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by Debra Martin Koma, July 2002
After a too-long absence from the California Grill, I recently dined there with several friends to find that the place is still as wonderful as I remembered. As a person who is resistant to change, the news that Chef Pleau had left the Contemporary's restaurant caused me some concern. But John State, formerly of Flying Fish Cafe, has more than adequately stepped up to the plate.
Our server, Eric, made us cozy in lounge near a window overlooking the Magic Kingdom -- a breathtaking view on this summer's evening.
As we all contemplated the somewhat transformed menu over our assorted cocktails, Eric brought us an order of the triple cheese/triple garlic flatbread ($8.50). Roasted, toasted and poached cloves of the fragrant bulb graced the toasted bread, which was generously sprinkled with cheeses, sundried tomatoes and oregano.
The various appetizers we selected reflected not only the diverse tastes of our dining party, but the wide range of cuisine styles available on the menu.
The Roasted Corn Soup ($8.50), made with coconut milk and accented with delicate crabmeat, was, as our server had stated, worth a trip to the Grill on its own. Sweet and savory at once, it was an unforgettable start to the meal. Tomatoes in All Their Glory ($9) lived up to their name, attractively arranged on the plate and bursting with color and the flavor of summer in a balsamic dressing with fresh basil. The Wine-Braised Artichoke ($10.75) with prosciutto was a unique and flavorful presentation for this underrated vegetable, while the various sushi sampled upheld the California Grill's reputation as a superb sushi kitchen. A new taste treat, the pluot (a hybrid of the plum and apricot), graced the Arugula and Frisee salad ($8.75), which was also daringly accented with blue cheese and candied pecans.
Remarkably, we still had room for our entrees even after sampling such luscious starters. My Pork Tenderloin with polenta and balsamic smothered mushrooms ($19.75) is a California Grill mainstay, and should remain so under the new chef's hand. It was grilled to juicy perfection, and presented beautifully on its bed of polenta. Gone from the menu was the beef prepared with savory tamarind -- instead the beef offering was a center cut Filet, served with herb-roasted potatoes, haricots verts (the tiny thin green beans) and a blue cheese sauce ($29.50). With an outstanding filet such as this, no one will notice the absence of the tamarind (although it is available upon request). Finally, our dining companion pronounced the Pan Roasted Soft Shell Crabs with a summer vegetable ragout and garlic-lemon butter ($28.75) the best he'd ever had -- we'll take his word for it! At Eric's suggestion, our meal was accompanied by a 1999 Domaine Vincent Girardin Burgundy Clos de la Confrerie, a lighter red that opened up nicely as the night progressed.
Late in the meal, pastry chef Wayne appeared at our table and to make dessert recommendations. After hearing his mouth-watering descriptions of the evening's selections, none of us could resist. Luckily, we are all good sharers and dessert forks and plates were passed around generously. The stand-out dessert of the evening was, as Wayne had foretold, the Grand Marnier Crepes with vanilla custard, raspberries and blackberry coulis ($8). A hint of tart orange offset the sweetness of the custard and blended with the tender crepes as they melted on the tongue. Sheer perfection! This is not to say that the straight-from-the-oven nectarine, peach, cherry and apricot tart with almond streusel ($8) was a poor choice. Far from it, the almost cobbler-like tart warmed one's soul, and was elegantly refreshed with muscat ice cream. Even the piping hot Valrhona Chocolate-Banana Bread Pudding with banana-rum ice cream ($9) exceeded expectations -- I normally am a purist when it comes to this favorite comfort food, but the chocolate/banana combination was not too sweet, as I'd feared it might be, nor too rich, and the cold sweetness of the ice cream was an extra reward for the tongue.
The overall experience convinced me that some change, like the change of chefs at California Grill, can be for the good. I can't wait to try it again!
by The Czarina
AllEars® Feature Writer
This article appeared in the September 15, 2000 Issue #50 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
CZARINA'S ROYAL TABLE
EXPLANATION OF SORTS: The Czarina is a Real Person who eats -- a lot -- at Disney World. She takes sole responsibility for all opinions stated below, de gustibus non disputandum and chacun a son gout. Do let us know what you think about this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bon Appetit, dear beloved Public!
Today's royal table is about a marvelous evening we had at the California Grill. Let me set the scene for you..... I hadn't a thing to wear, but compromised on a Hawaiian shirt and black jeans; perhaps a feeble attempt at California cool, but it worked for me. I met my dining partner, the editor of ALL EARS and WDWIG and we took the elevator to the 15th floor of the Contemporary Hotel.
We are both California Grill veterans, and were looking forward to an evening of great food, wine and conversation. We were not disappointed.
After a drink at the beautiful Grill bar (3 Olives vodka martini for her, Absolut Citron vodka and tonic for me), we were seated at a window table by the fabulous Eric, longtime server at the Grill and a friend of Deb's. "If you have a favorite restaurant," she says, "get to know one of the servers and you'll always be treated well!"
The Magic Kingdom was spread out below us and the sun was setting. The lights around the lagoon began to twinkle as we settled in to wait for Sorcerer Rob, who was joining us. While waiting, we mentioned to Eric that we thought we'd like to drink a nice Zinfandel, but couldn't decide which one. He promptly brought six (6) bottles of Zins, each a different vintage. We sipped them all -- what a relaxing and civilized way to start an evening! We settled on a Four Vines '97 California Zinfandel, a Petite Sirah blend which we enjoyed all through dinner.
With our wine tasting came the signature California Grill basket of homemade sesame flatbread and foccaccia with a saucer of peppered olive oil for dipping -- an excellent foil for our tasting. Foccaccia has become commonplace in many WDW restaurants, but the CalGrill version has the Czarina's seal of approval. Not too oily, not too dry, and not adorned with onions or other toppings.
Deb made a cel-phone call to Rob and determined he was running late, and since we were about to slide off our chairs with all the wine we'd imbibed, we decided to order.
For first courses, Deb chose the Hobb's Prosciutto with Melon Relish and Lemon Pepper Aioli ($9.75), and I had the Tomatoes in All Their Glory with Opal Basil Vinaigrette ($9.25). My tomatoes, both yellow and red, were simply sliced in a pool of the balsamic vinaigrette with a piece of puffy bread in the center for mopping up the sauce (a thoughtful addition). Deb's prosciutto was declared the winner, however -- a hefty amount of pink ham in a rosette, atop a timbale of diced cantalope and honeydew with a long, thin breadstick stuck through the middle.
The dusk turned to darkness below us; Cinderella's Castle turned every color in the rainbow and the boat lights left shining trails on the lagoon. We were very happy with our Zinfandel and began to call our friends on the cel phone. Fortunately for them, not too many were home to get our "guess where we are, nyah-nyah" messages.
Our main courses arrived: Tamarind Barbeque Beef Filet with Crushed Boniato and Buttered Rainbow Chard (a CalGrill favorite, $28.50) for her, and Roasted Artichokes and Herb Ricotta Gnocchi with Mushrooms, Tomatoes and Tofu (the veggie entree of the day, $19.50) for me.
Deb ordered her filet medium rare, and it arrived *very* rare, so she wisely sent it back. It was returned promptly at the proper degree of done-ness. I must admit that the tamarind sauce, which is rather sweet, does not do it for the Czarina, but I have many friends who swear by this dish and order it over and over. Boniato is a potato-like root veggie, by the way.
My artichoke dish was smashing, I thought, and reasonably priced by Grill standards. The gnocchi, three in number, were large pillowy dumplings and very nicely herbed, and the huge artichoke bottoms were divine. This dish was so large that even I could not finish it, yet it left me feeling sated but not stuffed.
At this point, Sorcerer Rob appeared declaring he had already eaten and was just joining us to chat. We were very glad to see him and he certainly is a charming companion! We finished our entrees as the Magic Kingdom burst into fireworks which seemed to be exploding right outside our window. Your Czarina sighed with contentment.
We talked Rob into sharing dessert with us ("as long as it's chocolate"), and dived into Chocolate Cheesecake Wave ($9.00) and Key Lime Pie Souffle with Rum Sauce ($9.50). While we still pine for the legendary CalGrill chocolate souffle, the Key Lime is properly intense. I didn't love the rum sauce, however -- actually, I felt this is one souffle that could go without sauce altogether. The cheesecake was divine decadence, and the "wave" was a large curl of chocolate ganache attached to it. We tried to leave some on the plate, but failed. A grand finale!
THE BOTTOM LINE: While the California Grill is one of the priciest restaurants in the World, it is truly that rare combination of great food and wine, great but unfussy service and a priceless ambience that makes special occasions Special and Unforgettable. It is the kind of place where you plan your evening carefully and savor each moment.
CZARINA'S TOP TIP: To keep the bill out of the stratosphere, split an appetizer (most are large) and try the vegetarian entrees. They are inventive and delicious.
Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.