Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dining at Disney, Part 3: Biergarten and Le Cellier

After much delay, this the last in my Dining at Disney posts. Today I'll cover two of the more difficult to get into restaurants: Le Cellier, in the Canadian Pavillion, and Biergarten, in the German Pavillion.

Le Cellier Steakhouse is the best rated restaurant in Orlando, Florida, according to Trip Advisor. Several other sites prefer the adults-only snootiness of Victoria and Albert's. However judging by how hard it was to get into Le Cellier and how easy it was to even inquire about same-day reservations at Victoria and Albert's I'm going to make the assumption that Le Cellier is more popular among guests of Disney World. We made our reservations 90 days in advance of our lunch, which just happened to be the same day as Canadian Thanksgiving.

Le Cellier is a pretty restaurant that looks like it is in the basement of a castle, hence the name. The hosts/hostesses were all very friendly and more than a little surprised that we even knew it was Canadian Thanksgiving without having been prompted (thanks Sean for the text message stating such). Our server had the strongest Canadian accent I have ever heard...and was not enhancing it for the effect.

Since we were there for lunch, we ordered off the lunch menu. The folks split a meal that included a sliced beef sandwich and several sides including their famous cheddar soup and "Canadian potato salad." I ordered an appetizer of duck three ways and tasted the spouse's cheddar soup. In addition I also got the sliced steak sandwich with fries. The cheddar soup, I must say, really is as good as advertised. It's creamy and cheesy without being overbearing. In all, very well balanced. The duck three ways was very much worth getting. Melt in your mouth goodness. My father didn't care for the spiciness of the "Canadian potato salad" which was generated by the overuse of raw garlic. However we all enjoyed the sliced beef sandwiches. Mine was slightly dry, but I think it's because I was unable to have it with the caramelized onions that are supposed to come on it. Our entrees were served with pomogranite lemonade, which I have to admit was far too sweet. The beer selection was quite good, with reasonable prices. Had it not been around 95 degrees F outside I might have preferred a beer. Dessert consisted of maple creme brulee. Yum. As you all know I like maple syrup in just about anything. Creme brulee was a nice match.

In all, we all enjoyed our food at Le Cellier Steakhouse. Coming for lunch was nice, particularly since the prices were much better than for dinner. We would all definitely go back. Although the idea of making reservations so far in advance for lunch is quite daunting.

Next up is Biergarten, in the German Restaurant. Three guesses on the theme to this restaurant. Yup, it's Bavarian. A lot. There are flags displayed to represent the other regions of Germany, but the food and atmosphere are unmistakably Bavarian.

As some of you already know, I have a pathological fear of buffets. I think this all started when I was very young and spending my summers in Ocean City, Maryland. There's a legendary buffet there called Paul Revere's. It's legendarily bad. We got sucked in my a decent price, boardwalk location and really cool marketing photos showing fresh fish and other foods. Unfortunately the reality of the place is that it's amazing more people don't get campylobacter or salmonella from eating there. Additionally, most buffets end up with the same boring overcooked food, slowly degrading on steam tables. There's nothing tasty about that. Nor is there anything appetizing about the idea that the sneeze guard doesn't really serve any function.

So when my father announced that we had reservations at Biergarten, I was apprehensive. Trip Advisor reviews referring to the place as "fun" didn't help allay my fear for the food. However the folks really wanted to eat there so we had to humor them and do it with our best smiling faces. And we were pleasantly surprised.

Yes, the atmosphere is cheesy. Yes the buffet contains stereotypically German food that's really Bavarian. However the quality of the food was quite good and I could see the staff regularly turning over the food on the line; a very good sign. Much of the featured food were sausages, as well as head cheese, potato and pickle dishes. There were also vegetable dishes and, my favorite, spaetzle. Yum. Additionally there was a prime rib carving station, which I ignored due to the variety elsewhere on the line.

In addition to the quality of the food, the beer selection was quite good. I was not prepared for hefeweizen by the liter, though. Needless to say it made for a fun lunch with my family.

The Bavarian-style shows ran about every 30 minutes with a small oompa band cranking out polkas. Seating is Munich-style, where you're likely to share a table with another group. Our group was a fun group of guys in town for a convention.

In all, I was impressed. Mostly because it was good food on a buffet. It's technical challenge to keep everything hot and fresh on the line. Does this mean I've made peace with buffets? NO. All it means is that there is now one buffet in the world where I will eat.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Restaurant Review: Naked Fish Sushi and Grill

There's a new sushi place in town! It's located in front of Harvey Washbangers, where Doc Green's used to be. We all knew Doc Green's wouldn't survive, because who wants to pay $10 for a side salad?

A Google search of "Naked Fish Sushi & Grill" yielded results that indicate the restaurant is part of a growing chain, with at least three restaurants, including ones in San Francisco, Las Vegas and College Station. You're not the only one thinking these are an odd combination, given College Station isn't exactly a dot on the national culinary map. However this could just be a result of not having a consistent web presence. And based on the Yelp results, the place has been open a little less than two weeks.

The decor is funky and new-looking. I particularly enjoy the digital picture frames at each table and fiber optic lights. The space is small so it's likely you'll get to know a bit about your neighbor. The hostess is wearing an approximation of a kimono and will greet you with a little Japanese. As an interesting note, the table staff and manager all spoke Japanese and were shocked when the Lovely Spouse did as well.

Beers were very well priced at $3.50 a bottle and there was a good selection, including Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo. The menu is surprisingly extensive, but rather light. The selections were what you would expect to find in most American sushi restaurants, as well as a few "house" rolls that were distinct to Naked Fish.

The spouse and I ordered two rolls, an order of sea urchin (which can't currently be found anywhere else in College Station), an appetizer and the sushi sampler. A word of warning: this was too much food for the two of us. The Burning Man roll was a futumaki size roll that included eel, but was not hot in any way. The volcano roll was a huge mass of stuff on top of california rolls. These were a bit odd, but keeping in "tradition" with the new American sushi style. At some
point I'm going to learn that I prefer the Japanese style sushi rolls, but I still keep ordering the
funky new American style rolls. Anyways, the rolls weren't bad and didn't taste bad by any step in my imagination. It's just it seems I prefer maki to a pile of sushi. Anyways, the sea urchin was good, albeit obviously 1000+ miles from the West coast. Normally sea urchin is buttery, salty and just a bit fishy. This was a tiny bit fishier than desirable, but not bad. The Lovely Spouse said his sushi sampler was fantastic, particularly the yellowtail. And the California Rolls were good, as expected.

The spouse's sushi sampler came with a salad and "clear soup" that very closely resembled miso soup, but without the miso and lots more scallions. The salad dressing was lovely, with loads of ginger. It's funny that I mention the salad, considering the previous occupant of the restaurant space. :-)

The one really big complaint I had about this place was a phenomenon that I hope is not becoming ubiquitous in sushi bars and Japanese restaurants: sake bombs. What's a sake bomb, you ask? It's a shot of sake dropped into a half glass of beer. Ideally this is done in groups where everyone races to the bottom of the glass of beer. What makes this irritating? The yelling that goes on beforehand. It's usually some form of "Sake bomb! One! Two! Three! Go!" I don't mind this after 10 pm on a weekend at a bar. I do mind it at 8 pm midweek while enjoying a quiet dinner with the Lovely Spouse. Call me an old fart, if you will, but I find it disruptive and immature, and best left to a bar environment. Some of us have reached the age where we no longer feel the need to announce to the world that we are drinking something alcoholic. It's really not that big a deal. And what's the point of even decorating a restaurant as such if you are trying to promote yourself as a frat house?

Alas, I digress.

Will I be going back to Naked Fish? Sure. Gotta try a place at least twice. :-) The service was good and friendly, the Asahi was reasonably priced, and the nigiri was good.

Would I recommend this place to others? Yup. You've been warned about the sake bombs.

Just a note before I finish this post: Many apologies for the long time between posts. Between traveling and getting sick I haven't been in the mood to discuss food all that much. I'm back now, although I'm going to warn you there will be further disruptions with the holidays coming up. :-)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Since you asked: places I eat when I'm not planning on writing a review in Maryland

I wasn't planning on writing reviews of anything I ate while up in Maryland. The trip was in order to attend a friend's wedding and to just kind of hang out with the family. BUT since some of you asked, here's where I ate, keeping in mind I've been living outside of Maryland since 2002.

1. Gunning's Seafood. It's between BWI and my folk's house, making it an ideal location to find a few Maryland specialties that, for some odd reason, people just don't make in Texas. I specifically went for the soft shell crab sandwich, which was all that I remembered. Crispy fried and served on white bread with lettuce and tomato, along side Utz's chips. They also had something called "pepper rings", which were bell pepper rings deep fried and dusted with powdered sugar. Sounds nasty, but it was surprisingly good, although I could only eat 2 of them. The meal was complete with Maryland Crab Soup, a stew of crab meat and veggies seasoned with Old Bay. Mmmmm.... There's nothing fancy about this restaurant, and much of the food is fried casual fare. But it's the stuff you miss when you move out of the region, prepared the way you remember.

2. Eggspectations in Columbia, MD. A Canada-based company that is slowly moving south along the Eastern Seaboard, it's pretty easy to guess that they serve breakfast all day. What might not be so obvious is that their Happy Hour is one of the most popular in town. Half price appetizers and drinks within driving distance to 7 or 8 colleges and universities makes this a no-brainer for people who want something tasty on a limited budget. It's also near my sibling's house and is very child-friendly. So we typically go there each time I visit. On this trip the folks weren't hungry so they just ordered dessert crepes, which were made to order and filled with not-to-sweet fruit and bavarian cream. I ordered the vegetarian lettuce wrap special, which was just as messy as lettuce wraps everywhere. Kids meals consist of standard kit fare at a reduced price, including chicken strips, pasta and fries.

3. G&M Restaurant in Linthicum Heights. Strange location, with Baltimore City off in the distance, and even stranger exterior hide the newly renovated interior and surprising quality of food. There is an on-running debate in Baltimore about who has the best crab cakes. G&M and Obrycki's in Fell's Point typically are at the top of everyone's list. Obrycki's is typically where tourists and other out-of-towners are sent because the location is so easy to find. However, if someone is willing to make the trek, G&M is worth the effort. It's a truly old-school restaurant that's been cranking out typical regional food, including Baltimore-style prime rib and liver and onions along with their award winning crab cakes for almost 2 decades. Everything is well made, from the salads on down to their constantly brewed fresh coffee. They have pastry chefs on staff, as well as seafood and beef specialists. The crab cakes are worth the fuss, and are about the size of a softball. Portions are very large.

4. Mango Grove in Columbia. Back when I lived in Maryland I frequented Mango Grove for it's light vegetarian Indian fare. It was the only place I knew of that served a paper dosa as well as the best malai kafta I've ever had. Since I moved away they purchased what used to be a rather nasty Chinese restaurant next door and converted the Chinese restaurant part to a Northern Indian restaurant that features meat dishes. And they continue to serve vegetarian fare in the Mango Grove portion of the building, as well as the new part. It's a welcome change as I have family members that are adverse to the mere idea of eating vegetarian. I still prefer the malai kafta to everything else on the menu, though. :-) I also recommend the veggie samosas, mango lassi and nan. I'm told the chicken and lamb tikka masala are also quite good. They have very recently opened up an Indian grocery store in the shopping center near the restaurants. I recommend checking them out if you wish to make some of wonderful Indian food on your own.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dining at Disney, Part 2: Hidden Finds

As some of you may already be well aware, Disney World is a rather vast commercial enterprise. Everywhere you go it seems you're being charged for something. Some charges are small, some are huge and some end up hidden on that little room card they offer to allow you to carry around on your wrist, "for your convenience." And after awhile, everything commercial starts to look the same. However there are a few hidden finds within Disney World, if you're willing to look for them.

First, every theme park and resort has a bakery, candy store and ice cream shop combo. And it is an excellent one. The ice cream is high quality and the bakery items are very well made with high-quality ingredients. Many of the confections are made in-house at each individual shop, and samples are always offered. The Lovely Spouse was happy to find a huge selection of jelly beans at each shop, for sale by volume.

Another hidden find, that only the adults will appreciate, can be found in the Mexican pavillion of Epcot. Most people know about the delicious margaritas available at the Cantinas inside and outside the pavillion. But hidden away, just to the right of the staircase descending into the inside of the pavillion you will find a tiny door to La Cava del Tequila. At first glance it's just a bar. At second glance, everything is top shelf. Glancing at their menu you'll find tequila tastings and flights of tequila; something most people only associate with wine.

I tried the Traditional Flight for a tequila tasting. It came with a blanco, an anejo and an extra anejo, as well as a small dish of salt and lime, and a shot of granita. For those that don't know anejo tequila is "normal" blanco tequila that has been aged, at least a year, in an oak barrel. Extra anejo has been aged even longer. The oak gives the tequila extra flavor characteristics, such as vanilla and cherry, that can't be found in blanco tequilas. The granita is served to settle stomach issues that many people experience when drinking straight tequila. All were served at room temperature.

The only drawback to La Cava is the small space. There were no tables, as the others who had discovered it before we had, camped out at the tables. Bar space was made available as people came, sampled and moved on. Without fail, everyone was very nice and extremely knowledgeable. I recommend seeking out La Cava when in Epcot, even if only to sample tequilas that may or may not be available near your home and to expand your culinary knowledge. The party atmosphere and fine tequila shots don't hurt either.

Dining at Disney, Part 1: Kouzzina by Cat Cora, Teppan Edo and Chefs du France

In order to keep my desktop clean and sanity intact I'm going to post reviews of restaurants sampled at Disney in a few separate posts. For the purposes of clarity, the following are all restaurants that are permanent parts of Disney World and are not part of the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.

It is my pleasure to start this review post with a review of Kouzzina by Cat Cora. Located at The Boardwalk Resort, walking distance to Epcot and a short boat-ride from Hollywood Studies, Kouzzina by Cat Cora very recently opened to much fanfare, including more than a few mentions on Cat Cora's blog. As with most celebrity-owned restaurants, Cora is not generally at the restaurant, as she has other business ventures, celebrity chef appearances and book signings, in addition to her regular gig on Iron Chef America to tend to. However that did not detract from the experience of dining at her restaurant one bit. First off, reservations must be made, but can be easily done via the Disney Dining Service Reservation Line, which is what you have to call to make reservations anywhere in the resort. We got ours the same day as calling. In fact I believe we made our reservations somewhere around 2-3 hours before dinner.

Because we had been sampling so much food during our trip we pretty much only wanted samplers, appetizers and soups when we went to Kouzzina. Therefore my group of four ordered two samplers, with slightly different offerings, two different soups, an entree and dessert. The samplers included Greek specialties such as Kalamata olives, tsatsiki, hummus, high quality olive oil, pita bread and either spicy meatballs or shrimp. Everything was fantastic. [And, yes, everything contained garlic, but unless you're as sensitive to it as I am, you're not likely to have difficulty eating it.]

Bread and butter were brought out to the table. The bread was a full-grain wheat bread with nuts and seeds, sweatened with honey. Paired with the real butter, adorned with Hawaiian sea salt, it was a treat in and of itself.

Next, my mother and I ordered soup. Mom got a traditional Greek soup made from eggs and cream. To my mind it tasted like a creamy chicken soup, with egg added ala egg drop soup. My soup was a tomato-based Greek chickpea soup that tasted very much like minestrone. The soup spoon came to the table with homemade and very mild hummus. The combination was delicious and light; perfect since I didn't want a huge volume of food.

The Lovely Spouse has a much larger appetite than I do, so he ordered an entree: a porkchop with Greek seasonings paired with roasted fennel. His was perfectly cooked and very well balanced, while still retaining a rustic appeal.

My parents were celebrating their 43rd anniversary and were brought desserts, including a mild chocolate cupcake with a candle on top. Therefore The Lovely Spouse and I ordered a dessert: the mixed Greek cookies. There were 3-4 cookies including a light pfeffernusse-style cookie, a nutty biscotti-style cookie and coconut macaroons flavored with almond oil. The last were my favorite. :-) These were paired with a well-balanced and refreshing iced latte that ended the dinner very well.

Would I go back to Kouzzina by Cat Cora? Absolutely, but with more of an appetite next time.

Would I recommend eating there? Sure! The food was both rustic and refined, while being accessible to both foodies and non-foodies. It's a beautiful spot that's well-decorated and surprisingly close to two of the Disney theme parks. The staff were attentive without being clingy or snooty. The menu is diverse enough to accommodate vegetarians as well as carnivores. The portions were good without being too large or too small. And the prices were very fair for what you can find in comparable restaurants around Disney and Orlando.

My next review is for Teppan Edo, at the Japanese pavillion in Epcot. As some of you already know, I generally don't like hibatchi-grilled foods. I usually find the "show" of preparing the food silly in its pretention and the food is usually overcooked and overpriced. However I do make exceptions, particularly if members of my group really, really want to eat there. Therefore we made reservations 3 months in advance to eat at Teppan Edo.

If you haven't been to Epcot in a few years and remember how things used to be you'll immediately notice a major change at the Japanese pavillion: there are now two restaurants. One for sushi and one for hibatchi. And both are booked full months in advance. Therefore if you make a reservation for one, you cannot change it at the last minute. That said, we were able to add one to our reservation the day of our dinner, so Disney Dining allows some flexibility.

The next major change you might notice is that the decor is completely different, for the better. Both restaurants are now more elegant, although a bit more crowded than before.

As before all of the hosts/hostesses are Japanese students, who are very surprised if you speak even a few words of the language. My entire group had either lived in Japan or studied Japanese at some point in their lives, therefore knew at least a few words. Surprisingly, the hibatchi chef was a local Florida guy. He made up for it with humor while doing the standard hibatchi routine.

As is true for most hibatchi restaurants, you are limited to only a few different sushi rolls on the appetizer menu if you don't want to order off the hibatchi menu. For one member of the group this meant a confusing dinner of trying to figure out which bowl of rice belonged to her and which was her neighbors. Alas, it's probably better to order as the group does and add an appetizer or two when dining at a theme restaurant. The rest of us ordered off the hibatchi menu and got the typical entrees: a mix of some sort of meat (chicken or beef), some sort of seafood (scallops or shrimp) and/or a mix of vegetables. I ordered just scallops and veggies and was pleasantly surprised that while the scallops were slightly over-cooked they weren't beyond recognition (as usually happens at hibatchi grills). The Lovely Spouse's beef was cooked medium, even though he requested medium-rare, but it wasn't flavored well and paired well with the Kirin that was served in 750 ml glasses. It was unusual for the meal to come with udon noodles grilled on the hibatchi, but the combination was nice.

In addition to the meal, we ordered a beef roll from the appetizer menu. Surprisingly it was grilled on the hibatchi and very flavorful. The restaurant claims this is the new direction sushi is heading in the future. I don't know about that, but it was tasty. And I would gladly order it again.

So would I eat here again? I still have my bias against hibatchi. I don't blame the restaurant because as far as hibatchi restaurants go, they are probably among the better ones. However I'd gladly go again to make friends and family happy. If I had my choice, though, I'd prefer to eat sushi.

Would I recommend this place to others? If they're already fans of hibatchi or have been wanting to try it out, sure. The service was excellent and the food was decent.

My final review for this particular post is for Chefs du France. On this particular trip we ate at Chefs du France, in the French pavillion of Epcot, because my father wanted to eat of the Prix Frixe menu. For $20 you get three courses: appetizer or soup, entree and dessert. This really is a fantastic price for Disney World. The Lovely Spouse ordered off the regular lunch menu, and as you will see, made the Correct Decision.

First off, let me just say I have never had any problems with Chefs du France. In fact, during previous visits to Epcot they have always been my favorite restaurant. The quality of food, the classical French techniques and service are second to none. On this particular trip I was delighted to see Remy from the movie Ratatouille fully animated as a puppet on a cheese tray being led through the restaurant. I regret not getting photos and video of this because it was beyond charming. I was also delighted to have a knowledgeable server from Bordeaux recommend a lovely wine (Chateau Laborie) that paired beautifully with the entire meal, all the way through dessert. Her French was also calm enough I could understand every word she said (some of you already know I can't understand Parisian).

Now on to the Prix Frixe menu. We all started with soup, as there were two choices: French Onion or Lobster Bisque. Dad said the French Onion was delicious, although he seemed confused by the cheese on the top since he is accustomed to French Onion soup served in the North East US that has a crouton on top instead of a heavy layer of cheese. The lobster bisque was light and flavorful, although I was surprised by how large the serving was: an entire bowl.

Next came the entrees, which were a selection of typical lunch items: quiche lorraine, mac and cheese or a sandwich. Mom and I got the quiche and my father got the sandwich on a baguette. The Lovely Spouse ordered beef tips braised in cabernet. Again, he made The Correct Decision, although I found his serving to be as outrageously large as ours. The quiche was large enough to feed a couple of people. Even after cutting mine in half, I was still unable to eat a single one of the french fries (funny!) served with the meal. The quiche was...average. I found nothing special about it, although it was acceptable as quiche goes. However it was extremely heavy to be eating when it was 95 F outside.

As if this wasn't enough food, we still had dessert. Mom ordered the profiteroles, Dad ordered the creme brulee and I ordered the chocolate gateaux. In this case the creme brulee was perfectly executed. Not so much on the others. The profiteroles were dense and heavy. On top of that they were filled with ice cream and drowning in a chocolate sauce. I expect them to be light as air and melt in my mouth. Not so with these. The gateaux was extreme on the chocolate. If I hadn't just had an unexpectedly huge meal beforehand I might have enjoyed it. As it was I cut the cake in half and still could only eat about a quarter of the dense chocolate madness. Or maybe I was just exhausted because it really was 95 F + 67% humidity while we were there.

Would I eat here again? Yes, but only if ordering off the normal menu.

Would I recommend this place to others? Yes, with the same caveat. Avoid the Prix Fixe unless you have a huge appetite.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Good Eats: The Early Years - The Book Review

Today's post is brought to you by my lovely spouse, who didn't give me a user name. So until he does he will henceforth be referred to as The Lovely Spouse, in this column. Today he brings you all a book review of Good Eats: The Early Years by Alton Brown. Photos/excerpts of the book (chapter on ground beef) follow in larger-than-normal format so you all can check out the book itself. Enjoy!

On July 7, 1999 after almost a decade of effort by creator and host Alton Brown the pilot episode of Good Eats aired on Food Network. Even after ten years on the air and over 200 episodes "in the can" the popular cooking show is still going strong, and its creator has expanded his own role: producing and hosting other programs for Food Network and delivering to his attentive and devoted fans a series of books to educate and inform the hungry masses. Mr. Brown's use of humor, visual aids, and a focus on ingredients and techniques rather than of recipes has made his show extremely popular among home cooks from novice to expert and was the reason the show earned a Peabody Award in 2006 (only one other on-air cook has ever won a Peabody Award: Julia Child in 1964).

Good Eats: The Early Years is a retrospective of the first six seasons of the hit Food Network program and is the first submission in a promised trilogy of books to cover the remaining episodes. Each chapter of The Early Years covers a single episode of Good Eats (in chronological order) and is formatted in a manner reminiscent of the episodes themselves with a brief but informative discussion of the ingredient on which the episode focused followed by the aired applications (Mr. Brown insists that they are not recipes) which utilize that ingredient. In addition each chapter includes behind-the-scenes trivia, tips that weren't covered in the original episode, and tidbits of information about the ingredient itself that just didn't fit well into the body of the chapter otherwise. Some of the recipes...I mean applications have been modified from the original versions, and several new ones have been added to expand the discussion of the ingredients and explore their usage further.

Like his other books on cooking (I'm Just Here For the Food and I'm Just Here For More Food) Good Eats: The Early Years is an easy book to read and presumes no background in the culinary arts on the part of the reader. The style with which Alton Brown writes is as easy-going and relaxed as Mr. Brown himself appears on TV, and the clever use of humor (sometimes self-depreciating) or unique turn of a phrase disguises the actual purpose of the 395 page book: education. Each page is adorned with color photographs excerpted from the episode (occasionally an image from behind-the-scenes) and hand drawings making the experience of reading each chapter of the book feel like watching an episode of Good Eats.

Even if the reader became a fan of the show late and missed a few episodes or has never even seen a minute of the series nothing will be missed by jumping into Good Eats: The Early Years with both feet. It can be read for the applications at the ends of the chapters like a cookbook, but it's better (and I suspect intended to be) read like a good novel: cover-to-cover.
Images: This first is from the chapter on hamburgers/ground beef.
All about ground beef and burgers.
An Application that shows you how to make the "Burger of the Gods."
Now on to the best meatloaf you ever made.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The 2009 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival

The year was 1982 when Epcot, or the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, at the Walt Disney Resort in Florida, opened its gates to the public. It was supposed to be this fantastic display of optimism in the future and what the world could be if everyone got along. In many ways it never was the original EPCOT that Walt Disney designed; there never was a dome and as far as I know no human lives there permanently. I was one of the many that walked through the gates that year and have fantastic memories of everything: meeting Figment the Dragon in Journey into the Imagination, the Communicor, and the fantastic World Showcase where were could learn about so many other countries. Mostly I remember walking a lot. And I remember everyone making a huge deal about there not being any alcohol being served anywhere in Walt Disney World because it was against Walt's wishes. There was even a rumor about a secret club somewhere, reportedly in Spaceship Earth, that served alcohol only to VIP guests among the rich and famous. Thing is, there really was a secret club for entertaining VIPs, it just wasn't at Epcot. Club 33 was, and still is, at Disneyland in California, according to Snopes.

Then came 1989, when Disney opened Pleasure Island at Downtown Disney. It was considered a big deal because suddenly Disney became owner of not only nightclubs, but places that served *gasp* alcohol. What would Walt think? I thought it was kind of strange to name it Pleasure Island because I remember those scenes from Pinocchio as being rather unpleasant and somewhat scary. Maybe I should re-watch the movie.... At any rate, the venture was considered a success, although the nightclubs have been shut down in order to perform a major renovation and overhaul of that portion of the business in order to update it.

Fast forward to 1996, the opening of the very first Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. The event, which runs from late September to early November, originally featured amateur and professional cooks from around the world showcasing food not normally seen in Epcot or Central Florida. In its fourteenth year there are no longer amateur cooks featured. Instead the best of Walt Disney kitchens and guest chefs from around the world showcase the foods, beers and wines from 27 countries, in temporary structures around World Showcase. Including countries where you might have difficulty finding wine served, such as Morocco. Entrees and desserts are served tapas style: small dishes typically costing $3-7 a piece. It's a wonderful experience to sample foods from around the world without breaking the bank. Wines are typically 4 oz pours and beers range from sample size to full pints and cost between $3 and $10 a serving. I can say with all honesty, that everything that sounded tasty, really, truly was. We went all the way "around the world" and only sampled things that sounded good in each country. Nothing, including entree, dessert or wine, was bad. This is an impressive feat when you consider what most of us expect from an amusement park.

Sam Adams represented the United States for alcohol and brought most of their product line. Unfortunately the food representing us was *groan* turkey legs, funnel cakes and popcorn. Along with having a boring movie and McDonalds representing us in the "American Adventure" pavillion, I was not amused. At least the beer was good.

While I won't bore you with a listing of every country's offerings I'll mention a few of the notables. Ireland featured a chocolate lava cake with Baileys ganache that tasted exactly as delicious as it sounds. China featured a cocktail called the Happy Lychee that was
refreshing, delicious and extremely alcoholic, as well as a to-die-for ginger and caramel ice cream. Their grilled pork dumplings were also the best I've ever had with a crispy wrapper and well-
balanced ginger sesame dipping sauce. South Africa featured a barbequed beef tenderloin with sweet potato puree. The tenderloin was perfectly cooked with a spicy sweet sauce and the sweet potato tasted like dessert. India featured super-thick ice-cold mango lassi's and potato and lentil dosai that were made-to-order following the crepe method. Here (pdf file) is a more complete map and listing of everything each country had to offer. Again, nothing we tasted was bad; it was all unbelievably good.

Being Disney, the festival did not just offer food. There was of course, shopping and swag to be had everywhere. The former Wonders of Life pavillion served as headquarters for the festival and as a site to host a variety of events including cooking classes, wine seminars and bottle signings. Not to mention, shopping. In true Disney style, you can purchase bottles of every wine served in the park. Of course you can't just take them with you, but can find them at the Guest Services desk on your way out of the park.

If you live in the area, really, you have no excuse. Get yourself over to Epcot and sample the festival. If you don't imbibe, at least enjoy the fantastic entrees and desserts. If you do imbibe, make sure you bring a designated driver or arrange for a taxi. If you wish to visit from afar, I highly recommend staying at the Boardwalk resort in Walt Disney World. It is walking distance to the "back gate" of Epcot and to the World Showcase, where the festival is primarily held. Currently one-day single park admission to Epcot is $79. Admission to the festival is free with admission to the park. Food and drink prices vary according to vendor.

Note: my full review of Epcot in 2009 will appear only at Trip Advisor under username ShutterBug. Reviews of some of the permanent restaurants in Walt Disney World will appear here, and cross-posted to Trip Advisor, as I am able to prepare them.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Alton Brown came to Texas!

Whodathunk it? Alton Brown in Texas? Well, according to him, this wasn't his first time here. He knows all about Kreuz's Market in Lockhart and about the regional fly-ins. Thus it sounds like Feasting in Air and Space is possibly under way.

What was he doing here? It's all part of a promotional book tour to endorse his new book, Good Eats: The Early Years. My lovely spouse is working on a book review, as a guest blogger, and will have it posted some time this week. So far I've skimmed the book and it appears very much like the episodes of his show, with recipes broken down in much the same way, trivia about the item of the day and the reasons why things are prepared the way they are. Therefore this book is a handy item to have around any kitchen.

So what was the book signing like? First off, we had to drive to Austin. I'm not surprised, given that College Station isn't exactly a large town and isn't known as a foodie mecca. The signing was at the Whole Foods Market on Lamar, close to downtown. There was a media event earlier in the day attended by MisoHungryNow and Austin area food bloggers. The rest of us had to purchase a copy of the book from The Book People, located across the street next to the REI and get a wrist band. Due to the distance between College Station and Austin, I ordered our books and wrist bands in advance and The Book People very graciously mailed them to us a couple of weeks ago. They also placed us in the first group of people for the signing.

The signing itself was on the roof of Whole Foods, which boasts a lovely cactus and mesquite container garden. The weather was nice and there was adequate shade. People were grouped into red, yellow and blue groups - I'm guessing about 100 - 200 people each - and sent in with their groups. After the media event Mr Brown walked up to the roof and started signing books. Before signing each copy he introduced himself, "Hi, I'm Alton" and shook hands with each and every person there. Then he posed for pictures with the person getting the book signed and engaged in light hearted small talk. The people waiting in line, without exception, were all in very good spirits and fun to talk with.

When it was our turn to meet Mr Brown, my spouse went first. They shook hands, introduced each other and I took pictures. They discussed making a trip to Kreuz's Market in Lockhart. :-) Next it was my turn. I shook hands with him and introduced myself. Then thanked him for coming to our little neck of the woods. He said he likes Texas and the people here. I'm sure he says that about every city he visits, mostly because everyone surely treats him very well, but it's still a very nice thing to say. I'll be honest and say that he was very gracious and a generally very nice person to meet. After the very brief meeting we moved along to let others progress in line and were given a boxed set of dessert DVDs from Good Eats. They didn't have to provide swag, but it was very nice of them to do that.

Now some of you might have noticed Alton Brown has lost a lot of weight. He's admitted such in a number of interviews. A lot of fans on LiveJournal and elsewhere have expressed concern about what appears to be extremely rapid weight loss. First off, it looks extremely rapid because of his production schedule. He's had months off, so any major change in his appearance will look abrupt. Second, during the book signing, he was jovial and full of energy and warmth. This was not an ill man. Reading into his AV Club interview it looks very likely that he's had a lap-band procedure or something similar. He expressed a desire to lose weight and said repeatedly that he's happy with his new, 50 lbs lighter, weight. More than a few people have said they liked him better heavier and don't like the new, lighter Alton Brown. Honestly, those people need to realize that he's a human being beyond his television persona. He stated he was unhappy with his weight and did something about it. Now he says he's much happier. Good for him. He's a busy man with a demanding job. It's good he can do something to make himself happy. And regardless of how "haggard" some people say he now looks, he looks just fine in person.

After the signing the two of us headed out for a late lunch with recommendations from the lovely MisoHungryNow. She directed us to Max's Wine Dive and a review of their brunch will be posted later. Thanks again!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Epcot International Food and Wine Festival

I'll be at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival next week, and thus will not likely be posting. Picts will be sent to Facebook, though. :-)

Stay tuned the following week because I'll have a book signing with Alton Brown and the festival, with picts, to discuss. Additionally a guest blogger will give a book review of Alton Brown's new book, "Good Eats: The Early Years."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Giving credit where credit is due

The new background and parts of the layout are from HotBliggityBlog.com.

Truman Chocolates - Review

Stand back, everyone. I'm about to do my first review as Cibatarian.

For my first review I selected a place I have been wanting to try, but just haven't gotten around to. Until now, of course. Local foodie buzz informed me that we have not one, but two world class chocolatiers within 50 miles of lowly Bryan and College Station, Texas. LOL...wut? How can this be? And why haven't I tried them?

So earlier this week I called the spouse and we headed over to the one closest to work: Truman Chocolates on Texas Avenue, North of University Drive in the same shopping center as Yesterday's and Luby's. Yes, that's right, it's hidden in a strip mall; much like Superman being hidden by his Clark Kent identity. [Who here didn't already know I was a nerd?] The location is extremely nondescript, with no writing on the door. It is recognizable by the stylized script on the top of the strip mall location and by the extremely clean interior, devoid of any unnecessary clutter.

Once you walk in, you can smell the chocolate. For a chocoholic, such as myself, that is worth the trip, alone. There is a small counter filled with the chocolates that are currently available, without a pre-order. The selection the day we went included about 25 different types, in a huge variety of flavors and colors. For the record, they accept special orders; everything from previously uncreated flavors to Food Network-style chocolate showpieces. And the first person you find is one of the chocolatiers - a very nice person to guide you in your selection and to offer free samples. Be still my beating heart!

First things first. We were there to select a gift box for a friend. I chose the larger of the two gift boxes; 16 selections at $36. With a little information about the recipient (a sweet tooth with a penchant for sweet alcohol) we selected jewel-pretty items with flavors ranging from white chocolate to mimosa, banana, cinnamon, passion fruit and chambord. All were individually hand-packed into a simple, but sturdy and elegant box.

Next we selected a gift box for ourselves. This time it was the smaller, 10 (?) space box for $20. Each of us picked 4 selections, checked out and were on our way. Did I mention how nice and professional our host was?

Much later in the day we finally found time to sit down with the smaller gift box we purchased for ourselves. Selections included, coffee, s'mores, margarita, mimosa, mojito, banana, peach, white chocolate, and two chambord truffles. Each was quite beautiful and painted, with edible paint, to match the flavor. Shiny finish and glittery sparkles were an elegant touch for some. Real gold leaf was a nice finish for others. We split all of them, except peach...I have a thing against peaches that can't be explained here. The spouse loved that one, by the way.

One thing stood out about all of the truffles: the ganache center was at exactly the right melt-in-your mouth temperature. Storing these too hot (next to the stove) or too cold (fridge) would ruin them. Additionally, the thin "crust" was extremely delicate, making these very easy to eat and preventing the weird contrast in texture that you can sometimes find in cheap truffles.

Each flavor tasted intensely as it was described. Banana was undoubtedly banana. Mimosa tasted like the drink. Mojito tasted of mint and lime. Chambord tasted of orange liquor and chocolate.

My only criticism is the white chocolate truffle. It was good, but not the best. For me, a lover of white chocolate, the best is when it has a creamy, milky taste without the chemical or plastic characteristic that can often be found in cocoa butter. Truman's was close, but sadly no El Rey. But, then again, only El Rey can be El Rey. So I hold it against nobody. I will say that Truman's white chocolate paired very well with the flavored ganaches, and as part of a team, it was very beautiful to taste and to see.

Do I recommend Truman's? Absolutely. At about $2 a truffle, it's a luxury and an indulgence. But one that won't kill the bank. It also makes a lovely gift for a chocoholic and/or foodie. For people catering events, I also recommend their special orders. Everyone was very professional.

Will I go back to Truman's? Absolutely. Those mojito truffles were truly a thing of beauty.