Review of Epcot Food and Wine Festival 2006
BY MIKE WARING – DECEMBER 2006
Another year, another visit to the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.
We decided to try some new things this year. We stayed at the Beach Club Villas, which was my first experience in an Epcot resort. Staying at Beach Club allowed us to walk in through the back entrance (International Gateway) of Epcot without bothering with trains, planes or automobiles. This was of some importance because I was planning on conducting intensive research on beers from around the world, in the name of promoting greater understanding of other cultures and stuff like that.
We didn’t do the Party for the Senses this year. Mary didn’t care that much for it last year (though I enjoyed it) and since they raised the prices again, while still not ensuring that there was reserved seating, any efforts on my part to dissuade her were doomed from the beginning. And in this case I agreed. At $125 per person (up from $95 each last year), the lack of reserved seating is patently ridiculous. I think I can safely say, with prodding from Mary’s sharp elbows, that at this price point we’re not going to be attending the event again till they do have assigned seating.
We tried a couple of different programs that required separate tickets this time around. We also attempted a number of the free events or seminars. None of these events were an unqualified success.
First, the paid events. We tried a seminar called Food and Wine in Balance, the primary objective of which seemed to be removing money from my wallet with the lowest possible outlay on Disney’s part. Essentially I was paying to attend a Beringer marketing effort. I don’t have much problem with sampling Beringer’s product but I find it highly questionable to pay nearly $48 a head for four small glasses of wine. Heck, considering the usual price point on Beringer wines, $48 might be a little much for four bottles of their wines. And really, I think I should be compensated, not charged, for having to face a glass of white zinfandel. The lecturer was a little contrite about that, but said they had to include it because it’s one of their biggest sellers, which I think says it all about Beringer.
The format of the event was actually not too bad. Four different glasses of wines were sampled after taking bites of different foods like lemon wedges, apples, cheese, salt and red pepper. All in all, this was not a bad approach for people who are beginners in wine appreciation or perhaps someone who has never been exposed to a more structured approach to wine. But for anyone with any substantial experience with wine, the class is pretty much waste of time, money, and brain cells. It might have been slightly better received if the wines served were better vintages but then Disney might not have made as much money. And trust me, they made a lot of money on this event.
The second paid event we attended was considerably better, as we learned some things we didn’t know previously. We went to a Food and Wine Pairing featuring sake and sushi. Now a few years back we went to Japan, and while there we received a bit of an education in sashimi and sushi. But one thing we really didn’t try there was sake, because the few times I’d had it in the past, it did not endear itself to me. Couple this with overall unfamiliarity with Japanese cuisine, and we avoided ordering sake due to our general ignorance and a desire not to make fools of ourselves. Besides they always served Kirin Ichiban beer, so what did one need with sake?
As it turns out what little information I had on sake (much of which was garnered from James Bond in You Only Live Twice) was wrong. For instance, apparently the dictate to serve sake warm applies only to the cheaper grades normally available in the US. Warming the sake tends to make it a little smoother to the palate. On the other hand the higher grades of sake should be served chilled. We were served an ordinary sake and a super premium sake, as well as a sparkling sake, which is apparently a relatively recent development in Japan. Supposedly it’s trendy in New York and other places, or at least so I have discovered from watching Law and Order. (I gather a lot of information watching L&O, often information that I would have been happier not knowing.)
In any case we drank three cups of sake with sushi prepared in the Teppanyaki restaurant in Epcot. The first taste was a tuna sashimi and quite good. The second taste was a somewhat strange concoction with rare beef, asparagus and Japanese yam. This was not terribly successful but we were told that they offered this because many Americans are still not really comfortable with eating raw fish. (So why would they go to a sushi tasting?) The third course was a spicy tuna roll with the sparking sake.
The difference between the first and second sakes served was quite distinct, much like the difference between premium and more pedestrian grades of vodka. The lower quality stuff is harsher and rougher on the palate. The premium grades are smoother with a better finish. Sparkling sake is interesting and something I think I’d be much more likely to drink as a cocktail than as a pairing with food. Still we both enjoyed it.
Anyway, the sushi and sake tasting, at $40 plus tax, was much more interesting and satisfying and worth the money than the Beringer ad, I mean tasting.
So after two years of attending the paid seminars at the Food and Wine Festival, we’ve decided that we’ve given them a fair chance and in the future we probably will not pay to attend another, unless there is someone (super chef) or thing (unusual food or wine experience) that is utterly compelling to us. We think that for the most part they’re not a good value for the money. Your mileage may vary, of course.
We’d love to provide some information on the free food and wine seminars but we never managed to attend one. We attempted to get into a couple but people started lining up more than an hour before the event was to start, and this was on a weekday. Every time we arrived at one of the free events an hour early, the people minding the queue would inform us that there were already as many people in line as the event could seat. Granted we probably could have tried a little harder, but every minute we would have spent standing in line for the free seminars was a minute I could have spent scarfing up goodies at the food booths. So no freebies for us. Ah, well, such is life.
Now on to the fun part – the food booths scattered around World Showcase in Epcot, representing the cuisines, vintages and brews of various countries. I love these things. The portions are small, so one can try quite a few different things before one becomes, shall we say, bloated beyond all mortal measure and desperately in need of a good stomach pumping. There are always a few things that I can’t find out here in the middle of Colorado, or things I would not necessarily want to find out here in the middle of Colorado. And some of the booths serve beers, beers that are obscure or hard to find here in this country. Thus, my journeys through the food booths of the Food and Wine Festival can be seen as a journey of exploration much like those of the great explorers of 14th and 15th centuries.
The biggest problem is figuring out where to start your trip around the world. Last year we started at the New Zealand booth, so we decided to start from there again this year. It’s a tradition and all. And again like last year we followed a carefully planned clockwise path around the world which eventually began to resemble the meanderings of a blind earthworm after a sufficient number of beer samples. This was all done in the interest of science, of course. Or culinary history or cultural relativism or something academic.
So here are my notes of the booths. Please note that I’ve had to try and reconstruct some entries as the original jottings were someone blurred from either tears of joy which spontaneously started after experiencing some new taste sensation, or more commonly from spilled beer.
Day 1 – Food Booths
New Zealand had the less than aptly named Sliders on the menu again this year. (I say this coming from the Midwest, where Sliders refer to White Castle hamburgers. The two couldn’t be more different. Well, except that they are meat on a bun. But they are nothing at all the same beyond that.) Last year these were tastier. This year they were much drier and could have used more sauce and the bun was cold and added nothing to the dish. Still if you like lamb, this was one of the few venues serving it. The Kiwi and Custard Roll was nice and refreshing and something I’d probably get again.
We skipped Greece on the first day since the offerings were rather ordinary. Not that we don’t like them, it was just that there were a lot more interesting things available and we wanted to save some room for them.
Argentina offered Spicy Beef Empanadas and Grilled Beef Sirloin with Chimichurri Sauce. The former item was hot and a bit spicy and overall a sterling example of the meat pie oeuvre, a subject I think really deserves to have an endowed chair at some major university. The grilled sirloin was overcooked, which was not unexpected, but saved from premature disposal by the tasty mashed potatoes under the meat and the chimichurri sauce, a concoction of parsley, garlic, spices, olive oil and usually vinegar used as both a marinade and a sauce for meat in Argentina and Uraguay. Or so sayeth my research notes. I like chimichurri a lot, so a decent one, which this was, hit the spot.
Continuing on with the South American theme at Chile, mainly because it was the next booth in line, we ordered and consumed Portos Granados. This dish is a moderately spicy bean stew that I found to be quite tasty. Mary tried the Sauvignon Blanc 120, as part of her quest to try all the Sauvignon Blancs in the world. She felt that this wine was a worthy addition to the genre.
We skipped over Mexico since they weren’t offering anything we thought was all that interesting. (Mary and I spent many years living just a few miles from the border with Mexico, so we’re probably jaded.)
Moving on, we arrived at Scandinavia which I looked forward to with barely suppressed excitement, it being the first booth on our tour that offered beer. And not just any beer – Carlsberg. With meatballs. I did attempt to advance the argument that there was no real imperative to leave the Scandinavia booth as they had both meatballs and beer. But Mary decided that we must forge ahead with the original plan. The meatball was huge and pretty tasty as was the mashed potato accompaniment. The beer was everything I like in a beer, cold and frosty and crisp and cold. Mary also tried the Lingonberry Mousse, which she considered quite acceptable.
Although the items at China looked all right they seemed quite reminiscent of last year’s offerings and not interesting enough in themselves to warrant a stop. I did pass the Tsingtao beer with a few pangs of regret however.
Thailand was pretty much a disappointment from start to finish, at least when talking about entrees and not about beer or desserts. The Hot and Sour Chicken Noodle Salad was neither hot nor sour and pretty much bland and bland with a side of undercooked and bland noodles. The Vegetable Curry with Jasmine Rice and Lemongrass was also underseasoned and not very curry-like. Mary did like the Sweet Mango and Tapioca Soup which seemed wrong to me on several counts, but who am I to argue with her strange food predilections. The Singha beer was one I’ve only had once or twice before and I quite enjoyed it here again.
In an interesting twist, since Thailand has no indigenous wine industry of its own, they have apparently colonized New Zealand and were offering Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc. Now Mary loves Oyster Bay wine and she was a little surprised that all this time it was actually a “Thai” wine. You learn something new every day.
By this time we were both getting a little full and we decided to give Australia a pass. Not that the items offered didn’t sound interesting but we thought we might come back on a different day though as it turned out we never did.
We really only stopped at the Oktoberfest booth to sample the Pretzel Roll with Sauerkraut and Debreziner Sausage. I should say we stopped so Mary could sample it. She is on a quest to find the perfect stuffed pretzel, a quixotic search that one would think I would be a willing participant in, but for some reason stuffed pretzels don’t ring my bell. And since we also tried the Sommerfest restaurant on this trip the stop at this booth seemed all the more strange. Still the Beck’s beer was pretty good so I’m not complaining. Well, I’m not complaining about the beer, anyway. The pretzel roll suffered from not being very pretzely and Debreziner is apparently German for bland and mushy.
Thus concluded our first day of snacking around the world. There were some definite highlights and some even more definite failures.
Day 2 – Food Booths
We started at France today because we were completely puzzled by what we saw when we arrived. The two menu items at this booth were escargot and a goat cheese puff pastry and there was a substantial line right after opening. Surely people, nay Amerukan people, were not actually eating snails? But indeed they were. Probably not as many as were sampling the stinky, non- processed cheese product. But still it was a bit of a surprise. I liked the escargot myself but I’m not a particularly big fan of the Provencal style with olive oil and herbs. I’m more a traditionalist and like my snails swimming in a pool of garlic butter. Actually it’s probably more difficult to think of things I don’t like swimming a in a pool of garlic butter. Mary has stated numerous times that I’d eat cardboard if it were slathered with garlic butter. This may be true. The goat cheese tart was decent though the pastry was a little chewy. A cup of Kronenbourg 1664 was an excellent quaff of fresh, bitter, hoppy goodness.
Turkey: No problems with lines at this booth. I think most people looked at the menu, couldn’t figure out what the dishes were, and moved on. The Circassian chicken was bland and not very interesting. The Red Lentil Kofte was spicy and quite tasty. I was tempted to get more. Eggplant Salad was also quite tasty though not especially distinguished. The stuffed grape leaves were not some of the better ones I’ve had, but on the other hand, they’re stuffed grape leaves and I’m not in the habit of passing them up under any circumstances.
Spain’s sampler of chorizo (sausage), Spanish olives and almonds was barely adequate. The sausage was not spicy and the almonds were served cold and without any spices or salt. The olives were so-so. Overall, not a dish I’d get again. Papas Con Chorizo was nice and hot and spicy. I liked it a lot. The Albondigas was a meatball with pork and chicken which was overcooked and pretty blah. The accompanying salsa did not manage to overcome the blandness or blahness. No beer here, more’s the pity.
Unfortunately at the Morocco booth we found nothing that really grabbed us in the main dishes. On the other hand since I hadn’t any beer from the last two booths I was feeling distinctly parched and decided to sample the Casa Beer, a brand I’ve not had the chance to taste before. I liked it quite a bit. It’s a medium dark amber with good hops and a slight bite. Nice. Mary decided to try the baklava which turned out to be less sweet than the usual suspects for this dish. The addition of the pistachios to the pastry was a definite improvement.
We skipped over the India booth as frankly the offerings left us flat. Curried Butternut Squash is a fairly frequent menu item nowadays in many restaurants and doesn’t especially shout “Indian”. It barely whispers “Indian”. Vegetable Curry with Basmati Rice seemed like a good idea but not enough to get us to take a bite. And what was with the lack of beer on the menu when India is well known for its great lagers, including Kingfisher and Brahma?
Normally we would have gotten in line for the Japan booth offerings – Spicy Tuna Roll especially and not forgetting for even a second, Kirin Ichiban beer. But since we had the Food and Wine Pairing with sake and sushi we decided, reluctantly, to pass on by.
USA and the Hops and Barley Market: Why, oh why, did we stop here? Every year we try the American booths and every year we come away with the feeling that we just wasted our money. The Lobster Roll was cold lobster salad on a hot dog bun. It was bland, tasteless and had virtually no lobster taste whatsoever. They could just as well have been selling cold scallop salad, or maybe that Krab product that’s sold in supermarkets. The hot dog bun was the final indignity. The blackberry cobbler was not very good and I think we should leave it at that.
The Onion and Bacon tart was not a tart but rather a puff pastry shell filled with caramelized onions and limp bacon. The filling actually wasn’t half bad but the shell was stale and tasteless. To wash all of this down I tried a Cherry Wheat beer from Sam Adams. Sam Adams is not my favorite brewer but they do a more distinctive brew than the other major US manufacturers so I have been known to imbibe their product from time to time. The Cherry Wheat beer was surprisingly tasty and refreshing with a nice finish. I would definitely drink something like this again, probably with patio dining sometime during the summer months.
Italy: While I have to admit that the Timballo sounded pretty good and I lusted greatly after a Peroni beer, we realized around this time that stomach capacity issues might prevent us from hitting many more booths. So we resolved to use our limited remaining room to check out a couple of booths on the other side that we had missed the day before. So sadly, so sadly, we had to pass on the Italian booth.
We skipped the Potato and Leek Soup at Ireland as I’m not really a fan. But the Lamb, Bacon and Cabbage Stew was delish, with big chunks of lamb and lots of bacon. The Butter Scone that accompanied the stew got a big thumbs up from Mary. There was no beer at this booth either, which was truly a strange omission. Mead, but no beer?
I had gone around the Poland booth the day before to get to New Zealand, but only reluctantly. This time around I ran, or perhaps lumbered would be the more proper term, to the booth and grabbed a Pierogi with Cheese and Onions with Kielbasa on the side. The Pierogi was quite good, the kielbasa less so – more akin to the varieties one gets in the supermarket than something imported from Poland. Though what do I know, maybe what they eat in Poland is just like our supermarket varieties. Mary did not like the dust-dry Plum Donut which was just a bad idea all around. I tried Okocim beer for the first time and found out that I like Polish beer. Which makes what?..either one or two countries in the world with beers I don’t like?
The last booth on our tour was Greece. And by this point we really were not much in a position to cram much more down, so we stuck with the Spanokopita which was quite good. Flaky, buttery filo dough surrounding creamy spinach and feta cheese – what’s not to like?
Food and Wine Festival 2006 – Conclusions
The Food and Wine Festival is one of our favorite Disney events. We will probably continue to visit it in years to come, though with a year off every now and then so we don’t get burned out on it. The tastings are highly variable as far as quality and value are concerned. On our last outing we ran around 50% as far as feeling like we got our money’s worth out of the sessions we attended. This time we did slightly worse: the Wine and Food in Balance seminar brought me as close as I’ve ever come to demanding my money back from Disney on anything. The sake and sushi pairing was somewhat better but still not really worth the cost in our opinion.
The reason we go to the Festival is primarily the booths. There are so many choices at reasonable costs and the portion sizes permit extended grazing sessions. It’s my idea of heaven. Within the limitations of the booths’ cooking facilities – they only reheat many dishes and can at best grill things from scratch – we find they do in many cases a remarkable job. We’d like to see some more adventurous menu offerings here and there. That may just be us, however. And just for my personal preferences, I wish they’d make a bit more of an effort to get more regional beers for the booths.