Epcot Food & Wine 2014 – a few thoughts and reviews

foodandwine2014We hit Food & Wine the night it opened.  We made a few fastpasses and went primarily to ride the now closed Maelstrom (Norway) ‘one last time.’  I think I got Z to do that about 4 times.  I’m going to miss that ride when the recasting to Frozen is completed.  I can see why they would want to update and add interest to the World Showcase but to me, Maelstrom at Norway wasn’t as broken as some things.  It was, like most of Epcot, dated.  Epcot could use a big facelift, some additional country rides I think and in general a filling in of some of their huge empty spaces.   Our friend Karin was heading out of town on business so we hit the festival and Maelstrom with her before she flew off.  It was pretty uneventful (compared to a previous ride and ‘rescue’ by a Viking-style Norwegian when someone fell into the water on the ride.)  I’m serious about this.  If you want action and interest head to the parks with us.  Something peculiar is bound to happen.  It was the drooly rainiest night.  We didn’t eat much and just tried to stay dry.  I did have a Singapore Sling (*grampa’s cough syrup) which I love.  Give me Hendrick’s Gin and Cherry Heering any day.  I also tried a cheese plate in Ireland.  Love that Kerrygold with brown bread and chutney.

Our second trip was just the two of us on the hottest darn day of the summer!  Here is how that went…muffapinwheel

One of the huge empty spaces is being pressed into service for the festival this year.  It is the big round building that sits off to the side over the water as you make your way from the front entrance back to the International Market Places and is known as the Odyssey Center.  According to an online source – Lostepcot.com it was a restaurant and had a Rockin’ Mickey show once upon a time.  That site has some old info about other countries and rides that I wish would happen but clearly, are not on the agenda anymore.   We stopped in at the Odyssey center to scope out the booth they are housing which centers around craft beers.  It seemed like a fun bar atmosphere to me although I feel they could add some chairs or bar stools to the stand up tables.  I would like to see more of that in general if I could sit down and stay a while, taste the options, etc.  We tried one of the bar snacks, a Muffaletta pinwheel.  Honestly, it was premade and didn’t taste much likeany Muffaletta I’ve had recently.  No depth and a bit limp and the best part was a bread and butter pickle on top.   Kind of a miss.baohashtaco

Then we strolled on into the International Market Place (aka the countries) to begin trying treats that are mellowed out for the average guest but still tend toward tasty and are a great way to try something new without the pressure of it being your whole meal.  We started out on the Mexico side and worked our way around until we were stuffed.  We didn’t try everything and that leaves an opportunity for another day.

First stop:  Mexico.  I sampled the shrimp taco.  I tried for two main reasons.  It was National Taco Day! Hurrah for all things street taco.  And it said it had pickled habanero.  I wondered how hot it could be.   One of my absolute worst food experiences of my life revolved around habanero ice cream I had in Fort Collins, CO at Walrus Ice Cream.  They always have an experimental flavor to try (experimental means gross) and one time I was in they had habanero.  That ice cream made me cry.    But the taco?  It didn’t have that heat.  In fact it was a little nondescript but I liked it.  The shrimp had a bit of crunch and the onions and peppers had bite but not really any heat.  It would be safe for the majority of people to eat.

Next stop:  Farm Fresh.  I suppose farms are a ‘place’ that is foreign to most of us city dwellers but I don’t totally get it.  I think they could call it America and be as accurate.  But this stop had one of my must tries for this year.  A peppered bacon hash with corn, pickled jalapenos and hollandaise.  This would be a brunch rock star if you made it at home and …you should.  I probably will.  I mean fried potatoes with hollandaise.  Divine.  Side note:  This is a gluten free option which is totally a thing this year.

Round the world to:  China.  We stopped in China and I need to go back.  I had a couple of things I wanted to try from China but try to focus on one at a time.  This go I tried out the roasted duck bao.  I have a problem in that I love bao.  LOVE.  Something about that weird steamed bun texture and some fatty rich meat and bright onion or slaw condiments.  This one wasn’t too complicated and was fairly sweet and no heat.   It had some red onion to cut the sweetness and I went to town on it.

At this point we swang into Maelstrom for our last ride. (*sniff)  I tried to soak up the Vikings, the trolls and the feeling one last time.  I look forward to seeing the transformation and I hope that Frozen becomes a new happy place.papapricotflan

We headed back out in the heat to:  Africa.  Z wanted to try the stewed beef and mealie pap.  Pap is kinda grits/polenta like and the meat was stewed with tomatoes and okra.  I’d make this dish.  It is totally a Sunday afternoon long cooked dinner.  The meat was tender and I detected that distinct okra flavor that isn’t really native to the US unless you are living in the real South.  Sort of side note.  I hate that it is ‘Africa.’  I don’t really think that tells the right story.  Africa isn’t so generic or general as that would imply.  I think Epcot has the resources to do better and they should.

Heading on to:  Germany.  Ok.  I have to say that my favorite bite so far this year came from Germany.  Who would have guessed?  It was a doughnut.  Yeasty and filled with apricot jam that was just the right bit of sweet.  I don’t know if that is so German or not but it was so good.   If you have a limited budget and want to have a nice little dessert this would cover it.  Z also got the brat.  Ok.  I know I’m a bit ranty today but this was one place they could have done better.  Or differently anyway.  It had the splattiest messy heap of mustard squidged on.  It wasn’t tidy or helpful really.  I’d really like to see a bit more care overall on presentation.  I messed with several entrees to get a good shot.  They are pushing food out quickly but with little care.  The brat itself -tasty- but not pretty.messyweiner

The Festival this year is presented by ‘Chase’ and since we bank with Chase we got to go in the ‘lounge.’ The lounge is in America and has seating and video games, Freestyle coke machines, and cell phone charging stations.  Kind of a nod to something but I’m not sure what.  Z tried vanilla Root Beer and I had some lemony water before heading back into the heat.

Finished the uber-hot day with:  Puerto Rico.  This is a new stop this year and is a cute little area set up for a party with lights and ambiance.  We ordered one last dessert and a drink.  Z loves flan so he tried the flancocho.  A flan covered at the top with a bit of chocolate cake.  It was good but a bit more set than our favorite.  The flan didn’t come out of it’s baking tin so they just served it that way.  It tasted good even if it wasn’t photo friendly.  I also was dying of heat (and so did the logical – cocktail order)  so I ordered a Gasolina Sangriiia.  It was fruity and cold and I could have chugged the bottle if presented with it.  Very grapey.

Overall the festival feels a little ‘less’ than it has before even though there is technically more.  A little less technical and a little less stand out.  We still enjoy it and I do want to make at least one more visit to try a few more dishes.   So, I’m looking forward to that.  Hopefully a cool evening with no rain.

is Starbucks still a thing?

In this day and age of fair trade, pay what you think it’s worth high concept coffee shops is Starbucks still a thing?  I see a few blogs where the writers say they love coffee more than most other things in life but the question I have is this. Is Starbucks still a thing?   Would people rather go to a small local chain or to the big boy?  Has Starbucks extended their reach as far as DisneyWorld but lost their swerve?  Become the Chili/TGIF’s of the coffee world or are they still as relevant as ever?Starbucks

We swang by–and that was no small feat in this day of a remodel in progress Downtown Disney that has been called the seventh pit of hell for traffic –the new mothership Starbucks a while back.  It was actually our second try to get access to Downtown Disney in a few weeks.  The parking right now is terrible during the updates and with the summer crowds it is better for my sanity to just stay away.  But since the mothership of Lego is also located there we do make the attempt now and then.  It is a really beautiful and huge store.  Full of reclaimed wood, warm coffee colors and technology all while being green and swishy with coffee ground compost grown lemon grass on the roof.   The queue is super long and there are tons of seats and a kind of cupping bar where you can try single origin pour-overs.   There is some neat tech that draws the people in the shop in line drawing and I believe is live action in a California counterpart.  Bi-coastal up in here.

I’ve enjoyed having access to Starbucks at the Magic Kingdom and at Epcot.  For me its a piece of my happy place-a hot cup or tall cold drink in the midst of the sometimes chaotic Disney experience.  I wonder somewhat if that is the city of my birth or maybe because I hit my early adult years in their heyday.  I do love me a bitter cup of Starbucks.  That said,  I wouldn’t make this shop a destination but I can see why people might.  What do you think?  Is Starbucks still a thing?  Why?

There be magic.

year in review.jpgClockwise from top left:  Cinderella Castle at Christmas time,  Festival of Fantasy Parade,  Balloon bundle (interestingly have changed from giant Tink balloon to all Anna & Elsa all the time!), Wishes Fireworks Show, KZ with Toy Story pals, Starbucks with Karin-and Disneyfied cups.  She took a coffee on Big Thunder Mountain!)

On May 10 of last year we decided to pull the trigger–to become true Orlando-ans and buy passes to Disneyworld.  We had often wanted to head over for just an evening and with tickets for a day pass closing in on $100 you mostly feel like you have to make a whole day of it.  We aren’t really built for a day of it.  I get tired or hangry or sad because it was all too fleeting.  So, we bought the tickets.  We decided it would make it a whole lot easier to come and go as we please–to go home if it was too hot, crowded or full of sad families that trigger a punch in the face reflex I sometimes have.  So, we bought the tickets.  Z likes Disney ok-well, sort of.  He likes Disney because I like Disney and he is more accomodating that any person I know.  He does mostly need a reason to go and I don’t score a park trip without those reasons (ie-specific ride, parade or thing to do.)  So, I manufactured  a reason for the year–to ride every ride and or attraction in the Magic Kingdom.  Every. One.  So, I did it.  I rode all the rides, everything from Prince Charming regal carousel to the Carousel of Progress.  It’s a great big beautiful tomorrow!  We rode the Astro Orbiter (terrifying), the teacups (now a happy memory of friends),  Big Thunder Mountain (my favorite) to every.thing.between.   I finished on the last free weekend of our year with three remaining:  Splash Mountain (loved it), Storytime with Belle (hokey but AWESOME for kids & princess lovers), and the Laugh Floor (Mike Wazowski!).


Clockwise from top left:  KZ and Karin on Prince Charmings Regal Carousel,  spicy Chicken & Waffle,  the queue view at Expedition Everest (Animal Kingdom), KZ in R2 ears, Always something coming-and hidden behind walls -Starbucks!, charcuterie at the sidewalk cafe at the Brown Derby

yearinreview2.jpgClockwise from top left:  All Epcot:  Vicky & Chelsea in Norway (Do they remind you of Anna & Elsa?) , Easter egg hunt in the rain (Z bought an umbrella in Japan shaped like a sword) , all the weird around the world pops–get the Beverly!, Flower & Garden, MagicBands, Topiary

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve ridden Big Thunder Mountain or The Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean—so many.  Our magic bands for the new year have arrived and I’m working on a new year of things to do and am torn between smashed pennies or autographs.   If you have an opinion about that or other ideas, I all ‘glow with the show’ ears.

Epcot Flower & Garden

Last weekend we hit the 2014 Epcot Flower & Garden Festival and also a long held goal of making it to Le Cellier.  Le Cellier is located in ‘the cellar’ of the chateau in the Canada pavilion at Epcot.  We had wanted to go there since eating at the Canada stop at the Annual Food & Wine Festival but had never made the effort to get the hard to get reservation until we were encouraged to go by our friend Karin’s dad.  He said, “You gotta go.  They bring that beef in from Canada!”  Based on his encouragement I sat on the Disney website and (patiently) clicked through dates until I could get a reservation.  It turned out to fall during the Flower & Garden Festival so a day trip was born.fairygarden

The festival is a fun yearly event at Epcot showcasing all things backyard.  There are extra playgrounds for kids based around Cars and Monsters Inc themes, a butterfly house filled with tiny handmade fairy houses and flickering butterflies and a TON of flowers,  topiaries of favorite Disney characters, displays on water conservation, vegetable gardening and in the last two years fresh food kiosks based on these garden grown specialties.  This is definitely not as elaborate as the Food & Wine Festival and the portions are somewhat larger-well sometimes.  We didn’t want to eat much because we knew we were in for a giant steak dinner but we did stop and pick up some cheesy stuffed pasta in Italy.  It wasn’t really anything too special although it tasted good.  We also stopped for our lunch in the American Experience at the Smokehouse for some bbq and a cupcake.  Z had some brisket with collards and cornbread.  He didn’t really comment on the beef but he did comment on the collards.  Up to now they were one of two foods I’ve heard him say he doesn’t like and wouldn’t eat.  Kraut being the other.   I don’t know why he went for this dish in light of that–but he did.  At some point while eating he said the collards were good.  So, chalk one up for Disney.  I can’t believe it.  I didn’t try them and am not all that convinced myself.  I had a Pulled Pork & Slaw Slider.  It was really big enough to be called a full size sandwich.  The pork was smokey and salty and tasty with the slaw being pretty standard but providing sweet crunch.  Random side note.  I tried to get some of the squirt-on sauce from the napkin/sauce stand and it was so slippery from millions of hands that it fell in my sandwich.  The staff gracefully traded me for a new sandwich and I skipped the sauce.  That said, it wasn’t dry or unflavorful although I didn’t dare to try the sauce again.  Sandwich trade-ins going only so far.  Anyhow, all that said and I still say I’d eat it again.  I also ordered a ‘Piggylicious’ (for Miss Piggy and the new movie) Maple Bacon Cupcake.  They weren’t joking.  A yellow cake (yum) cupcake filled with lardons of sliced cooked smoked applewood bacon.  Kind of intense.  I don’t love that baconcandonowronginallthings although I always want to.  The maple frosting was delicious and covered with a fresh (read that as crunchy) pile of pretzel chunks.   The cupcake was large enough to share and feel like you got a fair amount.piggylicious

We had fastpass+  the ride ‘Living with the Land’ in the Land Pavilion.  Seems funny but we really like this ‘ride’ where you sail through some fantastic experimental gardens where they encourage me to grow things at home.  They are growing all manner of things in a giant greenhouse and in really creative ways.  They’ve got everything from Brussels Sprouts (see the photo-they are amazing!) to 9 pound lemons to enormous suspended tomato, pumpkin and other vines.  I really want to grow more food. It’s not easy though and I need to figure out where to gain some help with that.  We have a whole empty backyard beckoning.  I think stand up beds may be in my future.theland

We took an afternoon break by riding Ellen’s Energy Adventure.  Seriously, have you ever been on this ride?  45 minutes in a giant car driving around a soundstage with dinosaurs interspersed with Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye teaching about energy.  Soo random and funny.  Somehow we never heard of this ride before.  It had kind of a fantastic dinosaur thing in the middle with fire, animatronics, water, etc.  You should ride this ride although timing is key here because it is 45 minutes and we walked in with no wait which was ideal.  Using the park daily guide would help with this.snowwhite

Dinner.  We headed over to Canada a bit early to catch the Oh Canada 360 show featuring Canadian funny guy Martin Short.  You enter the sort of mine shaft by walking through a high walled Rocky Mountain experience of high walls and a rush of water and exit by walking out through an exhibit of more flowers similar to how they look at Butchart Gardens in BC.  I’ve been there (BC) many times and this really does have that feeling which for me is like home.  We walked into Le Cellier which is in the bottom or cellar of some French looking hotel style building.    We were shown to our table after a short wait and took some time to read over the menu.  Our Canadian (super friendly I must say) server asked if we needed help with the menu but for your average foodie it is fairly standard steakhouse/cheffy type food-the only thing I questioned was ‘poutine’, which was in quotes.  So, ‘poutine’ in quotes at Disney is fries with stuff on top.  Since I pretty much always want fries with stuff I ordered those to go with our meal and they arrived smothered with super-sharp Canadian Cheddar, shaved black truffles and a small pitcher of red wine reduction.  I actually don’t love truffles and could have done without them – but that cheese and wine sauce-delicious!!!poutine

We started out with their bread basket and butter.   The butter was super fresh and sprinkled with maple sugar.  Love that.  The basket included amazing pretzel sticks-big, soft and salt flecked-so great I wanted more! There was also a nice sourdough roll that was really sour and a multigrain roll that we skipped-I mean really. You have the draw the line somewhere.  We ordered a super porky pork belly starter.  I am getting over my …hatred of fatty textures but this one pushed me.  Super fatty.  How do you get past that chew?  Only by super taste.  My main course was short ribs and this was as good as any I’ve had, super tender and a huge portion really.  Some pearls of carrots and an unidentifiable (really) spherified whitish/yellow ball along with garlic chips and pickled veg on top.  This is one of the dishes I long to make at home but is just never as good as fine dining no matter how much work I put into it.  So good.  Z had a filet with mushroom sauce that was super rich and almost, he said, ‘too truffly.’  That’s saying something because black truffles are a flavor he likes a lot.  We were so stuffed we passed on dessert.   This was a really solid meal.  It had a pretty hefty Disney tax but they also worked it really hard.  We weren’t rushed and the service was friendly and good.   If you can get a reservation and have a couple of spare Disney Dining Plan meals (the way to go for this one!) or just want to go all out it is definitely worth while.   I suppose you could also hang a left at that great big Epcot ball and head north too but this is worth the shorter trip.  If you are local and have a chance to hit the Flower & Garden show, it runs through May 18th.shortrib

Brown Derby Lounge aka What I did on ‘Big Game’ Sunday…

so, let’s just say I was born in Seattle and lived there until I was almost in high school (Go Seahawks!) and moved to Denver after college and Z was born there and lived there for about 25 years (Go Broncos!) and maybe, just maybe, we don’t care about watching football.  We decided we didn’t even care if we watched the commercials.  So, finding out that the parks (as in Disney parks) would be less than busy and it was the first warm day in weeks (hello 85, welcome back!) we headed out to Hollywood Studios.  Before joining some recent South Africa to Orlando transplants to ride the rides we stopped in for lunch at the new Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge.  It is a tiny little patio lounge serving a small menu of tapas style food and cocktails alongside two fun non-alcoholic drinks.   We both ordered one of these drinks, the Mimi Kaboom.  I guess Mimi is a ‘citizen’ of Hollywood Studios who fancies herself an actress.  Her namesake mocktail is made of lime, agave, pineapple and fresh mint along with a few soda bubbles.  It was really bright and refreshing and I really enjoyed it.  At $4.49 for a glass it carried the Disney tax but for a mixed drink sans alcohol I thought it was pretty good.    We ordered two items to share-a plate with two fairly good sized sliders, one Wagyu beef with avocado, bacon & gouda and one chorizo and Manchego.  I liked the beef quite a bit better because I don’t care for warm Manchego but both were tasty.  The real piece de resistance was the Charcuterie board.  It was about $20 but was probably really enough for 3-4 people who were just there for a snack and a cool drink.  It had almost too many items on it.  Two small pots of ‘meats’, one a faux gras that was a whipped creamy chicken and one of duck rillettes.  Z liked the chicken but it weirded me out with it’s smoothness.  The rillettes I found tasty and savory on the small buttered toasts they provided.  There were also three cheese selections, a goat, a blue & a brie.  The blue was really nice-salty and earthy.  The brie had truffles embedded which I don’t love-but it was triple cream and very dense.  The goat was unusual, a hard cheese that was tasty.  There were four cured meats as well, a serrano ham-good.  A salami picante-nice and chewy, salty.  A Chorizo (Spanish style)-Loved it.  And then a creepy (to me) Salami Toscano-way too earthy and cellar like for my tastebuds but Z liked it a lot.  He is way easier going about weirdly textured things than I am.  I’ll try them-once.  Again, it’s a fairly huge board and would, I think be better for a couple more people.brownderbylounge

There are only about 12-15 tables and due to the park being fairly empty we were able to snag a table when we walked in.  I think normally you would have to have a bit of luck on your side not to wait if you wanted to eat here.  They don’t take reservations and it is genuinely tiny. As you can see, lots and lots of tastes.  It actually wore me out by the end.  I would enjoy slightly less options.  There were other menu items I’d like to try, a famous Brown Derby Cobb Salad and mini-dessert flights along with duck confit tacos.  Yes, please..   Oh, I almost forgot, there were also some really delicious bread and butter pickles.  They were so good with the goat cheese.  I’m going to have to make some of those.   This is not quick service-so if you are jonesing to go on rides, it probably isn’t for you.  I’d say our lunch took around an hour or so.  But, as a nice way to spend Superbowl Sunday afternoon?  I’ll take it.  So, sorry football fans.  I hope we can still be friends.