Iowa farmer Jeff Ryan takes a trip South to Disney World's Epcot and has a Moroccan culinary adventure.
Is there such a thing as too much flavor? I don't think there is. While we're at it, I'm not sure there is such a thing as too much variety, either. We may think we eat a variety of foods, but here's a suggestion for you. Try writing down everything you eat for two weeks straight. That's what I had to do 13 years ago when I got an insulin pump. My medical team wanted to know the serving size and exact description of everything I ate for two weeks. We would then review the list and go over how many grams of carbohydrates are in each of those items.
Guess what? It's pretty easy to fall into a dietary pattern like Homer Simpson does -- "It's Thursday. That means pork chops!"
That's why I love to break up the routine whenever I get a chance. Choosing a wedding date got a bit easier three years ago when I reminded my bride-to-be that a cold weather choice would probably make it a whole lot easier to talk me into an anniversary trip each year to celebrate. This winter sure made it easy to get out of Dodge and see some warmer country. It's only the single digits of February and we will more than likely be in the top five winters for most days reaching below zero within the next week. Taking out the all-time record of 41 days looks like it's within reach.
Another wrinkle was thrown into the life mix this year, too. A friend of mine who is a professor of International Marketing had a job offer in Florida that she accepted. She has gone from north-central Iowa to a variety of jobs around the Midwest and has now landed at the University of Tampa. She is also a frequent beef customer, so her desire is for me to come and visit frequently and hopefully bring a suitcase full of beef with me when I get there. Her U-haul had a couple coolers filled last summer when she moved.
The weather gods, the scheduling gods at Sherill's job and the airline ticket algorithm gods smiled on us this year. I managed to find tickets that matched up with Sherill's window of time off and still started with a 1, so we hit the road and then the air to get us to Florida in January.
Every time we turned around, it seemed we must have been on menu steroids or something, because we kept hitting home run after home run! Of course, it is Florida, so we probably could have stopped somewhere at a strip mall and found someone to help us with our nutrition work. Seems to me that a certain overpaid baseball player "has a guy" in Florida who helps him with his nutrition balancing from time to time. Everybody needs a guy.
My guy is a Mr. Walter Disney. Granted, he's a past tense type of guy these days, but he's still my guy. He and his staff have done an outstanding job of creating an excellent environment for me to relax. I love Disney World, and I especially love it in the middle of winter when few other people are enjoying it with me.
The part that Sherill and I have found most surprising over the past few years is how well Walt and his team have done at surprising us with tremendous food choices. Great flavor and great variety have been the key for us.
Our trip to Disney World with my folks last October for Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival was sort of a follow-up to their previous trip there last spring. They didn't get to see a special festival last spring, but they were impressed enough to go back with us for Food & Wine Fest in October. The quality and variety of the food blew them away after all of the pictures and links we had shown them before we went.
One thing we noticed last fall was covered extensively in a blog I subscribe to online that is nothing but food at Disney. There was construction going on at the part of World Showcase at Epcot where the country of Morocco has their display. A new restaurant was in the works. It would sit right on the shore of World Showcase Lagoon and offer diners a gorgeous view of the lake.
Spice Road Table was the name. That felt quite inviting to me. The reviews made it sound even better.
Sherill and I made our way to Epcot on our first day in Orlando and decided that the crowd wasn't bad at all, so maybe we should stop at the new place in Morocco to see what it was like. The menu board out front gave us a good idea of what our options were. Our choices would be very similar to what we see at Food & Wine Festival each fall. There would be several small portions you could sample rather than gambling on one big entree.
The Disney Food Blog had given me a couple of ideas. First of all, the sampling platters were excellent, so be sure to try them. Second, get ready for when the bill shows up, because you're going to get started on a couple of smaller items and then it's going to snowball on you. Next thing you know, it's not the cheap snack you thought it might be.
Our server was a lovely young lady by the name of Zineb. She is originally from Morocco and was extremely outgoing and friendly to us as she seated us and took our order. This was about 1:30 in the afternoon, so there weren't a ton of people there at the moment. We had a table near the outside where we could get some sunshine as we dined.
Then came the hard part. We had to decide what to get. It didn't take long for us to decide that Zineb was on the ball. She answered all of the questions we had and made some great recommendations. We ended up choosing both the Mogador Sampler and the Tingis Sampler. That gave us the combination of Mussels Tagine, Salted Cod Croquettes, Fried Calamari, a Lamb Slider, a Harissa Chicken Roll and Merguez Sausage.
I'm willing to try just about anything. These two sampler platters pretty well hit the spectrum of foods I've had in my lifetime. The lamb slider was about as plain Jane as you could get with this order, but that's still a high standard. It was actually pretty good, and I'm not that big a fan of lamb. The bun was what sold me on it.
Let's be real. I live in the Midwest, so access to a variety of food isn't that great. My first exposure to mussels came a few years ago when I went out to eat in Des Moines with My Pal Gordy and his wife, Barb. There haven't been a lot of chances for me to have mussels again since, but I figured that Spice Road Table would be a safe bet. Boy, was it! They may have been the best item of the whole mix. My friends will be shocked by this, but I loved the chicken rolls, too. There was a ton of extra flavor added to them, which is what it takes for chicken to move from the cellar of my food preference list. The spicy ketchup accompanying the chicken is probably what sealed it for me.
We didn't get very far into our meal when Zineb came back to check on us again. She shared a bunch of information about each of the dishes and let us know how a lot of the food is typically used in everyday cooking in Morocco. Zineb was so bubbly and cheerful. You could tell she was very proud of her native country and the food.
The first plates were cleaned up in decent time and we thought about our next move. Seconds sounded good, but we couldn't really decide on which plate we liked the most. Solution? Order another one of each! Some is good, so more is obviously better.
Zineb came back and happily took our order for Round II. It did not disappoint, but we were too stuffed by that point to think about dessert. Zineb stopped by again and visited before we made our way back to the main thoroughfare of World Showcase.
With no other ongoing food festivals at Disney World at the moment, we were feeling sort of left out the next couple of days. Yes, we ate well, but nothing really inspired us like Spice Road Table had. That's when we decided to make another trip to Epcot and head for Morocco.
Our stop at the front table found different staff at work. We asked if it would be possible to sit at Zineb's table. The place had only been open for about ten days, so I think they were a little bit surprised for customers to ask for a specific server already. We waited for a short while until Zineb came around a corner and beamed. "Oh my gosh, these are my friends!" she told the other hostess at the front desk as soon as she saw us. "It is so good to see you again! Welcome back. We are so glad you came back to see us again!"
With that, we were taken back to what had now become our "usual table." Zineb already knew what we wanted for drinks and headed out to get them while we looked over the menu again. We quizzed her on a few other items when she returned and she blew us away again with her knowledge of each dish and each ingredient in it. This was almost a Food Network-quality conversation she was having with us, especially with Sherill. It wasn't just a matter of what was in everything, it was as much about how those particular spices work in different foods and what they work well with as accompaniments.
On this visit, we decided to mix up the variety a bit from our last trip. We went with Spicy Garlic Shrimp and the Hummus and Imported Olives plate. Of course, because we showed up hungry, we went with a Mogador Sampler plate. I hated to run short of mussels.
This time, we left room for dessert, too. (I didn't get in to Iowa State University just on good looks alone, you know!) A guy can't run short on carbs and end up with a hypoglycemic episode at Disney World. The obvious choice to me was the Saffron & Lemon Custard. It was sort of a creme brulee with a great touch of lemon, which is one of my favorite flavors. It did not disappoint.
Zineb had made several more stops at our table as we ate. She had a bit more time to visit. We told her about our experiences at Food & Wine Festival and how we had been waiting to come to Spice Road Table after hearing great reviews and buzz about it ahead of time. Just before we left, Zineb had one other item for us. She wanted us to meet her boss.
Moments later, she returned with a gentleman in his late 40's or early 50's, I would guess. He didn't just run the restaurant. He was actually the general manager of the entire Moroccan presence at Epcot! This was the guy who started the whole works when Morocco first appeared at Epcot years ago. Zineb had worked in the retail side of the marketplace store across the street and assumed she didn't have enough experience to be a server at Spice Road Table when it started. It usually takes a couple years of experience as a server to be chosen to work in a Disney restaurant. Zineb only had a few months worth at the time she applied. A friend of hers told her that she should at least apply, so she got in touch with the general manager and asked about being a server. The fact that she is actually a Moroccan native may have helped her get the job, but I bet it had more to do with her personality and outgoing nature.
We told her boss that we were certainly glad they had hired her. She is far and away the best server we have ever had at any of the parks, and we've had a lot of great ones. The manager was also quite outgoing and grateful for our time and our business.
Before we left, Zineb grabbed a notepad and gave us her email address and phone number. It is entirely possible she may make her way to the Midwest at some point. (Probably during warmer weather!) If and when she does, I think she may end up having as much fun as some folks do when they visit Disney World!
We got another server to do us a favor on our way out. She took our picture with Zineb on both our camera phone and Zineb's.
Don't be shy about talking to the people who serve you. The really good ones will be more than happy to engage you. More importantly, if you ever find yourself at Epcot, please stop by Spice Road Table for some great flavor. Be sure to ask for Zineb as your server. Tell her Guy No. 2 sent you. (Thanks, Jill!) She's probably the best part of the flavor package.
Jeff Ryan is Guy No. 2 in the operation of Two Guys Farming, Inc., near Cresco, IA.