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Cuisine Scene: Nine Dragons Review
by Debra Martin Koma
AllEars® Senior Editor
This article appeared in the July 8, 2003 Issue #198 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
There are so many good restaurants at Walt Disney World, it's surprising when you hear a lot of complaints about one in particular. But over the years, that's how it's been with the Nine Dragons Restaurant, located in the China pavilion of Epcot's World Showcase.
Maybe "complaints" is too strong a word, although we have heard from many disappointed diners on the quality of the food. More often, though, the disgruntled will say something along the lines of, "The food wasn't bad, it just wasn't any better than the Chinese food I can get from <insert local Asian restaurant name> down the street. Plus, it's a heckuva lot more expensive!"
With comments like that in mind, I've always shied away from Nine Dragons during my visits to the World. But since my ongoing goal is to reduce the number of Walt Disney World restaurants at which I've not dined, I decided it was time to finally venture into Nine Dragons to find out what everyone else was talking about.
A few weeks ago, our party of four arrived about 15 minutes early for our 7:30 p.m. Priority Seating. We were shown to our table immediately, and as it was a very busy Saturday night, I took this as a good sign. Our server came promptly to take our drink orders, so we could sip while we perused the beautiful 250-seat restaurant and its lengthy menu.
The atmosphere was lively, but not overly loud, and I enjoyed looking at the intricately carved and painted Oriental wooden screen lining one wall and partially shielding the kitchen entrance. Dark wood tables and ornate matching chairs were placed a little too close for comfort to one another around the open, brightly lit dining area, but the oversized windows featured a gorgeous view overlooking World Showcase.
Our meal began with a variety of starters. The Appetizer Tri-Star ($11.95) was a combination of three popular dim sums: tender sauteed dumplings filled with pork and vegetables known as pot stickers, two Shanghai-style shrimp and pork spring rolls, and two Chicken Shao Mai (sometimes spelled Shu Mai), a traditional dim sum made with chicken, shrimp, and water chestnuts with a subtle trace of ginger. The crispy spring rolls were only just average, but the pot stickers were savory and the Shao Mai bursting with flavor. The platter was garnished with steamed asparagus spears and carrots coated with sesame seeds, an unusual, not to mention colorful, touch -- I think we enjoyed them as much as the "real" appetizers. We also sampled the Fried Almond Shrimp ($8.95). The large butterflied shrimp, coated generously with crushed almonds then deep-fried, were inviting, yet upon biting into one, one thought emerged: "Where's the taste?" They weren't salty, they weren't fishy, they had no distinctive cherry-almond flavor whatsoever -- they were, in a word, bland. Much more worth the effort of chewing were the lightly spiced taro root sticks that were served with the shrimp -- with the same texture and consistency of an unsalted French fry, these little accompaniments were "some-morish." The appetizers came with three dipping sauces, including a spicy hot mustard that would clear even the stuffiest sinuses. Wow!
The official info for this restaurant says that it serves cuisine from five Chinese provinces, so we scoured the menu hoping to taste a sampling from a variety of regions. The Beef with Spicy Sha Cha Sauce ($18.50) represented the Hunan/Szechuan region, enlivened as it was with hot peppers and a slightly tangy soy-based sauce. Accented with generous slices of Buddha's hand squash, the marinated, stir-fried beef strips were tender and juicy -- a clear winner.
The two chicken dishes we chose, however, were a disappointment, not because of their quality, but because of their similarity to one another. General Tso's Chicken ($16.75) is a popular item on most Chinese restaurant menus, and Nine Dragons' version was appropriately sweet with just a slight zing. The crispy batter-dipped and fried chicken chunks were dressed in a light brown sauce and accented with lots of onions, an uncommon, but not unpleasant, touch. The Honey Sesame Chicken ($17.95) was tasty, but the breaded and fried chicken pieces were virtually the same as those used in the General Tso's dish -- the only difference was that they were coated with a cloyingly sweet, thick honey glaze and sesame seeds. Of the two, I preferred the General Tso's, both because of its added peppery zip, and its less sweet aftertaste.
Finally, we chose Mu Shu Pork ($15.45) to represent the northern, or Peking, region of China. The lean, shredded pork is sautéed with scallions, mushrooms and other vegetables, then mixed with a scrambled egg, and served with four thin "Mandarin pancakes" and rich, slightly sweet hoisin sauce. (Note: the menu says the dish is "hand rolled in Mandarin pancakes at your table." Well, yeah, it was... by me.) Mu Shu Pork is one of my favorite Chinese dishes -- in fact, I had had it from the Chinese take-out place back at home just a few days before my visit to Orlando. Nine Dragons' rendition of the dish was perfectly acceptable -- not outstanding, by any stretch, but probably on a par with the Mu Shu I'd had earlier in the week. The main difference is that at home I'd only paid $6.50 for the dish.
I understand from one of our dining companions, a longtime and frequent Walt Disney World visitor, that Nine Dragons has evolved over the years, and not necessarily for the better. As someone who has spent time in the Orient and is familiar with "real" Chinese food, my friend noted that to some degree it was inevitable that the Disney restaurant would "Americanize" the dishes to suit most patrons' tastes. Still, he waxed nostalgic for the earlier incarnation of Nine Dragons, which originally featured cuisine more authentic to that found in the region.
After such a lackluster meal, we weren't at all tempted to stay for dessert (can you believe that I said that? I can't!), especially since my very favorite fireworks show, IllumiNations, beckoned us outside. Instead, we munched on our unusual two-tone fortune cookies -- chocolate and vanilla, that was a surprise! -- and headed out to catch the evening's show.
I would have to say that given our experience at Nine Dragons, the criticism leveled at it by disappointed diners is fair. While the service was friendly and efficient (we had plenty of steamed rice, our water glasses were frequently refilled), it wasn't overly attentive. And even though I certainly wouldn't call our meal here bad, it was just not exceptional in any way. Well, unless you count the prices, which were more than twice what you would pay for an almost identical meal at any other Chinese restaurant outside of Epcot. If I were craving Asian-inspired food, I'd return to Teppanyaki in the Japan pavilion next time.
Nine Dragons Dinner Menu: http://allears.net/menu/menu_9dd.htm
Lunch Menu: http://allears.net/menu/menu_9dl.htm
Children's Menu: http://allears.net/menu/menu_9dk.htm
(Note: Probably not the best place for a very picky child -- the Nine Dragons children's menu is very limited.)
Recipe for Nine Dragons' Honey Sesame Chicken: http://allears.net/din/recipes/rec_hsc.htm