On a recent trip to Walt Disney World, I met a group of friends at the Contemporary Resort’s California Grill for what promised to be a memorable dinner.
It was my first trip to the hallowed culinary spot since the dramatic re-imagination of both the restaurant itself and the menu earlier this year. I’m a big fan of Chef de Cuisine Brian Piasecki, and I was anxious to see what he and his team had put together for the opening.
Having heard mostly good things about the new menu, and lots of raves about the decor refresh (see some breathtaking photos here!), I was really looking forward to this special night out. Would the restaurant deliver on expectations? Well, kind of…and kind of not. Let’s delve into the full story.
If you’ve never been to California Grill, getting there is a bit of an odyssey. Although the restaurant sits high atop Disney’s Contemporary Resort, you’ll begin your journey on the hotel’s second floor, where the check-in desk is located.
From there, you’ll be directed to an elevator where a cast member will escort you up to the restaurant. This way, the staff can practice a little crowd control, as the restaurant’s lobby and bar can get quite crowded at times.
You emerge from the elevator and are greeted by sleek design, accented by cool colors and rows and rows of wine fridges. Form follows function, as California Grill’s stellar selection of wines is well known.
Time your visit just right, and another hallmark of the Grill’s atmosphere greets you —
— A beautiful sunset through the picture windows directly ahead of you. I was lucky on this visit, as I got to see both the sunset AND the fireworks through those floor-to-ceiling windows!
As I mentioned before, California Grill underwent an extensive renovation earlier in 2013. If you haven’t been to the restaurant since then, you will find that almost everything looks completely different from before.
We shared lots and lots of photos with you from the reno in that previous post, including pics of the private dining rooms. Be sure to pop over there if you’d like to see even more decor detail. For now, we’ll just give you a quick tour.
Step away from that glorious sunset, and you realize that you passed the beautiful bar area as you entered. It’s just to the left as you step off the elevators and head into the restaurant.
Directly in front of the bar, there’s also a limited lounge seating area. This means that you can, theoretically, score a table without an advance dining reservation, or meet here for appetizers and drinks on a whim. That said, the lounge is first come, first served, and you can imagine the scramble for seats during the fireworks. So look alive if that’s your plan!
Where the view is concerned, there are really no bad seats in all of California Grill! But the window seats on the Magic Kingdom side offer the best view if you’re going for fireworks. As part of the renovation, new windows were installed that block ultraviolet light, and electronically-controlled shades ensure that guests are never blinded by that bright Florida sunshine.
A glance across the seating area gives you a good overview of the new color scheme. Cool neutrals provide the backdrops to lots of color. The design and color scheme were inspired by the works of Disney art legend Mary Blair, whose classic mosaic murals are the centerpiece of the Contemporary Resort’s Grand Canyon Concourse.
The whimsical lighting is one of the most striking touches of the new seating area. The indirect lighting and delicate curves in the ceiling are part of the old decor, but the fun new chandeliers lend to the cool, retro feel of the space.
The open kitchen area is now marked by a simple and sleek facade of stainless steel.
Speaking of the kitchen, it’s a flurry of activity, and you can see stations for nearly all of the dishes, from the oak-fired oven and sushi station to desserts.
During our visit, I was able to capture the chefs working together to put the finishing touches on guests’ plates before they were delivered to tables.
It was also fun to observe one of the servers lighting the candles for this special occasion cake. Pretty cool!
And while the food should be (and normally is) the first reason to book a table at California Grill, that spectacular view is special for another reason, of course.
As I’ve mentioned previously, time your ADR just right, and you can witness the fireworks from Magic Kingdom from this most magical of vantage points. Choose to sit inside the restaurant, where the lights are lowered and the music and narration for the show is piped in. Or take in the view outside from one of the Grill’s observation decks.
We’ll have a few more shots of Wishes below. But for now, let’s turn our attention to the food.
This was my first trip to California Grill in quite some time, so I was very interested to see what I’d find.
The Grill is almost as well regarded for its wine list as for its menu. Guests can choose from more than 300 wines that have been selected by the restaurant’s sommeliers, with over 50 wines available by the glass.
The menu follows roughly the same outline as it did previously. Guests will note that, where once the wood burning oven was used most normally for flatbreads, there are now a number of dishes being prepared there.
And Sushi still also plays a big role in the menu with several selections available — some traditional, and some more playful takes.
Appetizer and Entree options, while limited, still offer a nice variety of tastes and flavors, from vegetarian to heavier options. (I totally would have been all over that Carrot soup if it wasn’t for the cilantro! Evil herb!)
We began with a couple of drinks from the bar. I had two over the course of the night, and since I only found one drink on the bar menu that I was interested in trying, I ordered my old standby — the Midori Sour — as a starter for the evening.
Later, I sampled the Passion Fruit Margarita from the actual bar menu. This went down smooth and was deeeeelicious!
After we made our menu selections, our server brought a basket of bread. I absolutely loved the Grill’s focaccia prior to the menu refresh. Where there was once only one bread variety, there is now a selection of two or three.
I do love the attention to detail with the herb garnish and sea salt on the butter. I wish they gave everyone their own little bowl of butter. Sigh. I know it’s cost prohibitive, but, alas.
The new breads were a-OK, but we mostly were saving our appetites for the large quantities of food we were ordering!
We knew that we wanted to sample a couple of offerings from the sushi menu next. Sushi has always played a significant role at the California Grill. The menu there emphasizes the best of seasonal ingredients, but the Asian influences are unmistakable.
Since we ordered sushi, we were all presented with chopsticks. You can see the new logo printed on the front.
And just in case your chopsticks make it out of the restaurant, wrapping intact, here’s a nice little reminder for how exactly you go about getting a reservation here. In case you forget.
I was intrigued to read the “tagline” for the newly renovated Cali Grill: Vibrant and Charged Atmosphere. What’s a “charged atmosphere” I wonder?? Any thoughts? Leave your ideas in the comments for what that’s supposed to mean.
One of the playful updates to the menu is the introduction of some not-so-customary sushi options. Capitalizing on the raging popularity of pork belly these days (huzzah!), the team has introduced this east-meets-west option: Pork Belly Nigiri. It’s a fusion of flavors and forms, as the house-cured pork tops the maki roll in nigiri fashion.
Pork is carried through the dish into the Rice, which is flavored with Bacon and Yuzu.
This dish was one I’d really been looking forward to, and I did enjoy it. The pork belly was a little cold — and perhaps that’s how it’s supposed to be served; how do I know? — but it was a slight turn-off for me. That said, I did eat all of the pork belly on the plate, so there you go.
For a more customary take on maki, we also tried the Dragon Roll and the California Combination Roll.
While I’m not a big fan of sushi, everyone else at the table seemed to think it was good, if a little more expensive than warranted.
Another friend decided to sample Heirloom Tomatoes. The presentation of the dish was stunning with the different colors, and the addition of Grilled Bread and Ricotta Cheese to the mix made for a great combination. This was a winner.
Next, I couldn’t help but order a California Grill classic and one of my favorite dishes in Disney World: the Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli.
This appetizer has been a menu staple at the Grill since its beginning, and it remains largely unchanged, except for the sauce. It’s a little more delicate than the previous iteration, which was made with hearty sun-dried tomatoes.
The Tomato-Fennel Broth that they’re using now is supposed to enhance the tangy, rich flavor of the Goat Cheese without overpowering it. Personally, I couldn’t tell a big difference. It’s still lick-the-plate-clean good, and well worth ordering. I wish they had it on the menu as an entree!!
One of the standouts of the night was the Oven-Dried Tomato Flatbread, featuring Beefsteak Tomatoes, Buffalo Mozzarella, and Aged Balsamic Vinaigrette.
It was a simple dish but executed well, and we really enjoyed the concentrated flavors of the Dried Tomato and Aged Balsamic against the creamy cheese.
The other favorite dish of the night was the Roasted Squash Ravioli, served with Root Spinach and sweet-spicy Parsnips, and topped with Sage Brown Butter (yum!), and 12 Year Balsamic. The rich, vegetarian dish was gorgeous and delicious, which made it a surprise winner for sure.
Unfortunately, this is where our experience started to take a turn for the worse.
Up to this point, service had been a little slow, which we were willing to overlook. But besides the ravioli, our entrees we not particularly inspired, and that was more than a little disappointing.
One friend opted for the Georges Bank Scallops. Served on a bed of Gnocchi with Smoked Pork, Grilled Onions, and Baby Brussels Sprouts, the scallops themselves appear to be seared perfectly, with a nice, golden crust.
However, my friend found them to be entirely too salty. Could it be the fault of the Parmesan Foam? Possibly. (Parmesan foam? Really?) Or maybe someone was just a little heavy-handed with the salt shaker.
I opted for the Bell & Evans Chicken. Let’s just get out of the way that I probably shouldn’t have ordered this. Who goes to California Grill and orders the chicken when they could have the filet or the pork?!? Good question, dear reader, good question. I have no excuse, except that I figured I’d already HAD the filet and the pork and they probably weren’t all that changed from the previous menu, so I figured I’d try something new.
Bad idea. The chicken itself boasted a glaze of Teriyaki Barbecue Sauce, and came accompanied by Glazed Vegetables and Chicken Sausage. But also figuring prominently into my decision to order it was the accompanying side of Truffle Mac & Cheese.
Sounds pretty good, right?
In reality, it was sadly lacking in flavor (except for the chicken skin, which was awesome), and the chicken itself was dry.
But at least I had the Truffle Mac & Cheese, right? Well, unfortunately, it was a huge let-down, too. Tasteless and dry, my dish could have benefitted from some of the salt that was spilled into my friend’s. The noodles seemed to be bathed in olive oil, but I couldn’t detect much cheese flavor at all.
Another friend ordered the 24-Hour Short Rib “Filet.” This is a dish that was much anticipated, as it was a star of the new menu. We all tried it, and while it was fine (better than the chicken for sure!), it was unmemorable.
After a disappointing turn in the meal, we were hoping that dessert would prove to be a bright spot. As with the main menu, many of California Grill’s desserts have been updated or are brand new.
Guests can also choose from the After Dinner Drink Menu in addition to or in lieu of a dessert.
There are also a wide range of tea selections.
The Chocolate Pudding Cake is a lovely presentation. With Nutella Filling and Mint Chantilly, it offered an incredibly strong chocolate flavor. This is the right choice for you chocoholics!
Warm Homemade Fritters were also cute with their trio of Dipping Sauces, and these were a hit at the table! We each enjoyed a different dipping sauce, so that worked well! I liked the more rustic and freeform dessert at such a fancy-schmancy restaurant!
The Seasonal Tasting Dessert, which featured Heirloom Apples, was also an interesting option.
Breaking through the sugar topping on the Apple-Cinnamon Crème Brûlée revealed a custard that was a beautiful color and a perfect texture. I loved this mini-dessert, but others at the table didn’t enjoy the flavors at all! To each his own!
Of course my favorite part was that topping of cream cheese frosting on the apple cake! I asked my server for extra, but he said they were pre-made. The cider, with its little sugar stirrer, was a fun touch as well!
We wrapped up the night by taking in the fireworks from inside the restaurant. It’s always a beautiful way to end a busy day at Disney, and we got to see HalloWishes on this evening (the show that’s put on during Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party!)
Welp, I’ll definitely still recommend California Grill. Enough of the evening was worth it that I’ll continue to return (plus, it’s tough to review a restaurant when it’s newly re-opened, I understand). But I did learn some lessons:
1.) Don’t order the chicken. At a place like Cali Grill, that’s just asking for trouble. Order the dishes that have made it through iteration after iteration of the menu: the filet, the pork, the goat cheese ravioli, to be safe.
2.) Here’s a lesson I keep learning over and over again: desserts at signature restaurants in Disney World are likely not worth the money, so be prepared. To be fair, my dessert palate is pretty comfort-food-esque, so if you’re like me and would always prefer to end your night with a No Way Jose no matter what fancy dessert is on the menu, take heed.
Now, here’s a bit more info on the evening: we visited on a night when the chef de cuisine wasn’t in the house, so it’s possible that the team was still adjusting to operating on nights without him at the helm. Our past experiences with California Grill have been, for the most part, very positive. And the views and atmosphere remain unparalleled in Walt Disney World. So I’m willing to concede that this was an off night for the well-loved restaurant, and my hopes remain high that my next experience will be back at 100%.
I’d love to hear from you now. What has been your experience with California Grill since the reopening of the restaurant? Leave a comment and share your thoughts below!