Join us in welcoming guest author Corey Patterson with his first review on the Disney Food Blog. Corey starts off at the top of the world with his experience at the California Grill. Take it away, Corey!
Location, location, location. Every one knows these are the three most important aspects in a successful property. However, in the case of California Grill in Disney’s Contemporary Resort, the food outshines even the outstanding location and takes top billing.
For a few years, I had heard that if I couldn’t eat dinner at Victoria and Albert’s (which is on my bucket list), then California Grill was a great alternative. So, when I attended a recent conference in Orlando, I made sure that eating at the top of the Contemporary was on the agenda.
And, I must say, after my first Cali Grill experience, I would wholeheartedly agree with the high praise.
As we arrived at the Contemporary Resort, we were a little unsure of how to get to the restaurant. But signage and friendly cast members quickly pointed out the reception desk on level 2. We checked in and were whisked away in the elevator to the 15th floor at the top of the Contemporary Resort.
I purposefully made our reservation at California Grill at 9:20 so that we were sure to be there during Wishes, but I was still surprised to see the restaurant so busy at that late hour. I most likely underestimated the crowds for the week and really shouldn’t have been shocked since WDW is getting busier as summer approaches.
Since we made a reservation, we walked right in and didn’t wait more than 10 minutes for our table (which was enough time to grab something from the awesome bar!). A very nice young lady named Sam greeted us when our table was ready and made it a point to explain everything about the restaurant (such as the location of the Terraces and the restrooms,) and even slowly walked us by the open kitchen on the way to the table so we could witness the magic happening there.
While Sam was wonderful, we were a little disappointed when we learned she was seating us in the “Wine Room” at what seemed to be the back of the restaurant. While very nice, very secluded and very quiet compared to the rest of the restaurant, we were unable to see the Magic Kingdom from our table. This was a HUGE mistake on my part. I will now make the mental note (and you should too) to always request a table near the windows overlooking Magic Kingdom.
I will note that the wine room did have a view of a different part of Bay Lake, and Sam mentioned we should be able to see Epcot (and Spaceship Earth, in particular). But we could never really pinpoint Epcot and it was dark, so we couldn’t really enjoy the lake view. This deflated me just a little, but it wasn’t anything a good meal couldn’t overcome.
Around 9:50, an announcement was made that Wishes would be starting soon and encouraged diners to move to the Terraces on the top of the Contemporary resort. The front terrace was decidedly more crowded, but we chose it anyway and had a great view of Wishes.
Now, the Disney folks could have just allowed guests to move out on the terraces and enjoy the amazing view of the fireworks, but I was extremely excited to learn that Disney had placed speakers all along the top of the hotel that allowed guests to hear the music and dialogue of the show, just like you were in the parks! How on earth had I missed this?? Anyway, I was really excited to experience Wishes the way Disney intended. It was a great surprise!
Before I get to the food (which is a major part of the Disney Food Blog), a quick note about our server, Saad. Saad was from Morocco and had been at the California grill for a few years. He told us his story of how he came to America, worked at the Morocco pavilion at Epcot, moved to the Grand Floridian, and ultimately landed at California Grill.
He has been working at the World for over 25 years. Then he pointed out another server who had been with Disney since 1972…that’s 40 years! It was awesome to hear about his passion for Disney and about his journey. Oh, and his service was fantastic! He pointed out several items and timed our appetizer and entrees around the fireworks so that our food didn’t get cold. Brilliant!
As I mentioned at the start, after the great service, fantastic location and amazing fireworks, you would think the food would be anti-climactic. Au contraire, mon frère!
Before the fireworks show, we chose to indulge in the Cheese Board. This was the best choice I have made in a WHILE. There were five cheeses and they ranged from having mild to robust flavors (the Bleu Cheese was outstanding…but really strong). The “Lamb Chopper” cheese was smooth and creamy and might be my favorite cheese I’ve tasted.
Each cheese was “paired” with small palate-cleansing additions such as figs or pear gelatin. By far, my favorite of these “pairings” was a very small bowl of honey just off of the comb (not pictured). The chefs even left a little of the comb in the honey and it was quite simply one of the best things I have ever tasted (even if I am prone to superlatives!). And don’t tell the etiquette police, but we found ourselves using our fingers to ensure we got every last drop. It was amazing.
In addition, Saad brought a hearty basket of Bread and Salted Butter, which was an amazing addition to the appetizer portion of our meal.
For the “First Course”, my buddy selected the Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli while I chose the Steamed “Big One’s” Mussels. I was pretty sure he made the better choice after we ordered, but I was still looking forward to the mussels.
Once everything arrived, we found that the Ravioli was a great balance of pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and the goat cheese (which wasn’t overpowering). Delicious.
The Mussels, which had been suggested to me by a Disney Imagineer (via Twitter), were amazing and more than plentiful. I mean, the dish was huge. There were almost 20 mussels that were bathed in beer, Chorizo, and buttercup squash.
Initially, I wasn’t a huge fan of the flavor of the mussels as they were very salty and “ocean-y”. However, once I paired the mussels with the chorizo and the accompanying grilled sourdough, they took on a whole new flavor and I found myself wanting more after they were gone. Great recommendation, Jason!
For the second course, my buddy decided that since it was now “Soft Shell Crab Season”, that he should try that. I, on the other hand, was starting to get really stuffed (did I mention the Mussels dish was a LOT of food?) and didn’t want to leave in a food coma, so I reverted back to the first course menu and chose the Crispy Rock Shrimp Salad.
The Crab was pretty good, but the crust didn’t have a ton of flavor for me and we were undecided about the citrusy sauce that came with the dish. To be honest, the crab wasn’t that memorable.
The salad, however, was outstanding! I’m a huge fan of mixed greens and the combination of citrus, onions, wasabi cream and soy reduction was super-flavorful, but didn’t overpower the dish.
I actually expected to have a lot more heat with the wasabi, but it was just right. In addition, the shrimp were adequately crispy, yet were very soft. It was a fantastic choice and, after tasting both, I unilaterally decided that I won that round of ordering!
Now, I do have one negative thing to say about California Grill. I was too full to order dessert! This rarely happens and I am very disappointed with myself. Let me apologize to you, the reader, and I can assure you, it won’t happen again. In fact, I made the vow to make up for it with a Kitchen Sink next time I’m at Disney.
All in all, California Grill lived up to my expectations. With an unparalleled location, great food and Wishes fireworks (with music!), California Grill will be hard to beat. However, I am more than willing to try! (Victoria and Albert’s…you have been served notice!)
Thanks to A.J. for letting me write this review! Your suggestions were great and your excitement is very contagious! See you real soon!