Thanks to my mom’s tenth anniversary gift to me and my husband of a week’s stay in her timeshare (we traded Newport Beach for Orlando), we spent November 15th to 22nd at the Marriott Grande Vista near Sea World. Timeshares are a difficult proposition because you have to want to be in the same place for seven nights and at the same time you have to not care that you’re not staying in a real hotel. I cook and bake a fair amount at home in Los Angeles, and I enjoy it a lot, but on vacation my kitchen adventures are limited to making the morning coffee and opening the carton of yogurt for breakfast.
My task was to find restaurants where we could eat agreeably and maybe even a bit adventurously, without resorting to national chains, while at the same time spending four of our six full days at the Magic Kingdom (yes, we love Disneyland). Several searches of this board over a few weeks’ time yielded surprisingly little information. I decided not to post because posts of the sort like, “I’ll be in Orlando for a week and I know nothing so where should I eat?” are pretty lame.
Fortuitously, I noticed that Scott Joseph posts a lot on this board. I followed a link to his site, looked it over, got a couple of ideas (Luma on Park, in particular), and eventually emailed Scott directly. I gave him an idea of our likes and our schedule. Scott weighed in on the choices I’d already made, gave me many additional suggestions, and kindly left the door open for further consultation. I took him up on it during the middle of the week, to finalize our last two open evenings. He was able to really key into the style of dining that we enjoy, so his recommendations turned out to be really well suited.
Here’s where we ended up, what we ate, some impressions of the service received, etc.:
Saturday dinner - Graze. We arrived extremely tired from the flight, and quite hungry. Cocktails were delivered forthwith. For starters, I had a very nice arugula salad dressed with curry vinaigrette and some thinly sliced beets, and my husband had the wedge salad. For mains, I chose the pork chop (cooked exactly as requested), while hubby opted for the fried chicken which I definitely never make at home. Fried chicken just isn’t that big a thing in Los Angeles! Dessert was the cheese plate, which we judged as adequate. The server was a bit inept - there was a minor course timing problem attributable to him - but he was nice enough.
Sunday lunch - Tusker Lodge at Animal Kingdom. This wasn't bad at all, for a buffet. We are veterans of a few of the Las Vegas buffets but not big buffet fans in general. Some of the dishes at Tusker Lodge were pretty good, including samosas, chicken curry, salmon, and a couple of the condiments. I liked that there were plenty of veggies available and they weren't cooked to death. There was a nicely done tofu dish. Desserts - always a weak part of buffets, IMO - were not enticing and the few sample bites I had were rather bad. I liked that they presented the hot food on small platters, as that requires them to refresh it more often, always a good thing when it comes to buffets. We got there before it opened so were in the first group to eat, which probably also helped. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it, though like most things Disney it is somewhat overpriced.
Sunday dinner - Luma on Park. This turned out to be our favorite dinner, by far. While the hostess was leading us to our table, we spotted the counter at the pastry station, so we requested to sit there since we are giant fans of watching the goings on in restaurant kitchens. The pastry chef, Brian, was incredibly friendly and generous throughout our meal. To begin, we were given an amuse of chestnut soup, except it wasn't amuse-size, it was more of a regular bowl. Then, we shared a salad with arugula, frisee, avocado, and hazelnuts topped with a breaded and fried ball of herbed goat cheese. The cheese was cleanly fried and wasn’t even slightly greasy. We also had carpaccio which was accompanied by a deep-fried soft boiled egg. I don't know how they do that egg but it was awesome. Our third shared starter was a shrimp salad with feta and cucumber. For our main course, we shared the cheeseburger which was excellently meaty. We often eat like this, sharing a bunch of appetizers and one entrée, and it was so easy to do at Luma. Also, Brian had said he was going to give us desserts galore. Twist our arms! We were served all six desserts on the menu and it was amazing. My favorite among them was a rosemary financier. Rosemary isn't my favorite herb since it can be really overwhelming, but this was done very well. I believe the batter was infused with the rosemary, but the herb was then removed, as there weren't any pieces of rosemary to be detected. I'm kind of an ice cream geek - it's my favorite dessert, and I make it at home too - and they had some unusual flavors such as chestnut, Calvados, and butternut squash. Service was top notch.
Monday lunch - the sushi restaurant in the Japanese pavilion at EPCOT. The best I can say is that we had a great view from our window seat. My husband didn't complain about his tempura. My seaweed salad was adequate despite being tragically overdressed. As to the limited sushi we had, the less said the better. Yes, we should've known better, but it's not like we just went to some random Japanese restaurant in an Orlando strip mall (in fact, most of the best sushi in L.A. can be found in strip malls). The servers were quite sweet and we were happy to help them practice their English. They seemed surprised that we would eat with chopsticks and didn't want forks.
Monday dinner - Bistro de Paris at EPCOT. Generally the food was quite good. Despite our 8:00 p.m. reservation, there were lots of families there with little kids, some of whom were very well behaved and some of whom were, shall we say, less so. I suppose that’s to be expected, although Bistro de Paris isn’t exactly your average theme park venue. Like our lunch that day, they assume you know nothing. I ordered the escargots appetizer and was asked if I'd ever eaten escargots. Uh…yes, for about the last 30 years! Anyway, my husband had the tuna tartare appetizer which was very nice. For mains, I had scallops and he had rack of lamb, both properly cooked. For dessert, Grand Marnier soufflé for me and some sort of ice cream bombe/tartufo-type thing for hubby. Instead of pouring whipped cream or another custardy sauce into the soufflé, they pour in a shot of Grand Marnier. It was very boozy, and delicious. The presentation of all the dishes was lovely. Bistro de Paris was a very interesting experience. We chatted quite a bit with our charming and personable server and were able to learn a bit about how the young folks who work in EPCOT live. Knowing absolutely nothing about this beforehand, it was quite interesting to hear about. Plus we were able to offer some unsolicited advice to our server about his potential travel itinerary through the States once his tour of duty at EPCOT is over.
Tuesday lunch - one of the places at Magic Kingdom. I have forgotten the name. It’s in Tomorrowland and has three stations where you can order burgers at one, chicken at another, etc. I had rotisserie chicken which was fine enough and they didn't give me any problem when I requested all veggies (string beans which thankfully were not drenched in butter) instead of veggies + mashed potatoes. Husband had a chicken sandwich which was a chicken sandwich. They have a condiment bar where you can help yourself to pickles, hot peppers, various dressings, as well as sautéed onions and mushrooms which was an unexpected touch.
Tuesday dinner - Flying Fish Café at Disney’s Boardwalk. It was absolutely freezing walking down to the restaurant from our car. In fact the whole week was disappointingly cold, not that anyone can do anything about the weather. While the restaurant has a big corporate atmosphere, the food was actually very good. However I was disappointed by their lack of any local seafood or fish whatsoever - I specifically asked. No grouper. No nothing. I had a shrimp starter with pickled hearts of palm. My husband had a bufala mozzarella and heirloom tomato salad. Both starters were quite delicious and extremely generously portioned. For mains, I had seared yellowfin (seared very rare, as requested) with Asian-ish veggies and a slightly curry-ish sauce, while my husband had scallops which were huge and delicious. The desserts didn’t read too well on the menu, so we skipped dessert. Service was proper yet friendly. Martinis were good too. There was a woman wandering around with some kind of computerized keypad and I asked our server what the woman was doing. She was basically monitoring the status of the tables so that the front of house could manage the crowds. We’ve never seen that before and it struck us as very Disney.
Wednesday lunch – café at the main Visitor Center at Kennedy Space Center. Café is too nice a word. No need to discuss the food. Don’t eat there. However, the Kennedy Space Center was a wonderful experience otherwise.
Wednesday dinner - the bar at the Grand Bohemian hotel. I had been to Orlando briefly before, for a concert about six years ago, and had stayed at the Grand Bohemian for one very quick night. My husband didn’t accompany me on that trip, so I wanted him to see the bar since it’s not exactly your average hotel bar. We had cocktails and ended up ordering off both the restaurant and bar menus. I liked that we had the flexibility to mix and match from the menus. Wedge salad for hubby to start, then he had the steak wrap off the bar menu. I had the mixed greens, then grouper off the restaurant menu. We don't get a lot of grouper out here and I like it so I like to get it when the prep sounds enticing. Unfortunately I can’t remember exactly how the fish was prepared, but I do recall I liked it. Dessert was a white chocolate bread pudding but it was more like a cake with white chocolate sauce and it was way too sweet. It was freezing in the bar as it was in many of the other restaurants we visited in Orlando. Still, it was fun going back there and we enjoyed chatting with fellow patrons as well as with the friendly bartenders.
Thursday lunch - Liberty Tavern at Magic Kingdom. My salad (chicken, smoked cheddar, apples, and pecans) was better than his sandwich (roast beef and Swiss on some pretty dry-looking foccacia). Our server had quite the sense of humor which was a pleasant surprise. One interesting aspect of the lunch had to do with how Disney handles dietary restrictions. My husband has a weird lactose intolerance that disallows sour cream, crema, crème fraiche and milk (unless they are cooked) but allows whipping cream, ice cream, yogurt and cheese. The sandwich he wanted came with coleslaw which can sometimes contain sour cream. They actually sent a chef out from the kitchen to discuss the restrictions in detail, and the chef was highly knowledgeable (as he should be) about the ingredients contained in the dish. Kudos to Disney in that regard, but obviously they have to be concerned that they don't sicken and/or kill their customers so they know how to handle these kinds of issues.
Thursday dinner - The Ravenous Pig. Very nice people, very good food, and you can tell they are passionate about what they are doing. Like with Luma on Park, after spotting that The Ravenous Pig had a counter where you can watch the kitchen while you eat, that's where we sat. I began with the "farmer" salad with arugula, bacon, soft boiled egg, and croutons. It wasn’t exactly healthy, but it was extremely delicious with an excellent interplay of textures. It was kind of like eating bacon and eggs on salad. That salad may have been my favorite single thing that I ate all week. My husband started with stone crab claws and he very much enjoyed the apple and celery salad that accompanied the crab. Then we shared a charcuterie platter and every item was excellent. We'd only ordered three of the meats but we ended up with all five of the meats and the two cheeses because of a little service glitch. Then, we shared the burger. We judged it pretty good but not as good as the burger at Luma. We were tempted by the cod cassoulet and if I had to do it over again I'd probably get that instead of the burger. Truffle fries are always nice though. For dessert I had an ice cream sampler - maple syrup ice cream, toffee/almond ice cream, and a milk sorbet - the maple syrup ice cream really rocked. My husband had a cobbler, pear-cranberry I believe.
Friday lunch - Lac Viet Bistro. Wow, this is the fanciest Vietnamese restaurant I've ever been in, not to mention they have a full bar! We eat Vietnamese food pretty regularly at home but the place we go to is super casual with a large but apparently basic menu of quite delicious and inexpensive food. Our knowledge is very basic as well and we were a bit awed by the menu at Lac Viet Bistro. We began with the sweet potato cakes topped with shrimp still in the shell. This dish was totally new to us and we absolutely devoured it. It had a lovely element of sweetness. Then my husband had a stir-fry dish with triangles of pan-fried noodles all around the edges of the plate. It's kind of similar to a dish he gets here, but he said the saucing was quite different in that sauce was thicker and more flavorful. I had a bun soup, the first one on the menu in that category, the menu says "spicy" but it wasn't very spicy. My soup contained thick noodles and brisket that actually tasted similar to the brisket I make. They use good quality meat. The herbs served with the soup were a bit different from what I'm used to as well, in that they just had mint mixed with some torn lettuce. No basil or that sawtooth-edged herb whose name I don’t know. Sorry but I don’t have the exact names of the dishes that we ordered.
Friday dinner - Norman's. We knew we wanted to eat at Norman’s because we really, really loved the Norman’s branch that was here in L.A. for a couple of years - the food was terrific, the room was sophisticated, the service was warm and professional. Sadly, our experience at the Norman’s in Orlando was the biggest disappointment of the trip, probably because we had quite high expectations. No soul, no love. Although, they did start us with complimentary Champagne because the concierge at our timeshare, who’d made that reservation for me, had mentioned it was my birthday (close enough, it was a few days away). That was the end of any real warmth from the staff and even that had kind of an impersonal, perfunctory edge which is a bit difficult to describe because it wasn’t overt. I asked for a cocktail menu but none was forthcoming, so when the sommelier came around I asked him and he said they were revamping the cocktail menu but they could make anything I wanted. I asked if they had fresh juices for cocktails and he said no, so I decided on a glass of wine instead. That whole exchange felt strange. We decided to share three of the dishes from the “tapas” section to begin. We had tempura green tomatoes (excellent), steak tartare (also excellent, served with plantain chips) and shiu mai (ok). The “tapas” were the best part of the meal. Then we shared the simplest green salad with some little bits of average soft goat cheese and dried fruits. I could’ve made this salad at home for about a dollar, and they charged $14. I don’t mind paying if the ingredients or preparation are special but in this case I felt that dish was a ripoff. My normal menu detection skills eluded me there. For mains, I had the grouper which had kind of a puttanesca sauce. The dish was saltier than it should've been even considering the inclusion of capers, olives, etc. My husband had the pork dish which he did enjoy and it was pretty on the plate. Desserts were uninspiring, which was my only complaint about the Norman's that was here as well. So, no dessert. The service was professional but cold. The room is sort of cold, too - very Ritz Carlton. All in all, we just weren't impressed.
Saturday breakfast - First Watch on Sand Lake Road. Not bad for a local coffee shop (I asked the concierge for a non-national-chain breakfast close to the resort). Our omelets and home fries were acceptable and this was a good place for us to eat after checking out of the resort since we had a short time between then and our flight.
All in all, thanks in large part to Scott Joseph, we had a better-than-expected week of eating in Orlando. Also, we really enjoyed the boat tour of the lakes in Winter Park that we took on Friday afternoon, it was very interesting.