Sunday, December 16, 2012

Olivia's Cafe

So today the family (Mom, Dad, and Nathan) and I went out to eat lunch at Olivia's Café, at Disney's Old Key West Resort.

Olivia's Entrance
As I noted, Olivia's is at Disney's Old Key West Resort, one of the many Disney Vacation Club resorts.  Unlike most other Disney resorts, which is one building with (perhaps) smaller outbuildings, Old Key West is almost like a series of apartment complexes centered around the pool area/registration area.

Old Key West is not on any of the main Disney streets, so while it's easy to get there, its a bit hard to find.  From Downtown Disney, the easiest way to get there is to get onto Buena Vista Drive heading toward the theme parks.  Turn right onto Bonnet Creek Parkway, and then right onto Disney Vacation Club Way (the second stoplight, and the first street you'll be able to turn right onto).  Old Key West is the first resort you'll come to.

Disney's Old Key West Resort

Just past the check-in desk on the left, next to the Conch Flats General Store (a gift shop which shares an entrance with the restaurant, you'll find Olivia's Café.  The place itself has the illusion of being small, but this illusion is mostly caused by the fact that the restaurant has as much outdoor seating (it's Florida, it's summer, and there's a breeze... believe me if you go for lunch during any kind of good weather, you might want to consider eating out on the deck) as it does indoor seating.

The dining room is decorated in what can only be considered "South Florida Kitsch."  There's road signs proclaiming the end of US 1 (the road that runs along the Atlantic Coast from the Mile Marker 0 in Key West, Florida to Mile Marker  2377 in Fort Kent, Maine (on the Canadian border), there's fish of all kinds on the wall.  There's antique plates, antique bottles, a hand-powered coffee grinder, and the neatest antique ceiling fan I've ever seen.
It's a very casual, homey, and above all friendly place to eat.  This was the friendliest restaurant we've encountered on Disney property by a fair stretch.

We were seated pretty quickly, and our waiter, Jerry, arrived pretty quickly to hand out menus, make suggestions, and take drink orders.  Nathan and I went with the sweet iced tea (it's a southern themed restaurant... of course there was sweet iced tea).  Jerry's suggestions were well-received, though he pushed the booze a bit hard, in my opinion.  It worked though, as Mom and Dad tried a fruit-festooned cocktail called the Turtle Krawl (named after one of our favorite Key West restaurants, Turtle Kraals).

For starters, we decided to split an order of the onion rings and an order of the conch fritters, while Mom added a cup of the conch chowder.

The onion rings were tasty and fresh, but the onions were slightly too thin, and all too often you'd end up with a mouthful of batter shell and no onion.  The conch fritters were doughy and delicious, but the real winner was the conch chowder, which was absolutely fantastic.

The onion rings and the fritters were each accompanied by a dipping sauce:  a key lime honey mustard came with both, while remoulade accompanied the fritters and mango ketchup the onion rings.  The remoulade was a bit bland for my taste, and the mango ketchup tasted heavily of cayenne, but the mustard hit the spot and was proclaimed the winner of the condiment competition.

When it came to entrees, Dad, Nathan, and I all chose the same thing:  Olivia's Seafood Pasta.  This was fettucine with rock shrimp, bay scallops, lump crab meat, and chunks of grouper, all sautéed with garlic, olive oil, sun-dried tomato, spinach, and basil.  It wasn't drowning in sauce, as a lot of seafood pasta dishes are when done elsewhere, nor was it over-seasoned (and to tell the truth, Dad and I thought it could have been even more seasoned than it was, though Nathan thought it was fine).  It had a fresh taste that wasn't overpowered by superfluous extras, allowing us to enjoy the fresh taste of the tomato, the spinach, and the seafood.
The other difference between Olivia's seafood pasta entrée and that found in other restaurants was the sheer amount of seafood to be found in it.  There must have been half a pound of various pieces of seafood in my bowl.  I literally could not move my fork without knocking around a chunk of seafood.

Mom's entrée was the pan-seared sea scallops, which arrived on a bed of polenta over braised asparagus.  Added to this was a prosciutto garnish and a tomato vinaigrette (something that I, Mom, and Nathan all declared "tastes just like ketchup").  The scallops were done to a turn and were tender, delicious, and perfect.  The polenta was creamy without being gummy and was seasoned in a way to give it a distinct flavor all by itself.  I just wish I had a picture of it (sorry about that, constant reader).
There were some minor quibbles with the meal.  As mentioned above, I thought the pasta could use just a bit more seasoning.  The remoulade was bland, and the mango ketchup tasted more of cayenne pepper than of mango (and by this I do not mean it was too hot... I mean the biggest component of the taste of the stuff was "peppery", not "burn my mouth").  Jerry, while friendly and polite and nice as could be and a great guy I'd love to have as my waiter was just a bit too pushy with the suggestions, but that's okay.

The food was plentiful and delicious.  I'd say four and a half stars out of five, and would suggest Olivia's to anyone (and have, since arriving home).  I do plan on going back to check out their sandwiches and their key lime pie (we were too stuffed for desert).

Next Up:  The Cape May Café at Disney's Beach Club Resort, by special request of my mother for her birthday.  See you then!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Tour Schedule Update and Policy Change

First the policy change.  It has been pointed out to me that there's no way I can try everything in a single restaurant without going more than once.  So the rule about not repeating a restaurant is being relaxed.

Secondly, there's been some scheduling changes due to Disney completely blocking out the Magic Kingdom from 17 November 2012 all the way to 23 February 2013.  Anyone whose read the schedule I posted a couple of months ago will realize that two of my upcoming trips are in the Magic Kingdom.  Its hard to dine at a Magic Kingdom restaurant when they're not letting you in.  So I've changed the January reservation.

The lady at the Disney Dining Reservations line (407-939-2625) advised I not cancel the reservation at Be Our Guest (specifically, she said, and I quote, "Whatever you do, do not cancel this reservation.  Buy regular tickets if you have to, because otherwise you'll be waiting until October!"), so I didn't.

The following dates are confirmed and reserved:
  • 16 December 2012:  Olivia's Cafe, at the Old Key West Resort.
  • 13 January 2013:  Cape May Cafe, Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resort.
  • 17 February 2013:  Be Our Guest, in Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom.
  • 3 March 2013:  Artist Point, at the Wilderness Lodge.
  • April 2013:  Captain Jack's, at Downtown Disney.
  • May 2013:  Maya Grill, at the Coronado Springs Resort. 
The following dates are planned, but have yet to be set in stone and are absolutely not confirmed:
  • June 2013:  The Biergarten, at the Germany Pavillion, Epcot
  • July 2013:  Tusker House, at Animal Kingdom.
  • August 2013:  Restaurant Marrakesh, at the Morocco Pavillion, Epcot.
  • September 2013:  1900 Park Fare (Breakfast), at the Grand Floridian Resort
  • October 2013:  The Crystal Palace, in Main Street, at the Magic Kingdom.
  • November 2013: Boatwright's Hall, at the Port Orleans Resort.
  • December 2013:  Kouzzina by Cat Cora, at Disney's Boardwalk.
As always, please note that these dates are subject to change, and when I get the chance I'll be adding stops on to the tour in between these predetermined stops.

The Liberty Tree Tavern

I know what you're thinking.

You're thinking, "Jack, at the end of your review of Bongo's, you said the next entry was going to be from the Food and Wine Festival!  Now you're talking about the Liberty Tree Tavern!  What's going on?"

Well, let me tell you.  I had a small accident.  While working at the Pool Bar and Grill at the Grand Floridian Resort, I slipped and literally fell on my tailbone.  As a result, I had two slipped disks and a couple of pinched nerves and I absolutely could not stand up long enough to take walking around Epcot long enough to do the Food and Wine Festival justice.  Or without bursting into tears from the pain.

But here's the funny, ironic, and tear-jerking part:  I also couldn't remain seated long enough to take being pushed around Epcot long enough to do the Food and Wine Festival justice.  Or without bursting into tears from the pain.  Literally, I was only comfortable when laying down.  And by the time I was mobile enough to make the trip, the Food and Wine Festival was over.

I am highly disappointed I missed it.  I mean, seriously disappointed.

But anyway, you're not here to listen to me whine about missing the best food fun event Disney has to offer.  You're here to listen to me talk about the Liberty Tree Tavern.

The Liberty Tree Tavern
The Liberty Tree Tavern is located in Liberty Square, inside the Magic Kingdom Park (which means you're going to need park admission in addition to the cost of the restaurant).  Since I was headed to the Magic Kingdom anyway, I decided to make it a Father-Son Fun Day for Jared and myself.  We got to the park just as it was opening, which is honestly the best time to get there.  After scouting Main Street for trading pins (yes, I trade pins) and Sorcerer's of the Magic Kingdom cards (yes, Jared is a SoMK fan), we decided to do the park clockwise and headed for Adventureland.

Jared, my partner for the day.
Jared and his sense of fun were driving the day, which meant we hit Aladdin's Magic Carpets, the Jungle Cruise, the Enchanted Tiki Room, and of course Pirates of the Caribbean.  With Adventureland taken care of, we moved on to Frontierland and enjoyed the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the Country Bear Jamboree, and Davey Crockett's Shooting Gallery.  We then caught a raft to Tom Sawyer's Island, were I let Jared run himself around to his heart's content.

Seems Jared has a thing for hiding in dark tunnels and leaping out at people when they aren't expecting it.

Jared in front of the Liberty Bell replica, in Liberty Square.

We were on our way to the Haunted Mansion when Jared declared that he was hungry.  A quick check of my clock told me we still had half an hour until our reservation, but I figured what the heck... the park wasn't that busy and maybe they'd let us sit down early.  So we hied ourselves hence to the Liberty Tree Tavern.

The entrance to the Liberty Tree Tavern.

For those of you who've never been to the Magic Kingdom, the Liberty Tree Tavern is in Liberty Square, across from the Liberty Bell replica on one side and the Diamond Horseshoe on the other.  If you have trouble finding it, head toward the River Boat landing and look around a little, or ask a cast member.  Its pretty easy to find.

The Liberty Tree is a charming place done up in late Colonial American kitsch.  Its homey and welcoming, and the food is amazing.  The cuisine is classic American fare, with a bit of a concentration on that New England feel.

The entrance to the Liberty Tree.

A view to the right, from the entrance.  Its not even Thanksgiving, and they already have their Christmas tree up.

A view to the left, from the entrance.
So we walked in to find it only moderately crowded, and by that I mean there was maybe 20 people sitting around the entrance, waiting for a seat.  There was a nice young lady at the check-in desk, and we asked her about getting in early.  Turns out this would not be a problem.

Laura, from Bartonsville, Illinois, at the check-in.  She was amazingly nice.
Laura checked us in, told us it would be a bit because there were several parties ahead of us, and invited us to sit in the rocking chairs that were placed around the foyer.  Sounded good to me, so I sat down and started rocking.  Jared began cataloging his new trading cards, while I just rocked and watched the crowds outside move back and forth.

No sooner had I become comfortable, however, than our names were called by Dean, one of the managers at the Liberty Tree.  Dean greeted us, took us to our table, and assured us that Mo, our waiter, would be along shortly.

Dean, the Manager.  A very nice, understanding man who becomes more important later in the story.

Mo, our waiter.
We didn't have to wait long before Mo did show up.  He took our drink orders and left Jared and me with the menus.  I usually don't bother mentioning the kid's menus at these restaurants, but I wanted to mention the one at Liberty Tree.  In addition to the usual coloring opportunities and word searches and find the match puzzles, the menu featured (in addition to the food, of course) trivia about the founding of our country.  I thought it was very cool.

So Mo came back and we made our orders.  Jared wanted the kid's macaroni and cheese dinner, choosing carrot and celery sticks as his appetizer, and an ice cream sundae for desert.  I started with a bowl of New England clam chowder, and decided on the Pilgrim's Feast.

New England Clam Chowder
The clam chowder was just about perfect.  I should probably let you know I'm a clam chowder snob.  I want it creamy, with big, tasty chunks of potato and huge slabs of sliced clams.  I don't even acknowledge the existence of that tomato-based sludge the people in a particular borough of New York deceptively call "chowder".  Hey, you!  Down in Manhattan!  Yes, you!  Chowders have milk or cream and are thickened with potatoes!  That slop you call chowder is a SOUP, not a CHOWDER!  There are differences!

Anyway, where was I?

Oh yes, the chowder.  It was smooth and creamy and not too thick.  The potatoes were cooked just to par so they held their shape under the weight of the chowder, but weren't so stiff they counted as "crunchy".  And the slivers of clam were the size of a Kennedy half-dollar, I swear on my life.  It was clam chowder heaven.

The Pilgrim's Feast. 
The Pilgrim's Feast is a traditional "Thansgiving" dinner, and this being November, that's why I ordered it.  I've had it before, and loved it, and I ordered it this time anticipating culinary satisfaction.  And for the most part, I got it.  The slices of turkey breast meat were so tender they fell apart if I looked at them sharply.  The green beans were cooked to a turn, perfectly seasoned, and had a fresh taste that I find only rarely.  The herb bread dressing (not visible in the picture above) was tasty and not too dry and fit the rest of the meal like a glove.  The only bad mark on the meal was the gravy.

The gravy, which you can probably tell from the picture above, was pasty and thick and sludge-like.  It was also tepid.  Now, for cold, over-thick gravy, it actually had a pretty decent flavor, which tells me that had it been properly warm, not to mention possessing the proper nape for gravy, it would have been perfect.

Quick diversion:  nape (pronounced "napp-pay") in this context means the thickness of a sauce.  To test the nape of a sauce, you dip a spoon into it quickly (so the spoon picks up just a light coating of sauce).  Then you turn the spoon sideways.  If the gravy only drips off the spoon slowly, its got the right nape.  If it doesn't drip at all, you've got sludge.

The nape of this gravy was spoon-grippingly thick.

Jared's meal, on the other hand, was apparently perfect.

Kid's Macaroni and Cheese with Celery and Carrots Sticks
Jared is a lover of mac and cheese like no one else I can describe.  And he's also one of the most picky eaters I've ever met.  And I'm a chef, so I've met a lot of picky eaters.  Jared took a hesitant bite of his macaroni, smiled, and then proceded to devour the meal with an alacrity that was surprising.  Mo was kind enough to bring him a little dish of ranch dressing for his veggies, which completed his joy.  And then came his ice cream.

Let's just say he loved that too.

So, the round-up.  Mo, our waiter, was quick on his feet with drink refreshment and dirty-dish-clearance, though there were a couple of times when he took a bit longer to get to us than I expected.  The restaurant wasn't too crowded or too noisy.  Everyone was friendly, and the food was almost perfect.

About that almost.  When Dean the Manager walked through the restaurant I stopped him and told him about the gravy.  I'd already finished the rest of the meal (how hard is it to scrape bad gravy off terrific turkey, after all), so I didn't feel that accepting his offer to comp my meal would be fair.  Nor did I accept the offer of a dessert.  But I did appreciate that he came back a few minutes later to tell me the kitchen people were busily making a new batch and apologized for it again.

Anyway, the entire meal was pleasant and the rest of the day (we went from the Liberty Tree Tavern to the Haunted Mansion, and then further into Fantasyland, including the new Storybook Circus section of New Fantasyland, and Tomorrow Land.)  We had a grand day, and called it quits when both of us were sweaty, tired, and full of fun.

As a dad, I suggest spending time with your kids doing what they want to do as much as possible.  Its a great feeling when your son hugs you and says, "Thanks for having fun with me."

Jared said, "You're not in any of the pictures!", grabbed the camera, and took this picture.

Jared, my best buddy and frequent restaurant partner.
Anyway, back to the meal.  The final cost was $32 for both of us.  However, that was with a 30% Holiday Special Discount coupon.  Despite the bad gravy, we both felt like we got our money's worth, and we will be back to eat there again.

So in the end, I'd give it four stars out of five, and I'd recommend the Liberty Tree to everyone.

Next time:  Olivia's Cafe at the Old Key West resort.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Bongo's Cuban Cafe

My mother, my son Jared, and I got to Downtown Disney nearly an hour ahead of our reservation at Bongo's Cuban Cafe, and this was a good thing for two reasons.  First, because the Downtown Disney complex just doesn't have enough handicap-only parking spots, and we ended up having to walk a while just to get to the restaurant.

And second, because once we got to the restaurant, I realized that the video card in my camera had been stolen by my brother Aaron.  Again.  I won't go into it here, but let's just say that this wasn't the first time I found myself without a video card because of my younger brother.  We used up our extra hour tracking down a new one in a shop located at the far end of Downtown Disney, opposite the end at which Bongo's is located.

In any case, you're not here to listen to me whine about inter-sibling problems.  You're here to find out about the restaurants.  So let's get to it.

Bongo's Cuban Cafe
Bongo's Cuban Cafe is yet another independently operated "licensed third-party partner" with the Walt Disney Company.  In this case, the "partners" are "the Queen of Latin Pop", Gloria Estefan, and her husband Emilio, which gives the cafe chain a bit of celebrity cache.  Now, I've been to other celebrity-owned restaurants, and can tell you the quality varies quite a bit.  I was slightly worried going in, because some of these places rest on their celebrity laurels and coast when it comes to quality of food and so on.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

As with the other independent restaurants, as Bongo's is operating on Disney property, and you can get reservations through Disney Dining Reservations, we're going to give it honorary "Disney restaurant" status for the purposes of the tour.

Bongo's is located in the middle of Downtown Disney's West Side, next to Wolf Gang Puck's Express West Side (to which we will be returning in a later entry) and across the street from the AMC Theaters Downtown Disney 24.  The easiest way to get there is to park in either Lot J or Lot K and walk into the complex between Splitsville (which is still under construction as I write this) and the AMC theater.

The restaurant is well lit and cheerfully decorated, but the interior struck me as being smaller than it looked from the outside.  The ground floor is dominated by a spiraling staircase leading to an upper floor which (from what I can tell) was not in use during lunch hours.

Jessica, the nice lady at the door.

While we were walking to our table, I made note of the interior of the place.  Given the presence of a gift shop, a fully stocked bar, a bandstand (empty, when we were there) and the already-mentioned staircase, the first-floor dining room was a lot smaller than it seemed to be from the outside.  The place was busy with people (nearly every table I could see had someone sitting at it), and the acoustics of the dining room, combined with the material (white marble as far as the eye could see) made the ambient noise in the room pretty loud.

The first floor dining room, as seen from our table.
Note the staircase on the left, and the bandstand to our immediate front, taking up space that in another restaurant would be filled by tables.

Unlike T-Rex, the background noise was made up of happy families cheerily talking to one another, or singing along with the Cubano music playing in the background, or just laughing and having fun.  Despite the fact that we all had to raise our voices to hear each other, we just didn't mind doing it.  There was a definite sense of "fun" going on in the joint from the moment we walked through the door.

Once seated at our table (also made of white marble, as Jared remarked upon), I took a minute to check out the rest of the room.  There were a lot of windows, and the lighting was almost completely natural, and gave the place the illusion of being a lot larger than it actually was.

Jared and me.  Note the big windows behind us.

Mom, studying the menu.
Again, check out the absolutely fantastic natural lighting.
The real treat, when it came to Bongo's decor, were between the windows.  Covering the walls between each of these magnificent windows were some absolutely fantastic mosaics made with a definite Florida/Caribbean feel to them.

Anyway, our waitress, a young lady named Kayleigh, stopped off, asked us to excuse her, and told us she'd be back in a moment to take our drink orders.  I kept an eye on her, because such things usually make me skeptical.  (Literally, the most common reason for a server to beg off immediately taking drink orders is incompetence, laziness, or both.)  In this case, I spotted quickly that Kayleigh was the only waitress in our section, and that our section included about eight different tables, none of which had less than three people.

Kayleigh, our waitress.
She earned her tips, believe me

Surprisingly, she was back in only a couple of minutes to take drink orders.  I considered a mojito, but decided against.  They don't have pre-sweetened iced tea at Bongo's, which is a mark against them in my book.  Sugar does not dissolve in cold water, so it is impossible to properly sweeten iced tea at your table.  I ended up getting a coke, as did both Mom and Jared.

In addition to the drinks, I also put in an order for the Black Bean Dip appetizer (with fried plantain chips), and Jared, who was ready to eat the table, decided he was ready, knew what he wanted, and put his dinner order in (he selected the Pollo a la Plancha (a grilled chicken breast) with french fries, as well as a cup of the Sopa de Pollo (chicken noodle soup).

By the time Kayleigh came back with the drinks, Mom and I were ready to order entrees.  Mom went with the Bistec de Palomilla (a tenderized steak seasoned with garlic and Mojo and topped with onions and parsley) and I ordered the Picadillo (criolla minced beef with onions, peppers, and olives, topped with a fried egg).  Both entrees came accompanied with white rice; Mom's was also accompanied by black beans and polenta cakes, while mine came with carmelized plantains.

Mom was disappointed that there was no liver and onions on the menu.  Higado a la Italiana (which means "liver Italian style"... and no, I don't know what makes it "Italian style" other than the fact that its served with bell peppers in addition to the onions) is one of the traditional dishes in classic Cuban cuisine, and the fact that its not on the menu was a bit of a let-down for my mother as its one of her favorite dishes. 

As the name reveals, Bongo's Cuban Cafe features Cuban food... or in some cases a good approximation of Americanized Cuban food.  For those unaware, Cuban food stems from classic Spanish cuisine, with a dash of African and Caribbean tossed into the mix.  Unlike a lot of other types of Latin cuisine, there's not a lot of heat here.  Rather than relying on peppers, the cuisine places emphasis on garlic, onions, herbs, and citrus juices (mainly lime juice).  As a result, a person can enjoy dishes that are flavorful and delicious without burning the heck out of their mouths in the process.

The Black Bean Dip Appetizer
The Black Bean Dip was served cold (which surprised me for a moment), but tasted good.  It's made of mashed black beans, with aioli, cilantro, tomotos, and sour cream, accompanied by fried plantain chips.  The beans themselves taste fresh, and the added notes of lime and garlic keep them from being the slightly blah taste that most refried-bean-style dishes tend to be.

The fried plantain chips were an excellent accompaniment, and came as a huge surprise to Jared, who previously had no experience with plantains at all.  He was doubtful about them at first, but after a few bites, he decided that "banana chips" were good eating.  And speaking of Jared, while were were munching on beans and plantain chips, Jared's lunch arrived.

Pollo a la Plancha
A seasoned, sauted chicken breast, with french fries.

Sopa de Pollo
Chicken noodle soup, with a difference.
The chicken breast, in Jared's own words, "had interesting spices on it"; he said that while it tasted different "from any chicken he's ever eaten", he also noted that it was "delicioso".  This is high praise from my son, who is notorious in our family for being the pickiest eater of them all.  The french fries were, also in his own words, "better than those at McDonald's"... the source of his favorite fries.  So apparently he has a new favorite.

The soup itself was a big surprise to me.  It was thicker than the standard chicken noodle soup, and had huge chunks of chicken floating in it.  In addition, it had big cuts of carrot and potato, and seemed more like a stew than a mere soup.  This, too, was declared "delicioso".  I tried a bit of it, and indeed the soup was pretty good.

Bistec de Palomilla
Not pictured:  the Black Bean Cup
Mom's steak, while not a first-class cut of meat, was almost fork-tender.  It had been seasoned with garlic and mojo, and was a perfect medium rare.  As Mom says, "this steak is delicious, that's what it is".  She was less-impressed with the polenta cakes, saying that they were "tough, chewy, and bland", and not to her liking at all.

She used her rice and black beans to make her own congri (Cuban black beans and rice, one of her favorite parts of Cuban cuisine), and was a bit disappointed that congri could not be found on the menu at all.

The picadillo was very tasty, especially once I cut the fried egg into very small pieces and mixed the runny goodness of the yolk in with the rest of the meat.  I swiftly cleaned the egg-and-meat mix out of the bowl and mixed it with the rice for full enjoyment.

My one complaint is that in addition to the beef, the onions and peppers and olives had also been minced... minced so well, in fact, that the cooks could have simply left them out of the mix and I'd have been none the wiser.  Seriously, it tastes good, but it had the consistency of sloppy joe meat, and as far as I am concerned, well-made Picadillo just isn't that... minced.  When I make it at home, in fact, I tend to use beef that's been small diced, not minced, and the veggies are also small diced.  This gives the dish a better mouth-feel in my opinion than finely dicing everything.  Its a minor fault, but a fault it is.

On the other hand, the carmelized plantains were perfect; honestly, they were the best part of my meal.

So... in summary, I can say that we all enjoyed our visit to Bongo's.  There were some small points of irritation (Mom's inability to order liver and onions, and the fact that she had to mix her own congri; Kayleigh being so much in a hurry that we sometimes had to ask three times before she managed to hear us ask for whatever we were asking for, the mouth-feel of the picadillo, and so on) that kept it from being a perfect meal, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

The problems were all small, and the food was tasty.  The total bill came to $60 and change, and my part of it (Mom was paying for herself, I was covering Jared and myself) came to just over $37 (with tip, the final bill was $44).

I can and will recommend Bongo's Cuban Cafe to my friends and family wanting to go somewhere that didn't serve the same old stuff.  Let's call it four stars out of five.

Next up:  The 2012 Epcot Food and Wine Festival!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Fulton's Crab House

It was just beginning to rain when Mom, Dad, Aaron, Elizabeth, and myself all left the house.  By the time we hit the edge of Disney property, the slight drizzle had turned into a hard rain, and by the time we drove into the Downtown Disney parking lot, it had gone back to constant drizzle.

A short walk in the rain, with the wind off the lake pulling at our umbrellas, and we had reached our destination:  Fulton's Crab House.
Fulton's Crab House

As with Raglan Road and T-Rex, Fulton's is not officially a Disney restaurant at all.  It is an independently owned and operated business legally considered a "licensed third-party partner" with the Walt Disney Company.  But as it is operating on Disney property, and you can get reservations through Disney Dining Reservations, we're going to give it honorary "Disney restaurant" status for the purposes of the tour.

To get to Fulton's, park in Downtown Disney's Lot E, as if you were going to T-Rex, but keep doing past the dinosaur festooned restaurant until you see the big paddlewheel boat.  That boat is Fulton's Crab House.

I wasn't kidding about the boat part.
It was still raining when we arrived at Lot E, so I pulled up to the curb, let Mom and Dad out, and then parked the car.  By the time Elizabeth, Aaron, and I reached the restaurant proper, Mom and Dad had us checked in, and all we had to do was wait to be called for our table.

The wait was literally about thirty seconds.

The young man escorting us to our table (I did not get his name) mentioned that we were going to be seated on the second floor, and as neither Mom nor Dad can really do stairs anymore, we were led to a very small (and I suspect only very rarely used) elevator.

Waiting for the elevator.

As expected for a seafood restaurant located in a big boat, the decor is all about fish, fishing, ships, and so on.  It was pretty neat, though I have to tell you the dining spaces felt slightly odd-shaped to me.  The center of the boat was where the kitchens and utility spaces were kept, so the outside and the bow and stern sections (the front and the back sections, that is) were set for dining... which meant some of the dining rooms (this restaurant is divided into smaller rooms rather than being one large dining space) were... a little different, shall we say.

One of the long, skinny dining rooms.
You can easily see the fish motif in this shot, but...



From the elevator, we were led into the Constellation Room, one of the big, semi-circular rooms that you can find at the bow (the front end, that is) and the stern (the back end) of the boat. Its called the Constellation Room because the ceiling is decorated with the constellations visible from the Northern hemisphere.

I have to tell you, the Constellation Room has a pretty good view of the surrounding countryside.

Our table in the Constellation Room.
Only part of the view.
I told you it was raining...
Another part of the view.
There was a lot more to it than these two shots.

Our seater (whose name I never did get, unfortunately), brought us to our table and waited for us to get seated.  I immediately noticed that the table was wrapped in thick butcher's paper.  Normally, a paper-covered table in a full-service restaurant is only found in places that get a lot of kids or is basing their theme on "let's be goofy and random".

Once the meal started, I swiftly discovered that the table is covered in paper because we were going to get messy while eating, and paper is easier to clean up than shellfish-stained cloth tablecloths.  All you have to do with the paper is ball it up and toss it.  No laundry required.

So once we were sat down, the young man said, "And here is your server, Rhonda."

That caused me to blink.  Just a bit.  That's how much of a surprise this was.  There was absolutely no waiting between our sitting down and the server getting to the table, because she had been waiting by our table the whole time.

As for her by name.

Rhonda handed out menus as she welcomed us in, and was quick to answer all of our questions as we perused them.  We talked with Rhonda about where she's worked, about where we worked (Mom and I, at least... the fact that I cook at the Grand made an impression), about the restaurant, and about the food.  She was very helpful and offered some good suggestions.

Drink orders were taken and while Rhonda went off to take care of those, we made some preliminary decisions.  Mom decided to get a bowl of the lobster bisque and Elizabeth joined her, I decided on a cup of the New England clam chowder, and two orders of the portobello mushroom mushroom fries for the entire table to split.

Portobello mushroom fries.
The portobello mushroom fries, it turns out, are full-sized portobello mushrooms that have been cut into strips, beer-battered, and then deep fried.  They're served with a honey mustard.  These are an interesting take on the standard fried mushroom, and have a pretty good flavor, but in the end they're basically just fried mushrooms.  The honey mustard they are served with was dijon, with a touch of mayonnaise, and honey.  Again, not bad, but pretty standard.

(Dad did, however, mention wanting to try them at home.)

The lobster bisque actually involved a bit of performance.  The bowls were set in front of Mom and Elizabeth, and then Rhonda brought forward these copper pots, each with a long handle.  She proceeded to pour the soup into the bowl from the pots.

Pouring lobster bisque for Mom.
Pouring lobster bisque for Elizabeth.
The bisque.  Its color was perfect.
The lobster bisque had a great flavor, slightly smokey with a hint of cayenne in the background.  Mom tasted it and immediately made the "oh that's good" face.  Elizabeth was grooving on hers as well.  The rest of us got tastes of it, and it was, indeed, pretty good.  But it wasn't the highlight of the appetizer round.  No, that award goes to this:

The New England clam chowder.
Remember the Soul Soup from the Raglan Road review?  Yeah, the clam chowder was that level of fantastic.  I took a bite of it and was immediately in heaven.  The clam chowder was rich, creamy, and was absolutely loaded with clam pieces.  I could tell it was made with a really good white wine, and the emulsion was just amazing.

Mom, seeing the look on my face as she ate her bisque, asked me what was up.  So I told her.  The clam chowder was eye-wideningly amazing.  So she asked for a bite.

One thing you need to know about my mother:  she's picky.  Don't get me wrong, I love her to death, but she frustrates the hell out of the chef in me because basically she likes about a half-dozen things, and that is it.  She hates going out of her comfort zone, foodwise, and sometimes it takes me always twisting her arm off to get her to try anything she hasn't tried yet.  If she's tried it, and decided she doesn't like it, you can't get her to try it again even if you held a gun up to her head.  She's just that stubborn when it comes to food.

She likes clam chowder... as long as its the Manhattan kind.  You know, the kind made with tomato broth?  The kind that doesn't have cream in it.  The kind that's thin, and runny, and red?  Yeah.  If its not Manhattan clam chowder, she doesn't want it.  So, as I said, she took a spoonful of the clam chowder.  And then said, "I ordered the wrong soup... I should have got the clam chowder." Don't get me wrong... the bisque was fine.  Nothing wrong with the bisque.  But by comparison, it was a bit weak.

Sooner than I thought, my soup was gone, and I honestly lamented it out loud.  I looked at the cup, sighed a bit, and said "My soup is gone.  Why is my soup gone?" in precisely the same confused voice Jack Sparrow used when he asked what happened to the rum. 

Eventually, some entree choices were made.  I had watched this lobster-bedecked something waltz by just a moment before, so I ordered one.  Its formal name is the Fulton's Seafood Tower, and believe it or not, its an appetizer intended for two people.

The Fulton's Seafood Tower
My staring contest with a fully cooked lobster.
I'm wondering where the hell to begin with this thing.
The Seafood tower is a bi-level construct featuring a whole steamed lobster, four raw oysters, six absolutely huge shrimp, and some Alaskan king crab legs.  The lobster has been cleaned for you, so you don't have to go mucking about with the poor bug's internal organs before eating it, and the crab legs and claws have been split to make extracting the meat much, much easier.  Remember, folks, this is listed under the appetizers.

Mom and Aaron ordered the Chilled Seafood Trio.  From what I understand, this entree is essentially the same as the Fulton's Seafood Tower, without the tower and the pan of whole lobster.  Both Mom and Aaron elected to have their oysters fried, while I took mine raw.

The chilled seafood trio.
The chilled seafood trio consists of Alaskan king crab legs, oysters (in this case fried ones), and peel-and-eat shrimp (eight of them... visibly smaller than the monster shrimp I had on my plate).

Dad, on the other hand, ordered the Hook and Sinker.  This is a "create your own combo" with half of one of the sandwiches (you have a choice between their chicken sandwich, the oyster po'boy, and the shrimp po'boy) and a cup of one of their soups, or (if you choose) a table salad.  Dad went with the lobster bisque.

The Hook and Sinker.
Everybody enjoyed their lunch, and we all had a really good time with each other.  But the honest truth is this:  while everything tasted good, it wasn't all that special.  What I mean is that we could have had the same meal at pretty much any Red Lobster.  Granted, the ambiance was nice, and the extra touches were cool, and Rhonda was just super... but still, with the single exception of the New England clam chowder, the food itself was good but not exceptional.

There was a small list of defects with the meal:
  • Some of the lobster meat was a bit overcooked, and thus was rubbery.
  • Everyone who ate crab (me, Aaron, and Mom) each encountered one jointful of crabmeat that seemed to have been soaked in saltwater overnight after it had been cooked.
  • The peel-and-eat shrimp on the chilled seafood trio were very bland, and didn't seem to have been seasoned when they were cooked.
  • The bread on the top of Dad's sandwich was hard and crusty while the bottom piece was soft and pliable...
  • We had to ask for drawn butter.  In pretty much every other seafood place I've ever been to, you get that as a matter of course.
You get the idea.  None of these problems were "fatal".  We all thought it was a good meal and had a good time eating it, but as I've already said, we could have gone to Red Lobster and had about the same meal.

Of course, we wouldn't have had the fantastic service provided by Rhonda, nor the great view, nor the fantastic surroundings.  And those factors made what would have been a pretty standard meal a bit special.  So... would I recommend Fulton's to friends?  Yeah, I would.  I'd warn them not to expect miracles, but yeah, I'd recommend it.  Let's call it three-and-three-quarters stars out of five.

The accumulated bill (we were all going dutch today) was a little over $150 for five people.  My own part of that damage, for the Fulton's Seafood Tower, a drink, and some soup, was $54.  And just to note... I'm writing this some six hours after we got done eating, and am still not that hungry, so the money is well worth it.

And if you go, ask for Rhonda by name.

Next up:  Bongo's Cuban Cafe, at Downtown Disney.