A relatively recent tradition at Walt Disney World is to give Tables in Wonderland members a preview of the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival about two months before it opens. Along with a growing appetite for the festival, this event, too, has increased in popularity.
I attended the preview with AllEars.Net founder Deb Wills and AllEars.Net photographer Linda Eckwerth, so that we could be among the first to share our impressions about what you can expect at the 19th year of the festival. We quickly discovered that doubling the number of participants and moving the venue to World ShowPlace caused a few growing pains this year with the quality of the service, but certainly not the quality of the food.
The event began with a reception that featured food stations, as well as two open bars. Among the offerings this year were dishes and drinks from Puerto Rico, the culture that will be highlighted at this year's food and wine festival. You can read our thoughts about the island marketplace in my separate blog post tomorrow.
Among the other appetizers, Linda raved about the Sea Scallop with Spinach Cheddar Gratin and Crispy Bacon from Scotland. She said the combination of flavors was "perfect" and "very delicious."
If I am discounting my affinity for the Puerto Rican dishes, my favorite was the CraB'less CraB Cake with Pepper Slaw and Cajun Remoulade featuring Gardein. This vegan dish will be served at the Terra marketplace. Perhaps what I liked best about it was that the slaw reminded me of the Kimchi slaw that was served with hotdogs at the South Korea kiosk last year. It's spicy hot! I agree with Linda, who pointed out that while the CraB'less CraB Cake had the texture of a crab cake, it did not necessarily taste like crab.
We also sampled the Pao de Queijo, a cheese bread from Brazil, and the South Africa Bobotie with Turkey and Mushrooms. None of us had strong opinions about either dish.
Our least favorite was the Nueske's Pepper Bacon Hash with Sweet Corn, Potatoes, Hollandaise and pickled Jalapeños. It looked delicious when it was being prepared in a skillet, but it tasted bland and was drenched in the sauce. The hash -- and other "home-grown" dishes -- will be among the offerings at the Farm Fresh stand, which replaces the Florida Fresh booth.
Our appetizers were accompanied by a selection of adult beverages. Linda and I sipped the Aulani Sunset cocktail, which is made with Sammy's [Hagar] Beach Bar Rum. The drink is similar to what is served at Disney's Hawaiian resort, though the rum from the rock musician is a new addition. We agreed we could not taste the alcohol in the drink, and we weren't sure if that was because of the quantity or the quality. Either way, it's a sweet, delicious drink.
Among the wines served at the reception was a Paperboy Red, which will be available at the Terra marketplace. Deb tasted this one and said, "The story is great. It's the first 100 percent fully recyclable wine bottle that is 80 percent lighter than glass and made with ultra-green packaging. But the great stops there. I wanted to like the wine -- who doesn't want to do more for the environment? -- but the first flavors are not pleasant. It opened up a bit toward the end of the sip, but the bad nose and start was off-putting. I even tried it later in the evening and liked it less."
Other choices included a chardonnay from The Great American Wine Company; Brut Sparkling Blac de Noir from Domaine Chandon; and Duke's Cold Nose Brown Ale, from Bold City Brewery in Jacksonville. The pale ale will be available at the Farm Fresh kiosk.
And that was just the reception; then we moved into World Showplace for a plated dinner, which also showcased dishes that will be served during the 53-day festival. Chef Jens Dahlmann, Epcot's executive chef, said there will be 35 new food offerings at this year's Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, along with guests' favorites.
Our dinner started with a course from Greece: Vegetarian Moussaka. It seemed to be well-received by the diners around me, including Deb and Linda.
Deb said, "The Vegetarian Moussaka was excellent, and I'd swear it had meat in it! This was paired with the M-A-N Family Wine, Chenin Blanc, a South African wine. If you like Chenin Blanc, be sure to try this wine."
Linda said, "I was hesitant at first, but after a few bites started to enjoy the flavors. Even though it was vegetarian, it really tasted as if meat were in the dish. The Chenin Blanc paired very nicely. I thought it brought out some of the spicy flavors in the moussaka."
The second course was from Patagonia, the festival's newsiest marketplace. This course consisted of Roasted Verlasso Salmon with Quinoa Salad and Argugula Chimi Churri. Chef Jens pointed out that this particular fish is fully sustainable and simply prepared for a light taste.
"I really liked the Patagonia Course. Salmon can sometimes be overpowering in flavors, but this had a light taste," Linda said. "The Quinoa Salad was superb! It was hard to say which tasted better -- the salad or the salmon."
Deb said she liked the Quinoa salad better than the salmon.
Then, it was time for the third course, which was my favorite. The Carne Guisada con Arroz Blanco (Slow Braised Beef with Puerto Rican Grown Rice) came from the Puerto Rico marketplace. Deb enjoyed this dish as well, saying, "The braised beef dish from Puerto Rico was very good, the meat ever so tender. I will try this again." Still, Linda said that although the meat was tender, she thought the dish lacked flavor.
The Carne Guisada was paired with a sangria and a Medalla light beer. I'm not really a beer drinker, so I tried the Gasolina Sangriiia rum punch, which was very smooth. If you like sweet drinks, you'll love this one.
We also were offered a taste of a somewhat new beer, MmmHops, from the band Hanson. The name is a play on the group's hit song, "MmmBop," and the pale ale is from the Hanson Brothers Beer Company. MmmHops was launched at select locations in 2013. The three brothers have been regulars at the festival's Eat to the Beat concert series, so this seemed like a logical tie-in, we were told.
Finally, the dessert trio arrived, and one of the sweets was the much-talked-about croissant doughnut, which can be found year-round at the Refreshment Port. The original Cronut was invented in New York City and is a pastry that is made by frying dough and then adding the sugar, filling and glaze. The Disney version we tried was more like a croissant doughnut hole that had a cinnamon-sugar flavor.
We also sampled the Fresh Baked Carrot Cake with Craisins and Cream Cheese icing that will be available at the Hops and Barley marketplace. I enjoyed this dessert, but it might not be for you if you don't like Craisins because they are abundant in each serving.
The third dessert was the Warm Drinking Chocolate that is available at the Bean to the Bar location in the Festival Center. This thick chocolate drink is very rich. Can't wait to sample it? It's on the menu at Ghirardelli Chocolate Shoppe and Soda Fountain at Downtown Disney Marketplace.
At our event, the desserts were paired with Rose Regale, which Deb said goes well with just about any dessert.
The 19th annual Epcot International Food & Wine Festival runs from Sept. 19 through Nov. 10. It is included with regular theme-park admission to Epcot. Will you be attending? Tell us what you're most looking forward to in the comments.
DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at the Tables in Wonderland event. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own. Deb and Linda purchased tickets to attend the event.