Following a fun and festive media gala marking the reopening of the “re-imagined” California Grill, I returned to the refreshed restaurant at Disney’s Contemporary Resort on opening night to take in a proper dinner service and try many new dishes.
Upon leaving the press event last week, I was invited by Disney to return to the California Grill to experience more than just small plate samples. I was also given a $50 gift card as an added incentive to return, an appreciated gesture but one that had no influence on my opinions of the food and service below.
Arriving late in the evening, I was quickly informed by a few friends that service was running quite a bit behind, with some patrons waiting well over an hour for food. Fortunately, that proved to not be true for our table of four. After a short wait, we were seated in the back room across from legendary Imagineer Mary Blair’s artwork and photos.
And as we entered the room, Illuminations fireworks burst high over Epcot in the distance, an unexpected but appropriate bonus to begin an evening of bursts of flavor with every course, featuring surprises both good and bad.
The goal of the night was to order only items we hadn’t sampled during the previous event. High on the list was the 24-hour short rib filet, which sadly they had run out of shortly before we arrived, one of only a few strikes against the updated restaurant on this opening night.
I started the meal with a Cucumber Fizz drink, deceivingly refreshing featuring a light mix of Sprite and cucumber water. But its largely hidden gin packs a decent punch. It’s not as good as the sake martini, but a good second place.
For appetizers, our table ordered and shared Pork Pate Flatbread, Oven-dried Tomato Flatbread, Heirloom Tomatoes, and Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli.
Of the two flatbreads, the pork is definitely preferred, offering salty, savory, and perfectly crispy bites. The tomato flatbread is good, but fairly standard. The tomato salad is fresh and crisp, with a tangy dressing and a bit of a kick from its peppercorn. And the single large ravioli was a bit of a surprise, but ultimately fulfilling with creamy warm goat cheese wrapped in perfectly cooked pasta swimming in a light tomato broth, a welcome spin on a typical heavy tomato sauce. Of the four, the salad and ravioli offer the least for the price while the flatbreads are small meals unto themselves. They were all served quite quickly, even before we had decided on our entrees.
Once we did, our table ordered Georges Bank Scallops, Wild Columbia River Salmon, and Bell & Evans Chicken.
When the scallops arrived, I first thought it was quite the tiny dish for the high price of $43. But two bites in I realized there was more than enough for a meal in front of me, with the rich buttery sauce and dense but soft gnocchi making quick work of my appetite. Combined with hearty smoked pork pieces, the perfectly seared scallops were well seasoned and nearly fork tender. Sadly, the parmesan foam listed on the menu, while visible, didn’t really add anything to the taste.
The salmon was ordered medium on the chef’s recommendation, but arrived to the table somewhere between rare and medium rare, definitely undercooked – a second strike on opening night. But our server was quick to correct the issue, bringing out a fresh dish within just a few minutes. In fact, all of our entrees arrived much more quickly than we’d expected, especially given our warning on the way in. Once cooked properly, the main salmon filet was still trumped by the crispy salmon cakes and corn pudding, the real stars of this dish – or so I’m told. I didn’t try it myself, but my friend quite enjoyed it.
In stark contrast to the scallops, the chicken dish arrived with a huge serving, not only offering a generous cut of incredibly moist breast and wing but also a large chicken sausage along with a bowl of truffle mac and cheese. The sausage was better than most of its kind, not too spicy or sweet and definitely not dry. The truffle mac and cheese prominently featured that instantly recognizable truffle flavor, but was a bit too loose in the cheese sauce. The downfall of this dish, however, was the far over-salted skin, initially masked by the accompanied teriyaki barbecue glaze, but ultimately leaving a lingering bite on the tongue. Apparently over-salting was a fairly common problem throughout this opening evening across many a table.
Finally, we went with lighter options for dessert, ordering the Chef’s Selection Cheese Board and Seasonal Tasting featuring a variety of apple-based small servings.
I am a lover of most cheeses and was particularly impressed by the selection offered at the California Grill, each perfectly paired with sweet accompaniments. Across the five cheeses, every note was hit from nutty to milky to salty to earthy, all with rich enjoyable flavors. The actual selection changes, but on this evening they were Beechers Flagship Reserve, l’Explorateur, Bonne Bouche, Fiore Sardo, and Caveman Blue. The fresh raisins, honey, brittle, jelly, and fig perfectly balanced the cheeses on top of crispy bread. It’s all a must-have for cheese fans.
The apple selections sadly were not as memorable. Though the cider was warm, fresh, and brought up happy feelings of Christmas, the cupcake tasted of little beyond cream cheese and the turnover was on the dry side. I wouldn’t order any of it again.
After around 2.5 hours of comfortable dining, I left the California Grill completely satisfied. Though there were a few bumps in the road, it was an overall pleasant dining experience, particularly while seated in the semi-private back room with only a few other tables present. It is much quieter than in the grand dining room and though it doesn’t offer the same gorgeous Magic Kingdom views, we did head out onto the new viewing platform to watch a bit of the Wishes fireworks show, an excellent break between appetizers and entrees and an opportunity to stretch our legs to make the long meal feel like it flew by fast.
Though not all was perfect on opening night, the California Grill lived up to its promise of serving interesting food with bold flavors made from fresh ingredients, with nothing ever feeling too heavy. Though ordering an appetizer, entree, and dessert adds up fast, some of the starters are big enough to have just a single course and still leave happy and full, which I most certainly did.
More photos from the California Grill: