We’ve developed a mini-tradition of heading over to Disney World for our anniversary, staying at one of the resorts, and eating at one of the signature restaurants. This year was no different. We booked a room at the Contemporary (the one that the monorail goes through), and finagled one of the tougher reservations to get on the property—California Grill.
This year’s adventure included a new tour called Wild Africa Trek, a special new tour at Animal Kingdom. They took us hiking out into the wilderness, across rope bridges, talking to the animal handlers, and on a different version of the safari ride, complete with a stopover at a “boma,” a little wooden oasis on the savannah, where they fed us a nice African-inspired lunch.
The tour is limited to 12 people. The other 10 were the Taerk family of Toronto and their Disney tour guide, Les. The oldest son, Josh, is a Springsteen/Counting Crows-inspired musician, with a new album out. You can already download it from Amazon and iTunes.
The family was having a good time together, and we didn’t want to intrude too much. I’ll confess that I’m often disappointed with how folks in Josh’s age group carry themselves—but this kid was amazing. It was obvious the entire time that his primary goal was looking after his family and making sure they were enjoying themselves—from his grandparents to his younger siblings. Count me impressed, and count on me to check out his music.
The three-hour tour was all that we did in parks, it being Spring Break and all, and not wanting to battle both the college kids and the heat, we headed back to the resort to enjoy the quiet of our garden-view room.
We suspected that California Grill might be a little bit of a zoo, so we went up a little earlier than our 9pm reservation to sit at the bar and have a pre-dinner cocktail. It was indeed crowded, and as we stood at the bar trying to flag down a server, some nice folks offered to buy us a drink. They had grabbed six seats at the bar and were hoping to score a table, but since they didn’t have a reservation, they would probably be waiting a while. We chatted with them briefly, but our table opened up early, so we said thanks for their hospitality and went along our way.
As we were headed into the dining room, I spotted the best table in the house—in front of one of the big windows, with a perfect view of Magic Kingdom and Cinderella’s Castle, with the added benefit of not having to move to watch the evening’s fireworks—unoccupied. I asked the hostess if we could have that table instead, and she made it happen.
We constantly debate as to which of California Grill or Jiko (at Animal Kingdom) is our favorite of Disney’s signature restaurants. In our previous trips, California Grill has outdone itself. This trip was little more hit-and-miss than I would have liked.
We started by splitting a plate of Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli with Sun-dried Tomatoes, Pesto, Shiitake Mushrooms and Basil. We’ve had the dish before and loved it, a beautiful combination of flavors and textures. This time, it was mostly the same, save for the fact that it was slightly too salty. They had shaved parmigiano reggiano across the top of it, and had simply added too much. The normally-delicious saltiness of too much parm was too much for the delicacy of the dish, slightly detracting from the experience. It was still good, just not great, as it had previously been.
Gretchyn’s next course was the best of the evening: Creamy Spring Onion Soup with Hearts of Palm, Blue Lump Crab, Piquillo Peppers, and Toasted Sourdough. The balance of the flavors was perfect, the texture perfectly creamy. It led us to the realization that every time we’ve had soup there, it’s been remarkable. Kudos to both the folks that create and cook the soups.
My next course was Crispy Pork Belly with Pomegranate and Maple Puree, Spiced Lacquer, and Caramelized Salsify. The pork itself was great. It was a thicker slab of pork belly than I’ve normally seen, but that thickness gave it the chance to be wonderfully crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, a nice marriage of both taste and texture. I wasn’t a fan of the pomegranate and maple puree, but I think that was more preference than anything. It seemed well-made and made a good contrast to the meat.
For her main course, Gretchyn went with the vegetarian option, Artichoke and Pleasant Ridge Reserve Cheese filled Ravioli with Spinach, Black Garlic, and Parmesan foam. The ravioli itself didn’t seem to be as well-made as the appetizer, and she mentioned thinking they were a little thin on the filling. The sauce was, however, amazing. The foam was decidedly different, but leant an ethereal air to the dish. All in all, it was another example of ‘almost,’ the dish flirting with excellence, but just not quite getting there.
I waffled over three main courses: Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Goat Cheese Polenta, Seared Atlantic Flounder over Pancetta, and the one I finally decided on, Cast Iron-seared Veal Tenderloin with Sweet Potato and Applewood Bacon Hash, Yellowfoots, and Port Syrup. I’ll confess to having to ask to find out that a yellowfoot is a mushroom. The veal was done perfectly, and despite not being a fan of sweet potato, I liked the hash a great deal. The crusting on the veal was very expressive, very tasty, but again just a tad too salty. It turned a dish that I might have otherwise raved about to another ‘good, not great.’ Still, it was definitely worth eating.
The wine for the evening was a suggestion from the restaurant’s expert, Billy. I wouldn’t mind talking wine with Billy a little because I know he knows wine, but he seems like he’s often in Send mode. On a busy Saturday night, I didn’t want to try to take up too much of his time. We’ve blown the budget on previous trips, but since Gretchyn was battling a bit of a sore throat, we didn’t want to spend a pile of cash on something she wasn’t going to fully enjoy. We finally went with 2004 Schweiger Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, an expressively fruity example of California Cab from the Spring Mountain District, nicely priced on the list at $66.
We shared a Valrhona chocolate cake with macerated strawberries, which was rich enough to go well with the last of the wine. I’m rarely disappointed with the pairing of Cab or Zin with rich chocolate.
All in all, the meal was enjoyable enough and price-appropriate, although there were those dishes that left us with a feeling of ‘what might have been.’ It was one of the few times that it felt to us like our Disney hosts had kind of just mailed it in. We’ve come to expect a level of excellence from them, and even when they don’t meet it, Disney’s mediocrity would be admirable elsewhere, making ‘slightly less than we had hoped for’ still more than worthwhile.