Yesterday Disney debuted a highly celebrated new feature of the annual Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival: Food. With an emphasis on fresh ingredients and many healthy choices, Disney’s culinary team has worked with their horticulturalists to develop a menu inspired by the festival, but entirely familiar to anyone who is a fan of the park’s popular Food and Wine Festival held each Fall.
Though the Flower and Garden festival still features many great Disney character topiaries scattered throughout the park, plus special presentations, exhibits, and interactive features, it’s the new food and drink offerings that are really getting attendees excited, hopping from booth to booth around the World Showcase sampling all that’s new.
As an introduction in the video below, Eric Darden, Epcot Festival Horticulture Manager and Jens Dahlmann, Epcot Executive Chef, talk about the collaboration between plant and food experts for the new multi-sensory experience.
Last night my wife Michelle and I ate our way around Epcot, determined to try at least one item from each of the 11 booths featuring food. We focused mainly on the food of the festival, though there are plenty of unique drinks available across those booths, plus a 12th devoted exclusively to beverages. But we did need to wash down all that food with a little liquid, also included in the review below.
Before we get to the dining details, leading up to the World Showcase are a few impressive new topiaries for 2013, beginning with huge versions of Disney’s “Fab 5″ at the Epcot front gate, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival.
On the other side of Spaceship Earth, Phineas and Ferb are prominently featured in their backyard, lit up at night with the ever-popular Perry the Platypus (as Agent P) lurking behind them, though not in topiary form.
Approaching the World Showcase entrance are Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan from the upcoming Disney/Pixar film “Monsters University,” definitely the showstopper topiaries at this year’s event, making a great photo opportunity.
Moving past the plants and onto the entrees, we take a trip around the World Showcase moving counter-clockwise, skipping the first booth on the right, returning to it at the end of the night (for reasons I’ll explain below). The booths are largely recycled from the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival but given new names. The food is not all based on cuisines around the world, as is the case with the Fall festival, instead simply uniting like flavors.
Portions overall seem to be slightly larger than plates during the Food and Wine Festival, but so are the prices, seemingly $1 or $2 more per dish, ranging from $4 – $6 on average, though there are still a few more inexpensive treats. Ordering is a breeze with rows of cashiers waiting ahead of the booths where the food is served. But more popular booths will surely still form long lines, particularly on the weekends.
There are also far fewer booths at this festival than the Food and Wine event, offering a much more leisurely stroll around the World Showcase with less to choose from. But that’s not to say there is little to try. One trip around the World Showcase was more than enough to stuff both of us with probably more than we should have eaten in one night.
Our grand total came to $72, or $36 each, which is quite a reasonable price considering just how much we ate and drank throughout the evening.
So which dishes were winners and which should be skipped? On with the food…
Each of the booths features specific plantings, bringing together the Flower and Garden theme with the food offerings. The Cottage offers quite the assortment of flavors from the following plantings: potato, kumquat, tomato, and chocolate.
It was also home to one of our absolute favorite dishes of the entire evening, which happened to be our first. The Baked Goat’s Brie with Kumquat Chutney was flaky and crispy on its pastry outside with a warm and gooey cheesy center, topped with a sweet, but not too sweet, chutney. Every bite was beautiful.
We also tried the Waterkist Farms Heirloom Tomatoes with House-made Mozzarella, Minus 8 Vinegar and Basil, which was light, refreshing, and crisp, but not a show stopper. The ingredients were surely fresh, particularly the tomatoes and strong-tasting onions, but the mozzarella was just a bit on the rubbery side and not salted enough.
Moving from one of our best experiences of the evening at The Cottage to our absolute worst, we found ourselves in France at L’Orangerie. Featured plantings here are eggplant, peach, rosemary, and tomato.
Of the three food offerings, we only tried the Verrine Charlotte au Peches (Caramelized Peaches, Rosemary, and Light Vanilla Cream). It was simply awful and quite inedible. I have to imagine that it was improperly prepared. While the cream on top and peaches on the bottom were decent, the layer of what appeared to be caramel in the middle was burnt beyond belief. With an overpowering bitter flavor that left a horrid aftertaste, we wanted to toss it after a single bite, but both went back for more just to confirm its problems. Sure enough, after a second bite this pricey item found its way straight into the trash. Avoid it at all costs.
UPDATE (3/20/13): The ratatouille tarte (Zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, onions and tomato tart with goat cheese) is an interesting blend of vegetables and not your average ratatouille. The salty goat cheese on top really pulls the dish together, which actually improved with every bite. (See if you can spot the hidden Mickey in mine below.)
Taste of Marrakesh
Fortunately the night picked up quickly after that, with Taste of Marrakesh providing excellent eats. Featured plantings here are parsley, mint, pepper, and pomegranate.
The Harissa and Lemon Confit Chicken Drumettes with Chermoula and Cucumber Salad is one of the event’s best dishes, with the chicken just slightly spicy but with a nice tangy flavor. Its accompanied cucumber salad is bright and simple, a good pairing with the strong chicken flavors.
The Spiced Lamb Kebab with Vegetable Couscous Salad wasn’t quite as good as the chicken, but still enjoyable. The lamb was cooked perfectly, pink in the center but charred on the outside. Unfortunately, it was somewhat under-seasoned for something called “spiced,” relying mainly on its sauce to keep it interesting. Its accompanying couscous was surprisingly sweet and actually better than the lamb itself, with a large portion size provided.
Hanami offers exciting Japanese flavors with plantings of yuzu, ginger, and coconut. This is where we had our first “TRYit!” menu item, dishes Disney has selected as healthier options for children to step outside their comfort zone to sample. And kids would definitely love the Frushi (Fresh Strawberries, Pineapple and Cataloupe, rolled with Coconut Rice, atop a Raspberry Sauce sprinkled with Toasted coconut and Whipped Cream). It may look like sushi, but it tastes like dessert. There’s no fish (raw or otherwise), instead only sweet and fun to eat flavors. The whipped cream is fairly bland, but the fruit is fresh, producing a few handheld squishy bites that are wonderful.
The Smokehouse is located in the America section of Epcot and is easily the largest of all the booths, with ample seating and plenty of room to spread out. Woody from the “Toy Story” series is looking over this barbecue.
The smoker does well for Disney at this booth, with featured plantings live oak, cabbage, collard greens, and jalapeno peppers. The Pulled Pig Slider with Cole Slaw definitely has a smokey taste, leaving off the BBQ sauce entirely, though making it available nearby (in hot and sweet varieties) for those who want it. For my tastes, the tender pork did need a little kick, made better by the sweet sauce. It’s a surprisingly large sandwich too, almost enough for a small lunch if paired with a side dish.
But even better was the Smoked Beef Brisket with Collard Greens and Jalapeño Corn Bread. This is where I really should have stopped eating for the evening, as this dish is a meal unto itself, with plenty of juicy, glazed meat featuring just the right amount of fat. The collard greens are warm and well seasoned while the corn bread is moist, but packs a nice little kick from the small jalepeno pieces inside. It’s a complete winner and one of the event’s best – and most expensive.
For dessert, the Rocky Road Brownie Mousse is everything its name suggests, with crunchy nuts, squishy marshmallows (real ones, not the cream or fluff), fork tender brownie bottom, and velvety mousse in the middle. But it’s not overly sweet, surprisingly, and served in a big hunk enough to feed two, a great deal for the price.
I am incredibly picky when it comes to Italian food but Epcot rarely disappoints. Featured plantings here are lemon, basil, and tomato. For a vegetarian dish, the “TRYit!” Lasagna Primavera (Spinach Lasagna, Green Peas, Zucchini, Mushrooms, Broccolini, Bechamel, and Fresh Tomatoes, with Garlic and Basil Leaves) is incredibly savory. Served piping hot, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this lasagna. It’s creamy, with perfectly al dente pasta, topped with incredibly fresh and flavorful tomatoes and bursting with flavor surprises throughout. Each of the vegetables inside has its own place in the meal, all coming together in a perfect dish.
Michelle is a big fan of lemon flavors, so the Panna Cotta al Limoncello (Limoncello flavored Panna Cotta, Wild Berries) was perfect for her. I tried it and thought it was merely okay, but she praised it far more, particularly the Limoncello-glazed berries on top.
Though already beyond full at this point, I couldn’t pass up at least one German dish, with featured plantings mustard, potato, and elderberry. The German Meatloaf Sandwich with Sweet Mustard and Fried Shallots is an explosion of flavors in every best sense of the word. The meatloaf definitely isn’t your moms, instead combining all the best German cold cut flavors, resulting in something similar to Krakauer sausage. The fried shallots cannot possibly be healthy, but boy are they good, with bold spicy flavor with every crispy bite. And the “sweet” mustard on the side is much more than that, packing quite a spicy tang in even the smallest amounts. My only complaint is the bread was a bit too crusty, making each bite difficult.
UPDATE (3/20/13): Potato Pancakes with house made Apple Sauce is both sweet and savory simultaneously, with a variety of textures throughout. It’s like a light hash brown topped with a gentle apple pie filling, minus the sugar or gooeyness. And it’s delicious, particularly the fresh apple sauce.
The amount of food served with the Savory Bread Pudding with Spring Peas and Wild Mushroom Ragout is astounding. It’s a heavy, huge dish that tastes entirely like mushrooms and nothing else. Even the biggest mushroom fan might find it a bit overwhelming. Mine went in the trash after just a few bites.
Though the Chinese food at the Lotus House booth sounded good, with featured plantings strawberry, taro, and tea, we had very little room left in our stomachs at this point with a few must-haves still down the road. So I opted to go for a drink instead, getting the Peach – Oolong Bubble Tea. I’m a big fan of drinks with boba and was happy with this one, creamy and rich with every comforting sip. But I was a bit disappointed to find Disney did not provide the standard extra large straws to drink it with, making it quite difficult to enjoy the boba, either having to spoon them out or find them stuck at the end of the tiny straw. Nevertheless, it’s a huge drink that I couldn’t come close to finishing.
UPDATE (3/20/13): The Pan-Fried Vegetable Bun is a big dish, only slightly browned on the top and bottom, the rest left fluffy, waiting to be torn open to get at the finely chopped vegetables inside, warm and quite filling.
The Spring Pancake with Grilled Chicken and Green Apple is like a Chinese taco, with a crunchy vegetable medley, tender chicken, and a hint of spice from Sriracha drizzled within. It’s a rather big dish and quite good.
Beijing-Style Candied Strawberries are fresh, juicy, and sweet, covered in a thin crunchy layer of hardened sugar. It’s enough to share and makes for a nice dessert.
Jardin de Fiestas
With featured plantings corn, jalapeño, prickly pear cactus, and agave, the Mexican dishes here are on a must-try list for next time. But coming close to the close of this evening, we opted for a Conga Fruit Punch (an old Epcot favorite) and a Flan de Guayaba (Guava Custard). The Conga is a mixture of fruit juices, including orange, pineapple, and cherry (we think) that’s perfectly refreshing for any time of day.
I don’t normally enjoy flan, but this guava flavored version was quite good. Michelle, on the other hand, loves a good flan and upon discovering the gooey layer of guava gel at the bottom was quite excited about this dish.
UPDATE (3/20/13): The Taco de Carnitas (Pork Taco topped with Tamarindo salsa, served on a flour tortilla with Chicharrón) is wonderfully flavorful. A soft tortilla wraps perfectly juicy finely shredded pork, with crispy pork rinds and crunchy fresh green onions adding texture and a burst of flavor. This is one of the event’s best dishes.
Almost done with the evening, we circled back around to the front of the World Showcase with Florida Fresh’s plantings of bell pepper, orange, and white corn. I couldn’t pass up the “TRYit!” Watermelon Salad with pickled Red Onions, BW Baby Arugula, Feta Cheese and Balsamic Reduction. This would make a great first course to start off the culinary adventure, with fresh juicy and slightly watermelon complimented by vibrant and bold flavors from the balsamic reduction and feta cheese. It’s quite the robust salad.
Finally, we ended up at the booth that we skipped at the beginning, as I wanted to save this highly-anticipated treat as my final dessert: Dole Whip with Siesta Key Spiced Rum. The Dole Whip is a fan favorite from the Magic Kingdom, but adding alcohol to it is certainly something new. I’m not a big drinker, but I did enjoy this, with the rum developing the rather simple soft serve pineapple into a much more complex treat, certainly only for adults. I would have preferred a more complicated recipe than simply dishing out a small Dole Whip and dousing it with some rum, but ultimately those looking for a punch will find it here. The rum definitely packs one, with just a hint at first on top and quite a wallop at the bottom. It’s the one item of the entire event that every adult must try out of curiosity, but not everyone will like it the same. Personally, I’d prefer to stick to a good ol’ vanilla-pineapple swirl.
UPDATE (3/20/13): The Pineapple Upside Down Cake is a perfect way to finish a trip around the World Showcase with moist cake made even more moist, accompanied by a creamy vanilla sauce with toasted coconut shavings. The only downside was the actual pineapple ring on top could have been a bit more flavorful.
Though we both left with stomach aches from consuming far too much food, we’ll definitely head back soon to try some more options and will continue to update this post as we do. So far, the Baked Goat’s Brie from The Cottage and chicken from the Taste of Marrakesh booth are among our favorites, with many following closely behind.
In addition to food and drinks, Disney also has some fun new merchandise for the festival this year.
And at the end of the day, Mike and Sulley helped us wave goodbye to Epcot just before the Illuminations fireworks show began. But we’ll be back soon, as the addition of food and drinks to the 20th Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival have instantly made it the best one yet.
More photos from the 2013 Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival: