too strong in flavor to be paired with the mac and cheese. When dipping the bites into the sauce, the flavor of the mac and cheese was completely overwhelmed by the taste of cilantro. Personally, I felt that the mac and cheese bites were good enough on their own that they did not even need a dipping sauce.

For dessert I decided on the Churros & Sopapillas Combo. The churros and sopapillas are similar to each other in some ways, but they also have some differences and both actually complimented each other very well. The churros were firmer in texture, almost a little crispy on the outside, while the sopapillas were softer and more moist on the inside.

Churros and Sopapillas

What really made this dessert were the warm chocolate and caramel dipping sauces. While I tried the churros and sopapillas in both, I actually preferred dipping the churros in the caramel and the sopapillas in the chocolate. I felt that the texture and flavor of the churros combined better with the sweeter caramel while the heavier chocolate sauce proved to be a better compliment to the sopapillas. The churros and sopapillas combined with the dipping sauces to make a heavy dessert and the portion size was large enough that I was not even able to finish the whole thing.

Service:
Paradiso 37 is not owned or operated by Disney and as a result the quality of the service was not quite up to the high standards set by other restaurants across Disney World. It was not all bad, however. My server was actually very efficient and the meal proceeded at a good pace but one in which I did not really feel rushed. What disappointed me about the service, however, was that I felt as though my server basically ignored me throughout the course of my meal. I saw my server when he took my order, brought out my food, cleared the table, and brought out the check, but that was it. I was really surprised that my server never even stopped by my table while I was eating to see if I was enjoying everything. There was really no excuse for this because the restaurant was not very crowded while I was dining there and I noticed that my server only had a couple of other tables that he was waiting on.

Dining on a Budget:
One of the things that impressed me most about Paradiso 37 was the relative affordability of many of the items on the menu. My personal recommendation, and one which could save a lot of money if dining with a group, would be to order several appetizers to share. The Crab and Fish Fritters are $9.50 while the Mac & Cheese Bites and the Corn Dog Bites are each $8.50 and even the P-37 Nachos for $13.99 are a good value. Another affordable appetizer selection to split are the various chips and dips. The Mexican Dipping Trio is just $7.99, the Salsa Trio is the same price, and you can't go wrong with the Chips and Salsa for $3.99.. Combine a few appetizers with a dessert or two to split and you have a very affordable meal for the entire group.

Even if you would rather have an entrée rather than splitting appetizers, the Paradiso 37 menu features numerous options for those that are dining on a budget. The Enchiladas, Baja Fish Tacos, and Burritos are each $14.99. Likewise, if you are in the mood for a burger, the Jalapeno Burger and Bacon and Pineapple Burger are each $14.99. Even the desserts are very affordable, ranging in price from $5.99 to $7.99. These prices make Paradiso 37 much more affordable than many of the other sit-down dining options found at Downtown Disney.

The Overall Experience:
I had never been to Paradiso 37 before this trip, but I can say that I will definitely be dining there again. One of the great features of the restaurant is that it highlights the cuisines of such a large, diverse, and dynamic area ranging from North, Central, and South America to the Caribbean. The result is a menu that features a lot of different choices and there are still several other items on the menu that I really want to try the next time I go.

There are many dining options at Downtown Disney and Paradiso 37 does not receive the same attention as some of these other establishments, largely due to its location on the now mostly abandoned Pleasure Island. Just because Paradiso 37 may go overlooked does not mean that it is not worth a visit. On the contrary, I felt that the restaurant's laid-back, relaxed, Latin feel (in terms of both atmosphere and cuisine) offered a nice alternative to the other dining locations I have been to at Downtown Disney. Also, the restaurant's lack of notoriety may make it a little easier to get a table during the busiest dinner times. With its casual atmosphere, good food, and affordable prices, Paradiso 37 is a great place for a night out with family or friends.

Check out Reader Reviews of Paradiso 37 and post your own too!

July 17, 2011

2011 Food and Wine Festival Preview

by John Bowers
AllEars Guest Blogger

The 2011 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival is not too far away, and Tables in Wonderland played host to a Sneak Preview of the Festival on Saturday night, July 16.

The event was held in the Wonders Retreat, one of the 'hidden' event rooms that are in many of the Epcot pavilions. The Wonders Retreat is above the main floor of the former Wonders of Life pavilion. Since the pavilion ceased to be the Wonders of Life, it has hosted many events during the Flower and Garden Festivals as well as the Food and Wine Festivals. Up above the area where the Body Wars attraction used to be, you can see a row of windows -- that's where the Retreat is.


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The food we were served was a preview the samples that will be served in some of the kiosks (or "International Marketplaces" that will join the many others encircling World Showcase during the Festival. The three new kiosks this year will be Portugal, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. We also tasted food from another booth, Scandinavia, which is making a return to the Festival this year.


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For our buffet reception, we were treated to:

-- Kalua Pork Slider with Sweet and Sour Dole Pineapple Chutney and Spicy Mayonnaise (Hawaii)
-- Swedish Meatballs with Lingonberries (Scandinavia)
-- Shrimp on the Barbie with Pepper Berry - Citrus Glaze (Australia)

Our appetizers were:

-- Seared Sea Scallop with Kumara-Red Curry Puree (New Zealand)
-- Apple Radish Salad (New Zealand)


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And for the entrees:

-- Ropa Vieja (Braised Beef) with White Rice (Caribbean)
-- Jerk spiced Chicken Drumstick with Mango Salsa (Caribbean)
Ocean Spray Craisin Bread with Butter


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Wines paired with the entrees were an Argentinian chardonnay and an Australian shiraz.

Our dessert trio included:

-- White Chocolate Macadamia Mousse with Dark Chocolate Pearls
Tres Leches Verrine (Caribbean)
-- Pastel de Nata (Portugal)


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The pastel de nata was a delicious egg tart pastry made famous in Portugal. They better get ready to serve about a million of these at the Festival. It was that good. Wow. We had a unique Apple Ice Wine from Canada along with the desserts.

Our hostess, Pam Smith, spoke about some of the effort and the planning that goes into the Festival. About halfway through each year's Festival, they start sifting through the feedback from guests as they begin preparations for the following year.

She introduced Greg Hannon, the chef who oversees all of the food kiosks. Greg spoke about the intricacies of putting all the kiosks together, how they decide what will be new and what will change or be retired from previous years.

Pam also introduced David Buckley, the Imagineer who works on many design projects for Walt Disney World. David has designed the banners, posters, and many of the large visual displays which will highlight the theme of this fall's festival, "Passport To A World of Flavors."

There are many new events this year. A few of them include The Discovery of Chocolate, the return of the Vertical Wine Tasting featuring Napa Valley's legendary Freemark Abbey, Mexico Tequila Lunch, Italy Food and Beer Pairing, Italy Dessert and Wine Pairing, Italian White Truffle Lunch, a Best of Bocuse Dinner, and a real, live Cranberry Bog. Not sure if we'll all get to play in it, but it's going to be between the Fountain (behind Spaceship Earth) and the entrance to World Showcase.

It's not easy to get a sense of how they manage to put the Food And Wine Festival together every year, and keep it going for 45 days. 'Remarkable' is hardly the word for it. Living in Orlando, I can vouch for the fact that it is the most-anticipated yearly event for us locals.
On the weekends, it's always crowded with area residents. But no matter when you go, weekday or weekend, don't miss it. It's Magic.

June 3, 2011

Sanaa Surprises at Kidani Village

by John Bowers
AllEars Guest Blogger

The Kidani Village is sort of 'off the beaten path' at Disney World. It doesn't have a
real big, real grand lobby like many of the other resort hotels do, which is probably
why it draws fewer people just wanting to sight-see, eat, and shop.

But it certainly has the Animal Kingdom feel to it, with a large outdoor area to watch the giraffes and all the other animals that roam freely. And Sanaa is a terrific place to dine for lunch and dinner, if you have a somewhat adventurous side to your palate. And if you're actually eager to try new things, you'll be starry-eyed.

I had dinner at Sanaa with a friend of mine a few nights ago. In restaurants like this, I think it's always fun to tell the server to make suggestions based on how adventurous you are. I sometimes just say "I don't care, surprise me. The weirder the better." Of course you're not going to get something Andrew Zimmern might eat on 'Bizarre Foods,' so there's not too much to really worry about. And it's only one meal, it's not like you're going to have to dine there for days on end. So taking a chance can be fun.

I was new to Sanaa, my friend had dined there on previous occasions. She led the way
ordering. We started with the bread selection. We had three flatbreads: Naan, Paneer Paratha and Papadum. To go along with the breads we had Roasted Red Bell Pepper Hummus, Tamarind Chutney and Cucumber Raita. Delicious, all of it. Don't overdose on the bread, though, because you get a lot of it.

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Our appetizer was the sampler for two, which included Potato and Pea Samosas, Pulled Duck with Red Curry Sauce, and Roasted Cauliflower. The cauliflower was tongue-tingling spicy.


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For our wine selection, my friend pointed out the Spice Route Chakalaka from South Africa. It's a blend of about five red grapes, and it was sensational. Hearty and with plenty of spicy
flavors. $57, I think, on the wine list. It retails for about $20.

My friend had the Coconut-Curry Lamb and Spicy Durban Chicken with Basmati Rice. The coconut flavor was very faint, she would have liked a little more. I had the Shrimp with Green Curry Sauce and the Spicy Durban Shrimp. Being a Florida boy, I find it hard to pass up shrimp. And if I have a shrimp or two left over, I take it home to my four cats. Being Florida cats, they too find it hard to pass up shrimp.


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For dessert we split a slice of Orange-Sesame Cake with Tropical Fruit Kulfi. Even two people on one piece of cake was tough, we had had so much food. It was fabulous.


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I've been visiting Disney World since it opened in the fall of 1971. I was in high school in Jacksonville Beach at the time. Friends of mine and I would drive down to Orlando during the winter/spring of 1972. I think we even forced ourselves to miss school one day to drive down on a weekday.

There was only the Magic Kingdom at the time, of course. And trying to think back, I can recall that there was very little in the way of food variety. We'd get a cheeseburger and fries at the Tomorrowland Terrace for lunch. Dinner? We'd go back up I-4 and eat at the Red Lobster on Lee Road on the way home.

I could never imagine that almost 40 years later I would live in Orlando and be able to eat
the amazing variety of food that you can find now at Disney World. What a treat. Give Sanaa
a try if you have the chance. You only go around once, you know.


Sanaa Lunch Menu

Sanaa Dinner Menu

Read what others think about Sanaa and post your review!


May 31, 2011

An Elegant Dinner with a View at Narcoossee's

Andrew Rossi

Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi returns with a review of Narcoossee's at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa.

Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa certainly lives up to its name. When it comes to Disney resorts, its grandeur is second to none. The Grand Floridian is all about elegance as soon as you enter the resort's lobby. It is then no surprise that Grand Floridian is home to some of the most elegant restaurants found in all of Disney World. In fact, there are three Signature restaurants at Grand Floridian alone.

Victoria and Albert's is the gold standard among Disney dining experiences and a ten-year recipient of the prestigious AAA Five Diamond Award. Within the elaborate Victorian dining room, guests enjoy a six course prix fixe menu featuring the freshest ingredients paired with fine wines. Citrico's features the cuisine of Southern Europe within a setting of old-world furnishings, wrought-iron railings and mosaic-tile floors that contribute to an overall warm, Mediterranean décor. Finally, there is Narcoossee's. Serving a wide selection of fresh seafood and situated right on the shores of the Seven Seas Lagoon, Narcoossee's offers one of the finest and most breathtaking dining experiences in all of Disney World.

Narcoossee's Sign

Narcoossee's Exterior1

Overview:
Narcoossee's is a type of restaurant that Disney classifies as a Signature dining experience. In fact, it is one of just 16 Signature restaurants in all of Disney World. This begs the question as to what exactly makes a restaurant a Signature dining location. These are restaurants that are the cream of the crop amongst the numerous dining locations to be found all across Disney World. They are settings that create truly unique and memorable dining experiences that really go above and beyond. Signature dining locations are often some of the most elegant and refined (and therefore usually the most expensive) restaurants.

As a result, of their more formal, upscale look and feel, Signature restaurants feature a dress code. The dress code for Narcoossee's 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.

Another mark of Signature restaurants is their menu offerings. These dining locations are frequently changing their menus in accordance to the time of year because they use only the freshest ingredients. While there are some noteworthy items on the menu at Narcoossee's that are there consistently, my server explained that the menu changes on almost a weekly basis. Dining at a signature restaurant, you will notice the food offerings to be far more gourmet and the presentation to be exquisite. Signature restaurants are also known for their extensive wine lists.

In sum, these Signature restaurants offer everything you would typically expect from a Disney restaurant in terms of high quality atmosphere, food, and service, but they elevate it all to an entirely new level that really helps to separate them from the other restaurants found across Disney World.

Atmosphere:
Narcoossee's has a very simple, subtle, and subdued elegance to its atmosphere. There is actually very little décor to speak of aside from a few nautical touches as you enter the restaurant. The dining room itself has a very open, spacious feel thanks to its high ceilings and large windows.

Narcoosees Interior Seating

While these windows make the dining room very bright, warm, and inviting by day, when the sun sets the restaurant's low lighting makes for a much more intimate and romantic feel. Despite the restaurant's openness, the dining room's relatively small size and low seating capacity make for a very quiet meal. This makes Narcoossee's the perfect location for a romantic night out, whether on a date, celebrating an anniversary, or even if you are just looking to spend some time away from the kids. While I did notice some children present during dinner, this is a restaurant geared primarily towards adults.

What makes the atmosphere of Narcoossee's truly special is the view. With so little to look at inside in terms of décor, all eyes are drawn to the large windows encircling the dining room. In fact, all the tables of the restaurant are situated in a way to offer diners great views outside.

Narcoossee's Table

The restaurant is located right on the Seven Seas Lagoon and is situated in such a way that it juts out over the water and offers beautiful vistas of the surrounding area.

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Looking out the windows, depending on where you are seated, you may see the topmost spires of Cinderella Castle:

Cinderella Castle View

The Main Street Train Station and Space Mountain looming in the background:

Space Mountain View

Disney's Contemporary Resort:

Contemporary View

And even the monorail passing by taking guests to and from the Magic Kingdom:

Monorail View

These stunning views make for a great dining experience at any time of night, but create a truly memorable location for watching Wishes. It is because of this amazing location that makes Narcoossee's unique and special, offering views unmatched by most other Disney dining locations.

The Menu:
Narcoossee's location and amazing views are matched only by its gourmet cuisine. It offers a menu which specializes in seafood, but also includes a wide range of other dishes. It is also a menu which is continually changing. My server made sure to emphasize that the menu is laser printed; it is not permanent and while there are some items that remain constant there are many other items which change depending on what types of fresh fish and other ingredients they have.

The appetizer selections are many and varied. Of course, seafood is prominent, but there are also many other options available. There is a Jumbo Lump Crabcake ($15.00) with grilled corn relish and ancho chili sauce, a Lobster Spring Roll ($9.00) with spicy mayonnaise and soy orange dipping sauce, Prince Edward Island Mussels ($10.00) with a parseley-pastis broth, Rhode Island Calamari ($13.00) with pepperoncini relish and tomato coulis, Roasted Beet Salad ($9.00) topped with goat cheese, candied pecans, and an orange-honey vinaigrette, Fried Oysters Rockefeller ($13.00) served with dijon creamed spinach and shallot rouille, Shrimp and Crab Chowder ($9.00), and a Mixed Greens Salad ($10.00) topped with a honey-dijon vinaigrette.

The entrée offerings are likewise numerous and feature something for everyone whether you are a seafood fan or not. In fact, my server noted that the most popular item on the menu is the Grilled Filet Mignon ($41.00) which comes with potato gratin and baby spring vegetables. Also found on the menu is a Shrimp and Scallop Fettuccini ($31.00), Crispy Whole Snapper ($35.00) with basmati rice and charred green beans, Grilled Swordfish ($37.00) with a panzanella salad of eggplant, sun dried tomatoes, and arugula topped with a roasted garlic vinaigrette, Brick-Roasted Whole Young Chicken ($29.00) served with manchego potatoes, spinach, onions, and citrus-chicken jus, Crab-Crusted Mahi Mahi ($35.00) accompanied by crushed fingerling potatoes and topped with a meyer lemon sauce, Steamed Whole Maine Lobster ($58.00), a Bouillabaisse ($38.00) featuring black cod, shrimp, mussels, scallops, and lobster in a saffron-tomato broth, and a Surf & Turf ($59.00) of filet mignon and lobster tail along with duchess potatoes and wax beans.

You also want to make sure to save room for dessert because there are several delectable options available. My server informed me that the restaurant's most popular dessert is its Almond-Crusted Cheesecake ($10.00) finished with a lambert cherry sauce. Also found on the dessert menu is a Florida Strawberry-Lemon Tart ($10.00), a Gelato Sampler ($8.00) featuring chocolate, raspberry, pistachio, and cappuccino gelato, a Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse Dome ($10.00) finished with a raspberry sauce, and a Crème Brulee Duo ($9.00) of both key lime and coconut custard finished with caramelized sugar.

For an appetizer, I first started with the Rhode Island Calamari. Originally being from Rhode Island, fried calamari is a dish that I am very familiar with and it is no stretch to say that the calamari at Narcoossee's was some of the best I have ever had. It was prepared perfectly so that it was nice and crispy on the outside, but still extremely tender on the inside; it could almost melt in your mouth.

Rhode Island Calamari

The calamari itself was so good that it really did not need the pepperoncini relish and tomato coulis accompaniments. The relish was a little disappointing because I am not a big fan of olives, but after picking them out the hot pepper rings proved to be a nice compliment to the flavor of the calamari. I preferred the tomato coulis, which was basically like a spicy marinara sauce and added a little kick to the dish.

I also decided to try the Shrimp and Crab Chowder. In contrast to the light-tasting calamari, the chowder was very rich and creamy; it was very filling. The flavors of the shrimp and crab blended together very well so that one did not necessarily overpower the other. I was pleasantly surprised to see good-sized pieces of crab and shrimp in the chowder. I would go so far as to say that the chowder may have actually been the highlight of my meal.

Shrimp and Crab Chowder

For an entrée I decided on the Crab-Crusted Mahi Mahi. The fish itself was light and flaky and it came topped with a generous amount of crab. The fish was cooked perfectly so the crabmeat on top was just a little crispy, but the fish itself was still nice and moist. The more distinct flavor of the crabmeat paired well with the mild-tasting fish, but did not necessarily overpower the mahi mahi.

Mahi Mahi

The fish came accompanied by a meyer lemon sauce. This was very strong in flavor and only a little bit was needed to go along with the fish. While the sauce was light and refreshing, I felt it was a little too overpowering compared with the flavor of the mahi mahi and so I used it sparingly. The mahi mahi also came with crushed fingerling potatoes, which were good but paled in comparison to the gratin potatoes that came along with the filet mignon ordered by others in my party. I was also a little disappointed with the lack of vegetables that came along with the dish, as the fish was served with just two green beans.

For dessert, my party decided to split two different choices that were recommended by our server as the restaurant's most popular. First was the Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse Dome, which was a very rich and decadent dessert. Although this was a heavy and filling dessert, the mousse itself was extremely creamy, smooth and fluffy and it was accompanied by a raspberry sauce that really complimented the flavor of the chocolate well.

Chocolate Mousse

The second dessert we tried was the Almond-Crusted Cheesecake. In contrast to the heavier chocolate mousse, the cheesecake was extremely light. Not only was it coated in almonds, but the cheesecake itself was also infused with almond flavor. Overall, the texture was much fluffier than what you would expect from a typical cheesecake and presented a nice contrast to the crispiness and crunchiness of the almond coating.

Almond Cheesecake

I am not usually a big fan of cherries, but the sauce that accompanied the cheesecake paired perfectly with the flavor of the almonds. The cheesecake was also served with fresh-made whipped cream, which was probably some of the creamiest and smoothest whipped cream I have ever tasted. This dessert was my favorite of the two just because it was so unique.

Service:
One of the nice things about Signature dining locations is their smaller size, which means that the servers have fewer tables and can be more attentive to your needs. My server took time to explain several of the items on the menu and offer recommendations as to which were the most popular and which were his own personal favorites. He also checked in frequently to make sure every part of the meal was to my liking.

One thing should be noted about the service at Narcoossee's and that is it is definitely not a place to go if you are in a hurry. While the server was not slow or inefficient by any means, the meal progressed at a very relaxed and leisurely pace. There is plenty of time between courses to digest and take a little break before the next course is brought out; I was seated at six o'clock and did not leave the restaurant until after eight. While this might be a little long for some, I felt that the pace of the meal really allowed you to enjoy the beautiful view and helped you to fully appreciate the food rather than being rushed through your meal.

Dining on a Budget:
Because of its status as a Signature dining location, Narcoossee's is not necessarily a restaurant that you would want to go to if you are attempting to dine on a budget. If you are looking for seafood in particular, there are several other restaurants found across Disney property that can be much more affordable. Although I have not eaten there, a friend told me that Captain Jack's at the Downtown Disney Marketplace offers an atmosphere which is comparable to Narcoossee's (but more casual) and a menu which is far cheaper and still features a wide variety of seafood dishes.

If you are dining at Narcoossee's and looking to save a little money, I would suggests ordering a couple of appetizers and a dessert as opposed to an entrée as a way of keeping costs down. The Shrimp and Crab Chowder was very filling and could easily make a meal unto itself. If you paired this with the Rhode Island Calamari and the Almond-Crusted Cheesecake for dessert you could have an entire meal for $32 before tax and tip (compared with an entrée like the Filet Mignon which is $41 by itself).

The Overall Experience:
Dinner at Narcoossee's is probably one of the most exquisite meals I have had at Disney World. The restaurant certainly lived up to its Signature status in every way. Everything from the restaurant's beautiful location, to its gourmet food, to the attentive service made for an exceptional meal.

That being said, while Narcoossee's is certainly near the top of my list of most refined and elegant restaurants in Disney World, I would not necessarily consider it one of my overall favorites. There are several other restaurants that I would choose to dine at before going back to Narcoossee's again. I am not saying that I did not enjoy my experience there (on the contrary, everything was of the highest quality), but there are other restaurant's at Disney World that I just enjoy more and which are much more affordable. However, if you are looking to splurge on a fancy meal, Narcoossee's is a great option if you are celebrating a birthday, anniversary, honeymoon, any other special occasion, or even just looking for a romantic night out. Whatever the reason for going there, Narcoossee's will deliver a dining experience that is truly special and memorable.

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

May 12, 2011

Indiana Jones Cairo Dinner Show

by John Bowers
AllEars.Net Guest Blogger
(additional photos by Sandi Lamborne)

Tables in Wonderland hosted the Cairo Dinner Show at the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular theater at the Hollywood Studios on Saturday, April 30, 2011. The event lasted from 7:30 until about 9:30 p.m., and the weather was perfect. It had been unseasonably hot here in Orlando for a few days, but it cooled off somewhat and was ideal.


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We were welcomed right inside the entrance with a table full of screwdrivers and boxes of popcorn. Everyone got a name tag with the name of their dinner table. The dinner tables were named
for major world cities.

For 'Scene One' of the evening, the casting director selected about a dozen people from the crowd and led them through various (somewhat embarrassing) 'acting' roles. Screaming with fear, slowly dying from a gunshot, similar to what the show does for regular audiences. Always funny for the crowd. And you can usually count on a few of the selected 'actors' to be real hams.

They were then led away to get into their costumes while the rest of us got to see part of the action sequence that the attraction is famous for: Indiana Jones narrowly escaping the punji sticks which erupt from the floor and the giant rolling ball which threatens to crush him.

The show's director then introduced the actor who plays Indiana and gave us a couple of fun insights into the performance. The punji sticks are activated when the actor steps on one of a series of small plates on the floor. Each stick has a little square plate right beside it,
not really obvious from where the crowd sits. When Indy steps on a specific plate, the punji stick fires upward, so he knows exactly when and where to jump out of the way.

Then the director told us how many 'tons' the rolling ball weighs, as two guys easily pushed it back uphill behind him.

All those 'volunteers' from the crowd returned in their funny costumes, the rolling ball stage set parted and we were led out onto the floor to find our tables. The tables were all set up at the back
of the stage, in front of the 'houses' that make up the rest of the set.


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We had a DJ who played some theme-appropriate music and it was time to attack the buffet and the bar. The food was quite nice. Cucumber and red onion salad, wild greens, grilled flatbreads, roasted vegetable cous cous, grilled vegetables, braised chicken breast with garlic, cumin, and olives, roasted spiced lamb meatballs (yum), and seafood tagine with scallops, shrimp and crab in saffron charmoula! WOW! Delightful. Beer, wine, mixed drinks, tea, and coffee.

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Fresh Cucumber & Red Onion Salad
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Wild Greens with Cherry Vinaigrette
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Roasted Root Vegetable Cous Cous and Flatbreads
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Grilled Seasonal Vegetables
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Braised Chicken Breast, Garlic, Cumin, Olives.
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Roasted Lamb Meatballs
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Seafood Tagine with Saffron Charmoula
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And dessert! Mocha eclairs, baklava, citrus tarts, and fruit salad with mint yogurt.

As we were finishing our dinner, it was time for the belly dancer. A very lovely lady, not at all shy about making close contact with the most nervous-looking gentlemen in the audience. She was terrific.

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Finally the director let us know that for 'Scene Two' we were all to remain seated, not stand up, and not move around at all. He made it quite clear. Then the cast of the show commenced to staging the big sword/bullwhip fight, the building-climbing-fighting-rope-swinging-ladder-falling scene, and (yes) even the fiery exploding jeep sequence all around us. We were right in the middle of it. It was amazing. When those firebombs hit, you don't want to be too close. It scared the daylights out of quite a few of us.

The cast all came out for us to take pictures with them, and then it was time to leave. It was a beautiful evening weather-wise, perfect for an out-of-doors event.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: The Cairo Dinner Show cost $160 per person, plus tax (gratuity included). Tables in Wonderland hosts a number of special dinners at Walt Disney World throughout the year. For more information about Tables in Wonderland, click HERE.



April 26, 2011

Whispering Canyon Cafe: A Fun Meal For The Entire Family

Andrew Rossi

Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi returns with a review of Whispering Canyon Cafe at Disney's Wilderness Lodge.

One thing that Disney restaurants excel at is creating memorable dining experiences, but they are able to do so in so many different ways. For some, it is their highly detailed, themed, and immersive atmosphere, such as 50's Prime Time Café or Sci-Fi Dine-In. With others it is all about their breathtaking location, like the California Grill or Narcoossee's. Other restaurants offer whimsical character interactions, including Chef Mickey's or Crystal Palace. And with others it is their ability to transport you to exotic locations through their cuisine and atmosphere, as seen with restaurants like Sanaa or Restaurant Marrakesh.

Just as with all of these other restaurants, Whispering Canyon Café at Disney's Wilderness Lodge is a truly unforgettable dining experience, but in a way that is completely different. It is not necessarily the restaurant's atmosphere, or its location, or even its cuisine that makes it memorable. Rather, it is the service provided by an extremely dedicated and passionate group of Cast Members and the overall family-friendly nature of the restaurant that make Whispering Canyon Café truly unique among Disney restaurants.

Whispering Canyon Cafe Sign

Overview:
Overlooking the grandiose lobby of the Wilderness Lodge, Whispering Canyon Café has a very unassuming appearance from the outside. In fact, if you weren't specifically looking for the restaurant, you might even miss it as you walk through the lobby. However, don't be fooled by appearances because Whispering Canyon Café is actually one of the more fun, care-free, rowdy dining experiences that you will find in all of Disney World.

Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Whispering Canyon Cafe is a restaurant that is great for the entire family and both little kids and adults alike will all have a good time. This type of restaurant is really what Disney is all about, a dining experience that goes beyond just the food. Just as with all Disney restaurant, you know that everything is going to be of the highest quality. Where Whispering Canyon Café is most successful, however, is with a wait staff that truly goes above and beyond to create a unique and unforgettable experience for guests of all ages.

Atmosphere:
The rustic feel that is evident as soon as you enter Wilderness Lodge, and carried throughout the rest of the resort, is continued inside Whispering Canyon Café. However, in contrast to the grandeur and majesty of the resort's lobby, the restaurant has a more casual and laid-back feel. The theming here is a little more subtle and subdued, but that does not mean there is a lack of detail.

The restaurant features a frontier/wilderness décor comprised of both Native American and old western, cowboy influences. The restaurant's log cabin feel is similar to that of the main lobby, if only on a smaller scale, featuring everything from wooden floor boards to log columns and support beams.

Wooden Ceiling

Adding to the rustic feel, there is one entire wall of huge windows looking out into the dense forest that really helps bring the outdoors inside and lends a sense of authenticity to the restaurant. You really feel as though you are dining in a secluded log cabin out in the wilderness. The restaurant, and the resort as a whole, gives you the sense that you are in the middle of nowhere rather than at Disney World just minutes from the Magic Kingdom.

Large Windows

The artwork adorning the walls is absolutely beautiful with various hand-painted scenes of Native American villages, natural western landscapes, and lively rodeos.

Native American Painting

Rodeo%20Painting

My favorite part of the décor was the light fixtures. First, there were smaller lights in the shape of teepees with buffalos scampering around the outside. These were so finely detailed that they had the appearance of being made out of animal hide that had been stitched together and had the look of being hand painted with different Native American symbols.

Teepee Light Fixture

On the ceiling were large iron chandeliers with faux candles. These had more of an old western, frontier influence and featured small cowboy figures riding or lassoing buffalo.

Cowboy Chandelier

Overall, the restaurant has a very open, spacious feel with high ceilings, large windows, and one side of the restaurant open to overlook the lobby. It is a restaurant that has a very welcoming and comfortable feel that makes it a good place to take the entire family.

Dining Room

The Menu:
Breakfast at Whispering Canyon Café features a menu of classic favorites with a little western flair. Among the choices are Raisin Bread French Toast ($9.99), Belgian Waffles ($10.99) with a strawberry topping, Pancakes ($9.99) accompanied by bacon or sausage, a Western Omelet with ham, cheddar, bell peppers, and onion ($11.49), and Barbeque Eggs Benedict ($10.99) featuring poaches eggs on an English muffin with beef brisket and barbeque hollandaise sauce.

The lunch menu may not be as extensive as at other restaurants, but it features some interesting choices. For appetizers there are Barbeque Pork Spring Rolls ($9.99), Smoked Trout Lettuce Raps ($9.99), Chicken and White Bean Soup ($6.99), Venison Chili ($7.99), and a Mixed Greens Salad ($6.99) topped with an apple vinaigrette.

Entrée selections are predominantly sandwiches, including a Turkey Sandwich ($13.49) with dried cranberry-arugula mayonnaise on blue cheese griddled multigrain bread, a Chicken Sandwich ($12.99) which features a fried chicken breast topped with pineapple slaw, and a Slow-Smoked Pulled Pork Sandwich ($12.49). There is also an Angus Chuck Bacon Cheeseburger ($13.99) as well as a Whiskey Maple-Glazed Trout ($17.99) served on a bed of arugula-frisee salad.

For dinner the appetizer selections remain the same but the entrees feature heartier dishes in place of sandwiches. Included on the dinner menu is a Chicken Vegetable Penne Pasta($18.99) tossed in olive oil, garlic, and parmesan, Pot Roast ($19.99), Meatloaf ($18.99) accompanied by mashed potatoes and topped with mushroom gravy, Marinated Grilled Pork Tenderloin ($22.99) with chorizo-tillamook grits, and a Grilled New York Strip ($31.99) accompanied by oven-roasted sweet potato fries.

The dessert offerings for both lunch and dinner are the same and include a Kahlua-flavored Chocolate Cake ($7.99) with chocolate mousse filling and fudge icing, Smores Cheesecake ($6.99) with a graham cracker crust topped with chocolate ganash and marshmallows, Chocolate Caramel Bread Pudding ($6.99) with a fig and cherry sauce, and an Apple Caramel Pie ($7.99).

What Whispering Canyon Café is best known for, however, is its all-you-care-to-enjoy Canyon Skillets which they feature at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Breakfast Skillet ($15.99 per person) features scrambled eggs, red bliss potatoes, bacon, sausage, waffles, buttermilk biscuits, and sausage gravy. The Lunch Skillet ($18.99 per person) includes smoked pork ribs, oven-roasted chicken, pork sausage, cowboy beans, corn on the cob, coleslaw, mashed potatoes, and freshly made cornbread. The Dinner Skillet ($28.49 per person) likewise has the smoked pork ribs, oven-roasted chicken, cowboy beans, corn on the cob, coleslaw, mashed potatoes, and cornbread, but also includes pulled pork, beef brisket, and a mixed greens salad with apple vinaigrette.

I went to Whispering Canyon Café for lunch and there was no hesitation with what I wanted to get. I did not even have to look at the menu and immediately ordered the Canyon Skillet. The amount of food that you get is absolutely staggering. It would be worth the $18.99 even if it was not all-you-care-to-enjoy.

Canyon Skillet

I want to start with the ribs because I first thought that I was going to be immensely disappointed with them but they turned out to be my favorite part of the meal. The ribs that arrived with the skillet were very tough, dry, and had hardly any meat on the bones. When I brought this to my server's attention he apologized and brought me out a new helping. These new ribs were amazing, very tender and moist with very little fat. I actually did not find the ribs to have too smoky of a flavor, but just enough to enhance the overall taste of the meat. The barbeque sauce that topped the ribs was also very tasty and, unlike other ribs that I have had at other restaurants, I found the barbeque sauce to be more of a compliment to the flavor of the ribs rather than the predominant flavor.

The chicken was also extremely flavorful. If you are not a fan of black pepper, however, then this chicken might not be for you because it was certainly heavily seasoned. The chicken was also perfectly tender and moist. I enjoyed the peppery taste of the chicken so much that I did not even bother to add any barbeque sauce onto it and just ate it as is.

The pork sausage really wasn't anything special, especially when compared with the ribs and the chicken, although it was a nice addition to the lunch. I actually found the sausage to have more of a smoky flavor than the ribs.

These meats came accompanied by corn on the cob (which was a little overcooked for my taste), as well as cowboy beans, mashed potatoes, and coleslaw. The beans were fairly standard, but they paired perfectly with the chicken and ribs. I really enjoyed the mashed potatoes, which were very light and fluffy, and the coleslaw also provided a nice, light and refreshing contrast to the other aspects of the skillet.

The skillet also came with a generous portion of cornbread, which was served warm and was absolutely delicious. The slight sweetness of the cornbread was the perfect accompaniment to the rest of the meal, its flavor a definite contrast but one that complimented the other elements of the dish. With so much food, there was no way that I was going to have room for dessert. Instead, it was the cornbread that served that purpose.

Cornbread

Service:
While Whispering Canyon Café's atmosphere provides a rustic charm and the food certainly does not disappoint, it is the restaurant's service that really sets it apart. When you dine at Whispering Canyon Café you need to go with a similar mindset to that of when you dine at 50's Prime Time Café. This means that the waiters and waitresses are going to say and do things that you would not typically expect when dining at a nice restaurant, but they do so all in good fun.

The severs here may tease or poke fun at you, play little tricks at your expense, and be overly sarcastic, but that is really what makes the restaurant so much fun. For example, you might want to watch out if you ask for ketchup, and the same holds true when asking for napkins or straws. As with the 50's Prime Time Café, the severs won't shy away from making comments if you finish all of your meal or leave a lot of food behind on your plate. However, as is also the case at 50's Prime Time, some severs are far more over the top than others.

Not only do the severs have tremendous interaction with their guests, but they also play off one another. While I was there, I witnessed two severs going at each other throughout the course of my meal complaining how the other was always putting trays of food in their way or how one was able to clear tables of dishes so much faster than the other. It was really quite funny and entertaining.

The severs' role here goes far beyond that of just bringing out food and drinks; they are really the entertainment for the meal and they greatly encourage participation from their guests, especially children. The waiters and waitresses lead the dining room in songs, having all members of the family clapping their hands, stomping their feet, and twirling their napkins. Kids are invited to get up and do the hokey pokey and even participate in a hobby-horse race around the perimeter of the restaurant.

All in all, this tremendous service provided by a dedicated group of Cast Members creates a very rowdy, boisterous, and loud atmosphere. If you are looking for a quiet, romantic meal this is not necessarily the place for you (although I did notice lunch to be a little more calm and peaceful because the restaurant was far less crowded). But, if you are looking to have a good time with the entire family, the servers at Whispering Canyon Café ensure that all members of the family are involved in the fun.

Dining on a Budget:
When it comes to dining on a budget, Whispering Canyon Café's all-you-care-to-enjoy breakfast, lunch, and dinner Canyon Skillets are a tremendous value. The breakfast skillet is $15.99 and features a wide selection of traditional breakfast favorites. It is like being at a buffet with the food being brought right to you rather than you having to go get it for yourself. While this skillet does not offer as vast an array as a breakfast buffet, it is definitely comparable and far cheaper. Breakfast at the Crystal Palace will cost you $23, the buffet at Boma is $24, and Chef Mickey's is $26. I am not saying that the breakfast skillet at Whispering Canyon Café is at the same level as these breakfast buffets, but if an all-you-care-to-enjoy meal is what you are looking for then it is a viable alternative at a far cheaper price.

The lunch skillet for $18.99 and dinner skillet for $28.49 are likewise also very good values for your menu when you consider all the food that you get. Of the two, however, I would say that lunch is the better option. At lunch you still get the ribs and chicken that you get at dinner in addition to the cowboy beans, corn on the cob, coleslaw, and cornbread. The only difference is that dinner also includes pulled pork (as opposed the lunch's pork sausage), beef brisket, and a mixed greens salad. Unless the pulled pork and beef brisket is something you don't want to miss and would be the make-or-break point of the meal, I would suggest going for lunch because the $10 difference between lunch and dinner is pretty significant and really adds up if you have a lot of people in your party.

Even if you decide not to get the Canyon Skillet, the lunch menu offers many affordable options with a good variety of sandwiches ranging from $12 to $13. Another great value on the menu is the bottomless milkshake for $6.39. The shakes come in your choice of chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry and are constantly refilled throughout the course of your meal.

The Overall Experience:
Whispering Canyon Café is one of those restaurants that is really what Disney is all about. It is a dining location that is fun and entertaining for the entire family, kids and adults alike. Dining here is about so much more than just the food (although the food will certainly not disappoint). Singing, dancing, clapping, racing, and napkin twirling are all part of the experience at this restaurant, all driven by a group of extremely dedicated and passionate Cast Members, and that is what makes it so unique. Dining at Whispering Canyon Café is an experience you will not soon forget. This is the type of restaurant that you go to not only to just have a good meal, but to have a good time, laugh, and enjoy the time spent with family and friends.

Check out Reader Reviews of Whispering Canyon Cafe 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!

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!

January 5, 2011

Tables in Wonderland Holiday Spirits Dinner

by John Bowers

Tables in Wonderland hosted a Holiday Spirits Dinner at Epcot's Norway Lounge on Friday evening, December 17, 2010. The Norway Lounge is a somewhat-secret space above Maelstrom, the pavilion's signature attraction.

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There were maybe 60 people in attendance. We started out with a reception so people could have a chance to meet one another. We were served wine and three scrumptious small bites, passed around by the gracious servers. Those treats were Caramelized Beets with Microgreens, Pomegranate Free-Range Chicken with Citrus, and Charred Beef with Watercress Pesto. The servers were scrambling in and out of the room to keep plenty available.

We were seated at tables of 8, each table had the name of one of Santa's reindeer, and we were given cards with our names on them and the name of our table. Lovely table settings, red tablecloths and gold plates, plus a Christmas-y centerpiece on each table.

Each course had its own specialty mixed drink served with it. Our appetizer, Spicy Seared Tilapia with Creamy Corn Pudding and Crispy Leeks was served with a martini glass that held a 'Belle's of St. Mary's', a bracing concoction of gin, triple sec, apricot brandy, and lemon juice. The tilapia and the libation were exquisite.

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Our salad was a Medley of Winter Greens and Herbs tossed with Sundried Cranberry Vinaigrette topped with Crunchy Sunflower Seeds. It was matched with a drink called a Red Nosed Reindeer: vodka, triple sec, and grapefruit juice. The drinks disappeared quickly.

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The entree was Prosciutto and Sage Wrapped Pork Tenderloin with Tomato Chutney, and Italian Olive Oil Braised Yukon Gold Potatoes and Brussel Sprouts. This time it was a drink called Santa's Little Helper: tequila, orange juice, and tomato juice. Nary a discouraging word from anyone at my table!

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The Dessert Trio: Warm Chocolate Ganache Brulee, Asian Apple Crumble, and Eggnog Foam with Nutmeg Dust. Alongside came Crockpot Mulled Cider, the main ingredient being Apple Brandy.

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Even with all those wonderful mixed drinks, the servers were busy pouring chardonnay, cabernet, and pinot noir for anyone who wanted it.

By this time it was about 7:45. Everyone who wanted to attend the Candlelight Processional was asked to follow the leader with the big lighted torch (battery-powered, not on fire, fortunately) from Norway to the American Gardens Theater, where seating had been arranged for us.

The walk from Norway to the theater was fun all by itself. It was dark, and the Christmas lights in the pavilions along the way were beautiful. It seemed every adult you passed had a drink of some sort, and I don't mean a Coke. Unless there was rum in it. Drinking around the World, Christmas-style.

A great meal, a great show, and lots of Christmas spirits. How can you beat that?

The recipes for the drinks follow:

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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.

Have you dined at House of Blues recently? Share your experience and read what others have to say! AllEars Rate and Review the House of Blues!

Be sure to click on the comment link below and let me know what you think of my House of Blues blog!

September 13, 2010

'50s Prime Time Restaurant Photo Blog

by Jeff Onorato
AllEars® Guest Blogger

My favorite restaurant to eat at when I visit Disney's Hollywood Studios is the Hollywood Brown Derby. I absolutely love their Cobb Salad and Grapefruit Cake. Not to mention the refined setting and Old-Hollywood charm. Lately I have found myself eating there on almost every trip to Walt Disney World. So when I was planning my most recent trip I decided to break the mold and try something a bit different. I made reservations for the 50's Prime Time Café instead. It's located just around the corner from the Brown Derby next to Hollywood & Vine. It overlooks Echo Lake.

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I had dined at the Prime Time Cafe once before, so I had an idea of what I was in for. For me, this restaurant captures what Disney World is all about. They serve good food at reasonable prices in a really fun, well-themed atmosphere. To say that the servers here "have character" would be a gross understatement though. I would be reminded of this on my most recent visit in August. This meal was during a solo trip to the World, so my experience there may not be atypical of what a family of five might encounter.

The décor of the popular lunch and dinner spot harkens back to the 1950's and takes diners on a trip down memory lane. Pictured below are the check-in and waiting areas. Take notice of the hula-hoops tucked away next to the stove.

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I had a reservation for 11:30 and was promptly seated upon checking in. The restaurant was quite busy at that time of the day. I strongly recommend making reservations if at all possible.

If you should have to wait, the Tune-In Lounge is open just next door to the Café. Not only do they have a full bar with a bevy of adult beverages, but the regular menu is available for guests here too. This is a great alternative for singles or last-minute walk-ups when the restaurant has no available seating. You can also have a seat in their "living room" while you wait for your table to become available. Smoothies, Flavored Sodas (vanilla, cherry), Milkshakes, Root Beer Floats and Malts are available for those who prefer a cold, non-alcoholic beverage. I especially like the signage outside. There is also a staircase which leads up to the Echo Lake apartments - home to many aspiring actors and actresses.

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I always feel like I'm in an episode of Leave It to Beaver when I eat here. The checkered dining room is a maze of vintage kitchenettes, complete with Formica tables and vinyl chairs. Several tables throughout the restaurant are outfitted with small TV sets that play black-and-white sitcoms from the 50's. These are fun to watch while you're waiting for your meal to come out. All tables do not have these, so it's important to request one if you would like a table with a TV.

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The first thing I noticed when I sat down was an empty plate, cloth napkin, and silverware placed in the center of the table in a pile. I thought that was a bit strange initially. My server, Lisa, then made her way to the table. She pulled out a chair and sat down to join me. Now that she was comfortable, Lisa proceeded to tell me that she was my long lost cousin and went over the menu of what "mom" was cooking up in the kitchen. After our quick reunion, I placed my drink order. Lisa said she would be right back and instructed me to "set the table - do my chores" until she returned. All told, I got off pretty easy though. I overheard the table next to me receive a greeting of "What do you want?" from their server, er, cousin. It was all very comical and brought a smile to my face.

I started off with the Blue Claw Crab Cake ($8.49).

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It was a decent sized crab cake for the price, and served over succotash with a sweet chili sauce which I really enjoyed. It was finished off with a garnish of crispy fried onions. Seafood Salad, Onion Rings, Chicken Noodle Soup, and an Iceberg Wedge with Blue Cheese dressing are a few other appetizer choices.

For my entrée, I had Dad's Traditional Meatloaf ($14.99).

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This was a mixture of beef and pork topped with tomato glaze and served with mashed potatoes and green beans. I was forewarned to "eat all of my vegetables" as the meal was presented. This caveat is nothing out of the ordinary at the Prime Time Cafe. The Meatloaf was very moist and tender, and the tomato glaze was perfect fit for it. It was similar to ketchup in taste and consistency. The sides were tasty too - the potatoes were topped with gravy and the green beans were nicely done in an al dente style. Entrée selections also include: Grandma's Chicken Pot Pie, Mom's Old Fashioned Pot Roast, Aunt Liz's Fried Chicken, Artichoke and Ricotta Agnolotti, and a Grilled Chicken or Fish Sandwich.

After looking over the dessert choices, I decided on the S'mores ($4.79).

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Dessert is not presented on a traditional menu here. Instead, your server will bring out a viewfinder to look through at the different selections offered. A flip through the slideshow will give you a glimpse of the other sweets: Dad's Brownie Sundae, Boston-Cream Cupcakes, Seasonal Cobbler, and a "no sugar added" Cheesecake make the list. There wasn't anything special or exotic about the S'mores I had, but they were awesome. They were just your basic graham cracker, marshmallow and chocolate. They really hit the spot. I'm looking forward to trying one of their Peanut Butter & Jelly milkshakes on a future visit.

This restaurant gets my top recommendation for families, especially multi-generational ones traveling with grandparents and kids. The tongue-in-cheek humor will definitely be a hit with children and grandparents alike. They are a participant in the Disney Dining Plan, with a requirement of 1 table-service credit and also offer Tables is Wonderland discounts. As of this writing the restaurant is not included in the Fantasmic Dinner Package. It's also a great option if you're in search of a less-expensive meal that won't break the bank.

Prime Time Café fits in perfectly with the Studio's nostalgic take on Hollywood. They dish up more of the light-hearted shtick that you encounter from the "Streetmosphere" performers that liven up Hollywood Boulevard. This is an interactive experience that you will want to play along with to fully enjoy. The 50's Prime Time Café truly is a blast from the past.

August 3, 2010

New Via Napoli "Soft Opens" Early

by John Kurowksi

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The landscape of the Italy pavilion in Epcot dramatically changed recently as construction scrims and scaffolding came down to reveal the new, highly anticipated restaurant, Via Napoli.

Italy, as both a nation and a World Showcase pavilion, features some of the most beautiful architecture, people, and vistas found anywhere. But for many, the true key to embrace Italian culture lies within its rich and flavorful food. The popularity of the former Alfredo's, and the current Tutto Italia prove that many Walt Disney World guests crave Italian fare while visiting and lucky for them, they now have a new offering. Via Napoli specializes in pizza with some pasta dishes and salads on the menu.

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The decor lends itself to the story that Disney Imagineers concocted for the new eatery. The son of a wealthy Italian family that owned a large and thriving parcel of land in their community returned home and transformed his parents' estate into this 400-seat trattoria. Tutto Italia, found right next door, serves as the family's former home and Via Napoli sits on the former site of the family's villa, shop, and stables. In fact, this new restaurant matches Tutto Italia in terms of design and architecture.

Guests enter into the restaurant's foyer, the former villa. Three glass walls separate the foyer from the rest of Via Napoli. In the center sits a very ornate chandelier decorated with glass fruit. The glass fruit actually arrived the morning of our visit. As of right now, because of the small size of this room, and the constant opening and closing of the automatic sliding glass door, the outside temperature controls the temperature of this room. One circular air conditioning vent sits in the center with the chandelier underneath it.

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Via Napoli houses a giant open kitchen with three very unique wood pizza ovens, named Stromboli, Vesuvio, and Etna.
All named after volcanoes in Italy, three Roman god-like faces outline the ovens with the appearance of flames in their mouths.

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Aspiring chefs will love to have a view of the bustling kitchen to watch these chefs do their work as they dine, while others will take in the charm of the murals, paintings, and decorative light fixtures throughout the restaurant. There is also a large wooden table in the center of the room. This table is for large groups as well as extra seating for other small parties. Like the tables at the Biergarten or Teppan Edo, guests seated at this table may find themselves sitting with other parties.

The section of the restaurant that simulates the former stables features a 79-seat outdoor area, separated from the rest of the restaurant by two glass doors. Being outdoors, this seating area faces the elements, but this section will soon be covered in sliding glass doors that will remain open during fair weather, but will be closed off in extreme cold and hot weather in order to be heated or air conditioned.

The Patina Group, the operators of the restaurant, wanted to make the pizza served in Via Napoli to taste as authentic to the pizza found in Naples, Italy as possible. Many pizza chefs say the trick in making a good pizza dough is in the water, so to overcome the differences in the Orlando water, Via Napoli actually imports their water from an undisclosed spring in Pennsylvania with some extra minerals added to be an authentic match to the water from Italy. The flour comes from Naples, Italy directly and the tomatoes come from Murano, Italy. The pizza comes in three sizes: small, which is billed as individual; Large, which can serve two-three; and 1/2 Meter, which is 12"x18" of pizza.

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Our server recommended the margherita pizza, with fresh, handmade mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil. We were in the mood for some pepperoni so we asked if they could make one half margherita, and the other half pepperoni. She said that the only size they can do that with is the 1/2 Meter so that is what we ordered. The crust is very thin and charred. We found on the margherita pizza the charred crust overpowered the taste, but the kick the pepperoni gave on the other side balanced out the strong crust.

The restaurant also offers an extensive wine and cocktail list. While entering the main dining room three glass coolers are prominently featured containing the restaurant's unique non-alcoholic offering, Aqua Fresca. This is available in three flavors: Limonata, Blood Orange, and Strawberry. These are a tad pricier than other soft drinks available and come in a smaller glass than the typical Coke products the restaurant serves. The Aqua Fresca does not come with free refills. The restaurant also features two imported Italian beers: Moretti, a light beer that is currently available throughout the Italy pavilion, and La Rossi, a darker amber lager available only at Via Napoli.

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Decadent describes the desserts on the menu. The tiramisu, our server's favorite, is very similar to the one offered at Tutto Italia. The Copa di Brutti Ma Buoni (Ugly But Good) was our favorite: a cherry and vanilla gelato sundae with "ugly but good" cookies. But the most popular dessert seemed to be the Zeppole di Caterina. These are ricotta cheese filled fried dough fritters (they look like Dunkin' Donuts' Munchkins) with whipped cream and chocolate dipping sauces.

The restaurant is in soft-open phase until August 5, when they will have the official ribbon cutting ceremony. The ceremony will be done fairly early in the day and is by invite only. The restaurant will open at 3:30 that day to the public. From now until September 10, the restaurant will only take walk-ups. Starting August 5, guests will be able to make reservations for dates after September 10. They do accept Tables in Wonderland and will take one Table Service Dining Credit on the Disney Dining Plan. This is a great time to check out the restaurant as it is fairly easy to get into and the food is quite tasty.


March 27, 2010

The Wave - Contemporary Resort - Photo Blog

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In a previous blog about the Captain's Grille, I wrote about how I enjoyed having lunch at a nearby resort when visiting a Disney theme park. I went on to express my fondness for dining at the Captain's Grille on days that I tour Epcot. My favorite place of refuge from the hustle and bustle of the Magic Kingdom is the "Wave... of American Flavors"; one of Disney's newer casual dining restaurants located in the lobby of the Contemporary.

Contemporary Resort

Contemporary Resort

Contemporary Resort


Contemporary Resort


My appreciation for this restaurant goes beyond quick lunchtime getaways though. The Contemporary is one of my favorite Walt Disney World resorts to stay at. Subsequently, I find myself dining at the Wave quite often whether it is for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. In my vignette this week, I'm going to give you an overview of the restaurant in the hopes that you will get a better idea of what the place is all about.

The Wave opened in 2008 in the spot previously occupied by the Food & Fun Center, the Contemporary's former quick-service restaurant and arcade.

The Wave Entrance - Contemporary Resort

The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort


During the recent refurbishment of the resort, the quick-service eatery and arcade were revamped, renamed, and relocated to the fourth floor where the Concourse Steakhouse and Fantasia gift shop were originally located. This move would add more convenient accessibility for guests staying at the Bay Lake Tower, which was still under construction at the time.

The entrance to the Wave is elaborate. You approach through a tunnel illuminated by a ripcurl of neon blue lights.


The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort


At the end of the corridor is the hostess podium, which is backed by a large wall of swirling, etched glass. This also serves as a barrier between the reception and bar areas.


Reception Podium The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort


Reception And Bar Area - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort


Waiting Area And Entrance -The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort

Waiting Area - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort


Several large alcoves are off to the right of the waiting area. These lounges provide dimly lit, comfortable seating with ambiance while you wait for your buzzer to cue that your table is available. This is a great spot to sit back, relax, and have an organic beer or antioxidant cocktail.


LoungeArea - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort

The restaurant's bar area is quite large, and affords a more than ample amount of seating for guests. Flat panel TV's are mounted into a cabinet high above the bar for optimum viewing from both sides. This is an ideal spot to have a drink and watch a game. They have beer and wine flights, too.

Bar - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort


Bar - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort


The theme and feng shui of the Contemporary are reflected within. The décor of the Wave is trendy, refined and comfortable. Wood paneling, earth tones and swaying lights are well appointed throughout. Seating is offered by tables and large booths. There are also private dining rooms available for larger groups.

Dining Room - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort

Dining Room - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort


Dining Room - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort


Booth Seating - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort


Booth Up Close - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort


Their menu brings a modernized, health-conscious take on American cuisine with awareness to our eco-system. Milk shakes make way for Mega-Berry Smoothies, French Fries are bid farewell to in favor of roasted potato wedges, and farm-raised fish is featured by way of the sustainable variety. Organic and bird friendly coffees, multigrain pancakes, locally-grown greens, grilled tofu, and no sugar added desserts are just a few of their offerings I have dined on in an effort to keep my waistline defined while on vacation.

Let's begin with the most important meal of the day, breakfast. It's served daily from 7:30 - 11:00. A glimpse into the morning menu finds Spinach and Feta Cheese Scrambled Eggs, Eggs Benedict, Smoked Salmon, and Multigrain Waffles. I know what you're thinking - "Multigrain Waffles?" Before you protest in horror, allow me to elaborate. I recently stopped in for breakfast during a stay at the Contemporary. In the interest of healthy eating, I decided to give the Multigrain Waffles ($9.99) a try.

Breakfast Multigrain Waffle - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort

They're served with a small ramekin of fruit compote and your choice of bacon, pork or chicken sausage. I chose the pork sausage links. The waffle itself was crisp and had a nutty, wheat flavor. They're made with a splash of Acai juice. The juice of the Acai palm is said to have antioxidant properties and aid in digestion, improve energy levels, detoxify the body, and lower cholesterol levels. A pinch of powdered sugar is sprinkled over the waffle to finish it off. I was actually surprised at how tasty it was. I would definitely order this again.

Here's a photo of the Chicken Sausage, Multigrain muffin and 2 eggs over well.

Breakfast Multigrain Muffin - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort

Lunch is offered from Noon - 2:00 and brings Seasonable Vegetable Stew, a Grilled Chicken Breast Sandwich, and Mediterranean Tuna Salad to list a few. On a recent chilly day in December, I took a break from the fun at Magic Kingdom and popped over to the Contemporary for an unplanned lunch at the Wave. I've found it's actually quicker to walk than to take the monorail. The distance to the resort from the turnstiles is not much greater than the distance to the monorail platform. Since the restaurant is also on the ground floor, you also save time taking the monorail or elevator down to the Lobby.

I started off with the Five Spice Chicken Lettuce Wraps ($9.49). The lettuce was crisp, leafy, and had a nice color to it. The Cajun-flavored chicken was plentiful and had a nice zing without being overly spicy. It was just right for wrapping in the lettuce. The leaves of lettuce were so large that they could envelope the chicken without it dribbling out and becoming messy. There were three wraps served, and were like a healthy alternative to tacos. They were topped off with peppers and sliced carrots. At one point the Lettuce Wraps were served with Scallops. I did enjoy those but prefer the newer version with the chicken filling.

Lettuce Wraps - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort


For my main course I had the Italian Chef Salad ($14.99). This was a blend of mixed greens, prosciutto, cappicoloa, provolone, salami, and hard boiled eggs. The dressing was a tangy red wine vinaigrette. It was finished off with shaved parmesan cheese. I would liken the salad to a classic - the bookmaker; served at many authentic Italian restaurants. It was great and I can't recommend this enough.

Italian Chef Salad - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort


Desserts at the Wave are served a bit differently than most restaurants. Rather than offering one item in a single serving, the sweets are presented as sample-sized trios. This trend seems to be catching on at other Walt Disney World restaurants too. I recently ordered a similar dessert flight at Sanaa. Each of the servings are big enough for 2-3 bites. I like them because they offer up a nice variety. I chose the Crispy and Crunchy ($7.99).

Dessert - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort


This combo includes Vanilla-braised Pineapple Spears, Almond-Pineapple-Raisin Baklava, and Zucchini-Carrot Cake with Vanilla Panna Cotta. A "no sugar added" set is available too. Chocolate-Mint Mousse, Fresh Berries with Panna Cotta, and Vanilla Bean Créme Brulée are featured in that trio.

Dinner at the Wave is served from 5:30 - 10:00. I find it to be a less-hectic alternative to the California Grille and Chef Mickey's when they are at full capacity. When conventions are in swing, all of the Contemporary's restaurants are packed and walk-up seating can be hard to come by. I always advocate making a reservation if possible, but at slower times of the year they may not be necessary here.

My most recent dinner at the Wave was back in September. To begin my meal, I had the Crab Nachos ($10.99). These are not listed on the regular menu, but are one of several snacks available at the bar. I happened to stumble upon them while looking over the bar menu while waiting for my table to become available. They can also be ordered in the main dining room. The Crabmeat was plentiful and piled high on the tortilla chips. Jalapenos, sour cream, black beans, and shredded cheese were added for good measure. This is one of the more original offerings I have dined on at any restaurant in recent memory.


Crab Nachos - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort


I also tried the Black Bean Chili ($6.99) before the main course. It had a nice consistency and was not too thick, despite the abundance of the black beans. They had a nice, robust taste. The chili was garnished with a dollop of Sour Cream and served with a small Jalapeno Corn Bread Muffin. I did not find the chili or muffin to be spicy at all. In fact, the jalapenos were virtually non-existent.

Black Bean Chili - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort


For my main course, I chose the Braised Chicken Pot Pie ($19.99). It was nicely seasoned with herbs and spices, most notably Thyme. The herb did not overpower the flavor of the other ingredients though. The Pot Pie was topped off with a light and flaky puff pastry and filled with peas, mushrooms, and carrots. The only slight disappointment for me was that the chicken was not boneless. It didn't put a damper on the meal though.


Braised Chicken Pot Pie  - The Wave Restaurant - Contemporary Resort


I didn't have dessert with Dinner that evening. Between the Nachos, Chili, and Pot Pie I was quite full. I did notice that the desserts served during dinner hour are the same as those offered at lunchtime.

I have noticed the Wave to be quite popular with families and I think this is a good place to bring children for a sit-down meal. The kid's menu has a healthy take on all of the familiar children's fare. A Fresh Fruit Plate ($5.09), Multigrain Pancakes ($5.09), Grilled Fish ($7.59), and several three-course combos ($7.59) offer nutritious alternatives. The combos each include an appetizer (garden salad/celery or carrot sticks/Seasonal veggies), Entrée (Grilled Chicken Strips/Chicken Nachos/Cheeseburgers), and Dessert (fruit salad/yogurt parfait/vanilla gelato sundae).

The Wave wins high praise from me. Their varied offerings are the perfect culmination of health-conscious cuisine and classic Americana with a flavorful twist. If you find your self in need of a detox from burgers and fries, this is the place to go. The Wave leads the pack of Disney's newest casual-dining eateries - don't miss it.

Breakfast Menu

Lunch Menu

Dinner Menu

Kid's Menu

Readers Rate and Review Breakfast at The Wave!

Readers Rate and Review Lunch and Dinner at The Wave!


jeffo.JPG About Jeff: I'm from South Central Pennsylvania, where I work for a Media Publishing Company by day. My first visit to WDW was at the age of 2, and I have been back around 35 times since then. I often travel solo to WDW, as well as with family. I make good use of my Annual Pass, and trek to Orlando about 5 times per year to visit my favorite travel destination and pursue another hobby of mine - photography. My favorite resort is the Polynesian, but I have stayed at all of the WDW resorts at least once. In fact, my favorite aspect of visiting the Walt Disney World Resort is trying out the different Resorts and Restaurants. I enjoy sampling different foods that I normally would never try at home (such as Escargot at the France pavilion).

March 16, 2010

Maya Grill at Coronado Springs Photo Blog

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Coronado Springs is my favorite of Disney's moderate resorts. It opened in 1997 and is their only resort in this category with a convention center. As such, they cater largely to business travelers and conventioneers.

The hotel is named after Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and themed to the areas of the Southwest and Mexico he journeyed through in the 1500's. I love the Southwest/Mexican theme and stay here often.

Coronado Springs Sign

Approaching Coronado Springs

The resort circles a huge 15-acre lake, Lago Dorado, and from many points along the water you can look out to picturesque scenery.


Coronado Springs View Across the Water

Coronado Springs View Across the Water

Coronado Springs View Across the Water

Whenever I stay here I like to have dinner at the Maya Grill, the resorts' only table-service restaurant. It is located in El Centro which is the building housing the lobby, gift shop, convention center, and counter-service eateries.


Coronado Springs Entrance to El Centro


Coronado Springs El Centro Sign

As you enter Coronado's beautiful lobby, the hallway leading to the restaurant area is to the left of the fountain. Stop and toss a coin in. Don't forget to make a wish.


Coronado Springs Entrance to Restaurants

TIP: Take a look up at the amazing artwork gracing the domed ceiling of the entryway.


Coronado Springs Domed Ceiling

The Pepper Market and Rix Café are the places to stop if you are searching for a quick bite to eat. The Maya Grill is located right next-door to them, at the end of the corridor spanning the eateries.

Coronado Springs Restaurant Row

Maya Grill is open daily for breakfast from 7-11 a.m. and dinner from 5-11 p.m. At one point their breakfast offerings were limited to a buffet however they recently switched over to an à la carte menu in late February. I have never dined here for breakfast and have yet to try the new morning menu but would like to in the near future.

When the restaurant initially opened, their menu was geared more toward Latin cuisine. Over the years, those offerings slowly fell by the wayside and made way for more standard American fare with an emphasis on steak, chicken and seafood. This could have been due to competition from the Pepper Market, which was (and still is) offering a broad selection of Mexican and ethnic cuisine. A few of their appetizers still have a Latin flare - Crabmeat Chalupas, Pulled Pork Empanadas, and a Seafood Margarita are among them.

I have eaten dinner at the Maya Grill on more than one occasion and have been pleased with each of those visits. My most recent was just a few months ago. I dined solo on that evening. I noticed a lot of other business people (there for a convention) dining alone, so I didn't feel awkward at all. Certain restaurants on-property are definitely more conducive to an enjoyable dining experience when eating alone. Maya Grill is one of them in my opinion.

The entrance to the restaurant is just beyond the Pepper Market "grab-and-go" coffee window. Signage is on a huge stone tablet set among tiled walls supported by marble columns which help create the mood for your journey into the Mayan ruins.

Entrance to Maya Grill


Coronado Springs Maya Grill Sign

I made a reservation for 5:30 in anticipation of my meal here and was glad that I did. The restaurant was completely full and walk-ups were being asked to return much later in the evening. As with all Disney restaurants, I always recommend making a reservation if at all possible. When conventions are in full-swing, the restaurant can get very busy. Luckily, I did not have to wait at all. I was immediately shown to my table after checking in.

TIP: The Laguna Bar (located just outside on Lago Dorado) is a nice place to wait in the cooler, less-humid months of the year. Relax and have a Margarita while you wait for your table to become available.


Coronado Springs Laguna Bar

Coronado Springs Laguna Bar

After you have approached the host podium and checked-in, you will pass through a tunnel leading into the main dining room.


Maya Grill Podium

Colorful murals grace the walls of the entryway. Several of these can be found throughout the restaurant and depict the ancestral Mayans hard at work mapping the universe and mastering their trades. They were known for being skilled craftsman and invented a calendar system of remarkable accuracy. Their version later evolved into the Aztec calendar.


As the hostess showed me to my table, we passed the butcher's case, which displays the various cuts of beef used for the entrees. A dessert tray is also displayed nearby to tantalize incoming guests.

Rustic shades of Orange and Yellow bring to mind a sun-burned, desert expanse one might encounter if they were exploring the actual Mayan pyramids. Be careful of those burning torches serving as lighting fixtures :-)

Coronado Springs Maya Grill


Coronado Springs May Grill Dining Room

The Mayans were known for building elaborate, ceremonial architecture and Disney has done a wonderful job in recreating that facet of their culture. The main dining room features that same grandiose, soaring framework and arched design.


Coronado Springs May Grill Dining Room


Coronado Springs May Grill Dining Room

Coronado Springs May Grill Dining Room


A lovely fountain is poised in the middle of the dining room, providing ambiance to a few tables circling its' perimeter.

Coronado Springs May Grill Dining Room


I began my meal with the Crispy Gulf Shrimp ($10.00). What the appetizer lacked in quantity, it made up for in quality. The jumbo shrimp were wrapped in Won-Ton noodles and fried to perfection. A bed of cabbage, red peppers, and avocado aioli added to the flavor of this starter.


Maya Grill Crispy Shrimp


For my entrée I chose the Steak and Portobello Skewer ($27.00). The chunks of Portobello mushroom were huge, and the steak was tender. The skewer was served over ratatouille vegetables and parmesan potatoes. Remy did not make an appearance, however the diced passion fruit served alongside the skewer made for a nice presentation. The portion was plentiful and more than enough for me.

They do have several side dishes to choose from though. Steak fries, sweet fried plantains, wild mushroom ragout, and baked potatoes are all available as accompaniments.


Maya Grill Steak and Portobello Skewer

St. Louis Style Ribs ($23.00), Chilean Salmon ($29.00), Seafood Risotto ($34.00), Pan Seared Duck ($30.00), and a Marinated Center Cut Pork Chop ($28.00) are a few of the options rounding out the Dinner menu.

Menu prices are slightly higher here than at other table-service restaurants in Disney's moderate resort category. While the Maya Grill is a bit more upscale than Boatwright's and Shutters, the price difference here is likely due to the nature of clientele that patronizes the establishment. The good news is that they participate in both the Tables in Wonderland program and Disney Dining Plan.

While they had quite a few interesting desserts to choose from on their display, I decided on the Chambord Chocolate Cake ($6.99). It was just the right size and perfectly satisfied my craving for something sweet after the meal. I could only taste a hint of the cordial in the sauce but it did give the cake a nice berry aftertaste. Crème Brulee, Deep Fried Cheesecake, Spiced Churros, and Tres Leches are also offered.


Maya Grill Chocolate Cake

I've found the Maya Grill to be equally popular with conventioneers and vacationing families. Children are more than welcome and a kid's menu is available. Choices include Beef Tips, Grilled Chicken, and a Seafood "Catch of the Day". Kid's meals come with a drink and a side of apple sauce or scoop of ice cream. Prices range from $8.25 - $8.95. Despite being a fine dining restaurant, I think the atmosphere is interesting enough that kids won't become bored.

I could also see the Maya Grill being an ideal destination for couples in search of a romantic dinner before a visit to the nearby Rix nightclub (just down the hall). I've included a few photos of the club to give you an idea of what it looks like.


Coronado Springs Rix

Coronado Springs Rix

Coronado Springs Rix

Coronado Springs Rix

Here is an interesting aside: a loosely-based replica of the calendar can be found in the Dig Site pool area of Coronado Springs. I have a great appreciation for the Imagineers' efforts to include these details and have included a picture of it to share with you. Can you spot the Hidden Mickeys?

Coronado Springs Aztec Dig Site

Fans of Epcot's San Angel Inn will also enjoy the ambiance of the Maya Grill. Ironically both establishments are operated by the same company, Palmas Services. While there is no mandated dress-code, business casual attire is appropriate and seems to be the norm.

If you happen to be traveling to Walt Disney World in the near future, give the Maya Grill a try. They serve good food in a great setting. You don't have to travel south of the border for a good time. Take an excursion into Coronado Springs and explore all they have to offer.

Maya Grill Dinner Menu
Maya Grill Kid's Menu


Readers Rate and Review Maya Grill


jeffo.JPG About Jeff: I'm from South Central Pennsylvania, where I work for a Media Publishing Company by day. My first visit to WDW was at the age of 2, and I have been back around 35 times since then. I often travel solo to WDW, as well as with family. I make good use of my Annual Pass, and trek to Orlando about 5 times per year to visit my favorite travel destination and pursue another hobby of mine - photography. My favorite resort is the Polynesian, but I have stayed at all of the WDW resorts at least once. In fact, my favorite aspect of visiting the Walt Disney World Resort is trying out the different Resorts and Restaurants. I enjoy sampling different foods that I normally would never try at home (such as Escargot at the France pavilion).

February 21, 2010

Yak & Yeti Photo Blog - Animal Kingdom

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One of my favorite restaurants to dine at when I visit Disney's Animal Kingdom Park is the Yak & Yeti. I am a creature of habit when it comes to restaurants. If I find something I like, I tend to keep going back for more.

There are a lot of other wonderful eateries at Animal Kingdom, but I always seem to find myself making reservations or popping in for an unplanned meal at Yak & Yeti. This is partly due to my preference for table-service dining over counter-service. At Animal Kingdom, that distinction narrows the choices down to two restaurants. I'm not counting the Tusker House since technically you serve yourself from a buffet there. And while I do enjoy the Rainforest Café quite a bit, it can be time consuming to walk to and from the entrance of the park for a meal; especially during Peak seasons when the park is more crowded.

I planned my most recent visit to the Yeti well in advance as I was ironing out the details of my recent trip to Walt Disney World. When I decided which days I would be visiting certain parks, I was on the phone with Disney Dining shortly thereafter making my Yak & Yeti reservation on Animal Kingdom day. I have never had a problem securing a reservation for my preferred meal time here. Mind you, I have never had dinner at Yak & Yeti. All of my meals have been during lunch hours.

I have been frequenting the restaurant since it opened, but when I first heard about its' construction I was a bit skeptical about the location. Yak & Yeti is located just across the bridge as you enter Asia from Discovery Island.

Bridge into Asia


Naturally since it is Yeti-themed the restaurant would need to go in Asia. Close proximity to the attraction housing its' namesake, abominable snowman also made sense. The addition of Yak & Yeti also fulfilled the need for another full-service restaurant in Animal Kingdom. Being the only restaurant in that area of the park also helps to disperse traffic from the other eateries.

I still wondered if the placement of a restaurant between several live-animal based attractions and exhibits would detract from some of the mystique surrounding them. As the months passed and the exterior of the building began to take shape, I was more confident that a spot next door to Flights of Wonder was not totally out of place. I am something of a purist when it comes to my love of the Disney parks, so I tend to over-analyze every little change. As you can see in the photos below, the building fits in perfectly.

Yak & Yeti Exterior

In keeping with its continental surroundings, Yak & Yeti is fittingly Asian-themed. The first time I saw the inside of the restaurant, I felt as if I had walked into a tavern in the Himalaya Mountains.

Yak & Yeti Waiting Area

Yeti Guarding the Lobby

Yak & Yeti Entrance

Yak & Yeti Looking toward Exit


You may get the feeling you are being watched. ;-)

Yak & Yeti Lobby Statue


They have a full-bar for weary travelers wishing to just stop in for refreshment from their hike. Even the furniture here is rich with detail. Notice the elaborate armrests of the barstools.

Yak & Yeti Bar

Yak & Yeti Bar

Seating is split between two levels, with various museum quality artifacts likening the décor to that of a shrine. It looks as if the villagers have gathered their family heirlooms in the hope of giving reverence to the Yeti inhabiting nearby Everest Mountain. Take a walk around the restaurant before or after your meal and check-out their amazing collection of relics.

The main dining room near the entrance is decorated like a temple. Other areas of the lower level have a similar vibe. They are dimly lit and have a sedate feel. Tables are nicely spaced apart, as you can see in the view from above.

Yak & Yeti Main Dining Room

Yak & Yeti Main Dining Room

Yak & Yeti Main Dining Room

Yak & Yeti First Floor Dining Room

Yak & Yeti Lower Level Dining


Yak & Yeti First Floor Dining Room

Yak & Yeti Statue Greeting Diners

It is possible to burn off part of your caloric intake here just by trekking the staircase to and from the upper level.

Yak & Yeti Staircase


Yak & Yeti Stairs


An elevator is available for those not wishing for an aerobic workout as a preface to their meal. Even the elevator area is decorated with cool memorabilia and trinkets.


Yak and Yeti HallwayTo Elevator

The seating areas upstairs are brighter and more festive. Each room is uniquely colored. Could this be symbolic of something?

Yak and Yeti Upstairs Dining Blue

Yak and Yeti Upstairs Dining Gold


Yak and Yeti Upstairs Dining Green


Yak and Yeti Art

If your party should happen to be seated upstairs, I recommend requesting a table by the windows. They offer great views of Anandapur.

Yak and Yeti Upstairs Dining Near Windows

In my experience, service here has always been good. I have found the Servers to be attentive, friendly, and able to answer any questions I have had about the menu. As is the case with most restaurants on-property, they will check to see if your party is on the Disney Dining Plan upon introduction. While they do not currently accept the Tables in Wonderland card, Annual Passholder discounts are available.

Whenever I dine at one of my favorite Walt Disney World restaurants, I try to order at least one item that I haven't had before. I tend to be far more adventurous in my restaurant dining when I know the outcome rests in the hands of Disney Chefs. This practice has served me fairly well thus far, with only a few misfires. Yak & Yeti is not Disney-owned. Landry's restaurants own and operate the Yak & Yeti, Rainforest Café, and T-Rex (located at Downtown Disney).

In keeping with this mantra I tried something old and something new on this visit. My meal began with a favorite, the Won-Ton soup ($4.99). It's served with a side of crispy, fried Won-Tons.


Yak and Yeti Won Ton Soup

For my second course I chose another favorite, the Pot Stickers ($7.99). These wrapped dumplings are filled with pork and available two ways: either steamed or seared. I chose to have mine seared. This entails cooking the outside of the Pot Sticker at a high temperature which gives the outer layer a caramelized, crunchy texture. They're served with a tangy soy-lime dipping sauce and sprinkled with spring onions and diced tomatoes.


Yak and Yeti Pot Stickers

The appetizer choices also include Seared Ahi Tuna, Pork Egg Rolls, Lettuce Cups, and Wok-Fried Green Beans (pictured below - $6.99).


Yak and Yeti Wok Fried Green Beans

From there on I was in previously uncharted territory. I decided on the Shaoxing Steak and Shrimp ($24.99) for my entrée. It was absolutely wonderful, and would have been enough for two people to share. The skirt steak had a nice, char-grilled flavor and was decoratively speared around a bed of brown or jasmine rice. Skirt steak is a flat cut of beef renowned for its flavor. It is also known for being tougher than other cuts of beef. I did not find that to be the case at all. It was flavorful and tender. The shrimp were skewered and tempura-battered. The chili plum dipping sauce was sweet and went perfectly with the shrimp and rice.

Yak and Yeti Shaoxing Steak Shrimp

While all of the menu items do have an Asian-influence, there is a broad variety of choices. Seared Miso Salmon, Duck with Anandapur Glaze, Lo Mein, Crispy Honey Chicken, Maple Tamarind Chicken, and the health-conscious Mandarin Chicken Salad (pictured below - $13.99) are just a few of them.

Yak and Yeti Mandarin Chicken Salad


After this fabulous meal I was so full I thought I would need to be carried out on a gurney. In the name of research I still ordered dessert. I opted for the Mango Pie ($6.99), which had a consistency similar to pudding encased inside of a shortbread cookie crust. It was finished off with whipped cream and raspberry sauce. Notice the tiny leaves of mint that garnish the pie. I thought that was a nice touch. This dessert was cool and refreshing. I could see it being the perfect treat on a hot summer day. While I would definitely order it again, the cream cheese filled Fried Won-Tons remain my favorite dessert here.

Yak and Yeti Mandarin Mango Pie

Yak & Yeti is a triumph for Disney's Animal Kingdom. The theme is perfectly executed, with delicious food that lives up to the standards one would expect from a Walt Disney World restaurant. There aren't any over-the-top thunderstorms or meteor showers to remind you where you're at. One look at the foreboding Yeti standing guard near the entrance and you'll feel as if you are in the foothills of an "expedition". Clean those plates, your adventure awaits.

Related Links:

Yak and Yeti Menu

Yak and Yeti Kid's Menu

Reader's Rate and Review Yak and Yeti


jeffo.JPG About Jeff: I'm from South Central Pennsylvania, where I work for a Media Publishing Company by day. My first visit to WDW was at the age of 2, and I have been back around 35 times since then. I often travel solo to WDW, as well as with family. I make good use of my Annual Pass, and trek to Orlando about 5 times per year to visit my favorite travel destination and pursue another hobby of mine - photography. My favorite resort is the Polynesian, but I have stayed at all of the WDW resorts at least once. In fact, my favorite aspect of visiting the Walt Disney World Resort is trying out the different Resorts and Restaurants. I enjoy sampling different foods that I normally would never try at home (such as Escargot at the France pavilion).

February 12, 2010

Nine Dragons Restaurant in China Epcot

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In Chinese culture, dragons are symbolic of the elements and considered to be forces of nature. Folklore gives mention of nine types of these magnificent creatures, which also represent good-fortune. Dragons were at one time revered by the Chinese people and referenced as a measure of success in their society. This aspect of Chinese culture is celebrated at the Nine Dragons restaurant, located in the China Pavilion of Epcot's World Showcase.

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Of all the World Showcase Pavilions, I find China to be one of the most peaceful and serene. I enjoy touring the exhibits, shopping and just taking a break before Lunch or Dinner. The live entertainment here is top-notch as well.

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China's table-service eatery shares its name with the Nine Dragons walls (there are three) located in the Beihai Park of Beijing, China. Huge, frosted-glass murals depicting the mythological figures adorn the walls of the restaurant's waiting area. They bear a striking resemblance to the actual Nine Dragons walls in China.

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The Nine Dragons restaurant in Walt Disney World underwent a refurbishment about a year and a half ago. In the months it was closed, a colorful, contemporary overlay was put into place by way of new lighting and a glass artifacts display. The standard red and gold color-scheme has been reinvented and brought up-to-date by way of dark-brown, lacquered woods and bubbly lighting treatments.

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Most of the seating here is by way of tables; however they do have several comfy booths available that can accommodate parties of 4-5 guests. I recommend requesting one of these if available. The tables in the main dining room of the restaurant are not spaced very far apart.

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I had dined here prior to the changes. I have always found the servers to be gracious, hospitable and friendly. While I did find the food enjoyable, I can't really say there was anything unique about the meals to differentiate them from other Chinese restaurants. Happily, the Nine Dragons menu was given a refreshed, modernized update to match the new décor found throughout the restaurant. There are now many unique items to choose from. In my subsequent visits here since they reopened, I have made an effort to sample several of these foods that I wouldn't normally find back at home. I have been rewarded by way of several great meals. My most recent was in January.

The current menu is a cross between traditional and original, inventive Chinese fare. The cuisine of Nine Dragons represents the four regions of China. Lunch brings an array of Hot and Cold Appetizers, Soups, Entrees, and Lunch Combos.

I found the lunch prices here to be very reasonable. In an effort to adhere to my dining budget, I chose the Treasures of the Dragon. This is a special three-course meal consisting of one soup, one entrée, and one dessert for $29.68. I was planning to order one food item from each category anyway, so this was a bargain for me.

The two soup options are Hot-and-Sour or "Chicken Consommé with Pork Dumplings" (Won-Ton Soup). I chose the Consommé. The clear broth was very hot when it was served (an automatic plus) and had a generous amount of dumplings and spring onions in it. There wasn't really anything special about the soup, but it was quite tasty. In fairness there is only so much variation that can be found in Won-Ton soup. I would definitely order it here again.

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I deviated from my lunch set and splurged a bit. I also ordered the Walnut Shrimp Toast, as this item sounded too interesting to pass up. Shrimp toast is something of a standard with regard to Chinese Dim Sum. Three pieces of the toast are presented with a large Walnut decoratively embedded in the crust. The Walnuts gave the toast a crunchy texture and were not at all grainy. I have found Shrimp Toast to have an overly fishy taste at some restaurants, which is a result of being frozen. This was definitely not the case with Nine Dragons' version. The flavor of the minced Shrimp was fresh. Soy Sauce is brought out with the appetizer, but I didn't find that it needed any.

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Entrée choices on the Lunch set include Fragrant Five-Spiced Fish, General Tso's Chicken Duo, and Beef Sichuan. I opted for the General Tso's Chicken, which is presented two ways. Most of the portion consists of the traditional Crispy chicken, with only 2-3 pieces of the steamed version rounding out the course. I really enjoyed the Crispy version. They were fried and the sauce had a sweet, spicy taste. Huge chunks of chopped onion were mixed in with the chicken and a scoop of white rice was served off to the side of the plate. The steamed pieces were more like dumplings and gave a unique twist to the presentation. My only complaint would be that the fried version greatly trumps the (healthier) steamed version in portion size.


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Dessert choices were Chinese Ginger Cake, Strawberry-Red Bean Ice Cream, and Caramel-Ginger Ice Cream. Having never ordered dessert here, I consulted with my server for a recommendation. Without hesitation, she immediately spouted out "Chinese Ginger Cake". I took the hint. While the other desserts did sound interesting, I was most pleased with this one and glad I took her suggestion. The layered cake was very light and spongy. I couldn't taste much Ginger, however it was topped with a sweet, flavorful icing. The cake was finished off with some decorative chocolate sauce.


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With so many wonderful restaurants around World Showcase, I consider Nine Dragons to be a nice restaurant to fall back on in those instances when the other restaurants are full or completely booked up. China is one of my favorite countries to visit around the promenade, and a visit to Nine Dragons is an enjoyable way to cap-off a day at Epcot.

They participate in the Disney Dining Plan, Tables in Wonderland, and Candlelight Processional Dinner Packages. Views of the Illuminations fireworks can be had from some areas of the restaurant. Reservations are not always needed here and walk-in seating is often available. Nine Dragons is a worthy dining venue in its own right, but also makes for a nice "plan B" when the more popular eateries are on overflow.


February 2, 2010

Wolfgang Puck Grand Café - Downtown Disney - Photo Blog

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For fans of gourmet cooking, the name Wolfgang Puck is synonymous with the fusion of delicious Asian and Californian cuisine. The term "California Cuisine" refers to the use of fresh, local ingredients in an ever-evolving menu of artistically presented offerings.

Among his many accomplishments, Wolfgang Puck helped to introduce inventive, West Coast culinary delights to the masses and popularize them in the eyes of mainstream America by way of his many restaurants and cookbooks. Among his many accomplishments, the Austrian born entrepreneur opened the first Spago restaurant in Los Angeles, California in the 80's. His empire now reaches into the realms of catering, publishing, and television. He owns over a dozen restaurants spanning the country. From Las Vegas, Nevada to Ontario, Canada and Orlando, Florida, his brand now spans the continental United States.

Of the afore mentioned locations, I have only dined at the Orlando restaurant. My experiences there have been favorable. So when I began to plan my most recent trip to Walt Disney World, I decided to make reservations for a return visit.

The official name of the restaurant is the Wolfgang Puck Grand Café. It's located in the "Westside" district of Downtown Disney, next to Bongo's Cuban Café. In the photo below, look at the bottom row of buildings, it is in the middle.

Wolfgang Puck Cafe from Above


Wolfgang Puck Cafe Exterior


Wolfgang Puck Cafe Entrance


The title refers to three restaurants which are actually housed under one roof. The Grand Café on the first floor, the Dining Room on the upper level, and the annexed Wolfgang Puck Express (there is another, separate location at Downtown Disney Marketplace). Wolfgang Puck Express offers quickly-served, truncated versions of the meals served at the full-service restaurants. Tasty Sandwiches, Salads, Rosemary Garlic Chicken, Tortilla Soup, and homemade potato chips are just a few of the items offered on their menu.

The Café is decorated in a colorful and vibrant art-deco style. It has a bustling, hurried atmosphere.

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Entrance to Cafe


Wolfgang Puck Cafe Open Air Kitchen

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Bar Area

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Chef's Counter

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Cafe from Above

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Interior

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Interior

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Interior

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Interior


The Dining Room upstairs has a more sedate, formal setting geared toward fine-dining. Both offer scenic views of Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort and The Characters in Flight hot-air balloon.

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Stairway to Dining Room

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Upstairs Dining Room

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Upstairs Dining Room

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Upstairs Dining Room


Wolfgang Puck Cafe Upstairs Dining Room

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Upstairs to Dining Room

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Upstairs Dining Room


My most recent meal there was in early January, and it was wonderful. Since Wolfgang Puck is so well known for Sushi, I felt obliged to begin my meal with some. The restaurant has a dedicated Sushi bar and offers seating "in the round".

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Sushi Bar


Patrons may walk right up, grab an available seat, and watch as the Sushi Chefs slice, dice, and prepare wonderful meals. Their extensive Sushi menu is available to guests of both the Café and Dining Room.


Wolfgang Puck Cafe Sushi Chefs at Work

I'm always a little squeamish about ordering Sushi in unfamiliar restaurants, so I chose an old favorite. The California Roll ($12.95) is also a good introduction for folks who may be inquisitive about Sushi but have never tried it.

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Sushi California Roll

California Rolls are considered a "Maki Sushi". The term Maki-Sushi is derived from the process by which the Sushi is prepared. A Makisu (usually made of bamboo) is a mat that the Sushi is rolled on. California Rolls are one of the many types served here. They are presented with the traditional accompaniments - Ginger, Wasabi, and Chopsticks. I love Wasabi on Sushi and can not get enough of it. For those who may be unfamiliar, its' primary ingredient is horseradish and it is a very spicy condiment. The roll was cut into eight pieces and topped with Roe (fish eggs). This topping had an almost non-existent flavor. Perhaps it was my love of Wasabi I can thank for that. It is known to temporarily numb the taste buds thanks to its' spicy flavor.

A few more appetizer choices - Crispy Calamari, Artichoke and Five Cheese Spinach Dip, Teriyaki Beef Satay, and Asian Style Vegetable Spring Rolls (pictured below - $10.95)

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Sushi Asian Spring Rolls


I chose one of the more popular menu items for my entrée, the Macadamia Nut Crusted Breast of Chicken ($25.95).

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Macadamia Chicken


This consists of two golden, pan-fried chicken breasts served on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes and finished off with Sho-Yu Cream sauce and Papaya Puree. Sho-Yu is a reduction of Soy Sauce and cream. I would compare the texture to a demi-glace. This sauce was quite tasty and gave the meal some flare. Interestingly, the Papaya Puree was chilled, sweet, and brought out the flavor of the chicken. The plate was dusted with sesame seeds.

An important note for folks with food allergies - because of the broad spectrum of ingredients used by the chefs here, the servers make a concerted effort to understand and relay any food allergies on to the chef. If you have an allergy to certain foods, please convey this to your server if they don't inquire.

Another favorite of mine is the Meatloaf (pictured below - $19.95). The generous serving of Ground-Beef and Pork is wrapped with bacon and served atop garlic mashed potatoes and topped off with crispy onion rings.

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Meatloaf

Other Entrée selections include: Pumpkin Ravioli, Chilean Salmon, Asian Hoisin BBQ Ribs, and a Chinois Chicken Salad (named after Wolfgang's Santa Monica restaurant of the same name).

On to dessert! I chose the Crème Brulee Cheesecake ($7.95).

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Creme Brulee Cheesecake

This was made more in the New York style of cheesecake, and had a thick consistency. It had a very thin layer of caramelized sugar glazed over the top. Strawberries, Raspberries, and a Strawberry sauce rounded out the dessert. I had the Espresso with Cinnamon Biscotti ($2.95) to caffeinate and revive me after this delicious meal.

Florida Key Lime Pie (pictured below - also $7.95), Chocolate Lava Cake, Carrot Cake, Double Chocolate Mud Pie, and Sugar-free Cheesecake Mousse are also on the dessert menu.

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Key Lime Pie

There is a lot for kids to enjoy here, too. The Children's menu includes Grilled Chicken, Pizza, Mini-Burgers, Spaghetti and Salmon. For dessert "make your own" sundaes can be created from a wide variety of toppings.

The meals at the Café are reasonably priced. Most of the entrees run under $20.00. The pricing is on par with restaurants at Disney's Moderate resorts. The Dining Room is more on par with Disney's signature restaurants, with prices to match. Entrée prices range from $24.95 - $42.95. Both participate in the Disney Dining Plan and Annual Passholder discounts are also available. Tables in Wonderland discounts are also offered as of January 2010. Lunch is served from 11:30-4:00 p.m. Dinner runs from 4:00-10:30 Sunday and Monday, 4:00-11:00 Tuesday-Thursday, and 4:00-11:30 on Friday and Saturday. The (upstairs) Dining Room opens nightly at 6:00. Reservations can be made Online through Disney at http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/destinations/downtown-disney/dining/wolfgang-puck-cafe/reservations/ or by contacting the restaurant directly at (407) 938-WOLF(9653). Please note that they only accept reservations for dining before 6:30 or after 9:00.

One of my favorite aspects of dining at the Grand Café is the abundant choices their menu offers. It seems that no matter what type of meal I am in the mood for, I can find something to enjoy here. From imaginatively spun comfort foods to exotic seafood presented with intricate detail, they have something to satiate anything I may be hankering for. And with three restaurants under one roof, they have a setting to suit any mood or occasion. I enjoy dining here after a day of shopping at Downtown Disney. With the AMC Movie Theaters, Cirque du Soleil, and the House of Blues just a stone's throw from their front door, you may want to stop in for a bite before a night out on the town. Wolfgang Puck's Grand Café is a dining hub that has something appealing to everyone.

Related Links:

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Lunch Menu

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Dinner Menu

Wolfgang Puck Cafe Kids Menu

Readers Rate and Review Wolfgang Puck's Grand Cafe


Wolfgang Puck Dining Room Menu

Readers Rate and Review Wolfgang Puck Upstairs Dining Room


About Jeff: I am 33 years old and from Gettysburg, PA. By day I work in the Accounting Department of a Newspaper Publishing Company. My first visit to WDW was at the age of 2, and have been back around 35 times since then. I often travel solo to WDW, as well as with family. I make good use of my Annual Pass, and trek to Orlando about 5 times per year to visit my favorite travel destination. My favorite resort is the Polynesian, but have stayed at all of the WDW resorts at least once. In fact, my favorite aspect of visiting the Walt Disney World Resort is trying out the different Resorts and Restaurants. I also enjoy the many restaurants and sampling different foods that I normally would never try at home! (such as Escargot at the France pavillion).

January 24, 2010

Narcoossee's at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa

Guest Blogger Jeff Onorato is back, this time with a photo blog of Narcoossee's!

With Valentine's Day just around the corner, I thought I would write about one of Walt Disney World's most romantic restaurants. Narcoossee's is nestled behind the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa and is docked alongside the Seven Seas Lagoon.

Narcoossee's

Narcoossee's

This fine dining establishment serves exquisite seafood and offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Magic Kingdom and neighboring resorts as its' backdrop. I had the pleasure of dining there during my recent trip to the World in January and was delighted by the experience.

The word Narcoossee is Seminole Indian for "little bear". With Seafood being a staple of the bear's diet, the restaurant was fittingly branded with the moniker. There is also a Central Florida town of the same name in Osceola County. While I have never visited Narcoossee, I am told the essence and charm of the small town are captured here.

As I approached the restaurant, I couldn't help but notice the tantalizing aromas that fill the air of the resort's surrounding courtyard. As the chefs work hard prepping food and ingredients throughout the day, wonderful scents permeate the air. I would imagine this helps to draw in business from hotel guests hanging out on their balconies.

Narcoossee's


Narcoossee's


Narcoossee's


Narcoossee's


Narcoossee's

Narcoossee's

Narcoossee's is open for Dinner only, which they begin serving at 5:30. I strongly recommend making reservations if you are planning to dine here. They participate in both the Disney Dining Plan and Tables in Wonderland programs. Participants in the Disney Dining Plan will want to note that 2 table-service credits are required per person.

When I arrived at my allotted time (5:30), there was already a line of couples and families waiting to be sat. The restaurant was about 80% full at that time of the evening. It appears to be equally popular among couples and families. Kids seem to enjoy the ambiance here too, with passing boats outside serving as entertainment. They offer a children's menu too in an effort to accommodate little ones out for an evening with Mom and Dad.

The motif of the restaurant is that of a traditional Seafood House. As a native Marylander, I am always reminded of seafood restaurants back home when I visit here. Hardwood floors, an open-air kitchen, dark blue linens, and an observation deck overlooking the Seven Seas Lagoon help to bring together the mood and elegance.


Narcoossee's


Narcoossee's


Narcoossee's


A beautiful mural depicting underwater scenery and various marine life graces the high walls above the bar area, which is on the upper level of the restaurant. Sunlight pours through the huge skylights in the center of the turreted restaurant.

Narcoossee's


Narcoossee's


Narcoossee's


Narcoossee's


Narcoossee's

From across the water, the reflecting lights of the Contemporary resort bounce and twinkle off of the lagoon. The spires of Cinderella's Castle can be seen towering high above the trees that surround the park. This is a prime location to view the Electrical Water Pageant, and the Wishes fireworks can be seen in the distance as well. I suggest trying for a 7:30 reservation to allow time for a leisurely paced meal before the shows begin. Show times vary depending upon the time of year, but in general both run around 9:00 p.m. They can also be seen from the observation deck which wraps around the back of the restaurant.


Narcoossee's


Narcoossee's


Narcoossee's


Narcoossee's

On nights when the Magic Kingdom is offering Evening Magic Hours, I love having Dinner at Narcoossee's as a precursor to a night at the park. The boat launch to the Magic Kingdom is just steps from the doors of the restaurant and the ride is only about 5-8 minutes long.


Narcoossee's


Narcoossee's

Narcoossee's

Service here is professional, friendly, and paced to perfection. I find it to be the optimum place for a relaxed evening of fine food and good company. The wait staff here is also very knowledgeable with regard to the menu. My server offered details on the many ingredients which are used in their offerings. I was quite impressed by the run-through she offered on the various courses.

I started off with the Shrimp and Crab Chowder ($9). While the portion appeared small at first, the bowl was deeper than it looked. It was the perfect way to begin my meal on this chilly January evening. The shrimp and crabmeat were plentiful, as were the chunky white potatoes and onions. Tiny oyster crackers garnished the bowl.


Shrimp and Crab Chowder Narcoossee's

For my second course, I had the Fried Rhode Island Calamari ($12). While this appetizer is fried, it was not at all greasy. It was crispy, hot, lightly salted and served atop a sweet and mild tomato coulis. Pepperoncini Relish and olives were used to top off the dish however I did not find it to be spicy at all. In fact, I was quite surprised that it didn't have more kick to it. The taste of the Peppers was not at all pronounced.


Rhode Island Calamari Narcoossee's

Crab Crusted Mahi-Mahi ($33) was my entrée selection. The fish was served atop crushed fingerling potatoes with a sweet Meyer lemon cream sauce on the side. Their signature crab cake mixture was generously piled on the broiled filet and finished off with al dente haricots verts (French for green beans) and pea tendrils. The pea tendrils had a refreshing taste and helped to cleanse the palette of the richly flavored crab meat and cream sauce.


Rhode Island Calamari Narcoossee's

While most of their menu is seafood based, they do offer several meals that are not. Among those are Grilled Filet Mignon ($40), Tanglewood Farms Chicken Breast($29), and the vegetarian offering of Winter Vegetables ($22).

After the meal I was quite full, but the Warm Valrhona Chocolate Cake ($9) came highly recommended and sounded too good to resist. I caved in and ordered dessert but was happy I indulged. The cake tasted like it had just been taken out of the oven. A rich chocolate sauce poured out of the cake as soon as my fork cut into it. The cake itself tasted like it was made with semi-sweet cocoa. Powdered sugar and orange sauce finished it off. While it may appear to have a poached egg for a garnish, the chefs creatively placed an orange slice inside a dollop of whipped cream. The term Valrhona refers to the French company that manufactures the chocolate.


Warm Valrhona Chocolate Cake  Narcoossee's

This was the third time I have dined at Narcoossee's, and my experience has been splendid on each visit. I can not recommend this restaurant enough. I think it's the ideal place to celebrate an anniversary, engagement, or birthday. With Disney's Wedding Pavilion nearby I could see it being popular for rehearsal dinners as well. Children and grown-ups alike will find something to enjoy here.

You don't have to be celebrating a special occasion or event to appreciate all Narcoossee's has to offer. Those in search of a magical and memorable romantic evening will want to make this a destination on their vacation itinerary.

Related Links:

Narcoossee's Menu


Narcoossee's Kid's Menu


Readers Rate and Review Narcoossee's


About Jeff: I am 33 years old and from Gettysburg, PA. By day I work in the Accounting Department of a Newspaper Publishing Company. My first visit to WDW was at the age of 2, and have been back around 35 times since then. I often travel solo to WDW, as well as with family. I make good use of my Annual Pass, and trek to Orlando about 5 times per year to visit my favorite travel destination. My favorite resort is the Polynesian, but have stayed at all of the WDW resorts at least once. In fact, my favorite aspect of visiting the Walt Disney World Resort is trying out the different Resorts and Restaurants. I also enjoy the many restaurants and sampling different foods that I normally would never try at home! (such as Escargot at the France pavillion).

January 9, 2010

Captain’s Grille - Yacht Club

Guest Blogger Jeff Onorato is back, this time with a photo blog of the Captain's Grille at the Yacht Club!


Try to imagine this scenario, if you will. It's 90 degrees outside and you're walking elbow to elbow with fellow tourists in any given theme park melting under the hot afternoon sun. I have found myself in this predicament on many occasions. Short of calling it a day and retreating to my hotel, I find that escaping to a nearby resort for lunch is a rejuvenating way to spend the afternoon.

I realize that this plan may not be for everyone. Some folks enjoy retiring to their hotel for a quick dip in the pool or an afternoon siesta. Those are great options too, and I often partake in those practices as well. But having lunch at a nearby resort is a nice way to quickly recharge, refuel, and reduce commuting time to and from the parks. Thereby allowing more time to ride the rides and get the most out of your park admission.

One of my favorite hideaways from the excitement is the Captain's Grille, located in Disney's Yacht Club resort. Close proximity to Epcot and Hollywood Studios make it an ideal candidate for a quick recess. It's just a short walk or boat ride from World Showcase in Epcot.


Captain's Grille Yacht Club

Captain's Grille Yacht Club

Captain's Grille Yacht Club


The Captain's Grille is located in the lobby area of the resort. The restaurant was formerly known as the Yacht Club Galley, though not much has changed other than the name.

Captain's Grille Yacht Club

Captain's Grille Yacht Club

Captain's Grille Yacht Club

Captain's Grille Yacht Club


The theme of the Yacht Club is carried out within the restaurant, albeit on a less grandiose scale. Wooden tables and chairs, brass lighting fixtures, blue carpeting, porthole windows, and a "skipper" hanging from the ceiling all help to bring to mind a quaint seaside inn.

Captain's Grille Yacht Club

Captain's Grille Yacht Club

Captain's Grille Yacht Club

They are open for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner. Breakfast brings Crab Cakes Benedict, Brioche French Toast, Buttermilk Pancakes, and an "all you care to eat" buffet from 7:30 - 11:30 a.m.

Captain's Grille Yacht Club

Lunch and Dinner offerings include a Tomato and Mozzarella Sandwich, Fish and Chips, Grilled Ahi Tuna, Snow Crab Legs, Lump Crab Cakes and Grilled Pork Chops. Is your tummy rumbling yet?

A prix-fixe menu is available at Dinner, which runs from 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m. For $27.99, you can choose one Appetizer, Entrée, and Dessert. There are 3-4 options to choose from in each category on the menu.

I stopped in for lunch during a recent visit to the World and had a wonderful experience. Reservations are not needed, but I always recommend making them just to be on the safe side. It was fairly busy - about forty percent of the tables were occupied when I was there. This is the perfect place to stop by for an impromptu meal. The atmosphere is very laid back and casual. Park attire (shorts, t-shirts) is perfectly acceptable.

Service at Captain's Grille is generally quick and efficient. Today was no exception. My server was very friendly and made great recommendations upon my request. I never had to wait for drink refills, as they were readily available as needed. I had Coke; however Smoothies, Juices, Espresso, Cappuccino, Bottled Beers, and Mixed Drinks are also available.

To begin my meal, I chose the Spinach Cheese Dip for Two ($9.99). Although I was dining solo, this sounded appealing to me so I decided to give it a try. The flavor of the spinach was not prominent, and the parmesan cheese garnishment was a perfect match. It's served with grilled flatbread which is sliced into tiny pieces for dipping and also topped with chopped onions, tomatoes, and bacon. The flatbread was still warm and crispy. I really enjoyed this, but couldn't finish it. The portion size was huge (as indicated in the name).

Captain's Grille Yacht Club

In keeping with my nautical surroundings, I chose an entrée that included Seafood. I went with the Soup and Sandwich Combo ($11.99). This consists of Tuna- or Shrimp-salad on a croissant with New England Clam Chowder or Soup of the Day. I opted for the Shrimp-salad which was piled high and heaping out of the sandwich. It was garnished with lettuce, tomato, onions and a pickle. The croissant was served on a platter next to the Clam Chowder and a tiny ramekin of Oysterette crackers. The soup was excellent - the clams were tender and not at all chewy or fishy. I would go so far as to say this was some of the best Clam Chowder I have had.

Captain's Grille Yacht Club

For dessert I had the Braeburn Apple Tart ($5.49). The dessert was small, but was the perfect size for lunch. The tiny pastry was topped with a warm baked apple, whipped cream and caramel sauce. The apple was soft and had a nice cinnamon flavor to it. A decorative cookie crowned the dessert and added some crunch to the texture.

Captain's Grille Yacht Club

Other desserts on the menu: Chocolate Profiterole, Key Lime Tart, Double Chocolate Cheesecake, and House-made Gelato (available with "no sugar added"). All are under $6.00.

The Captain's Grille consistently serves-up great food at reasonable prices. It's convenient location, varied menu items and relaxed atmosphere makes it an ideal candidate for a leisurely meal away from the action. I have sought sanctuary here on more than one occasion, only to return to the parks rejuvenated and sailing on my second wind.

Related Links:

Captain's Grille Breakfast Menu
Captain's Grille Kid's Breakfast Menu
Captain's Grille Lunch Menu
Captain's Grille Dinner Menu
Captain's Grille Kid's Lunch/Dinner Menu

Readers Review the Captain's Grille Breakfast

Readers Review the Captain's Grille Lunch/Dinner

About Jeff: I am 33 years old and from Gettysburg, PA. By day I work in the Accounting Department of a Newspaper Publishing Company. My first visit to WDW was at the age of 2, and have been back around 35 times since then. I often travel solo to WDW, as well as with family. I make good use of my Annual Pass, and trek to Orlando about 5 times per year to visit my favorite travel destination. My favorite resort is the Polynesian, but have stayed at all of the WDW resorts at least once. In fact, my favorite aspect of visiting the Walt Disney World Resort is trying out the different Resorts and Restaurants. I also enjoy the many restaurants and sampling different foods that I normally would never try at home! (such as Escargot at the France pavillion).

Read Jeff's other blogs:

Tutto Italia

A review of Bluezoo

A review of Paradiso 37 in Downtown Disney.

December 26, 2009

Epcot's Tutto Italia in World Showcase - a Review

Guest Blogger Jeff Onorato is back, this time with a review of Epcot's Tutto Italia!

Like many loyal patrons, I lamented the loss of L'Originale Alfredo di Roma Ristorante when I heard the news of their closure back in 2007. When it was announced that the restaurant would be quickly re-opening in a new incarnation, I was intrigued to see what changes where in store. The Italy pavilion was a favorite lunchtime spot for me when visiting Epcot's World Showcase.

When Alfredo's contract with Walt Disney World Resort expired, the Patina Group was selected to fill the void left behind. In addition to Tutto Italia, the Patina Group also manages several restaurants on the West Coast, including Disneyland's Tortilla Jo's, Naples Ristorante, and Catal.

Second only to Canada's Le Cellier restaurant, Alfredo's was arguably one of Epcot's most popular restaurants. Their Fettuccini Alfredo was a favorite among park visitors. Naturally, when I heard that the restaurant would be changing management I was curious to see how the new establishment would live up to the reputation set by its former occupants.

Translated, Tutto Italia means "anything/everything Italy' in English. I visited for the first time during a trip to Walt Disney World in early December and was pleased to see that they do live up to their name. All of the staples of a traditional Italian menu can be found here: Pasta, Fish, Chicken, Veal, Lamb, and a wide variety of appetizers. Fettuccini Alfredo was not on the menu on the day of my visit.

Cosmetically, not much has changed since the new management took over. In fact, no visible changes were made to the outside of the restaurant with the exception of new signing.


Tutto Italia Approaching

Tutto Italia Outside

Tutto Italia Outside

Tutto Italia Signage

Tutto Italia continues to offer outdoor seating, and there is a separate host podium outside for guests wishing to dine alongside the plaza. I enjoy eating outdoors here on a sunny day. All of the tables have umbrellas and offer picturesque views of Italy.


Tutto Italia Outdoor Seating


For this visited I opted for indoor seating. Again, there were no major changes to be found. The lobby area and interior of the restaurant look just as they did before. I did immediately take notice of one alteration - the absence of the pasta kitchen. The machines previously used to make the pasta in-house where nowhere to be found, and decorative bowls of fruit where in place.


Tutto Italia Lobby


Tutto Italia Lobby


In-house Pastry Chefs created the amazing holiday sculpture on display in the lobby throughout the Holiday Season. The attention to detail in this tiny Italian village is astounding. I thought the candy-cane fence and gondolas were a nice touch.


Tutto Italia Italian Village Pastry


After checking in at the host stand, I was quickly escorted to my table within a minute or two. My reservation was for 12:00 and the restaurant was about 75% full at that time of day.

Murals of Italy's Masqueraded carnival performers still adorn the walls within. Exquisite glass chandeliers hang from the ceilings, and the restaurant still has its old-world European renaissance charm fully intact.


Tutto Italia Dining Room


Tutto Italia Dining Room

Tutto Italia Dining Room


Tutto Italia Dining Room


Tutto Italia Dining Room

Each table is under the care of both a Server and their assistant. After being seated, a basket of bread and olive oil is served to welcome you. No butter is presented, as it is not customary to do so in Italy. When in Rome, does as the Romans do.

I found the service here to be very good. My server was very friendly and seemed more than happy to answer any questions I had about the menu. A children's menu is also available, and I recommend this restaurant for birthday celebrations - the wait staff gathers together to sing "Happy Birthday" in Italian.

Food was presented at a nice pace, and I did not feel hurried despite the restaurant being busy. Drink refills were readily available, as was the side of parmesan cheese I requested. It is not automatically offered here.

For my appetizer, I chose the Melanzana Alla Parmigiana. This consisted of baked eggplant, melted mozzarella, tomato sauce, and parmesan cheese. The eggplant was sliced very thin and the tomato sauce had a nice zing to it. It was topped off with Basil which helped to bring out the flavor of the other ingredients.


 Tutto Italia Melanzana Alla Parmigiana


For my Entrée I had the Tagliatelle Alla Primavera. This included fettuccini egg pasta, broccoli, peas, mushrooms, sweet cherry tomatoes, and a very light cream sauce.


Tutto Italia Tagliatelle Alla Primavera

As is the case with many pasta dishes, the meal was very filling. However, I found the portion size served at Lunch to be especially large. This would definitely have been enough for two people to share. Everything was freshly prepared. I could actually see steam still rising up off of the plate. The sauce was perfect - not at all rich or overpowering.

For dessert I had the Gianduja, which is a chocolate and hazelnut layered cake topped with whipped cream and raspberry sauce. This is a chocolate lover's dream. The cake itself was very rich however the whipped cream and raspberry sauce helped to bring things down a notch.

Tutto Italia Gianduja


I was most impressed by the food and service at Tutto Italia. I went in fearing that the recent changes would tarnish my opinion, but am glad I kept an open mind and gave it a try. From what I found, there is still a lot to love here. I plan to stop in again the next time I am on a "tour of Italy".

Related Links:

Tutto Italia Lunch Menu
Tutto Italia Dinner Menu
Tutto Italia Children's Menu

Readers Rate and Review Tutto Italia!


About Jeff: I am 33 years old and from Gettysburg, PA. By day I work in the Accounting Department of a Newspaper Publishing Company. My first visit to WDW was at the age of 2, and have been back around 35 times since then. I often travel solo to WDW, as well as with family. I make good use of my Annual Pass, and trek to Orlando about 5 times per year to visit my favorite travel destination. My favorite resort is the Polynesian, but have stayed at all of the WDW resorts at least once. In fact, my favorite aspect of visiting the Walt Disney World Resort is trying out the different Resorts and Restaurants. I also enjoy the many restaurants and sampling different foods that I normally would never try at home! (such as Escargot at the France pavillion).

Read Jeff's other blogs:

A review of Bluezoo

A review of Paradiso 37 in Downtown Disney.

December 5, 2009

Bluezoo - Walt Disney World Dolphin - A Review

Guest Blogger Jeff Onorato is back, this time with a review of Bluezoo!

Celebrity chef Todd English is the owner of 18 restaurants in the United States. He has hosted TV cooking shows such as "Cooking In With Todd English" and "Todd's Table". He has also appeared on nationally syndicated television programs such as Iron Chef USA and Martha Stewart Living. On top of all of this, he has also authored or co-authored 3 books.

In 2004, this culinary expertise was introduced to Walt Disney World via Bluezoo, an upscale seafood restaurant located in the Dolphin.

Bluezoo


Bluezoo


Bluezoo is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated restaurants in Walt Disney World. I have never had a problem booking reservations there on short-notice. In fact, on my most recent visit I didn't have one at all. My decision to dine there was on a whim at the last minute.

Nevertheless, I do recommend making Advanced Dining Reservations if you are planning to dine here. They can be made by calling (407) WDW-DINE or Online at http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/dolphin-resort/dining/todd-english-blue-zoo/reservations/.

Bluezoo


Upscale, chic, and elegant - diners are welcomed into the restaurant by a cascading waterfall which displays images of the wonderful food they are in-store for.


Bluezoo


After checking in, you pass the beautiful bar area flanked by a school of "fish".

Bluezoo

Bluezoo

There is also a lounge area, ideal for kicking back and having a few drinks.

Bluezoo

As you make your way to the Dining Room, you pass by the Raw Bar and Sous Chefs hard at work.

The main Dining Room is beautiful. The décor is sophisticated and subdued.

Bluezoo

Bluezoo

The color spectrum of the restaurant is soothing to the eye and perfectly fits in with the oceanic theme of the restaurant.

Bluezoo

Bluezoo

Bluezoo

Look up at the "bubbles" floating near the ceiling. Gorgeous chandeliers evoke the feeling of being under the sea.

Bluezoo

I have dined here about a half-dozen times since 2005 and have never left disappointed. The service has been wonderful each time. Gracious and attentive, the servers here are informative without being overbearing. Tonight was no exception. My server, Rachael, provided an in-depth tour of their ever evolving menu.

My meal began with the Chilled Lobster Tail. Sweet and tender, the appetizer was garnished with shaved fennel and oranges which accentuated the taste of the Lobster. An orange gel artistically decorated the plate.

Bluezoo


A Bluezoo staple - New England Clam Chowder with salt-cured bacon. This was much lighter than I expected. Not as thick and hearty as other clam chowders I have had.

Bluezoo

I chose the Dirty South Swordfish for my main course. The fish was mild, flakey, and served with clams atop a bed of risotto. Beware: this entrée is spicy (as evidenced in the name). I could also taste a hint of BBQ in the Cajun rub.

Bluezoo

I followed up the meal with the Pavlova. This wonderful dessert consisted of Vanilla orange ice cream alongside a hard-shell raspberry filled meringue and paired with fresh raspberries. Desserts here are like works-of-art.

Bluezoo

The Opera Rock is pictured below. This dessert consists of layered marshmallow nougat sandwiched between chocolate wafers and presented on a Popsicle stick with an Orange Liqueur chaser. The citrus of the Orange nicely contrasted the sweet taste of the chocolate and marshmallow.

Bluezoo

While I can't really recommend the Bluezoo for children, they are welcome here and a Kid's menu is offered. It includes Beef Tenderloin, Grilled Chicken, and Pizza.

I never fail to walk away satisfied after a meal at Bluezoo. I am a fan of fine dining and find the atmosphere, service, and food at the restaurant to be conducive to a wonderful evening. Bluezoo is an ideal choice for a celebratory meal or romantic night out. Do yourself a favor and give it a try on your next trip to Walt Disney World. It really is a hidden gem of the Sea.


Related Links:

Bluezoo Menu

Readers Rate and Review Bluezoo

About Jeff: I am 33 years old and from Gettysburg, PA. By day I work in the Accounting Department of a Newspaper Publishing Company. My first visit to WDW was at the age of 2, and have been back around 35 times since then. I often travel solo to WDW, as well as with family. I make good use of my Annual Pass, and trek to Orlando about 5 times per year to visit my favorite travel destination. My favorite resort is the Polynesian, but have stayed at all of the WDW resorts at least once. In fact, my favorite aspect of visiting the Walt Disney World Resort is trying out the different Resorts and Restaurants. I also enjoy the many restaurants and sampling different foods that I normally would never try at home! (such as Escargot at the France pavillion).

Read Jeff's other blog, a review of Paradiso 37 in Downtown Disney.

November 21, 2009

Review of Paradiso 37 - Downtown Disney Walt Disney World

Guest Blogger Jeff Onorato shares his recent experience dining at Paradiso 37!

During my September visit to WDW, I had the opportunity to dine at Paradiso 37. The restaurant is located in the Pleasure Island district of Downtown Disney, between the Adventurer's Club and Harley Davidson Orlando.

Paradiso 37

Paradiso 37

Paradiso 37

Paradiso 37

On the night of my visit, the restaurant was surprisingly empty given that it had only been open for a few months. I expected a more sizable crowd. The fact that it was mid-week undoubtedly played a part.

The theme of the restaurant is eclectic and colorful, as evidenced in the Cuervo Chandelier hanging above the entryway. There are 2 bars within the restaurant, and seating is split between the main level and an upper-level of the building.


Paradiso 37

Paradiso 37

Paradiso 37

Paradiso 37

Paradiso 37


Patio tables are also available for outside dining. They offer a nice view of the boat dock and Saratoga Springs.

Paradiso 37

Paradiso 37


The menu at Paradiso 37 is inspired by the "Street Foods of South, Central, and North America". That mantra perfectly sums up the broad array of food offered. Tequila is the main attraction here, and they have 37 varieties of it (as referenced in the name). The only type I didn't see on hand was Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo brand.

Paradiso 37

Paradiso 37

In celebration of this I opted to start off the meal with their signature Mangled Margarita, which is a mixture of Sangria and a typical Margarita. I found the drink to be slightly sweeter than a typical Margarita, and perfectly blended. By the time I finished the first one I was ready for another!

Paradiso 37

For those folks who are interested in beer, the restaurant takes pride in serving the coldest beer in WDW! As evidenced on the thermometer hanging in the Dining Room, their beer is served at around 29 degrees.

For my appetizer I chose the Queso Fundido ($7.99) which was a good way to start the meal. The chips were served hot in a large bag adjacent to the bowl of Jack-cheese dip, which was garnished with Scallions. The appetizer was very hearty, and could be served as a meal in and of itself.

Paradiso 37

Service of my Entrée was nicely paced so as not to rush the meal. I decided on the Baja Burritos ($14.99), which are stuffed with either Chicken or Beef - I chose the Beef. Alongside the generously portioned burritos were Black Beans & Rice. I did not find the meal to be especially spicy and the need for a firehouse was not felt. The BBQ flavor was prominent in the dish, and I would liken it to Pork BBQ in texture and taste.

Paradiso 37

The food was quite filling and a good value for the money. While the desserts they had on offer were more than tempting, there was no more room at the Inn! Next time, I will skip the appetizer in favor of the Churros or Mini Ice Cream Cones.

My visit to Paradiso 37 was a solo one. In light of this, I did not feel rushed or out-of-place. In fact, I noticed several other solo diners in attendance that night both in the dining room and at the bar. My server did not seem to mind either; he took ample time going over the menu with me and making recommendations on what to try on my first visit.

I would recommend this restaurant for families visiting Downtown Disney or couples looking for a night out on the town. While they do serve alcohol with an emphasis on tequila and specialty drinks, I don't think that children will feel out of place here. I would most liken the restaurant to the Maya Grill at Coronado Springs or San Angel Inn at Epcot, with more menu options. Paradiso 37 is open from 11:30 a.m. - 12:00 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11:30 a.m. - 1:00 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Reservations can be made by calling the restaurant directly ((407) 934-3700) and were not available through Disney Dining Reservations when I checked. Also, they do not accept reservations during peak Dinner hours, only up until 4 o'clock.

There are currently no discount offers for Annual Passholder or Tables in Wonderland when I inquired with my Server. Also, Paradiso 37 does not currently accept the Disney Dining Plan.

Related Links:

Paradiso 37 Menu

Readers Rate and Review Paradiso 37

About Jeff: I am 33 years old and from Gettysburg, PA. By day I work in the Accounting Department of a Newspaper Publishing Company. My first visit to WDW was at the age of 2, and have been back around 35 times since then. I often travel solo to WDW, as well as with family. I make good use of my Annual Pass, and trek to Orlando about 5 times per year to visit my favorite travel destination. My favorite resort is the Polynesian, but have stayed at all of the WDW resorts at least once. In fact, my favorite aspect of visiting the Walt Disney World Resort is trying out the different Resorts and Restaurants. I also enjoy the many restaurants and sampling different foods that I normally would never try at home! (such as Escargot at the France pavillion).


October 13, 2008

Vegan Dining at Walt Disney World

The Bashful Vegan

Hi! My name is Kitty, and I'm a vegan. I'm also terribly, seriously, majorly bashful which is not very convenient when you're a vegan. It's near impossible to eat out as a vegan without attracting some attention, or at the very least, getting a confused look from a server. All of which has nothing whatsoever to do with Walt Disney World, except that it does make my trips to the world's most popular vacation destination a little interesting.

Kitty


Despite my "challenges", I go to Walt Disney World every chance I get, which isn't nearly as often as I would like, but I guess we can't all live in Florida. I usually manage at least one trip a year, along with my "Disney tolerant" omnivorous hubby. He's a bit bashful, too, though he eats a more normal diet.

I was a vegetarian (still ate dairy and eggs) when I made my first trip to Walt Disney World, almost 11 years ago. I was a little worried about what I would eat, but I shouldn't have been. There were so many options for lacto-ovo's that it wasn't even an issue. My expectations weren't very high, so I was pleasantly surprised that I could find more than just soy burgers and fries.

My first trip as a vegan (about 8 years ago) was more of an adventure. Okay, that's putting it nicely. It was rough. I was still new to the vegan scene, and suffered pretty badly from Mickey-ice-cream-bar-envy. The soy burgers and fries were still an option, and the sit-down restaurants did try to cater to me, but it didn't feel like a vacation without all the sweets and treats. (I have since learned to curb my sweet tooth, but at that point, I still associated vacations with lots of desserts.) So I vowed to be prepared before my second vegan trip. The following are some of the tips and tricks I learned while planning my own trips.

My first tip is especially helpful for newer vegans - ones who aren't sure how they will manage without sweets (ice cream, cookies and churros, oh my!). Bring treats from home. Seriously, pack an extra suitcase full of vegan cookies and candies, energy bars"� anything and everything you might eat at home as a vegan treat. (Okay, that soy ice cream might not travel so well, but there are lots of other options.) If the suitcase seems like a hassle, you could also pack up a box of goodies and have it shipped to your hotel.

Or, you could order some goodies from an online source (Vegan Essentials and Pangea are both good options), and have them shipped directly to your hotel. I can't stress this enough - if you're a new vegan, or just a new "Disney" vegan, having those comfort foods can seriously make the difference between the vacation of your dreams, and a big disappointment.

Once you arrive, make sure you always have some of these treats with you, in your bag or backpack. Disney does have a policy about not bringing food into the parks, but in my experience, they have no problem at all with a few snacks - and if they say anything at all, just explain that you're a vegan and this is required for your special diet. (I always have snacks with me, and I have never been questioned - not even once.)

Now, this might sound like a contradiction, but there are a surprising number of vegan treats available at Walt Disney World (and I think I've found all of them!). I love sharing them with others, and I will share them with you, but I still recommend treats from home. I've heard too many vegans say that they couldn't find anything to eat, and it affected their trip. Why take the chance, when a handful of your favorite vegan candy or a vegan energy bar will solve the problem? It's amazing what a difference the little things can make.

My second tip really applies to everyone, but is especially important for vegans: don't wait until you are starved to go look for food. In general, people tend to get grumpy, or at least not feel at the top of their game, when they get hungry. If you can't get to a restaurant right away, and you've got that rumbly in your tumbly, then it's time to hit those snacks I talked about. Otherwise, look for food before it becomes urgent, and be prepared to settle for a second choice. If you're planning a sit-down restaurant, odds are very good that you will eat, and probably eat very well. However, if this is one of those counter-service grab-n-go meals, then you might need a little extra time. There are more options than you might think, even at the counter-service places, but some of them require a little thought and creativity.

Which brings me to my third tip: eat at non-traditional times. In other words, avoid the rush and try to eat either a little earlier or a little later than the rest of the world. Eating as a vegan almost always requires some "speaking up", and I find this so much easier if I'm not holding up a crowd at the time. My meals sometimes require a little extra effort, and for me, there's nothing worse than feeling like I'm a bother, or that I'm keeping others waiting. Hubby and I generally try to eat early - lunch around 11:00am, and dinner around 5:00pm. We've found that this works really well at Walt Disney World.

This fourth tip I've shared with quite a few other vegetarians and vegans who have contacted me: for any sit-down restaurants you plan to eat at, call the restaurant 72 hours in advance and ask to speak to a chef. By doing this, you will have a better idea what to expect when you dine, and you also give the chef time to acquire any special ingredients they might need to make your meal something to remember. And this is really great advice. The problem is that I'm too bashful to actually do this myself. Yes, I'm finally going to admit it: I have never actually done this. I have mentioned that I'm a vegan when making reservations, and I've mentioned it when I got to the restaurant, but I have never called a restaurant directly and spoken to a chef.

So how do I manage when I'm too bashful to speak up?

Well, there options, even without special requests, but they are very limited.

Soy burgers and Disney fries (but not the ones clearly marked as "McDonald's) are vegan as is - no special request required.

There are fruit carts in every park, and a number of other snacks which are vegan.

The popcorn, despite its buttery appearance and taste, is actually vegan.

The soft pretzels and roasted nuts are safe (even the tasty cinnamon-glazed almonds!). But it would be tough to get through a whole vacation with only these few things.

There are several things that have helped - the biggest one being the cast members themselves. For starters, I am continually amazed by the number of cast members that already understand the term "vegan". If you say you're a vegetarian, many of them will ask "lacto-ovo or vegan?". Not having to explain this saves a lot of time of trouble - and for me, stress. Also, they really truly seem to want to make your trip special. Disney tries hard to accommodate everyone. I routinely have to make modifications, even at counter-service places, and it's almost never an issue. They seem prepared for it. They don't even look at me like I'm from another planet (which I get a lot in the "real world.) Occasionally I am told that there will be an additional wait - which I am always prepared for (thanks to my second tip - don't wait until you're starved).

Knowing what is possible, and what to expect also helps. It's important to keep in mind that most places will do their best to match any request, but they can only work with what they've got. In other words, most places will be happy to prepare you a salad minus chicken and cheese, but they can't substitute it with grilled tofu if they don't have any tofu in their kitchen.

That's where the 72 hours notice may help with a sit-down restaurant. The chefs at these places almost seem to thrive on the challenge of preparing something you will enjoy. I have had some extraordinary meals at Disney's sit-down restaurants. With counter-service, though, I've found that it's better to have a plan before I get in line. Even at the more casual places, they will most often work with me, but the creativity and knowledge is lacking. I need to know exactly what I want, and make requests that I know they can accommodate (such as leaving the chicken and cheese off of a salad, or ordering a fruit plate without the yogurt dipping sauce).

With these tips in mind, even a Disney vegan newbie can have the trip of a lifetime. For me, being a vegan, even a bashful vegan, is no longer an issue at Walt Disney World. Well, being bashful will always be an issue, but I'm working on that. (I'll never be volunteering for Indiana Jones' Stunt Spectacular, but I do plan to finally get up the guts to meet my hero, Mickey Mouse" one of these days.)


Boma Dinner: Marinated tofu over a corn salsa
Marinated tofu over a corn salsa

Boma Dessert: Vanilla soy ice cream with raspberries and a vegan chocolate chip cookie.
Vanilla soy ice cream with raspberries and a vegan chocolate chip cookie

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About Dining

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to All Ears® Guest Blog in the Dining category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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