Friday, August 31, 2012

50s Prime Time Cafe

Yesterday (30 August 2012), I was tasked with picking my mother up from her job (she's a merchandise hostess at Disney's Hollywood Studios).  Since I was going to be in Hollywood Studios all night anyway, and since there's only so many times you can ride the Great Movie Ride and watch Muppetvision 3D, I decided to take advantage of the circumstances and try out a restaurant.  As with all surprise stops, I had no opportunity to make a reservation, and when I asked about restaurants taking walk-ins, this was the only one with space.

So 50s Prime Time it was!

50s Prime Time Cafe
Now, remember that this restaurant is located inside the Disney's Hollywood Studios park.  As such, you're going to need park admission in addition to the cost of the restaurant.

For those of you who haven't ever been to Disney's Hollywood Studios, the 50s Prime Time Cafe is located on Echo Lake, right across the path from Dinosaur Gertie's Ice Cream Extinction.  Once you're inside Hollywood Studios, walk down Hollywood Boulevard until you come to the path on the left-hand side, just past Mickey's of Hollywood.  Continue past the Hollywood and Vine buffet restaurant, then past the Tune-In Lounge.  50s Prime Time Cafe will be on your left, with Dinosaur Gertie's on the right.  If you hit the souvenir shop for the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, you've gone too far.

Dinosaur Gertie's Ice Cream Extinction
Across from the 50s Prime Time Cafe.

I walked into the lobby of the restaurant at about 6:30ish and talked to two very nice young ladies at the reservation check-in desk.  When I asked about walk-in seating, I was told that it was available, as long as I didn't mind waiting about twenty minutes.  I indicated that I didn't, and Becky (one of the two ladies in question) pointed out that I could always take a seat at the bar while I waited.

This sounded like a fine plan, so to the bar I hied myself hence.

Becky and Anne, who were taking reservation check-ins.

Tiffany the Bartender
She was bubbly, friendly, effusive, and snarky, just like a bartender should be.
I ordered a Coke and Jack from the bartender and took my first look around the place.  The  50s Prime Time Cafe (not to mention the Tune-In Lounge, where I was sitting) is a themed dining experience, where the theme is "Mom's Kitchen" from circa 1955.  All the decor looks like it came out of somebody's home, some time during the Eisenhower Administration.  Formica counter-tops, tract-home couches, kitschy decorations on the wall (including, I kid you not, a clock in the shape of a cat, whose eyes moved in time with its tail/pendulum).

A sample shot of the decor as seen from my table.

I sipped my drink and watched what was on TV in the 50s.  In addition to the occasional 50s commercial, there were clips from the original "Mickey Mouse Club", "Father Knows Best", "I Married Joan", "Make Room For Daddy", "The Dick Van Dyke Show", and "Car 54, Where Are You".

"Mickey Mouse Club" from the 50s.
These TVs were everywhere.
I chatted with Tiffany the Bartender about this and that (mostly about cooking at the Grand Floridian) while watching old TV for about half an hour before a loud voice called out, "Butler kids... dinner's ready!"  "Aunt" Harriet had showed up to escort me to my table.  You see, all the servers here are family, and you're the kids coming to eat a home cooked meal at mom's table.  All the servers are your uncles, aunts, and cousins.  At least, that's what they try for, and for the most part they carry it off.

Tiffany the Bartender asked Harriet who was taking care of me and it was at this point I found out that my server would be "Cousin Robb".  Tiffany assured me I was in good hands, telling me that Robb was not only a sweetheart, but a great server to boot.  I was escorted to my table, which interestingly was completely empty.  No condiments, no little bowl of sweeteners, no salt and pepper shakers.  Harriet  only brought those after I was seated.

One of the first things I noticed when I sat down was that the table was actually about two inches higher than I was used to in a restaurant.  I took a quick look around, only to confirm that all the tables were about two inches higher.  It took me a minute to realize that what I was seeing was a very cute and subtle way of continuing the theme that I was a kid coming in to eat dinner at Mom's table.

Me at my overly-high table.

So I was left at the table, with only a little bowl of sugar and the salt and pepper.  I mean literally left... Harriet didn't say "Someone will be with you shortly," or "Robb will be right here to take your drink order" or even "Your head looks like a billiard ball, what with it being all bald and everything."

She just sat me, placed the stuff on the table, and walked off.

Let me, at this point, make an observation.  The restaurant was pretty full.  It wasn't over-crowded, and it certainly wasn't as busy and overwhelming as T-Rex had been, but there was a lot of bustle here.  And a lot of background noise.  Between the omnipresent televisions, the conversations going on all around me (and this restaurant is another one of those which for some reason believes that using close-quarters to pack more people into a smaller space is a good thing), it was a surprise I could hear myself think.

And then Cousin Robb arrived, and the fun began.

Cousin Robb, my server.
He made the night more fun than it might have been.
The first thing Cousin Robb did was he sat down across the table from me and asked me how my day was.  You read that right... he actually sat down at the table like a member of the family.  Rather patiently, he explained the rules of the restaurant to me:
  1. No elbows on the table.
  2. Eat all your vegetables.
  3. Clean your plate or no dessert.
  4. No whining.
  5. No fighting, no complaining, and no arguing.
He also explained that there were consequences to breaking these rules, and did so convincingly enough that I believed him.

So he talked to me about the menu... actually reading off of it at one point because "You know how it is, you never know what Mom is cooking up until it hits the table", told a couple of jokes, took my drink order, and hurried off.  A minute later, he was back with my Coca-Cola, a plate (an honest to god diner-style blue plate) some silverware, and some napkins.  I made my dinner choice (Mom's Old Fashioned Pot Roast), and again he rushed off.

Maybe two minutes later he rushes past, taking time to swat me on the arm with a menu, yelling (yes, YELLING), "I thought I told you no elbows on the table, young man!  And what, are you too big for your britches to not set the table?"  I hastily removed my elbows from the table with a funny guilty feeling, but the rest of it puzzled me.  Then I realized that the plate and silverware he'd brought were still sitting in the middle of the table, with the silverware roll still on it, and the napkins next to it, and immediately corrected my error by unrolling my silver, setting my napkins to either side, and creating the setting (plate in the middle, forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right).

My place setting.  I didn't realize I had to set the table myself.
Just so you know, sitting at a table which it built two inches higher than you are used to makes sitting without putting your elbows on the table almost impossible.  A shorter time than I thought had passed later, and my pot roast arrived.

Mom's Old-Fashioned Pot Roast
This is a traditional pot roast served on a bed of mashed potatoes, with a spray of celery, carrot, and onion straws over the top of it.  This pot roast was fork tender (I didn't have to use a knife once), juicy, and delicious.  The vegetables were done to a turn (just a bit al dente without getting into mushy), and the potatoes has just enough cream in them to make them creamy and delicious.

While I was eating, something unusual happened:  the pot roast, the potatoes, and the vegetables simply disappeared.  What I mean by this was that it was a very quick feed; I was done with this dish in about ten minutes, and I was not rushing or bolting the food down.  And it wasn't just me... I noticed that in the family who was seated next to me there was a young woman who was sitting puzzled over an empty plate.  When I inquired, she confirmed that she had ordered the pot roast, found it tasty and delicious, and was wondering how it was she finished it so quickly when the rest of the family was barely halfway through their entrees.

Robb came back to check on me, and was a bit astonished by my being finished already.  He asked me about dessert, and when I said sure he handed me a menu.  (The viewmaster dessert menu isn't being used anymore... sorry about that, folks.)

So Robb asked about desserts, and I picked Dad's Brownie Sundae and handed back the menu.  Now, I was expecting a brownie with ice cream on it, but I really wasn't expecting what I ended up getting.

Take a look at this:

Dad's Brownie Sundae
That's a huge brownie cut in half, with a scoop of ice cream, so much whipped cream it hides the ice cream from view, a handful of M&M's, and last but not least caramel corn.  The thing is topped with both chocolate and caramel sauce.

Dad's Brownie Sundae from above.
This thing was a monster of confectionary and sweetness, and I got through about a third of it before giving it all up as a bad job.  I just couldn't finish it.  I don't mean to say that it was bad... I just mean it was overwhelmingly huge and rich and just too damn much for television, as my mother says.

But that really was the only problem of the night.  For a jack-and-coke, a coke, the potroast, the dessert, and the tip, I ended up paying $32 and change, which is not bad for a full-service restaurant inside a theme park.

And what's my opinion?

I think the 50s Prime Time Cafe is a pretty fun place.  The fact that the theme allows the cast members to get away with some pretty outrageous behavior is interesting.  The food is damn good (though not the best I've had in a Disney restaurant), and the people were friendly.

Three and a half stars out of five stars, I think.  I do wish the dessert was smaller, but that was really the only problem I had all night.  It was busy and loud and a bit off-putting, but I dealt with it pretty well.

Next stop:  Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Updated Schedule

There have been a couple of additions since I last posted an updated schedule for the Restaurant Tour.  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.

Specifically, what has been added is the stop at Raglan Road (an Irish Pub in the Downtown Disney shopping complex) and the brand new Disney restaurant in Fantasyland, Be Our Guest.
  • 30 August 2012:  Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant, at Downtown Disney
  • 9 September 2012:  Fulton's Crab House, at Downtown Disney.
  • 14 October 2012:  Bongo's Cuban Cafe, at Downtown Disney.
  • 11 November 2012:  The Liberty Tree Tavern, in Liberty Square at the Magic Kingdom.
  • 16 December 2012:  Olivia's Cafe, at the Old Key West Resort.
  • 13 January 2013:  Tony's Town Square Restaurant, in Main Street USA at the Magic Kingdom.
  • 17 February 2013:  Be Our Guest, in Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom.
The following dates are planned, but have yet to be set in stone and are absolutely not confirmed:
  • 17 March 2013:  Artist Point, at the Wilderness Lodge. 
  • 14 April 2013:  Captain Jack's, at Downtown Disney.
  • 12 May 2013:  Maya Grill, at the Coronado Springs Resort.
  • 9 June 2013:  The Crystal Palace, in Main Street USA, at the Magic Kingdom.
  • 13 July 2013:  Tusker House, at Animal Kingdom.
And that makes a year of planned restaurant stops.  More dates will be added as the opportunity arises.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Grand Floridian Cafe

I have to admit something to you.  This particular Restaurant stop had me a little nervous.  Here I was, taking my family to the place I work.  Potentially, if the meal didn't meet with their expectations, I could be looking at some egg on my face.

That's right, constant readers.  In this installment, we're going to the Grand Floridian Cafe, at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa.

The Grand Floridian Cafe
I know this is going to sound odd, but for all that I've been working at the Grand for a while, up until today I'd only actually eaten at two of the restaurants (1900 Park Fare, which will be the subject of two upcoming stops on the tour, and Gasperilla's Grill and Games, which (since Gasperilla's is basically a very upscale fast food joint) won't be).  Oh sure, I was familiar with the menu at the Cafe, and I'd had the opportunity to taste some of the food being produced, I'd never actually sat down for a meal there.  So I had no idea how the Cafe would actually stack up as a dining experience. Add to this the pressure, as I've already mentioned, of taking my family to my place of employ, and thus having them effectively sit in judgment over my work, was a little nerve-wracking.

Turns out, I shouldn't have worried.  At all.

As I've mentioned, my companions for this trip were my mother (Cheryl Butler) and father (Jack Butler, Sr.) and my younger brother Aaron (who accompanied me on my last trip, to Chef Mickey's.  The day started out bright and shiny, but by the time we'd reached the hotel, it had begun to cloud up.  While we ate lunch it started to rain lightly, but to tell you the truth, the rain just added to the view we had from our window-side table.

The Grand Floridian Cafe is, as I've already said, located at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa.  The Grand Floridian is one of the "Magic Kingdom Resorts", located on the shores of the Seven Seas Lagoon.  To get there, pass through the Magic Kingdom gate, sticking to the right-hand traffic lane (as close as you can get to the lane the busses use), as if you're heading for the Contemporary Resort.  Make a left at the first stoplight onto Seven Seas Drive.  You'll pass by the park's central Lost and Found center, and passenger drop-off for the Magic Kingdom, and finally you'll pass the Polynesian Resort before turning right onto Grand Floridian Way.  The resort is only a few blocks past the turn on your right.

Alternately, you can park in the Magic Kingdom parking lot, take a tram to the Ticket and Information Center, and then take a monorail to the Grand.  That's a bit more complicated than just going to the hotel, though.

The Grand Floridian Resort and Spa.
The Contemporary Resort in the distance to the right, and the Magic Kingdom center

The Grand Floridian is the crown jewel of the Disney resort system, and as such is the classiest of all Disney hotels.  Naturally enough, its also the most expensive.  I can say from past experience that this is the place the celebrities stay when they visit Disney.

The gardens on the right side of the hotel's entrance.

And on the left side.

A guest's initial view of the hotel's lobby.

The lobby proper.  The far end...

... and right above the entrance.

The Grand Floridian Cafe is located in the hotel's main building, just off the lobby to the left in the rear of the building.  You can find it easily by keeping to the left as you walk.  When you reach the back of the lobby, take the short hallway to the left past the Sandy Cove Gift and Sundry Shop.  This hallway will take you to the exit you'd use if you wanted to go to the hotel's marina, or out to the pool, but it also takes you to the Cafe.

And we're here!

We got to the restaurant about fifteen minutes ahead of our reservation time, but as there was only one other party in the restaurant at the time, the only delay in getting us a table was a short, pleasant conversation with a couple of my colleges (you know, the usual "Hey, this is my Mom and Dad.  Mom and Dad, these are some of the people I work with" sort of conversation you have when such circumstances arrive).

Our table was situated next to one of the windows that allowed an excellent view of the resort's central courtyard.  These windows let a lot of light into the restaurant, and were, in fact, the source of most of the lighting.  I found the use of natural lighting to be quite refreshing and a quiet contrast to our normally flourescently-lit world.

Mom at our table, with my good friend (and our greeter) Karen.

The Cafe is decorated in pleasant, light pastels, and really seems to harken back to the turn of the 20th Century more than any other location at the Grand in my opinion.  This is a quiet, pleasant place to eat; there are no Disney characters coming by every five minutes here, no loud intrusive background music (indeed, I didn't hear any background music at all), no crowds of guests all trying to talk over each other.  No, at the Cafe, the aim seems to be to provide a decent meal in a pleasant setting without anything distracting you from your food.  I heartily approve.

Our waiter, Guillermo, showed up at our table for drinks and appetizer orders very quickly, maybe five minutes (if that) after we'd sat down.  Guillermo was pleasant and friendly, and he was very, very attentive.  For the entire meal there was only one time he let us down... and the truth is he didn't let us down at all, the error was my fault entirely.

We ordered drinks and, after a quick read of the menu, some appetizers.  Mom and I both ordered the french onion soup.  Aaron ordered the salad of seasonal greens (mixed greens pears, candied walnuts, Maytag blue cheese, and a champagne pear vinaigrette), while Dad ordered the soup of the day (corn crab chowder).

The French Onion Soup

The Seasonal Green Salad

Corn Crab Chowder
The French onion soup was simply superb.  In the past I've had what was called French onion soup but that was actually just beef broth with some thin-sliced onions tossed in.  This was an onion broth that had been made carefully and fully, and the onions in the broth were so tender that the barest touch caused them to come apart.  The cheese was just this side of molten, and the crouton, which covered the entire top of the bowl just like it's supposed to, was sodden with the broth.

Dad's opinion of the corn crab chowder was a bit subdued.  He said that it tasted okay, and that he enjoyed it for all that it was, but that it wasn't spectacular (this in contrast to my mother, who is likely going to be singing praises of the French onion soup for days).  He also said that the pieces of potato in the soup were too large, and could have been removed or cut smaller to make the soup more palatable in his opinion.  So while the corn crab chowder was not a disappointment, neither was it all that exciting.

Aaron's salad, on the other hand, was devoured with a ferocity I rarely see in my younger brother.  The combination of the garden flavor of the dandelion greens, the blue cheese, and the sweet/salty taste of the candied walnuts appealed to him (and having tried a bite of his salad, I concurred), but the crowning touch was the champagne pear vinaigrette.  Honestly, after the salad was gone, Aaron started sopping up excess salad dressing with the tip of his finger.

I wasn't kidding about that, by the way.

We each selected something different when it came to our entrees.  Mom chose the Grand Floridian Burger (an angus chuck burger topped with butter-poached lobster, prosciutto, red onion marmalade, and arugula on a brioche bun) and pickled cucumber salad.  Dad went with the Orange-Glazed Salmon salad (salmon on arugula, tossed with bacon and an herb vinaigrette).  Aaron ordered the Roast Beef Sandwich (roast beef, arugula and tomato served on ciabatta bread) with the house-made potato chips.  I had the Grand Sandwich (an open faced hot sandwich with turkey, ham, bacon, and tomato with a boursin cream sauce, topped with fried onion straws).

The Grand Sandwich
The Grand Sandwich was, naturally enough, not ever intended to be eaten by the hands.  The combination of the turkey and ham with the boursin sauce was delicious, but I found that as I continued eating the sandwich, I wanted the boursin sauce to have been a little more lightly applied.  That said, the whole thing was very tasty, and my quibble with the boursin is minor at best.

The Grand Burger
When it came to Mom's burger, she said it was, and I quote, "The best burger I've ever had."  She ordered it done medium, and it was medium to a turn.   She also thought highly of the onion marmalade.  Her only complaint was one of excess:  in her opinion, the lobster was superfluous and didn't really add anything to the burger.  It tasted okay, but it could easily have been left off the burger entirely and it still would have been a fantastic meal.

Orange-Glazed Salmon Salad
"Cooked perfectly" was Dad's verdict on his salmon.  The fish had been broiled, and the glaze on top had crystallized into a tasty, crunchy shell that he thought added a new dimension to the fish.  My father is a big fan of salmon (which he persistently mispronounces "sal-man" instead of "sa-mon"), and this salmon was, for him, incredible.  He was, at first, a bit disappointed with the argula, though, because of a misperception of the menu's description.  He thought it said "mixed greens", and thus expected many different kinds of lettuce, when what it said was "seasonal greens", and that means arugula right now.

Roast Beef Sandwich

 Aaron was, at first, a little disappointed by his roast beef sandwich.  It was, in his words "too dry", especially when combined with the potato chips.  That said, the moment he mentioned it to Guillermo, our trusty waiter was off to the kitchen.  Within minutes, Guillermo had brought Aaron a dish of a tomato-pesto mayonnaise, a dish of the same boursin sauce that came on my sandwich, and a dish of the same onion marmalade that Mom had on her burger, thus allowing Aaron his choice of some very special condiments.

Aaron hates onions.  Hates them.  To the point that he often tells people at restaurants that he's allergic to them just so he won't have to put up with them.  To his credit, Aaron tried the onion marmalade, and found it delicious.  (He shrugged when I commented on it and said that all rules have exceptions, and this was an exception... he also liked the French onion soup, for that matter.)

The additions of the condiments turned a dry, bland sandwich into an appetizing, filling meal for him.

And then came the dessert...

But before I get to that, let me tell you about Sarah and Brad.  Sarah is one of the front-of-the-house managers at the Cafe.  She is, using a phrase from the internal slang common among Disney cast members, a "sparkly".  "Sparklies" are those people who are so upbeat and cheerful and happy to help and friendly that sometimes they go so far into sweetness that they taste like diabetes.  Don't get me wrong, Sarah is a sweetheart to work with and a wonderful person.  She's bubbly, in other words.

Brad, on the other hand, is a chef in the Future Leaders program, an internship which trains new chefs and prepares themselves for future leadership jobs in Disney kitchens.  Working at the Grand is actually one of Brad's first jobs in the culinary industry, and he is eager to make a go of it.  In my opinion, as a veteran chef who has, in the past, run my own kitchen, I have to say that Brad is going to do well.  He's knowledgeable, capable, and knows that you can learn from anyone you work with.  I like him a lot.  He's a nice guy.

So... back to the dessert.  Yesterday (4 August 2012), while I was working, I had mentioned that I was coming in with my folks for lunch.  Word got to Sarah and Brad, and they both decided to do something special for my Mom and Dad.

Anyway, this is the Dessert Sampler for Two:

The Dessert Sampler for Two
From the left, clockwise:  lemon cheesecake, key lime tart, Boston cream tart, and berry tart.
In the center, Chocolate Mickey Mouse.
Looking at it, I bet you can tell how great it is.

The desserts in this sampler are the perfect size, giving a couple of bites of sweet to each person without being heavy or over-filling or cloying.  They have great flavor, and everything tasted so very fresh.  My favorite was the lemon cheesecake, mainly because I am a huge fan of lemon flavor, and a huge fan of cheesecake, so naturally the combination of the two was great for me.  My family agreed with me.  The dessert offerings were swiftly devoured and all was right with the world.

But what made it even better was the presentation.  Knowing that I wanted to impress my parents and my brother, and wanting to give my family an extra-special memorable dining experience, Sarah and Chef Brad conspired to make our dessert sampler something special.

The special, personalized Dessert Sampler.

That's very carefully applied chocolate syrup, done in beautiful style by the people on the Pantry line (the part of the kitchen that creates salads and desserts).  And I love the hidden mickey they placed on the plate.

The chocolate Mickey is now in the refrigerator at home, awaiting some time in the future when someone wants a piece of chocolate.

Everyone was happy with lunch, and even the minor problems were forgotten by the end of the meal.  I have to give the Grand Floridian Cafe five out of five stars.  It is a hidden gem that is overshadowed by the more popular 1900 Park Fare, the flashier Citricos, and the much more resplendent Victoria and Alberts, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a quiet meal featuring skillfully prepared food.

With four individual appetizers, drinks, entrees, and a dessert plate, the bill came to $119.  That's $29.75 apiece for four adults, which is not bad at all for a Disney restaurant.  The Grand Floridian Cafe just pushed Teppan Edo out of the #1 spot on my personal list of the Best Dining Experiences at Disney World.

Next up:  Fulton's Crab House, at Downtown Disney.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Schedule Update

Here's the updated schedule for the Restaurant Tour.  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.
  • 5 August 2012:  The Grand Floridian Cafe, at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa.
  • 9 September 2012:  Fulton's Crab House, at Downtown Disney.
  • 14 October 2012:  Bongo's Cuban Cafe, at Downtown Disney.
  • 11 November 2012:  The Liberty Tree Tavern, in Liberty Square at the Magic Kingdom.
  • 16 December 2012:  Olivia's Cafe, at the Old Key West Resort.
  • 13 January 2013:  Tony's Town Square Restaurant, in Main Street USA at the Magic Kingdom.
The following dates are planned, but have yet to be set in stone and are absolutely not confirmed:
  • 10 February 2013:  The Biergarten, at the Germany Pavillion, in Epcot.
  • 17 March 2013:  Artist Point, at the Wilderness Lodge. 
  • 14 April 2013:  Captain Jack's, at Downtown Disney.
  • 12 May 2013:  Maya Grill, at the Coronado Springs Resort.
  • 9 June 2013:  The Crystal Palace, in Main Street USA, at the Magic Kingdom.
  • 13 July 2013:  Tusker House, at Animal Kingdom.
And that makes a year of planned restaurant stops.  More dates will be added as the opportunity arises.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The 2012 Epcot Food and Wine Festival

For those of you who don't know, every year, from 18th September through 12th November, the Epcot theme park becomes a foodie's wet dream.

Dozens of booths featuring cuisine from countries around the world open up for business, allowing both professional and amateur gourmets the chance to sample food they otherwise would never be able to experience.

This festival is a place where you can find spicy African flavors shoulder-to-shoulder with classic French haute cuisine, which is itself side-by-side with spicy Argentinian fare, which is sitting next to the lamb-and-mint tidbits from the Middle East.  And its all just steps from each other. This is one of the few food-and-wine festivals that is kid friendly, while simultaneously meeting the expectations of the well-educated food-enthusiast.

The format for this festival are individual country-themed booths, which each booth presenting the best of that nation's cuisine through authentic menus and beverage pairings.  And it is authentic.  Very much so in fact.  The food items are presented as they would be presented in their home nation.  Be prepared for dishes that are not Americanized or diluted or toned down for the sake of the mostly American audience.  With this festival, you're getting the same food that someone living in Holland or Jamaica or France or Portugal would be getting.

This is the real deal, folks.

Epcot Food and Wine Festival Marketplace Booths

At the Festival, there are over twenty-five individual booths set up around the World Showcase, and each offers its regional or national delicacy to sample.  The items offered cost between $4.00 and $7.00 (that's an average... there are a couple of items to be had for as low as $1.50, while other items will cost you upward of $10).

These are the booths that will be selling food items around the World Showcase.  I'm listing them in  the order in which you'll find them, beginning in Showcase Plaza and going clockwise around the World Showcase Lagoon.  That is, as if you were walking to the left once you hit the Plaza.
  • Terra:  This is vegetarian cuisine, featuring pseudo-meat dishes.  "Trick'n chick'n" curry with basmati rice; gardein chick'n breast chili Colorado with house-made chips and cashew cheese;  gardein beefless tips; chocolate cake with passion fruit sorbet, and coconut foam.
  • Caribbean Islands:  Ropa vieja with cilantro rice; jerk spiced chicken drumstick with mango chutney.
  • Australia:  Shrimp on the barbie with pepper berry citrus glaze; grilled lamb chop with mint pesto and potato crunchies; larmington.
  • Argentina:  Beef empanada; grilled beef skewer with chimichurri sauce and boniato puree.
  • Mexico:  Crispy shrimp taco with chipotle lime mayonnaise and cabbage, served on a flour tortilla; taco de filete with cascabel pepper sauce and scallions, served on a flour tortilla; natilla de cajeta (caramel custard served with sauce).
  • Scandinavia:  The "Taste of Scandinavia" sampler, including cured salmon, herring, and shrimp salad; swedish meatballs with longonberries; rice pudding with berries.
  • China:  Mongolian beef with Chiense steamed bun; pork pot stickers; chicken satay with spicy peanut sauce and pickled vegetables; mango tapioca pudding.
  • South Korea:  Lettuce wrap with roast pork and kimchi slaw; mung bean pancake with shrimp and kimchi sauce.
  • South Africa:  Seared fillet of beef with smashed sweet potato and Braai sauce; spinach and paneer cheese pocket.
  • Brewer's Collection:  Affectionately nicknamed the "Beer Tent".  Radeberger pilsner; Altenmunster Oktoberfest; Altenmunster Dunkel; Hovels; Schofferhofer weizen; Shocfferhofer grapefruit; Berliner Kindl Dark; Sion Kolsch.
  • Germany:  Schinken nudel (pasta gratin with ham and cheese); roast bratwurst in a pretzel roll; apple strudel with caramel-vanilla sauce.
  • Cheese:  Exactly what it says on the label.  Cheese fondue with sourdough bread; the "Trio of Cheeses Sampler", featuring Beecher's Flagship Reserve cheddar, La Bonne Vie goat brie, and Rogue River Creamery's Echo Mountain blue cheese.
  • Poland:  Kielbasa and potato pierogie with caramelized onions and sour cream; zapiekanki (toasted mushroom, caramelized onion, and cheese bread with house-made ketchup).
  • Italy:  Ravioli di Formaggio all'emiliana (baked cheese ravioli, creamy beef bolognese, parmesan, and mozzarella); Salsiccia e "Papacelli" Napoletani (sweet sausage and red pepper on Ciaibatta bread); cannoli al cioccolato (chocolate covered cannoli filled with ricotta, chocolate, and candied fruit).
  • Fife and Drum:  The whiskey tent.  Red stag lemonade and Red Stag honey tea lemonade, both made with Jim Beam.
  • Hops and Barley:  Which, despite the name, is not the beer tent.  Lobster claw cuddler chilled with herb mayonnaise; lobster roll; New England-style clam chowder; pumpkin mousse with dried cranberries and orange sauce.  By the by, the Samuel Adams Brewing Company always debuts a new beer they specifically created for the Food and Wine Festival at this booth.  The beer they create is not available anywhere else, and once the festival is over, it's gone because they never repeat a recipe.
  • Florida:  Local cuisine from my home state.  White corn arepa with mangalitsa pork rilette and Zellwood sweet corn salad; shrimp ceviche with fire-roasted vegetables, fried plantains, and cilantro.
  • Japan:  Spicy hand roll (tuna and salmon with chili pepper, soy sauce, and sesame oil topped with Kazan volcano sauce); Karaage hand roll (crispy chicken breast with sushi rice and spicy mayonnaise); California roll (avocado, cucumber, crab, mayonnaise, smelt roe rolled in sushi rice, and seaweed); Sukiyaki beef pan (thinly sliced rib eye with sauteed onions and teriyaki sauce, served on a bun).
  • Singapore:  Beef rendang with jasmine rice; seared mahi-mahi with jasmine rice and "singa" sauce.
  • Morocco:  Kefta pocket (ground seasoned beef in a pita pocket); Merguez sausage (beef and lamb sausage with grilled peppers and onions; baklava.
  • New Zealand:  Seared sea scallop with Kumara red curry puree and apple radish salad; lamb meatball with spicy tomato chutney.
  • Belgium:  Steamed mussels in Hoegaarden beer broth and baguette; Belgian waffle with berry compote and whipped cream; Guylian Belgian chocolate seashell truffles.
  • France:  Escargots Persillade en brioche; Coq au vin sur gratin de macaroni; creme brulee au chocolat au lait.
  • Ireland:  Lobster and seafood fisherman's pie; The Kerrygold Cheese Selection (featuring aged Irish cheddar, Dubliner, and Cashel blue, served with apple chutney and brown bread); warm chocolate lava cake with Bailey's ganache.
  • Canada:  Canadian cheddar cheese soup; chicken chipotle sausage with sweet corn polenta and "Minus 8" onion jam;  Le Cellier restaurant's wild mushroom beef filet mignon with truffle butter sauce (as featured in my review of Le Cellier back in February of 2012).
  • Greece:  Greek salad with pita bread; griddled Greek cheese with pistachios and honey; chicken souvlaki with tzatziki sauce; spanakopita; Greek yogurt cups.
  • Desserts and Champagne:  The champagne is mostly Moet & Chandon.  Yogurt panna cotta with orange cake, raspberries, and pomegranate; lemon custard verrine with blueberry compote; dark chocolate mousse with chili and salted caramel.
  • Hawaii:  Kaulua pork sliders with sweet and sour pineapple chutney and spicy mayonnaise; tuna poke with seaweed salad and lotus root chips.
  • Craft Beers:  Known as "the other beer tent".  Widmer Rotator IPA; Red Hook pilsner; Blue Moon Seasonal; Leinenkugel Berry Weiss; Florida Beer Company's Devil's Triangle; Abita Purple Haze; Full Sail IPA; Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Some Tips and Tricks to Make Your Food and Wine Festival Easier

The one thing you can say about Disney is that they are, as a corporation, masters of organizing large numbers of people and getting them to move together as one friendly (if sometimes tired and overheated) whole.  That said, if you follow the following advise, your Food and Wine experience will be that much better.

The Food and Wine Festival Welcome Center
  • While entrance into the festival is free with admission into the Epcot park itself, the food booths, the merchandise, the classes, and the seminars all cost extra.  The good news is the free concerts are just that:  free.  You're going to want to bring a minimum of $100 per person attending the festival, because you'll be tempted to spend money at every corner.  Might as well have the money there to spend than have to make painful choices regarding which food to sample and which food to skip.
  • Make sure you grab a festival map and a regular park map once you get into Epcot.  Once you have a map, the first place you need to go is the Festival Welcome Center.  This is located in the gold-domed building next to Mission:  Space.  Most of the demonstrations, classes, and seminars (including most of the wine events) are held in the Festival Welcome Center.  While at the Welcome Center, do the following:
    • Make sure you grab a festival passport.  That way, you can plan, track, and stamp your journey through culinary heaven.
    • If you're unfamiliar with wine, you might want to consider  look around a bit.  Check out the festival's list of over 300 wine, beer, and spirits.  Ask some questions.  Watch a continuously playing movie called Seasons of the Vine, which is all about the vino.  Spend some time at the Epcot Wine School, or a gourmet food demonstration, or a book signing.  Some of these activities require reservations, so consider signing up for them before you leave home.
    • Check last-minute availability of the day's demonstrations.  These are all led by celebrity chefs, big name vintners, and industry experts.
    • The Festival is, of course, set up to accept cash, credit card, Disney Dining Plan cards, Keys to the Kingdom room cards with room service privileges, and so on.  That said, most of the gift shops set up in the Festival Welcome Center offer these miniature Disney gift cards that you can purchase and then preload with however high an amount of money you want to have available to you.  Wear the card on a lanyard around your wrist for quick and easy access to money without having to whip our your wallet or your purse while you're simultaneously trying to balance a plate full of food and a glass of wine.
  • Remember to pace yourself.  There is a lot of food and drink to be had, and to be brutally honest, you are going to have a hard time getting to it all.  That might seem to be a stupid thing for me to say, given that the Food and Wine Festival is open from 9 am to 9 pm, but here it is in a nutshell:  there is a lot of territory to cover, and while you are busily trying to cover it, so are tens of thousands of other people.  Though the lines at the international booths move at a pretty good clip, if you're there with anyone else (especially if you're there with a large group), it might be better for you to decide ahead of time which booths you're going to hit, and which you're going to pass on.
    • The truth is, while it is possible to attend all of the international booths, plus the four or five specialty marketplace (which showcase desserts, champagne, specialty beers, and so on) in a single day, doing so with a group is all but impossible.  If you really don't want to miss something, then what you want to do is take a divide and conquer approach.  If there are four booths spaced close together, and you want to try all of them, send one person to each of the booths simultaneously for a sample of that nation's food and beverages, then meet somewhere central to share the spoils.
  • Keep in mind that most of the international booths charge between $4.00 and $6.00 per serving, and what you end up with would make a good tapas order.  Wine and beer selections can run as much, and sometimes much more.
  • While you're on your quest to try the food at every booth and drink every type of wine and beer, do yourself the favor of actually enjoying your trip to Epcot.  Take a deep breath and relax.  Stop every once in a while and see the sights.  Go to the occasional Epcot attraction.  Get yourself a reservation for dinner at one of Epcot's many fine eating establishments (especially the ones you've seen me positively review here in the blog) and have an actual meal instead of the couple-of-bites-apiece you've been getting all day.  In short, have fun.
Once again, the Epcot Food and Wine Festival is taking place 28 September 2012 to 12 November 2012.  If you're an annual passholder, a member of Tables in Wonderland, or a Disney Vacation Club member, you can book seminars, demonstrations, and mixology beginning on 10th August 2012.  Booking for these events goes open to the general public on 14th August 2012 at 7am.  If you're interested in booking an event, call 407-WDW-FEST (407-939-3378).

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Chef Mickey's (Breakfast Buffet)

Note:  This restaurant was visited on 29 July 2012.  The review was originally written later that afternoon.


Time once again for a Disney restaurant expedition.  This time, our quest takes us to Chef Mickey's for the breakfast buffet.

Chef Mickey's
My company for today's trip was my mother, Cheryl Butler, my other younger brother, Aaron Butler, and Jared.  This trip had a secondary purpose, specifically it was a bit of a birthday celebration for Aaron (who turned 42) and Jared (who turned 11).

Chef Mickey's is located in the Grand Canyon Concourse in the Contemporary Hotel.  If you've ever ridden on the monorail from the Transport and Ticket Information Center towards the Magic Kingdom, and passed through the Contemporary Hotel, you've seen the Grand Canyon Concourse.  Its the huge, central open area that takes up most of the fourth through eleventh floors of the hotel.  You could easily park the space shuttle inside this space. 
The restaurant itself is on one end, tucked in beneath the monorail track that runs through the hotel.

The Grand Canyon Concourse, from the loading area of the monorail.
Unfortunately, you can't see Chef Mickey's from here.  Its on the other side of the wall with the big mural on it.

A closer view of the big mural.  This piece of artwork is almost seven stories tall.

A view of the little mural.
When we arrived to check in, there was a short line, but within five minutes we were checked in.  There was no waiting to get a table at all.  However, we were told that this immediate access is highly unusual, as Chef Mickey's is the second most popular restaurant on Disney property (after Cinderella's Royal Table, which sits at #1, and just ahead of Le Cellier at #3), and as such is usually packed to the gills.  Make sure you have a reservation when you go.

This is a busy restaurant, and by busy I don't necessarily mean crowded.  There were a lot of people dining there when we went, sure, but it wasn't crowded, despite the numbers.  Or at least it didn't feel crowded.  No, I mean its busy in that there are always people moving around, and Disney
characters showing up all the time, and the background music is a bit loud and intrusive, and there's a lot of noise.  Unlike T-Rex, though, which was similarly noisy and busy, the sound in Chef Mickey's wasn't overwhelming.  I'm guessing its just better acoustics.

The restaurant itself is wide open and brightly lit, with cheerful decorations.  There is no part of this restaurant that doesn't have easy access to the buffet line, and there's no congestion points where people might have a hard time navigating past his fellow diners.
The dining room.  Wide open, doesn't feel crowded, and is tastefully decorated.
Our table was surprisingly small for a party of four, and it was dominated by the napkin dispenser, salt, pepper, sugar/sweeterer cup, and condiment bin.  But it wasn't unworkable.  Our server, a really nice, personable guy named Nabil, was on the ball.  Before we even had sat down he had everyone's orange juice glasses filled and was offering coffee (despite my general dislike for the swill-disguised-as-coffee Disney serves at their restaurant, I had a cup) to those who wanted it.  Aaron specifically had to ask for a soda, as it didn't seem to occur to Nabil that anyone would want anything else to drink, but given the orange juice and the coffee, he barely touched the thing.
The four of us, at our table.  It was small.
That's the buffet line behind us.
The amazing Nabil, waiter supreme.
So far, Nabil has been the most skilled, efficient, and friendly server in the entire tour.
Seriously, when you go, ask if this man is working, and if he is, demand to be seated at one of his tables.

The buffet had a wide variety of breakfast foods to offer.   An impressive variety of foods, if I were to be honest.  There were four or five different kinds of fruit, including bananas, apples, oranges, grapefruit, little tangerine slices, grapes, pineapple, and two different kinds of melon), as well as several in mixed fruit salads.  There was yogurt (blueberry).  Bacon.  Sausage in both link and crumble form.  Scrambled eggs.  Croissants.  Hash with turkey, hash with sausage, and hash with corned beef.  Dilled salmon with capers.  A breakfast pizza.  Biscuits and sausage gravy.  French toast.  Cottage cheese.  Raisin bread.  Sticky buns.  Grits.  Freshly-made waffles (shaped like Mickey Mouse, no less).  Ham.  Freshly-made pancakes.  Hash browns in patty form.  English muffins.  Two different types of quiche.  Hash browns in a creamy cheese sauce.  Blintzes.  Rice crispy treats.  Donut holes.  Cinammon buns.  Oatmeal.  And four different types of cold cereal.

Fruit, fruit, and more fruit.  Plus yogurt, cottage cheese, and salmon.

The rest of the fruit/salad line.

A breakfast pizza, hash brown patties, and french toast.

Croissants and english muffins.

Quiche, more quiche, sausage, more sausage, ham, and bacon.

Yet another quiche, plus sausage and gravy.  Sticky buns to the right.

Blintzes with either blueberry or cherry sauce.

Rice crispy treats, cinammon buns, and raisin bread.

Fresh fruit, rice crispy treats, and donut holes.
I kept looking for an omelette station that wasn't there.  They just didn't have one!  Sure, there was a nice, smiling young woman pumping out fresh pancakes all morning long in the place where an omelette station would be logically located, but no actual omelette station.  This was disappointing.  I mean over at 1900 Park Fare, where I work occasionally, we have an omelette station and its the belle of the ball.  These folks didn't have that, choosing rather to supply an endless supply of fresh pancakes and waffles.  (Mickey waffles!)

See!  Told you!
I've got to be honest and tell you that for all the variety, the quality of the food was pretty basic.  I'm not saying it was bad (at least not overall).  But what I am saying is that there wasn't anything special about it.  If you've been to any Shoney's or Golden Corral for their breakfast buffet, all you have to do is imagine yourself surrounded by Disney decor and characters while you're eating there and you've pretty much arrived at the heart of Chef Mickey's.

There were some high spots, of course.   The Mickey waffles were fresh made right in front of you, as were the pancakes.  Those creamy hash browns with the cheese sauce were just fantastic.  The Italian sausage hash (substituting the sausage for corned beef, and including red pepper, diced potatoes, mushrooms, and sauteed onions) was sublime.  And the blintzes were to die for, I'm telling you.

But overall, it was the same food you'd get at Golden Corral.  The sausage was sausage; tasty, but a bit greasy and overall just sausave.  The eggs were typical buffet scrambled eggs; edible, and somewhat tasty, but not worth writing home about.  And so on.
Both Jared and Aaron received birthday cupcakes, along with candles, as I had notified the restaurant ahead of time that we were having a special occasion.  Luckily, there was no horde of happy-birthday singing servers, which was a good thing.
Aaron's birthday cupcake.
Jared sucked his up like a vacuum cleaner sucks up dust and I had no chance to take a picture of it.
Of course, this is a Disney restaurant, and Disney offers things you just can't get at a Golden Corral.  Specifically, we were visited by the Disney characters.
Jared with Donald Duck.

Aaron and Jared with Goofy.

Aaron and Jared with Mickey Mouse.

Aaron, Jared, and myself with Pluto.
Mom, Aaron, and Jared with Minnie Mouse.
Now for the bad news.

Other than the lack of omelette station, there were two things that really, really disappointed me.  The first was the biscuits and sausage gravy.  The biscuits were a bit mealy, and the gravy was a steadily hardening lump that I couldn't eat more than one bite of.  The other disappointment was the coffee, since it was the usual Disney World swill.  But then, I am a self-admitted coffee snob, and if the coffee isn't Sumatran, Kona, or Jamaican Blue Mountain, then to me its just going to be undrinkable.  This stuff was no different.

Perhaps my standards are a bit high, but I stand by my judgment about the coffee.  Your mileage may vary.

Jared wants me to make sure to mention that they keep the air conditioning way, way up, making the entire restaurant chilly.  I didn't notice, but I did promise I'd mention it.

Anyway, in general we all had fun with our meal.  Despite the fact that the background music was loud and intrusive, it was fun watching the kids dancing around and having fun with the characters.

The bill for me and Jared (Mom and Aaron were paying their own way) was $52 and change.  I'll give Chef Mickey's breakfast buffet three stars.  If you've got kids and are looking for a fun experience with the characters, go for it.  If you don't have kids?  There are probably better (or at least less expensive) places to go for the same food.  Like Golden Corral.

The tour will be coming back to Chef Mickey's at a later date, for the dinner buffet.

Next up:  The Grand Floridian Cafe, at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa.