2006 International
Food & Wine Festival

Exquisite Evenings at Epcot

South Africa - Great Cape Classics

by Jack Spence
ALL EARS® Columnist

Exquisite Evenings Menu
October 6, 2006

Beet "Ravioli", Naarjies
with Fennel, Late Harvest Grapes
Kanu Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc, 2004
Toni Robertson Chef de Cuisine Mandarin Oriental in New York, New York

Seared Pacific Halibut with Forest Mushrooms Ragout
with Plaintain-Yucca Tart and Cilantro Drizzle
Mulderbosch Barrel Fermented Chardonnay, 2002
Anette Grecchi Gray

Cinnamon-cardamom-spiced Apricot Sorbet
with Hangar ONE Vodka
Anette Grecchi Gray

Beef Bredie and Stamp Mealie
with Sheep Milk's Cheddar Cheese and Autumn Vegetables
De Toren Z., 2004
De Toren Fusion V, 2004
Toni Robertson

Cheese Selection
Rolf Beeler's Shaved Hoch Ybrig with Honey Drizzle
Cypress Grove's Humboldt Fog with Quince Paste
Abbaye de Belloc with Roiboos Jelly and Spiced Bosc Pear
Thin-sliced Fig Bread and Challah Crisp
Mulderbosch Shiraz, 2002
Anette Grecchi Gray

Traditional South African Melktart
with Steeped Dried Fruit Compote and Malted Whipped Cream
Klein Constantia Vin de Constance, 2000
Toni Robertson & Anette Grecchi Gray

Up until last year, the most adventurous I had ever been at Epcot's Food & Wine Festival was to sample some of the tidbits sold at the many kiosks that surround World Showcase. Then last year, I was invited to partake in a food and wine pairing at the Canada pavilion. I thoroughly enjoyed the luncheon and decided that I wanted to try another event this year.

When I received the list of 2006 offerings, I read it with interest and finally decided that the Exquisite Evenings series would be something that I would enjoy; however, the $200 per person price tag made me a little nervous. This is a lot more money than I usually spend on a dinner out. After a lot of thought, I finally decided to bite the bullet and go for it and chose an evening that featured South African cuisine and wines. I called my neighbors and asked them if they would like to join me and my partner. After a quick discussion, they agreed to come along.

When I called Disney Dining to make my reservation, I could tell that this wasn't going to be my usual dinner at Epcot. First, my credit card was charged $800 plus tax right then. I was told that there was a seven-day cancellation policy instead of the usual 48-hour policy attached to so many other Disney events. I was also told that coats and ties were required for gentlemen and the ladies should dress accordingly. And finally, we were asked to meet at Epcot Guest Relations at 6 p.m. on the night of the event. Admission to Epcot was NOT required.

Beet "Ravioli", Naarjies

Seared Pacific Halibut with Forest Mushrooms Ragout

Luckily, the weather in Orlando is beginning to cool so wearing a coat and tie wasn't as excruciating as it could have been. As we were approaching Guest Relations at 5:50 p.m., I could see a long line. I cringed, but then spotted a small podium off to the side, manned by two cast members. I assumed correctly that this was where we were to check-in. I gave my name and then we were escorted backstage and into what I assume is the break room for the Guest Relations people. There were several comfortable couches (but hardly enough for everyone waiting), Disney pictures hanging on the walls, and a couple of fax and copy machines in the corner. Bottled water floating in ice was also available.

There were already several parties waiting and I immediately noticed that some of the men were wearing coats, but no ties. This irritated me since Disney reservations had made a big deal about ties being required. We made small talk with another gentleman who attends these events regularly. He assured us that we were in for a treat.

Beef Bredie and Stamp Mealie

Cheese Selection

We waited in this room until 6:25 (much too long since we were told to check-in at six) when a hostess announced that we would be transported to the Odyssey Restaurant in the order that we had checked in. For those of you who don't know, the Odyssey Restaurant is located between Test Track and the Mexico Pavilion. During the first few years of Epcot's operation, this was a counter service restaurant featuring hamburgers, fries, and the like. However, with all of the other dining options available at Epcot, this eatery was never too busy and eventually it was closed and is now used for special events.

I was expecting to be transported to the Odyssey by bus, but Disney had a fleet of Cadillacs that were used to shuttle four people at a time. After waiting another 10 minutes, my name was called and we were escorted to a car parked behind the Living Seas pavilion. Three of us rode in the back seat and one in the front.

My neighbors had never seen backstage at Epcot and enjoyed the ride around World Showcase, viewing all of the countries from the rear. Our driver tried to point out some of the sights along the way, but since I had been back here a couple of times on Disney tours, I was beating him to the punch most of the time.

South African Melktart

We arrived at the Odyssey around 6:50 p.m. Considering that we had to check in by 6, I felt it took way too long for us to reach our final destination. Once inside the restaurant, we were directed to a table and found name cards that had our table assignment printed on them. A waiter quickly appeared and offered us a generously poured glass of Kanu Sauvignon Blanc, 2005. Other waiters were passing around appetizers of Tikka-spiced Tuna Tartare, Roasted Sweet Potato Round with Parsnip Puree, and Seared Veal Loin.

We noticed that the Odyssey had a lot more guests milling around than had been transported by car ahead of us. We assumed that they had been enjoying Epcot earlier in the day, skipped the check-in at Guest Relations, and went directly here on their own. I wish that Disney reservations had given me this option.

I have been to several daytime events at the Odyssey and have never been terribly impressed with the decor. This is a very dated building and it shows. But at night, when the overhead lights are turned down and colored lights are projected on the ceiling, the room takes on a more subtle tone and is worthy of an Exquisite Evening.

A few minutes after 7 p.m., dinner was announced and we proceeded into the dining room. We found our table, where seating was assigned by name card.

Exquisite is the correct word for describing the table setting. The chairs were draped in gold satin with royal blue sashes and bows. The tables were designed to hold 10 people but were only set for eight. This was due to the fact that each place setting had six wine glasses, a water glass, four forks, three knives, a dessert fork and spoon, and a butter plate. A clear under-liner with napkin and menu (with our names imprinted on them) completed each setting. The centerpiece was a modern sculpture of a tree with votive candles atop several of its branches. Orange and yellow rose petals were scattered at its base. This was truly an impressive table.

After we were seated, several speakers took to the stage to welcome us and describe what the evening would entail. One speaker encouraged the obligatory "make a new friend by looking deep into the eyes of someone you don't know." Their opening remarks went on a little longer than I would like and my mind was beginning to wander. During the introductions, servers came around with hot, moist towels for us to wipe our hands. This was a nice touch.

While the welcoming talks continued, a glass of wine was poured and the first course was placed before us. Since the speaker made no notice of this fact, we all just looked at each other, not knowing if we should start eating. After looking around the restaurant, we saw a brave soul pick up her fork and start to nibble. This was the sign we were waiting for so the rest of us timidly picked up our forks and began to taste our food.

Sommeliers from some of Disney's better restaurants were on hand to pour the wine. In keeping with proper etiquette, they tried to always serve the women first (but didn't always succeed). Seconds were always offered for those who wanted more wine. When food was presented, four waiters would appear at the table with a plate in each hand so everyone was given their food at the same time. A nice touch.

For ease of reading, the full menu is at the start of this article, but I want to say that everything we sampled was excellent and beautifully presented. Also, the service was exceptional. One example, a votive candle burned out halfway through the evening. It was immediately replaced with a new one.

Now I don't want to say that everything was perfect, because it wasn't. When the first glass of wine was served, the sommelier poured it into what was obviously my neighbor's water glass. However, after the mistake was pointed out, the error was immediately corrected.

One touch that made the evening unique was the selection of red wines that were served with the main course. We were informed that this was the first time that one of these South African wines had ever been served in the United States. This made us feel kind of special.

Before, and often during each course, a chef or wine expert would talk about what we were sampling. A lot of this information was interesting, but much too much of their talks was spent telling us how wonderful South African wines are and how fortunate we were to be sampling them. Let me be the judge of that.

Others in my party agreed that the talks went on a little longer than they would have like. For us, it encroached on our socializing. I noticed that other tables continued to chatter during the talks rather than listen to what was being said. However, our table tried to be polite and keep quiet.

One thing we felt was missing from the evening was the personal touch of the chef or wine master stopping by each table to converse on a more intimate level. This would have been a lot more personal and would have added a touch of intimacy that was missing by having all of the talks delivered from the stage.

After dinner, each guest was asked if they would like coffee. When I asked for tea, a bag of Green Tea was placed on my saucer. When someone else asked for tea, they were given a Mountain Berry tea bag. Personally, at an event of this caliber, I really think I should have been offered a selection of teas rather than have an arbitrary sample given to me.

After dessert was served and the final speaker finished talking, the lights were turned up as if to say, "We're done. Get out." I didn't like that. I realize that it was almost 9:30 and Epcot was closed and emptying out, but I still felt I was being given the bum's rush.

Was the event worth $200 per person? Maybe yes. Maybe no.

Before and during dinner, I spoke with two other parties who told me that they attend two or three Exquisite Evenings each year during the Epcot Food and Wine Festival. Obviously, they feel they're getting their money's worth.

I do not feel that Disney was trying to gouge me in anyway. The food was outstanding and the wines were good and generously poured. If you're someone who is into wine and always looking for ways to broaden your knowledge, this is a good way to do it. Likewise, if you're a food aficionado and want to learn more, then by all means you'll enjoy one of these evenings.

But if you're someone who thinks twice before spending the money to go to the California Grill or the Yachtsman's Steakhouse, then you should probably pass on this event.

Also, if you're looking for an intimate and/or romantic evening, don't attend an Exquisite Evenings. There is too much information being presented and any attempts at intimacy will fall flat. If you want a romantic evening, try Victoria & Albert's. It costs less and the food, presentation, and service is every bit as good.