Epcot International Food & Wine Festival Booths – 2010
BY MIKE WARING – OCTOBER 2010
It’s been several years since we last attended the Disney World Food and Wine Festival, and how I missed it. Well, not the prices, nor the crowds, nor the heat, nor the humidity, and not those baby strollers that are always rolling over my toes. But still, the experience is – if not exactly unique – fun, if you ignore the prices, crowds, heat, humidity, bugs, and recklessly wielded strollers. I’m able to enjoy it despite the potential drawbacks because, as Mary likes to point out, I live in my own little fantasy world. Sorry, only enough room for one. You’ll have to get your own fantasy world.
So we spent a total of three days – or weeks, it all kinds of blurs together – sampling the delights of the food booths and the seminars for cooking foodstuffs. We skipped the Party for the Senses this year, because it’s darned expensive and hard to find a seat. And it’s even more expensive if you pay for a reserved seat. And it has pretty much all the disadvantages of the Festival as a whole I listed above, but you have to wear nice clothes while indulging in it.
For the uninitiated – just who are you? What are you doing here? This is a hangout for Disney’s most fevered fans – But since apparently sometimes the amateurs sneak in here, I’ll give a little background.
During the Food and Wine Festival, Epcot’s World Showcase features about 25 to 30 booths, each serving two or three dishes, that ostensibly represent the cuisine of various countries from around the world. Disney calls the food booths “international marketplaces.” The dishes are served in appetizer-sized portions and the cost ranges from about $3 to $7 per plate. The list of countries, besides well-known ones like Spain, Chile and New Zealand, also includes Charcuterie and Cheese, Desserts and Champagne, and my two favorite countries, Brewer’s Collection and Hops & Barley. These are wondrous lands where frosty, cold beer flows through the rivers and streams and every home is plumbed for lager. Mary will not agree to emigrate there because all foods served in these marvelous countries are, in fact, bar snacks.
So a lengthy rundown of the booths is in order, since this is where we spent the majority of our time. Eating. Or more properly, noshing, nibbling, and snacking. Not that I want to leave the impression that we spent three straight days eating, eating, eating. We took naps, too.
The offerings were Grilled Beef skewers with Chimichurri Sauce and Boniato Puree, Roasted Corn and Cheese Empanada, and alas, no dessert. The beef was a bit tough and not particularly flavorful. The chimichurri sauce was lacking in both garlic and vinegar. So sad. The empanada was not the best example of the dish we ever had, but decent. Would recommend a stop, for the empanada and the wines.
Ahh, Australia, you never fail me. This year the booth was selling Seared Barramundi with Blistered Cherry Tomatoes, Arugula, and Lemon Oil, as well as a Grilled Lamb Chop with Roasted Potato Salad and Red Wine Reduction. Sadly we had no room for the lamb chop, having earlier sampled the lamb slider from New Zealand, but it looked and smelled quite nice. The barramundi was one of the better things we had at the festival. Kudos for serving a simple grilled fish with very fresh tasting cherry tomatoes and arugula. We liked this a lot. Coupled with a Rosemount Traminer Riesling it was quite a treat. I wanted a Lamington (sponge cake dipped in chocolate), as a nostalgia thing from my youth in the Land Down Under, but they had run out, and this was only the third day of the festival. I was very sad. Disconsolate, even.
On the one hand I was pretty pleased to see, and even more pleased to eat, the Steamed Mussels with Roasted Garlic Cream and the Freshly Baked Waffles with Berry Compote and Whipped Cream. On the other hand, I was a little surprised, as I would have figured that Belgian Fries, preferably with Mayonnaise, would be a natural. But they let me down. On the other (third) hand they were serving Hoegaarden and Leffe beers and these were magnificent. Belgium was a new booth this year and I heartily and beerily approved.
The Grilled Pork Skewers with Faroja were uninspiring. The pork needed more, or at the very least, some seasoning, and the faroja pretty much resembled and tasted like the skewer was rolled in sand. Not sure if this is a traditional preparation, but it needed something to perk it up. The Shrimp Stew with Coconut and Lime was pretty good. We both liked it, though again, a little more assertiveness with both the coconut and the lime flavors (and put the lime in the coconut and mix it all up…. Sorry, advertising jingles occasionally get the best of me) would have been nice. We also tried the Leblon Frozen Caipirinha and it was neutered down, rightfully so I would think, for consumption by people wandering around in the sun at midday, but it was tasty.
Over the years, one of our favorite booths or displays was the Australian wine samples. It was always fun to get a chance to try a variety of wines from Down Under. But this year, no Australia wine stand. No time for tears, as there was a collection of beers from around Europe. And a sight for sore eyes it was, too. We got a beer flight with a Czech Pilsner, a Hungarian lager and a German beer. All were wonderful. This stand I will visit again and again in years to come. Or at least as long as my liver holds out anyway.
Charcuterie and Cheese
Of all the booths I was looking forward to, this turned out to be the most disappointing thing we encountered during the Festival. The ‘Cheese Fondue’ was like something out of a particularly bad indigestion-fueled nightmare. Notice the quotation marks. I use them because no one with the slightest knowledge of cuisine would have ever referred to what was served at this booth as fondue. It reminded us of a slightly thickened cheese soup, though in our case the cheese had clearly separated from the broth and was swishing around in unpleasant clumps in the cup. The taste matched up pretty well with the appearance. However, it wasn’t a total loss. The ducks in the area liked the bread cubes.
The Charcuterie was almost as much a disaster as the ‘fondue’. The ham resembled and tasted more like a pressed ham product than something that was supposed to be artisanal. The flavor of the duck slices wasn’t bad, though if I might offer a suggestion? Room temperature sliced duck in early October in central Florida will reach a rather elevated temperature in the existing environment and the fat on the duck slices will be oily and unappetizing, verging into disgusting. Remove the fat please. The beef slices at least weren’t horrible. They weren’t good, but that’s more of a ringing endorsement than we can offer for the rest of the meat.
Finally, to cap the Trifecta of awfulness, we tried some Ace Joker Hard Cider. In this case the joke was apparently on us. For an unconscionable $6.75 we were served around four ounces of cider that had no discernible fruit, no sweetness, and a truly astonishing amount of dryness, to the point where we both had to go drink some water before we became totally dehydrated. From our observations we paid at least $6.70 too much for the cider.
Needless to say, we recommend, unreservedly, that people stay away from this booth.
The Shrimp Ceviche was nice, though it could have used more actual shrimp. I don’t know if this was a traditional touch or not, but the corn nuts on top of the ceviche were a nice contrast and gave the dish a bit of crunch that we found pleasing. The real standout at this stand was the Pastel de Choclo, or Beef and Corn Pie. Man, did I like this. Very tasty. The addition of the raisins in the ground beef really made this dish pop!
Desserts and Champagne
This booth was Mary’s idea. I wanted to go back for thirds on the Shrimp Cake from Singapore. But, as I love my wife dearly, I acceded to her request, not least because she had all the cash. We found that the Dark Chocolate Sensation missed sensational by a fairly wide mark, though it wasn’t awful or anything. The Strawberry Angel Verrine was quite good. The Pear Streusel Pudding Cake was Mary’s favorite. We also sampled some Nectar Imperial and it was very nice, dry and fruity and quite bubbly, though the thimble-sized portion was pretty astonishingly small, and it’s always sad drinking champagne out of a tiny plastic cup. Why not at least a small plastic champagne flute?
In all the visits to the festival over the years we’ve never had any decent eats from the Italian booth. From the descriptions of the offerings (Polpettine Toscane with a Rosemary Breadstick and Baked Cheese Ravioli, Creamy Bolognese Sauce with Melted Mozzarella) I wasn’t tempted to take a chance to see if it had improved this year, either. But Mary insisted, and got an order of the Polpettine (meatballs). They were chewy instead of tender, with a very ordinary tomato sauce and a hard, flavorless mini-breadstick. We each ate one bite and pitched the rest into the nearest trash can.
Every year we pass by the Mexico booth because the offerings are always so pedestrian. We almost did the same this year, but Mary talked me into trying it and am I glad she did. The Tamale de Pollo, or chicken tamale with a green chile salsa, was excellent. And the Taco de Chiloria, or a shredded pork taco, was a revelation. Muy excellente! We also tried the Esquites, or Pan Fried Corn and Spices, and it was very good. If you’re thinking this is the same old tacos and tamales, you owe it to yourself to go and give it a try.
The Lamb Slider with Tomato Chutney was glorious, especially as we hit this booth immediately after the disaster that was the Charcuterie and Cheese stand, which made the lamb burger stand out all the more. This was one of the better things we ate at the Festival. We also tried the Villa Maria Chardonnay, which was pretty nice. That was a surprise, since while Mary loves all New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, Villa Maria is her least favorite.
Oh, wow, was this the best stand at the Festival. Yes, yes it was. The highlight, and indeed this extended to the entire Festival, was the Shrimp Cake with Singapore Noodle Salad. We liked this so much we came back on another day and had a second helping. Wonderful. I broached the idea of popping by on our way to the airport to get a few to tide us over on the flight, but Mary concluded that we had already eaten our entire quarterly allowance of fattening food, so we had to go direct to the airport, do not pass the booth, do not collect 200 dollars worth of shrimp cakes.
The Coconut-Braised Beef Rendang with Jasmine Rice was nice and a worthy dish, just not as good as the shrimp cake. Although we didn’t try it on this trip, previous encounters with Tiger Beer allow us to vouch for it and we think it would be an excellent accompaniment.
We managed to fit in a sample of the Seared Beef Tenderloin with Sweet Potato Puree and Mango Barbeque Sauce, and it was outstanding. Although the brochure claimed that Goats Do Roam White would be served, there was none to be found when we arrived, so we missed out on that. The La Capra Pinotage did, to some extent, assuage our grief, and it was wonderful with the tenderloin.
Hitting this stand later in the day, already mostly satiated, prevented us from trying the Flavors of Africa with Salad, Bread and Spreads. It looked good, though it appeared to be the same stuff they serve at Animal Kingdom Lodge, and we’ve had it a million times. (It’s good, just not new to us.)
Another revelatory experience. Both the Lettuce Wraps with Roast Pork and Kimchi Slaw as well as the Barbeque Short Rib with Steamed Rice and Cucumber Kimchi were very, very good. I could wish for the kimchi to have a little more heat, but then again I’ve been told that I complain that Raisin Bran isn’t spicy enough, so take my quiet mutterings with a grain of salt. I was tempted to try the Jinro Chamisul Soju, as I’ve heard it’s not terribly dissimilar to American moonshine, but chickened out. Maybe next year.
There were actually two American booths this year. Hops & Barley is a Sam Adams booth, and although I don’t dislike their products, I don’t see them as anything I can’t find at home. The food offerings at this booth were the same as in past years: Lobster Roll and Boston Style Crab Cake. Ho-hum.
By contrast, the other United States booth was a very pleasant surprise. The Bison Chili with Wild Mushrooms, Cabernet and Pepper Jack Cheese was very, very good. Hats off for trying something distinctly American and doing it well. The Heirloom Tomatoes with Oregon Blue Cheese, Red Onions and Basil was also extremely nice. If they keep up this level of effort I will have to schedule this booth as an annual pilgrimage.
And what about the booths we didn’t try? Well they fell into three categories. The first is the repeats – booths that serve basically the same or very similar dishes from years past. Like France with the Escargot, Greece with the Spanokopita, and Morocco with the Beef and Falafel Pitas. Nothing against any of these dishes, it’s just we’ve been there and tried that. While we might have been pleased to eat at these booths under normal circumstances, with the plethora of choices available, we just didn’t find the time nor the internal gastro-intestinal volume necessary to make these booths a priority.
The second category consisted of the boring stuff. Like Canada and the Cheddar Cheese Soup. That’s something you can get in Le Cellier restaurant and while tasty, it’s not really exciting. Japan was offering California Rolls and Spicy Tuna Rolls. Boring! And pretty much not very authentic, as I suspect that you would have a real difficult time finding a California Roll in Japan, the country.
Finally, there was the third category of must-miss booths. This included stuff that just didn’t sound all that good to us, like Germany and the Nurnberger Sausage in a Pretzel Roll. I took a shot at trying to convince Mary (who is not a fan of German food, even in Germany) that this was the German version of a corn dog, but she didn’t buy it. And she loves corn dogs. So we took a pass on this booth. There were also the dishes we just couldn’t eat, like anything containing scallops. But that’s to be expected: with a surfeit of choices there will always be something you don’t like or can’t eat.
So the list of booths we skipped for one or more of the reasons above? Look below:
Hops & Barley
Well, that’s that for this year’s version of the World Showcase booths. We had a pretty good time and there was enough tasty stuff to tempt us to attend in the future.
And now for the complaints section.
One particular issue I’ve had for years is with the training of Cast Members running the cash registers, as well as the point of sale system itself. Invariably we encounter some Cast Members who are abysmally trained. They need a supervisor standing over them to be able to do the simplest transactions. Plus, the point of sale system fails on a routine basis, causing annoying waits while the Cast Members poke listlessly at the screen, trying to resurrect the system. We waited for as much as fifteen minutes in line at several booths without making any progress, because the system was down. It’s irritating and really inexcusable. When we first started going, we wrote off the problems because the whole Food and Wine thing was new. This is no longer the case. This is the fifteenth anniversary. I think that is more than long enough to work the bugs out of the system.
My other complaint is about Disney’s seeming inability to insure that there are sufficient stocks of the items offered for sale. We encountered at least three or four examples of booths that had run out of something, and often this wasn’t apparent until we stood in line for ten or fifteen minutes. Why they cannot give the employees of the booths stickers to place over food items on the menus that are temporarily out of stock, is a question I cannot fathom.