Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews – Portobello & Contempo Cafe
BY MARY WARING – DECEMBER 2008
Recently I visited a couple of new restaurants at Walt Disney World: Portobello, located in the Pleasure Island area of Downtown Disney, and Contempo Cafe, the new “quick service” location at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. As you’ll see below, neither restaurant was all that I had hoped.
In mid-December I dined with a group of seven people at the newly-reopened Portobello (formerly Portobello Yacht Club) in the Pleasure Island area of Downtown Disney. The restaurant had been closed for an extended period, undergoing a renovation and a complete changeover of the menu, in addition to the minor name change. It had just reopened about a week before our visit.
My one and only visit to the previous incarnation of this restaurant was many years ago and almost completely unmemorable, which explains why I had never been back. Quite honestly I cannot tell you what was changed in the renovation, as I have no memory of the décor or layout from our previous visit. Nor can I remember the old menu. So essentially my recent visit was like starting from scratch.
The group ordered every item on the antipasto menu and shared. The antipasti are divided into categories (cheeses, cured meats, grilled veggies and crostini) and you can order individual items (like just a particular type of crostini or a specific vegetable) or platters that contain combinations from that category (like all of the crostini).
Overall, the group was in agreement that the crostini (toasted rounds of bread, brushed with garlic olive oil and topped with various mixtures – basically similar to bruschetta) were delicious. I particularly liked one that was topped with ricotta and drizzled with a little honey. I expected it to be sweet, but in fact the garlic, olive oil and cheese were the predominant flavors and the honey took a back seat. The combination was unusual and very tasty. There were also some more ordinary toppings such as chopped tomatoes. All were good.
We also liked the cured meats (salumi) and cheeses, which were very good quality and a nice selection. The mozzarella tasting sampler, which included a smoked mozzarella, a buffalo mozzarella and some small balls of plain mozzarella, was a particular favorite.
The cold grilled vegetables were not very good. They were served too cold and probably would have been a little better at room temperature. However, we just didn’t like any of them much. They lacked seasoning, and perhaps in a vain attempt to make them seem fancier or more interesting, most were topped with grated cheese and/or bread crumbs, which really didn’t add anything to a cold dish. I wouldn’t bother with anything from the grilled veggie category next time.
Next, on to the main courses. Between the seven of us we ordered only one duplicate dish, so we were able to try six of the entrees. Sadly, most were not very good. My bucatini (hollow spaghetti-like pasta), served with a very garlicky red sauce spiked with a bit of red pepper and some shards of cured ham, was the standout dish of the night, everyone agreed. I enjoyed it and several people tasted it and expressed envy at my lucky choice.
Another person in the group ordered a steak, which was correctly cooked and came with some nice-looking sautéed mushrooms. He had to ask for salt, however, as it was underseasoned. The steak was good, which for the price (over $30 as I recall) it should have been. In any case, quality steak cooked properly is always tasty, and not a difficult thing for any competent chef to put on a plate. The ability of a restaurant to serve good steak doesn’t impress me much.
Two people ordered a pasta dish consisting of bow tie pasta, a cream sauce, roasted chicken and asparagus. One thought it was boring and bland, and immediately asked for salt and pepper. At the end of the meal she had eaten very little of the dish and pronounced it a flop. Another person who ordered the same dish liked it, but she, by her own admission, is a “plain foods” type of eater.
A menu item described as pasta Bolognese was truly strange. First, it was served on spinach noodles, which did not please the person who ordered it, since he doesn’t like spinach. He admitted he might not have read the menu description carefully, but pairing Bolognese sauce with spinach pasta is frankly weird, so it’s not surprising that he didn’t expect it. The pasta was very green, so maybe it was freshly made. However, the sauce was really odd in that it lacked… sauce. Basically the dish looked like a lot of bright green pasta mixed with ground meat. It was not appetizing in appearance at all.
I can’t remember exactly what the other people ordered, but I definitely know that they didn’t like their food. At one point we had four sets of salt and pepper at the table, which tells you something about the lack of seasoning overall.
Luckily the desserts made up somewhat for what the entrees had lacked. Everyone ordered dessert and everyone was pleased. My Nutella-flavored gelato was just delicious, and the small bites others shared were also excellent. Obviously the restaurant has a talented pastry chef.
Service was attentive and friendly, though I don’t recall anyone being asked whether they liked their food. Considering that only two plates out of seven were finished and a lot of uneaten food was carried back to the kitchen, you’d think a manager might have swung by to inquire how we liked the meal. In fact, no manager was ever visible during the whole evening, which I think is very problematic on a Saturday night, particularly when a restaurant is trying out a new menu.
One of my fellow diners declared Portobello a “dessert and coffee” destination, and right now I think she’s right. The prices for the main courses (mostly in the upper $20 and lower $30 range) are very high for such poorly executed food. So go late and order one of the yummy cakes and the excellent coffee, and call it a night.
Four of us – Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, Sue Pisaturo of Small World Vacations, and I – decided to check out the Contempo Café, a newly opened quick-service restaurant located on the fourth floor concourse level of the Contemporary Resort.
The menu looked pretty extensive and innovative for a counter service location. Among the more unusual items were a marinated beef flatbread, a spice-crusted mahi-mahi sandwich and a “steakhouse salad” with beef. There was even a vegetarian salad that sounded interesting, featuring roasted veggies and bulgar wheat. Prices are in line with what you’d pay for ordinary stuff like burgers, so I really had high hopes for the Contempo. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a big disappointment.
The first issue we encountered was the ordering process. It appears Disney is testing a do-it-yourself ordering system using flat panel kiosks. Unfortunately the system is confusing and doesn’t work very well. You first consult two large flat-panel displays depicting the foods that are available (but no prices). You then proceed to the ordering kiosks. That’s where the trouble begins.
Len wanted the marinated beef flatbread, but didn’t want the onions that normally come on it. There is no way to indicate this from the kiosk ordering system. So he had to walk up to the kitchen and ask them for his special order. Strike One for the kiosks.
I wasn’t very hungry. After poking at every option on the kiosks, I discovered there was “soup” listed for $2.79. The soup didn’t appear on the menu board and there was no description of it on the kiosk display. So I was forced to go up to the kitchen and ask what kind of soup they were offering. I was told the soup was “potato and ham.” Fine. I went back to the kiosk and ordered it. Strike Two for the kiosks.
The ordering and food delivery system at Contempo Cafe is far from intuitive. No signs explain what to do or where to go. Fortunately we were virtually the only people in the ordering area. Otherwise all the backing-and-forthing between the kitchen and the kiosks would have put us in and out of line, making the ordering process a real pain.
It’s also not obvious how to get your food once you’ve ordered. As it turns out, you are expected to order from the kiosks, go past the kitchen counter but ignore it (when it would seem logical that you’d just walk up and collect your food), get any drinks or cold items you want from the refrigerator cases, and then proceed to the cashier.
At the cashier you can order fountain drinks and be given a waxed paper cup to carry out to the dining area, where there are self-service soda machines. The machines are not visible from the order area, and the cups aren’t obvious either, so we all selected bottled drinks from the refrigerator cases because we thought there weren’t any fountain drinks. That turned out to be wrong.
Anyway, you are supposed to pay for your food at the cashier, and then you’re given a pager. You proceed to your table with whatever cold drinks you bought from the case, and/or (if you are smart enough to figure it out) your paper cup that you can use to get a carbonated beverage from the self-service station. Then you wait.
Eventually you get paged, at which point you go back through the ordering area and collect your food from the kitchen. If the restaurant is busy, this means “swimming upstream” through all the people who are trying to order, get cold drinks from the case and pay the cashier.
The whole set-up is very badly designed. In what way this is considered “quick service” I have no idea. It’s time consuming, awkward, difficult to navigate and the process takes about ten times as long as getting food at any other counter-service location. Hopefully this is a temporary set-up and they’ll eventually come to their senses and create a better traffic flow.
Now, on to the food. Len seemed to like his goat cheese, beef and arugula-topped flatbread (sans the dreaded onions). Bob got the mahi-mahi sandwich, but encountered an odd problem when he went to pick it up. The sandwich didn’t look anything like the photo on the menu board. He was handed a paper plate containing a bun with a plain piece of broiled fish on it. The menu board shows the fish topped with some sort of cole slaw concoction. When he asked the person in the kitchen about this, she expressed surprise that he apparently wanted the item AS DEPICTED on the menu board! She did find the cole slaw mixture and put some on his fish, eventually.
Bob said his sandwich was “okay” but still “lacked something” even with the cole slaw on top. My guess, from the looks of it, was that it lacked much seasoning, despite being described as “spice crusted”. His sandwich came with a small paper bowl of fries, which he pushed to the middle of the table for everyone to share. I didn’t try them but I noticed everyone else at the table ate exactly one, which would seem to indicate they weren’t very good.
Sue ordered a hamburger. It was served on a dark whole wheat bun and came with undercooked green beans coated with a sweet sesame glaze. The flavor of the glaze was fairly good and if you like your green beans pretty darn crunchy, you might like this substitute for fries.
Last, and definitely least, was my soup. It was, in a word, terrible. I received a waxed paper cup/bowl full of the foulest stuff I’ve had the misfortune of trying to eat in a long while. The “creamy” soup base was gloppy, with an overpowering flavor of salt and MSG. I would bet my life it was made from a powdered mix. There were about ten extremely small (less than dime sized) bits of potato in the whole bowl and a few shards of onion. After much searching I finally located ONE piece of ham smaller than a kernel of corn.
Truly I have had much better soup from a can. At a time when Disney, overall, seems to be focusing more on food quality and healthy options, it’s quite puzzling to me that an item like this would be served anywhere on property.
In conclusion, Contempo Café is not at all ready for prime time. Someone in senior management needs to get in there and do a complete overhaul before the place gives Disney resort restaurants a bad name.