Eat This: Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival – Italy Booth

It’s rare that the weather is cool enough during Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival for me to even think about Italian food, but the cloud cover yesterday offered up the unique Florida afternoon pasta craving. I jumped on the chance to see what Italy had to offer this year.

Italy Booth Menu Epcot Food & Wine 2017

  • Crispy Calamari with Spicy Pomodoro Sauce ($8)

Italy Booth Food & Wine Calamari

I so wanted to love this. I adore a good calamari and a sauce with a kick. The calamari itself was prettily presented and cooked perfectly, but at least this particular batch was much too salty. That actually seems to be a theme at Food & Wine this year. It’s rare that I don’t like a dish but when it happens it’s often the salt content that does it. If you’re craving calamari I certainly wouldn’t turn away from this, but it wasn’t a favorite – especially considering the $8 price tag.

  • Spezzatino con Polenta: Beef Stew with Parmesan Creamy Polenta ($7.50)

Italy Booth Food & Wine Spezzatino con Polenta

This. was. delicious. A rich beef stew with lots of sauce nestled in with a healthy serving a creamy, cheesy polenta. The stew was hearty and the polenta with parmesan was everything that a good polenta should be – the consistency of smooth mashed potatoes that cut the richness of the stew perfectly. Admittedly not something that would call my name on a typical hot day, but if the weather is right again I would happily go back for more.

  • Absolut Penne: Vodka Sauce with Shrimp ($7)

Italy Booth Food & Wine Absolut Penne

Yes. Yes. Yes. Eat this. The pasta is cooked perfectly. The shrimp are generous. The sauce is light and has a perfect little kick to it. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be out there inventive to be good. And when you’re trying to represent a country with a dish, sometimes it pays to keep it simple and good. Japan’s BLT sushi roll could learn a lesson from Italy this year. The spezzatino was excellent, but this penne was easily my favorite dish at the Italy booth.

  • Cannoli al Cioccolato: Chocolate-covered Cannoli filled with Sweet Ricotta, Chocolate, and Candied Fruit ($4.25)

Italy Booth Food & Wine Cannoli al Cioccolato

The candied fruit element in this delicious piece of heaven didn’t click until I typed out the description just now. I’d forgotten about it while I was inhaling the cannoli itself – knowing only that I was eating something incredibly sweet and good that had a little kick of interesting going on in it somewhere. It’s a sort of cannoli that has a fruitcake somewhere in its family tree several generations back. In a good way. The shell is also very substantial – it manages to tame the chocolate and ricotta fairly well so that the overall taste isn’t “too much” the way that some cannolis are. There are a handful of desserts at F&W that I’ve personally liked more this year – the crème brûlée in France, the cheesecake in Hawaii, the cajeta mousse in Mexico… But at that point it just comes down to personal taste. If you want a cannoli, this is a very, very good one.

Eat This: Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival – Australia Booth

I took advantage of a “free” hour, some merciful cloud cover, and an empty stomach yesterday afternoon to sample what Australia and Italy had to offer at Epcot’s 2017 Food & Wine Festival. Let’s cover Australia first…

(Don’t mind the coconut rum spiked Dole Whip….)

  • Grilled Sweet and Spicy Bush Berry Shrimp with Pineapple, Pepper, Onion, and Snap Peas ($5.25) (Gluten Free)

Food and Wine Grilled Sweet and Spicy Bush Berry Shrimp

This was one of those dishes that was very tasty, but I don’t have much to say about it because it wasn’t really anything that different in the end. I’d order it again in a heartbeat if I was at Epcot with a taste for it – but it basically tasted like really good (ducks for cover) Chinese food. Nicely seasoned shrimp with pineapple and veggies. End of story. But don’t worry because Australia is about to make up for it with….

  • Grilled Lamb T-Bone with Mint Pesto and Potato Crunchies ($7.50) (Gluten Free)

Grilled Lamb T-Bone Australia Food & Wine

You guys look how UGLY this is. A fatty little piece of meat covered in green sludge. A delicious, lick the cardboard container clean, fatty little piece of meat covered in minty, delicious, swan dive into me green sludge. EAT THIS. I beg you. If you haven’t had mint pesto – and I actually don’t think I had before now – you need it in your life. I want to mass produce it and bathe in it. Perhaps in part because I’m just not all that familiar with Australian food (outside of Vegemite and pavlova), it tasted Moroccan or otherwise Middle Eastern to me. It refused to pose for a pretty picture but made up for it 1,000 times over by easily jumping into my top 5 at the Food & Wine Festival this year. It was perfect and I cannot wait to eat it again.

  • Lamington – Yellow Cake Dipped in Chocolate and Shredded Coconut ($3.25) (Vegetarian)

Lamington

This is one of those rare moments when it’s okay to use the word moist. Because this is some damned good yellow cake dipped in some damned good chocolate sauce and coconut. Is it going to win prizes for inventiveness? Probably not. But it’s apparently classically Australian and if you’re in the mood for a perfect little piece of chocolate and coconut covered cake you should eat this, like yesterday. It will cure what ails you.

Eat This: The Grand Floridian Cafe

Occasionally I find myself having run a good, healthy, calorie burning distance on property and, as such, famished beyond all pretensions of self control and within reach of some very excellent food. It’s a dangerous combination. Such was the case a week or so ago as I stumbled into the Grand Floridian after a long training run.

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The menu at the Grand Floridian Café was calling to me and who was I to deny it?

I grabbed a last minute reservation and was quickly seated at a lovely window side table. My waitress was darling and talked me through the many options – though I’d known going in where my meal would take me. After ordering my Chipotle Bloody Mary – prepared with a chipotle-infused vodka and garnished with a jumbo shrimp (!) and chorizo with a lime-salt rim – I settled into reading the rest of the menu and confirmed what I’d come for. (You can tell we’re getting close and comfortable with each other as I just dangled a preposition….) The Lobster ‘Thermidor’ Burger.

Let me say that again for you. The LOBSTER. THERMIDOR. BURGER. Described on the menu as a 7-oz. artisanal burger patty with lobster-parmesan thermidor sauce on a seared brioche bun and served with the café’s signature seasoned french fries, I knew it had to be mine. (Confession – I got the cucumber salad instead of the fries. It looked like a sad little cup of sliced pickles. Learn from my mistakes. Get the fries.)

So my drink and my burger arrive and holy hell. This photo shoot was quick because momma was hangry.

Confession #2: I don’t usually do random foods with lobster. I’m a bit of a lobster purist. I want it with butter and nothing else and generally think that piling it into other foods is wasteful at best and sacrilege at worst.

But you guys. YOU GUYS. It melted into itself. The roll was buttery and soft with just the right amount of resistance. The burger was cooked a perfect medium rare and the lobster and sauce on top were everything right in the world in the form of a burger topping / condiment. It went down easier than I thought possible and erased my run with happy fullness.

I could have happily rolled out of there and home at that moment but for you I powered on. I asked for a dessert menu.

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Choosing was hard. The waitress came over and we briefly discussed my dilemma. She jokingly suggested the sampler for 2. “YES” I said. “BRILLIANT.” She seemed concerned and promised to bring a to go box with this last course.

The cheerful little row of shot glass sized desserts arrived soon after. “For 2?!”, I laughed. Though truly for the reasonable prices of each item, any of them would have made a light and happy way to end a perfect meal. Still, I’d gotten them all, and I soldiered on.

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The sampler included tastes of 4 popular desserts – the fresh berry tart, the mocha pot de crème, the chocolate timbale, and the wild strawberry cheesecake. The mocha pot, a coffee-flavored custard and whipped cream, was light and delicious. The chocolate timbale, a chocolate gateaux with bittersweet chocolate mousse, was rich and decadent. The wild strawberry cheesecake, whose name spoke for itself, was creamy and wonderful with sweetness cut by the (at least comparatively) tart berry. And last but oh-so-definitely not least, the fresh berry tart, a layer of almond cake topped with seasonal berries and apricot glaze, was hands down my personal favorite. Given the choice of one, that would easily be my dessert order. I am a sucker for almond drenched cake and fresh fruit. Had the sampler been nothing but four slices of this, I’d’ve been in bliss.

I did not need a to go box.

I am so happy to know that a relaxed and decadent spot like this is just around the corner. And while I ordered a heavy lunch, in part because I was post-run famished and in part because I wanted the full experience of the place, you really could have a lovely lunch here without leaving feeling stuffed or having spent a fortune. I will most definitely be back, and soon.

Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival – Hawaii Booth

You know how they say everything tastes better in Disney? Well, it does. But it tastes even better in Hawaii. Don’t get me wrong, I have no desire to live there. But while I’m relatively convinced that most of it was fairly normal food, every damned thing that I ate during my 2 week honeymoon on Maui, the Big Island, and Oahu tasted better than pretty much anything else I’d ever had. The pizza was divine. The kimchi popped. The bibimbap was a downright religious experience. The shrimp trucks… don’t even get me started on the shrimp trucks. It’s the joy of eating in a place that brightens every color and forces you into the moment. If you’ve ever eaten miracle fruit and sucked on a lemon……I’m pretty sure it’d taste just as sweet on the North Shore.

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So basically when you’re trying to serve up some Hawaiian food, you’d better do it right.

So how did Epcot do? They did good.

  • Kalua Pork Slider with Sweet and Sour DOLE(R) Pineapple Chutney and Spicy Mayonnaise ($4.75)

My only issue with this this is that it ended a few bites after I started eating it. Why is pork hitting it out of the park at F&W this year?? The pineapple chutney was SO good and the spicy mayo was more of a little kick than real spice. As far as the roll, I don’t know if it was actually King’s Hawaiian or just channeling one, but either way it was alright with me.

  • Grilled Tuna Tataki with Seaweed Salad, Pickled Cucumbers, and Wasabi Cream ($5.25)

Yes!! Here is my simple seared tuna dish – while Japan is over there serving up BLT sushi. Simple and delicious – give it a swirl in the wasabi cream sauce and eat up. The seaweed salad and pickled cucumber were mild and added the necessary texture. (Plus we all know seaweed basically gives you superpowers….)

  • Teriyaki-glazed SPAM(R) Hash with Potatoes, Peppers, Onions, and Spicy Mayonnaise ($4)

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I so wanted to love this. I mean – teriyaki SPAM(R)?! How fun! And judging from others I’ve spoken to and the people I’ve watched around the Hawaii booth, a lot of people *do* love it. For me, it was not a favorite. The mix of ingredients sounds amazing on paper but it just didn’t come together for me and the overall taste was a little bland. I was expecting a major punch of flavor from the description and it just didn’t get there.

  • Passion Fruit Cheesecake with Toasted Macademia Nuts ($4)

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Unquestionably one of my top 3 desserts at F&W this year. This is a creamy cheesecake, lightly flavored with passion fruit sauce and sprinkled with macadamia nuts that bring their typical soft texture. Unless you are vehemently opposed to any of those things, please eat this. More than once if possible. Your thighs will forgive you and your taste buds will be forever grateful.

  • Florida Orange Groves Sparkling Pineapple Wine ($6)

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Oh sadness. I love sparkling wine. I love pineapple. I love a pretty drink in a tall glass. And at $6, the price (for a F&W alcoholic beverage) wasn’t bad. I so wanted to love this. As always, just my most humble opinion, but this didn’t work for me. It was syrupy sweet – almost like an ice wine, but not in a good way, and I honestly had to force myself to finish it so as not to have wasted the money. Oh well. Many others will love it and plenty of other options for me.

In short, I think that so far Hawaii overall hit it out of the park more than any other booth I’ve tried so far. I didn’t love everything personally but what I did love I’d rank as among the best dishes at all of F&W.

On Loving Japan…and Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival – Japan Booth

Japan is my jam. I’ve been intrigued by this fascinating, dichotomous culture since high school and borderline obsessed since college. I studied the language from my freshman year of college through my first year of law school (running from Japanese to civil procedure several mornings a week, trying desperately to switch my head back into English before Elena Kagan started in on us with her uniquely brilliant approach to the  Socratic method). I’d taken the language since college and hadn’t been able to envision an academic environment where I wasn’t *also* taking Japanese. It hadn’t crossed my mind that adding Japanese classes three mornings a week across campus to the load of a 1L at Harvard Law might not be a great idea. But I digress…

In college I’d delved into the language head first. Poured over the history of each Kanji. I spent an embarrassing number of my nights watching Neon Genesis Evangelion (“fly me to the moon…”), picked up onigiri and adzuki bean cakes from a spot near campus for too many meals, and watched as my political science major slowly morphed into comparative politics with a focus on the far east. That last snippet got me in with an incredible Japanese government specialist who got my foot in the door of a program that allowed me to spend about 6 months stationed in Bumblef$%# Japan working on my thesis, doing widespread community outreach. and eating copious amounts of the best sushi I’ve had in my life – made by an old woman in a hut by the river at 2 a.m.

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So there’s your long winded way of learning that, while my hardcore Japan days have been been behind me for a decade or two, pushed aside by such excitement as merger agreements and laundry, I dig Japan and all things Japanese and would happily sit around a low table with friends and family eating Japanese food and drinking tea and sake for the rest of my days.

 

As such, I’m always excited to see what Japan has concocted for Epcot’s various festivals. It was one of the first booths that I hit at Food & Wine this year and I’ve been back a few times since.

 

  • Wasabi Shumai Steamed Pork Dumplings ($6.95)Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 8.11.38 PMI wish I had a better picture of these things but oh well…they’re dumplings. And sadly (because I have been craving some dumplings like nobody’s business) they probably wowed me less than anything else that Japan is offering this year. Don’t get me wrong – they’re solid shumai and tasty enough. But I wanted something to dip them in, they fell apart a little too easily, and for the $6.95 price tag I just wanted something more.

 

  • Salmon BLT Sushi Roll: Futomaki Roll with Lettuce, Cucumber, Cabbage, and Carrots topped with Yuzu Miso Salmon, Tomato, and Bacon ChipsScreen Shot 2017-10-07 at 8.10.18 PMI have such mixed feelings about this thing. I want to hate it. Bacon, lettuce, and tomato have no place in my sushi. My sushi should be simple and full of good tuna. It tastes very good though. I’ll give it that. The rice is cooked perfectly and the lettuce adds a refreshing crunch that’s more than welcome in this lingering heat. And there’s the everything is better with bacon argument – but here it wants to take over too much. I almost wish they’d ditched the BLT schtick and gone inventive with a little something softer and milder, like a prosciutto. All that said, it tastes good and I’ve gotten it more than once.  So I guess I should stop complaining.

 

  • Teriyaki Ginger Pork: Marinated Pork with Sweet Chili and Teriyaki Sauce

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This is without a doubt one of my biggest winners (and biggest surprises, since I’m not typically a huge fan of pork) of F&W this year. I cannot do this thing justice on paper. The meat is incredibly mild and falls off of the bone and the sauce is perfectly sweet and not overly spicy at all. To date I think I’ve had this more often than any other food item at F&W, perhaps only tied with China’s duck dish. At $8.25 it’s one of the pricier items that you’ll find on the promenade this year, but it’s worth it.

  • Pom Pineapple Sake Cocktail ($7.25)

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Tragically tiny like most F&W beverages, but so, so good. If sake and sangria had a baby, it would be this drink. Grab yourself one if you’re in the mood to spend more than $7 on a delicious little something to wash down your dumplings.

“Lunch at Epcot.”

I daydreamed for years (and years, and years…) about making the move to Florida. When people (oh so many people) asked why, my simplest answer was, “I want to have lunch at Epcot.”

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Does the lack of state income tax suck? No. Is the weather beautiful, the community wonderful, the recreation endless, the pace of life a kindness to one’s blood pressure and soul? Most definitely, yes. I could write a long, long list of the reasons, both rational and heart driven, why – and yet…

And yet, when I wanted to sum it all up, simply and honestly – I wanted to have lunch at Epcot. I wanted to be able to go grocery shopping, or run to the dentist, or take the kids to martial arts class, or any other of life’s day-to-day mundane tasks – and then stop over at Epcot and eat lunch overlooking the koi pond at Katsura Grill or beside the gorgeous tile work in the alcove behind Tangierine Café. Smelling that incense and eating schawarma and tabouleh and baklava while listening to that endless loop of background music… And then leave and continue on with my day like it was totally and completely normal. Because it was.

I love the sights and smells and thrills of the Magic Kingdom. I could watch the Festival of Fantasy every day and cry omg-I-live-here tears. Hollywood Studios, even in its currently stripped state, houses more of my family’s favorite rides than any other park. And Animal Kingdom with its safari and endless food options and Pandora (oh, Pandora…) might blow my mind these days more than any other gate.

But Epcot.

Epcot was my why.

Wanting Epcot to be my normal was my why.