Update: Scroll to the end of the Eats section (yep, waaayyy down there!) for a mini-review of opening night, courtesy of one of our favorite DFB guest writers, Julie B!
We are headed back to the fifteenth floor of Disney’s Contemporary Resort today, as we take a closer look at the brand new California Grill!
The outpouring of Disney food fan love has just been astounding throughout the last eight months as we’ve continued to watch the newly re-imagined California Grill take shape. Folks who love the restaurant and its amazing menu have been anxious for news. Would it retain its panache? Would beloved dishes from the old menu make the cut? How would we survive with no Yoshie??
We are happy to report that, if possible, California Grill is even more spectacular than before. We were happy to show you a first look at all that was new after last Thursday’s media event. Today, we’re unveiling more details. If you haven’t already, get ready to make those advance dining reservations. I think you’re going to like what you see.
Settle in. This is going to be a long one!
Immediately, as you step out of the elevator onto the fifteenth floor, you are enveloped by the cool vibe of California Grill. You know at once that you’re in for a special experience.
If you weren’t aware of it already, now you know: wine matters in this restaurant. A lot. Wine coolers aren’t dressed up to be anything else; they’re unapologetically part of the decor here. This makes sense, as the restaurant now boasts 1,600 bottles of wine in the state-of-the-art wine display.
You’ll find around 250 wines on the list, with 80 available by the glass. And with more than 20 sommeliers on staff, you are literally enveloped in a wealth of wine knowledge.
Straight ahead, you’ll find the trademark view of Seven Seas Lagoon. With any luck there will be a spectacular sunset over the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa during your visit like there was for ours.
This area continues to serve as the lounge for the restaurant. You can still score a table here with no advance dining reservation, and the full restaurant menu is available for ordering.
The bar area continues to be highlighted by the ceiling’s circular cutout. While the shape is the same, the whole bar has been overhauled with new finishes. Comfortable seating beckons you to relax and have a cocktail or two.
To quote one of my Disney friends, nothing here is the same as it was! The lights are wonderfully whimsical. While modern, there’s still a retro feel here. In fact, the lights remind me a lot of old pictures I’ve seen of the Contemporary from the 1970s.
Tables are set for service. I was glad to see that the white tablecloths and cloth napkins returned after the overhaul.
Here, you also see mixed seating. Comfortable tables and chairs share space with booths that are situated at the edge of the dining area. I love the accessibility of the booths; like those at Jiko, you can enter and exit from either side.
They’re also located close to the kitchen, so guests seated there will have great views of the action.
Curves in the ceiling that were present in the old space have been updated with tonal lighting for continuity with other decorative elements. Warm tones of sunset actually served as inspiration for the color scheme.
As you wrap around toward the back of the dining room, you see simple white walls with backlit art niches. Clean decor includes identical vases in varying shades. It’s a sleek effect.
Back around at the front, I wanted to show you the new windows, which are truly remarkable. We all know that one of the biggest draws to California Grill are the sweeping, 360-degree views. You can see everything up there!
Designers and Imagineers decided to capitalize on that by replacing the windows for a greater guest experience. The new windows block ultraviolet light, and electronically-controlled shades ensure that just the right amount of Florida sunshine enters in.
I love the new centerpiece candles in different colors! They add just the right touch of sparkle to the tables.
Place settings definitely remind you that you’re in a fine dining atmosphere. And even though the experience is still supposed to be relaxed and fun, table settings are just a shade more formal, with a complete set of flatware, as well as water and wine glasses at each setting.
We showed you the new napkins during a first look preview last week. They replace the old green and white ones, and feature the restaurant’s new logo on a warm red background.
But a view back at the kitchen from the dining area lets you know that the kitchen is center stage here. Even with the beautiful decor and sweeping views, the artistry that’s taking place there grabs your attention.
And it is a well-orchestrated flurry of activity as the culinary staff goes about, preparing the evening’s dishes.
As the sunset gave way to a deep blue sky, we took advantage of the last light to check out the view of Bay Lake behind the Contemporary Resort.
While we’ve spent most of our time up to this point in the main dining area, seating is still available throughout the entire floor, including two separate dining rooms available for private functions. In addition, there is a private, glass-walled space that’s part of the main dining room that offers a quieter dining experience. It lies just beyond this wine fridge.
What was once the wine room has now been lightened up considerably, and shares the same decor as the rest of the restaurant. Lower ceilings mean a quieter overall experience, which may be preferable for some diners.
With low lighting and beautiful views, this is another great spot to take in a meal.
On the opposite side of the restaurant, The Napa and Sonoma dining rooms are perfect for private events.
Lighting here is the same as in the main dining room.
Back in the main dining room, this is a good time to mention the space’s new communal tables. They’ll be located at the north end of the restaurant, away from the kitchen. During the event, the tables were not set up, however, to make room for an opening cocktail reception.
After we finished touring the new space, I was interested in watching some of the action in the kitchen.
While it is true that the Grill reopens with veteran sushi chef Yoshie Cabral having retired, the returning staff is doing a fantastic job of carrying on the tradition of incredible sushi offerings.
Everywhere we looked, the culinary team was busy preparing dishes for the evening’s tasting.
It would seem that they’re as happy about the reopening as we were. And it’s a great time to mention how sharp the staff looks!
With the renovation and new menu, staff — both in the dining room and the kitchen — also received new togs. Gone are the black shirts and slacks that servers wore before. They’ve been replaced by grey shirts, dark slacks, and burgundy aprons.
The culinary staff have brand new jackets sporting black buttons and the new logo, and have traded in ball caps for berets.
Toward the end of the evening, we had the opportunity to take in the famous fireworks view! You can see them from the private room here. Lights are dimmed to make the most of the event.
But while fireworks are great and all, I couldn’t wait to get a look at some of those dishes! Time to take a look.
Since we have a ton of awesome information to share, I’ve broken the food section into smaller headings. I can’t wait to share it all with you!
Let’s get started with a tour of the bar!
The Bar and Cocktails
Not only did the food menu undergo some changes — the Bar Menu did as well.
In keeping with the general feel of the updates, the new bar menu features classic cocktails with some updated twists.
Ray, the bartender extraordinaire who has been with California Grill since it opened, was a delight to chat with as he handcrafted cocktails for guests.
We chatted a bit, and he talked about how the best cocktails are made with the finest liquors. When you try and substitute less expensive brands, your drink just won’t turn out right. I quite agree!
We showed you this one already, but it’s so pretty, I had to include it again! The Sake Martini combines Karen “Coy” Sake, Licor 43, and Cruzan Mango Rum with a splash of Orange and Pineapple Juices for a fun, exotic drink.
I also had a chance to try this beautiful Cucumber Fizz. Drinks with cucumber are all the rage right now. Ray told me that when they were formulating the new menu, they liked the idea of cucumber and were interested in seeing what they could come up with.
This drink plays on the classic combo of Cucumber and Gin, with a hint of lemon from Limoncello. It was very refreshing!
One of my tablemates also had an opportunity to try one of the new drinks. He went for the San Fran Pisco Sour. Cute name, eh?
The twist on this classic featured Porton Pisco, Lime Juice, and Agave Nectar. It also included a beautiful frothy topping from the Egg Whites, and just a dash of Angostura Bitters.
There were, of course, copious amounts of wine poured throughout the evening. We will not bore you with glass after glass of red and white, since they tend to all look the same when you photograph them. However, we did snap a pic of this lovely little glass of Sake, and we thought you’d enjoy seeing the good stuff served as it should be.
The taste was clean, crisp, and fruity, with the tiniest hint of yeasty sweetness.
The sake — Karen “Coy” Sake — was actually the same brand used to make the sake martini. It’s one of nine varieties that will be available to guests.
I couldn’t resist showing you the bottle. It was just so pretty.
I chatted with the server who poured my sake, and we also talked of the importance of quality spirits. I loved this little tag, which shows that this particular one should be served cold.
Before the end of the evening, Ray asked me to stop back by because he wanted to make me a special coffee drink. Well, who was I to argue?
The drink turned out to be this beautiful — and incredibly yummy — California Grill Coffee. With Godiva Dark Chocolate, Bailey’s, Licor 43, and Coffee, this was a perfect nightcap.
But we aren’t ready to talk about endings just yet. Let’s look at some more dishes!
Starters and Sushi
The menu at California Grill is extensive — at least compared to many Disney signature restaurants. And you see a large variety of offerings, especially in the Starters and Sushi section. It would be very easy to make a meal out of a few of these tantalizing options.
Under Soups, Salads, and Appetizers, you’ll find some classics, like the fan favored Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli. But you’ll find fresh, seasonal flavors as well, made with local ingredients whenever possible.
The menu will debut with a beautiful assortment of Heirloom Tomatoes as one option.
One of my favorite new menu items, however, is the perfectly named Duck In All Its Glory.
On the menu, this beautiful platter will include House-Made Sausage, Rillettes, Prosciutto, and Duck Liver Pate, and will be served with housemade garnishes, like Pickles.
Here’s a close up of some of the platter’s accompaniments, including those killer pickles, a play on the classic cornichons you normally see served with pate. There were also beautiful onions and the cranberry mustard mentioned on the menu.
Here’s my little plate of the assortment. As I sit here writing this, I super wish I had another round of all of these amazing duck preparations.
Hands down, my favorite was the duck liver pate. Incredible!
But lots of guests feel like a meal at California Grill isn’t complete without something from the Sushi Bar. The menu includes many favorites from before.
Beautiful sushi rolls take on a fusion of sorts, as they’re topped with Poke made with the freshest fish, and colorfully garnished with roe and baby herbs.
Platters of Sashimi are lightly flavored with the brightness of Yuzu.
I snapped this photo with my phone, and the quality isn’t quite up to snuff, but I couldn’t resist sharing with you this show-stopping platter. The colors blew me away, and everything was fantastically fresh.
Of course, I had to try a little of everything! The Seaweed Salad was delicious as well — and was perfectly seasoned.
Here’s a little Sashimi, along with a fun “take” on sushi — the Pork Belly Nigiri! House-Cured Pork sits atop a tower of Rice flavored with a little Yuzu and Bacon Fat.
This was completely amazing. I ate the components separately to catch the flavors of the rice, and sure enough, the subtle bacon flavor came through nicely.
There’s also new emphasis on utilizing the kitchen’s wood-fired oven. Now, you’ll find more than just flatbreads prepared there — although they’ll continue to offer that beloved menu staple.
We’ve had a couple of opportunities to taste the new Three-Meat Signature Meatballs, and they continue to blow us away with incredible flavors! This one packs the perfect punch of heat, and I love that.
While I didn’t have the opportunity to taste the Baked Jumbo Prawns, I expect this locally-sourced dish of Florida seafood will be a hit with guests.
The restaurant reopens with two flatbreads featured, including an Oven-Dried Tomato Flatbread.
Look for the flatbread varieties to change frequently to reflect seasonal flavors.
The commitment to a lighter approach to the menu is evident in the Entree selection as well. While some favorites remain, most dishes have received a makeover.
Breads have been updated as well. I was a HUGE fan of the amazing focaccia served here. But the new options are pretty special. They include Whole-Grain Sourdough Rolls and a new version of Focaccia, featuring California Lavender.
In addition to the goat cheese ravioli offered as an appetizer, guests will also find Roasted Squash Ravioli on the menu.
A light and delicious dish, the flavor is enhanced by one of the world’s most perfect foods — Sage Brown Butter.
The Pacific Halibut with Parsnip Silk and Roasted Heirloom Beets offers a firm, meaty flavor. I absolutely loved every component of this dish.
I’m a big fan of beets, and the flavor and color they bring to the dish with the roasted beets and the syrup were lovely. The Macadamia Vinaigrette provided an unexpected rich depth.
But my favorite component was the Parsnip Puree. I didn’t expect the silky consistency to contain this much flavor! I have a feeling I’ll be hitting up the chef for this recipe in the near future!
I think we all breathed a collective sigh of relief when word came that the Oak-Fired Filet would return!
I know that there’s a little hesitation about the new accompaniments, but I can confidently declare them to be fantastic! The Tomato Butter was exquisite.
And the Heirloom Tomato Risotto is bright and rich all at the same time. It’s a brilliant dish.
Desserts and After Dinner Drinks
Soon it was time to check out the Dessert Offerings. The Contemporary’s Pastry Chef, Jeff Barnes, created an entirely new dessert menu to celebrate the Grill’s relaunch.
A fine selection of Teas are available to enjoy as well.
I enjoyed watching the culinary staff as they put the finishing touches on components of the highly anticipated Sundae Sampler.
Heather proved to be handy with a blowtorch as she toasted meringue for another dessert.
The Caramel Corn Sundaes received a crunchy garnish of Caramel Corn before being offered.
No Sugar Added Lemon Meringue Cheesecakes were garnished with beautiful flowers.
And I think there’s something completely wonderful about row upon row of Chocolate Pudding Cake!
Assembled on a tiny plate, our sample-sized Sundae Sampler was just as cute as pictures had shown it to be.
While the presentation was darling and each component was beautiful, I wasn’t blown away by the float or the strawberry sundae. I did greatly enjoy the caramel corn concoction.
I am a complete sucker for honest-to-goodness caramel sauce — and this was the real deal.
But the surprise hit for me of the evening was the No Sugar Added Lemon Meringue Cheesecake.
I’m always on my guard when I read that a dessert is no sugar added. You never know what you’re going to get. But this cheesecake is fantastic! And as an added bonus, while I was chatting with one of the culinary assistants, she told me that the dessert was also gluten free!
Warm Homemade Fritters were another fun option. The play on flavors and textures was interesting, and I’ll look forward to hearing more about the Trio of Dipping Sauces!
The Chocolate Pudding Cake is a new take on a familiar favorite. The staff wanted to introduce something at once classic and original. Since lava cakes are widely available at Disney (and just about everywhere else), this was Chef Barnes’ answer — a dark, rich pudding cake.
The consistency was definitely more pudding than cake, and the subtle flavor of real infused mint came through. I liked it and it was beautiful, but my jury is still out on this one.
I would totally be up for another round of desserts, though. You know. For research purposes.
Mini Review From Opening Night!
Today, we are sharing with you a mini-review from California Grill’s opening night. The update comes courtesy of one of our favorite guest authors, Julie B! She tried both the Salmon and the Seasonal Tasting, and shared these photos and impressions:
The food was incredible! The salmon was cooked to a perfect medium and had a salty, crispy skin top. The saffron broth wasn’t overpowering, but served well to moisten the dish. I especially loved the little salmon cakes, which added a much-needed crunch with the soft fish. The real stand-out was the corn pudding- I could have eaten an entire bowl of it! Full of whole kernels and lots of herbs, it was perfect.
I also tried the Seasonal Sampler dessert and loved it. It was a fun twist on a childhood classic to serve the warm cider with a rock candy stirrer (I found the cider so strong that it needed a little sugar, and actually a bit of water to dilute it). The peanut butter caramel apples were fun, and the turnover had nice apple flavor, though I found that the cheddar got a bit lost and the pastry was a touch dry.
However, I loved the cardamom glaze and it made it look so pretty. The star of the dessert was the apple cupcake with an ample amount of cream cheese frosting. I have a real soft spot for cream cheese frosting (who doesn’t? yummmm), and this was a perfect, not-too-sweet, super smooth version. Good cream cheese frosting= happy Julie for sure.
I’m so happy California Grill is back, as I’m sure many other guests are as well.
And Those Amazing Fireworks!
But the real icing on the cake are those California Grill views. Nothing comes close to the experience of those lights dimming, and listening as the narration and music are piped right in.
Even outside, large speakers keep you right in the middle of the magic.
I think that California Grill has knocked it out of the park with this renovation. This has long been a favorite spot of mine, but it was clear that the bold palette that the Grill opened with in 1995 needed an update. Inspired by Mid-Century Modern Design, the dining room is elegant and perfectly recaptures the sense of history and love we Disney fans feel for the Contemporary Resort. You feel as though you are in the grandchild of Top of the World, the restaurant and lounge that occupied this space all those years ago.
From speaking to Chef Brian Piasecki, you can tell that he feels a true passion for this restaurant. It’s hard to tell for sure what the menu will look like exactly from a parade of tasting plates, but if they are any indication, the Chef and his staff have done a stellar job breathing fresh air into the offerings. An expanded beer, wine, and spirits list offers guests more options than ever before, ensuring that your meal at California Grill will be an event to remember.
And that’s the takeaway here. What they’ve done, both in terms of decor and menu, isn’t necessarily just classic. It’s more than that. They’ve taken the best of the past and married it with the most up-to-the-minute in food trends. It’s timeless.
Have you made your advance dining reservation for California Grill? Leave a comment and tell us if you’ll be visiting in the near future!
DFB author Brooke Fehr and photographer @MealTrip attended this event on behalf of Disney Food Blog. However, they were not obligated to report on the event, let alone give California Grill glowing review. But seriously — Pork Belly Nigiri and Duck In All Its Glory? Out of the Park. Read more about our Disclosure Policy here.