Variety is the spice of life. I've come to enjoy a really, really big spice cabinet. A reminder of that showed up in my inbox recently with a newsletter announcing some of the menu items for the 2013 Epcot International Food & Wine Festival at Disney World. We stumbled upon that event three years ago when Sherill and I went to Disney World with my sister and her daughter. It wasn't even on our radar, but the banners and everything else inside the front gate at Epcot announced it quite clearly. The whole event turned into one of our best finds ever. We went from country to country around World Showcase at Epcot and sampled small portions of a wide variety of food from each nation. It was a great way to get a small sample of a wide variety without waiting in line forever.
A mental note was made to return at some point. That not only happened -- it kind of became an addiction. In fact, when we were at Disney World with our parents in February, we noticed some signs for the upcoming Flower & Garden Festival at Epcot in April and May. The new addition to this year's festival was food booths similar to those at Food & Wine Festival. It looked like a genius move to me. Not that the flowers and everything weren't totally doing it for me…
I was at the weekly hay auction in Fort Atkinson one Wednesday in early April. It was a day or two after the column about our parental Florida adventure was posted. One of my friends and frequent consignors, Paul, looked at me when I walked up and asked, "What are you doing here? I figured you'd be at Disney World!"
Uh, well, I sheepishly admitted, we leave on Saturday, as a matter of fact.
Paul turned to Billy, who trucks a lot of my hay and has been in a story or two over the years, and they both started to laugh. Then they began piling on about what they felt was an excessive amount of vacation time on my part. I mentioned the fact that the columns have to come from somewhere. That's when Paul realized that the vacations end up generating revenue for me. "He's getting paid to go to Disney World, Billy!"
Well, there is that.
Our adventure at Flower & Garden Festival included several new things for us. To break up the old routine, we stayed at a different location. Our previous favorite had a combination of limited availability and a new price increase. We decided to go with another outlet. It was a condo in part of the establishment where we had done a time-share visit/torture session the previous year. We ended up being quite impressed with the place. It may be our new favorite.
After a long winter in the Midwest, some sun in Florida is never a bad idea. Toss in the lovely greenery and floral background of the festival and it gets a whole lot easier to take. The food was a bit of a plus, but not nearly to the extent that it is during Food & Wine Festival. Even so, we did discover a couple of new favorites. Shrimp has always been one of my favorites. A booth called Florida Local has had some Shrimp Ceviche with Zellwood Sweet Corn at Food & Wine Festival (FWF) that is outstanding, in my opinion. They had it at Flower & Garden Festival, so I was reasonably content in short order. We also stopped by The American Experience Smokehouse for a pulled pork slider with coleslaw and some exceptional chocolate cake.
Like we did at so many places, we left saying, "What a country!" in our best Yakov Smirnov voice.
Another stop took us to Animal Kingdom one day. We did the safari tour to see all of the animals of Africa in their pseudo-natural surroundings. After that, it was time to eat. We decided to experiment and try the African buffet at Tusker House. Nothing really stood out as an African food when we thought about what we might end up eating, but the buffet did not disappoint. Unfortunately, the lighting inside isn't the greatest, so the photos of the menu didn't turn out clear enough to read. Just take my word that a trip to Tusker House for the buffet should be on your must-do list! Add in some photo time with Mickey and it's even better.
There were still other options out there. On a whim a couple years ago, I walked up to the front desk at Le Cellier, the Canadian steakhouse at Epcot. Sherill had decided to spend the day at the pool back at the condo, so I was flying solo. Reservations are hard to come by at Le Cellier, I'd heard, but this was mid-afternoon, and I was a party of one, so why not give it a shot?
They got me in within two or three minutes and I enjoyed some of the best filet mignon, pretzel bread and cheddar cheese soup I've ever had. We now make a point of going to Le Cellier whenever we can.
Our server at Le Cellier on our last visit was a very friendly young lady. We will call her Andrea. She was quite chatty. The place wasn't terribly packed in the middle of the afternoon, so that may have given Andrea more opportunity to stop and visit with her customers. We learned a lot about the Disney program for foreign students. We also learned a lot about what actual employees at Disney (they call them cast members) like to do at the park. Inside information is usually the best.
Our Canadian new best friend did not disappoint. She had a couple of recommendations for us once we had mentioned where we had already been. The one that seemed to stand out, though, was not even on our radar. It was a restaurant in The Grand Floridian Hotel near The Magic Kingdom.
Sherill and I had seen The Grand Floridian a few times as we went by on the monorail, but we had never stopped by to check it out. My hunch was that it was a bit spendy. A quick look at the website revealed rooms start at $540 per night, so my hunch seemed pretty good. There were a couple of restaurant options at The Grand Floridian, but we were on a mission to find one in particular, based on Andrea's glowing review Citricos.
Andrea had mentioned two items that caught our attention and steered us to Citricos. The first was raspberry air. It was a light and fluffy dessert concoction that Andrea said was one of her all-time favorites. The other one was lemon snow. That is another light and fluffy dessert item that is somewhere between cotton candy and slush. It's made with some process that involves Nitrogen so that it packs a great lemon flavor and sort of disappears into thin air once you get it into your mouth. Tremendous flavor with almost no substance. Sort of a home economics meets chemistry deal. It is one of the best inventions ever, I think. It has to rank right up there with Chocolate Vapor. (Copyright that. Guy No. 2 invented Chocolate Vapor using his A.I. tank and a Milky Way. It will probably make me the next Food Network Star!)
The ambiance in Citricos was quite relaxing. It was definitely an upscale place. The sound of a harp filled the room as we made our way to our table. A quick glance down the wine list clued me in on just how upscale this place was. The cheap stuff was $140 a bottle. Then there was the $1200 stuff, as well as the $1800 stuff. To round out the list, there was the $3000 stuff. Yep, I could either get a bottle of wine or a gooseneck trailer load of high-end, dairy-quality hay. Decisions, decisions!
My meal started off with a delightful number of the chef's creation. Not only did I not catch the name of it, but I also failed to take a photo. It included a slice of blood orange and a few other items neatly arranged in the center of the plate. When I told our server about my column and my desire to get photos of the food for it, she not only told me about the item, she went back to the kitchen and grabbed another one for me! Then she had the chef come out and chat with us. The chef loved my business card. (Thanks, Jill!) He was intrigued by both our high-quality beef cattle production involvement and our role in the production of raw honey. It is entirely possible that Buzz In A Bottle may be finding its way to the kitchen at Citricos at some point in the future. You can never have too many connections.
Every option at Citricos is an adventure. My first course was sautéed shrimp, which was outstanding. Sherill went with the cheese course trio. That one had a variety of cheeses. One was a Gorgonzola, which she loved. Even the bread with her cheese tray was incredible. The whole thing seemed to be quite hoity and toity.
Then came the salad selection. I went with the Florida King Farm peaches & baby greens salad. I didn't think I'd ever find myself saying this, but the spiced walnuts really worked well as a complement to the other greens. This wasn't the regular iceberg lettuce with some Western French dressing on it that I've been used to over the years. It could be that my horizons were actually getting broadened too quickly.
Now came the big decision. It was main course time. A couple items were automatic disqualifiers -- no chicken and no tofu. I consider neither of them to be food fit for humans. That narrowed down my list to filet of beef, braised short ribs, braised veal shank, Berkshire pork, swordfish and cassola fregola sarda. That last one kind of caught my attention. It was a mix of shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels and Peppadew Coulis. That says seafood smorgasbord to me, so I went with that choice. I have access to beef and pork on a pretty regular basis, but seafood is a different story.
The dish presented to me was much larger than I expected. It sure looked like all that seafood floating around in the giant bowl probably came with a good-sized undertow! Dedicated diner that I am, I dug in and got to work. Once again, it felt like a brilliant decision. Sure, it was no giant turkey leg from a food cart at The Magic Kingdom, or an $8 hot dog at a quick-service outlet elsewhere in the park, but it hit the spot.
That spot seemed to be an easy target at Citricos. The final big decision of the night was the dessert choice. This wasn't a question of if I'd have dessert. Come on, get real. It was a question of which one. I didn't see lemon snow on the menu anywhere, so I went with the next best option. That would be lemon-scented cheesecake with a blanket of white chocolate ganache. First of all, I love anything lemon-flavored. Secondly, a guy can never get too much ganache. I can't remember how many different times a doctor has looked at my lab results and said, "Mr. Ryan, your serum ganache levels are dangerously low. See what you can do about that."
Doctor's orders. That's why I go with prescription-strength ganache whenever I can. More people should, in my professional opinion.
Sherill went with a seasonal berry gratin with a Champagne-Grand Marnier Sabayon. How many times have you been at a farmers market fruit stand and said to yourself as you picked up your succulent fruit, "You know what this needs? MORE BOOZE!!!"
By the time we were done, it was far and away not the cheapest meal we'd ever had. This wasn't a cost issue, though. This was about value. We definitely got tremendous value out of the experience. I mean, where is a hillbilly like me ever going to find food like that so easily again?
Okay, okay, I know where. Thanks to the Internet, I know when, too. Epcot Food & Wine Festival starts on September 27th and runs through November 10th. After a huge price drop yesterday, I just bought my plane tickets last night.
There's a food frontier out there. I need to explore it.