Friday, February 20, 2009

Walt Disney World, Days 2-3

We got up on Day 2 and walked over to Downtown Disney. Once there, we hopped on a bus for the Wilderness Lodge, one of Disney's big, luxury hotels. No, we didn't buy an upgrade...we were heading to breakfast. Nestled into the the Lodge's environs of geysers, running rivers, and National Parks lodge charm, there's a restaurant called Whispering Canyon. A bit of a deliberate misnomer, the Canyon is one of the loudest restaurants on site. It's decorated to look like a Cowboys & Indians themed kid's playroom, and the wait staff are all "Cousin Al" or what have you. The food is excellent. The Otter got French Toast with cinnamon icing. The Roo got a version of Eggs Benedict (one of his favorite dishes) with beef brisket in place of the Canadian bacon and a BBQ hollandaise sauce. This was awesome.

Me? I'm a bear of simple tastes. I got the all you can eat conglomeration of breakfast...eggs, hash browns, sausage, bacon, biscuits and sausage gravy, waffles...the one plate was enough for me. I passed on seconds, and I still wasn't hungry hours later. Not to mention, everything I was served was great (gotta love little Mickey Mouse shaped waffles.)

I can't pass on mentioning the restaurant's rather...odd custom around ketchup. If anyone asks for ketchup, the wait staff immediately begin yelling for the ketchup. The table that has the ketchup is then expected to get up and bring it over to the other table. I phrase it that way because the restaurant has about 10 bottles...and they all end up on the same table when someone asks for it. I deliberately asked for it to get them to perform this ritual, then gleefully hopped up to deliver several bottles to the next poor suckers. Hehehe.

We then took a ferry back to the Magic Kingdom and went inside. We had a great time and stayed pretty much all day. We were a little disappointed that the Hall of Presidents was down for refurbishment (gotta install the big O, don'tcha know), but we knew about it ahead of time. It was a cool day, so we had no problems walking right on to Splash Mountain. And, yes, of course we stopped into the Country Bear Jamboree.

As the evening came on, we were finally starting to feel a bit hungry. We decided to hold off on dinner, however, as we knew that the big fireworks display, Wishes, was coming up. We staked out a spot in Liberty Square, behind the castle. You may miss a few light effects on the castle, but the fireworks seem to fly almost right overhead. Far more exciting for my Disney Dollar. Kudos to Stevie-Roo for having found this out when he was last there with his folks.

Our only disappointment came at the end of the night. We'd planned on eating at Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe, in Tomorrowland, because we'd been assured by a cast member that it would still be open. was. Sort of. The lines for salads, fried chicken, and other awesomeness were closed, but the lines for burgers and fries were still open. Oh, joy. The one thing I never eat at a Disney park. Ah well. My disappointment was faintly mitigated by the fact that I felt this was a good excuse to go mental at the fixings bar. So my fries were covered with melted cheese, and my burger was smothered in sautéed mushrooms. Afterwards, we made our way exhaustedly back to our hotel to collapse to sleep.

Day 3 was the only day of bad weather on our trip. It rained...and I mean...rained. The trouble was, it didn't start til we were in the park, so we weren't entirely dressed for the occasion. We chose this day for Disney's Hollywood Studios. This park is decent, but probably my least favorite of the four parks. We rode all our favorites, like the Aerosmith Rockin' Roller Coaster, Star Tours, and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. We did some of our favorite other attractions, like MuppetVision 3-D and the Great Movie Ride. We also did some things we don't always do, like Voyage of the Little Mermaid, because the Otter hadn't seen or done them. We also stood in line to get our photos taken with Bolt and Rhino, the park's two newest characters.

Nothing crazy to report on food in this park on this trip. We got early lunch/late breakfast at the ABC Commissary - Cuban sandwiches and whatnot. We also got some of Disney's awesome smoked turkey legs at the Toluca Turkey Leg Co. If you've ever been to a Disney park, are not a vegetarian, and haven't had one of these...come on! Next time you go, eat one of these prehistoric beasts! They're incredibly good...almost like eating smoked ham on a bone. It's a grisly meal, though. A turkey leg this size look like a leg.

After we left the park, we went back to the hotel and cleaned up, showered, got dry clothes, and then hopped on a bus to Downtown Disney because it was raining so hard. Once there, we transferred to a bus for the Animal Kingdom Lodge, another hotel built by the architect of the Wilderness Lodge. Here, we ate at Boma. I've ranted about Boma in other journals I've kept, but allow me to rant very briefly here. This is probably one of the best restaurants on Disney property. To call it a buffet is a crime. It has pods of different foods...all inspired by African cuisine. You can get bobotie (a dish of ground meat and eggs in a casserole), mealy bread (similar to corn bread), all kinds of salads (including watermelon rind, which is delicious), roasted meats, homemade hummus, vegetables, cous cous...the list just keeps going.

The two places where Boma really kicks rumproast, though, are it's soups and its desserts. There are always five (or more) homemade soups, ranging from lentil to beef to baked potato. Our favorites are the carrot-ginger (which is like eating liquid marshmallows) and the curried chicken-coconut soup. I have the recipe for this, and I make it at home, because once every couple of years is not enough. (Dang...think I'll make that this week.)

Desserts are topped first and foremost by zebra domes. These delicate little units of chocolate and Kahlua are beautiful to the eye and to the mouth. Other faves include chocolate mousse crunch, banana bread pudding, homemade cookies, and much, much more.

Needless to say, we slept well after Boma.

More updates soon.

- The Happy Bear

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Walt Disney World, Day 1

So, last Monday, Jan. 31, The Bear Squad headed down south for a trip to Walt Disney World. This was a totally unexpected trip, but my brother's participation in the Disney Vacation Club made a last-minute trip possible. He got us a 2-bedroom suit (sweet!) in the Saratoga Springs hotel.

But first things first. This trip was my firsttime flying JetBlue, and, I must admit, they impressed me. The seats were comfy, with a nice bit of legroom, and each seat had a video screen for watching TV, listening to XM Radio, or renting movies. The TV and radio were free; the movies were not. The flight attendants were mighty friendly. We were seated in an exit row, and they were quick to make sure that my need for a seatbelt extender to go over my bear belly wouldn't make me have to sit elsewhere. I've run into that odd bit of prejudice on SouthWest. There were free drinks and snacks, which I always appreciate, although the Roo bought the makings for a Margerita which was pretty awful.

Also, on our return flight, although there was a long-ass delay, they kept us pretty well informed of what was going on, and, when it was clear our plane wouldn't be able to leave Orlando, they routed us on a different plane. They also gave us credit for a later flight, which was nice. Nice not to have to ask. I would definitely fly with them again.

Once we arrived, we took Disney's Magical Express to the hotel. If you're heading to DisneyWorld, I can definitely recommend using this service. You receive special luggage tags prior to your trip that you stick to your luggage. When you arrive at the airport, you can just board one of the buses without collecting your luggage. It will be delivered to your hotel later that same day. Although we heard a few horror stories in the early days of hte program I'd never had any problems. My bag was delayed in being delivered til about an hour after the others, but, when I told them I needed something from it, they personally delivered it to me as quickly as possible. (More on what I needed later.)

Our room was really fantastic. It was beautiful, comofrtable, and it had its own jacuzzi and washer/dryer set-up. It also had a full kitchen...I suspect it would be a great place for a budget-minded traveler, as our suite could easily have fit another 2-3 people in it comfortably. It was a big hotel, but easy to get around, and it was a 5 minute walk to Downtown Disney, which we took advantage of a number of times.

After we had checked out our room, we hopped on a bus and headed to the Magic Kingdom. This is sometimes referred to as Disneyland Lite, as it's modeled after Disneylan'ds resort, but on a grander scale. None the less, a number of rides, most specifically Space Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean, are longer or better in some way at the California park.

We were very hungry, so we made our way over to a counter service restaurant called El Pirata y el Perico (the Pirate and the Parrot) in Adventureland, oddly enough, Pirates of the Caribbean. The Roo and the Otter both had the Caesar salads (with the Otter sharing his chicken with us non-vegetarians) which were, I'm led to I had a BBQ pulled pork sandwich, which was very good. Had to get used to the fact that Disney is a Coke land, rather than a Pepsi land. *grumble*

After that, we rode some of our favorite rides: Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain, and the Haunted Mansion. We also took in the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor, which hadn't been open the last time I was there. It's a fun show, but it isn't going to be a "OMG, we must do this!" every time we go to MK.

We only had a short bit of time in MK, as we needed to go to our special-special fancy dining experience. Now, WDW has a lot of really good restaurants...and I mean really good restaurants. But I think we've now been to the best...Victoria and Albert's. It's so good, it probably deserves its own post.

Why is V&A's the best? Well, five main reasons. First, it's a formal restaurant, meaning jackets, dress shoes, and dress slacks for men. So we fancied up at our hotel before heading over. This meant no screaming kids and a sense of occassion, which a suit is kinda good for. Even I enjoy suiting up now and then, and I'm as casual as they come. Second, the menu is created daily, using the freshest stuff the chef can get his hands on. Third, there's a live harpist. Fourth, you're presented with a personalized menu as a souvenir at the end of the night, and ladies are given a rose. And fifth? The food of course, silly! Follow along, visually here.

As an amuse bouche, the chef had prepared a presentation of four small items. There was butter-poached lobster that was exquisite, with a hint of sweetness, and a small cup of a rich, wonderful lobster bisque. There was also a crab and lobster sausage and what Jay recalls as a lobster crevette. All of them were very nice, but that poached lobster...hoo boy. Amazing!

The hot appetizer followed. The Otter and the Roo both had the Sesame Crusted Big Eye Tuna with Tat Soi Salad and Tamari Honey Foam. This was a lovely piece of fatty tuna that really worked with the crust and the foam. I had the Spiced, Smoked Buffalo with Apple-Radish Salad and Curry. This was good, and that salad was surprisingly excellent...the apple was almost a compote, and the curry really pulled it all together.

We all enjoyed the next course...the fish course. The Otter had a dish of abalone, served with a toasted caper and meyer lemon sauce. I'd never tried abalone before, and it had a nice texture and flavor. The Roo and I had Nantucket bay scallops, seared and served with a corn ragout and a tiny corn bread. This was amazing, as I usually really dislike bay scallops. This dish was superb.

For the next course, the kitchen was kind enough to work things out with our vegetarian otter, who had a kind of ratatouille in pasta served with 100 year old balsamic vinegar. I had duck three-ways...breast, confit, and sausage with a lovely orange sauce and a hint of balsamic. The Roo had elk tenderloin with mustard spaetzle and an aple-wine kraut. All of these were totally excellent.

For the main, the Otter was able to order a Grouper dish with artichokes, fennel, leeks, and Jambon Iberico. Yes, that's ham. He shared some with us, and it had a great flavor. The Roo had an incredible veal dish made with hedhehog mushrooms and peas. I had Kurobuta pork...both the tenderloin and the belly, served with a bacon-sherry vinaigrette and baby beets. One of the best dishes I've ever eaten, I have to say.

Did I mention the bread? The pastry chef had, in fact, created three different breads amd three different butters. These came out with various courses...the only one I truly recall what the truffle bread served with truffle butter. Rich and earthy. So good. They were all fantastic, though.

A cheese course followed, composed of stilton, piave vecchip, and Coach Farm's goat. These were all delicious and a nice palatte refresher. at this point, it might be mentioned that the Otter and the Roo, as is their wont, got wine pairings. For this one, it was a port, a drink that I *DO* actually enjoy. When I commented that I was thinking of getting a glass, the sommelier quickly offered me one, and, very generously, didn't bother to charge us for it. Now, that's some incredible service.

Finally, dessert came. The Otter and I were both tempted by the caramel-banana gateau, servered with a spun-sugar waterfall. The Roo went chocolate, ordering a fantastic trio...a Tanzanian chocolate pyramid of mousse, a Hawaiian Kona Chocolate Souffle, and a Peruvian Chocolate Ice Cream and Puff Pastry. Utterly decadent. The boys had a pot of coffee, served in an elegant vaccuum-pot. By the time the little nibbly chocolates were brought out, we were crying for mercy. It was an overwhelming meal.

What's interesting is that, while the food was incredible, and I would go back every time I went to Disney, no single thing stood out the way the Wagyu Beef or Foie Gras did at O Ya. Instead, everything was just consistently excellent, with no single item being so above and beyond that we got all emotional about it. This places V&A in my top 5 restaurants for sure and most assuredly as the best restaurant at WDW, but I can't say it's my favorite restaurant, even though I can say that was the single best meal I've probably ever been served. I need to think about which restaurant gets that diustinction.

Next, we return to the Magic Kingdom for Day 2...but that will have to wait til the next post.

- The Happy Bear

Anonimity? Nah.

So, it may be obvious by now that some of you know who I am...or it may not. I'm now officially bored by maintaining this odd semianonimity that I started the site with. Hi, I'm Andy...though I'll still sign these posts The Happy Bear.

Why did I decide to go anonymous? Not sure. I guess I wanted to let the blog fly without attachments to previous projects of mine and to let the Happy Bear be something of a character unto himself. But I figure I might as well be me.

So I'm the Happy Bear. My husband Steve is The Other Half, and my friend Jay is The Otter. I'll probably keep referring to Jay as The Otter...but I'll let Steve just be the Roo. And I'll stay the Happy Bear. So it's all good. It just frees me up to talk about a lot of different things I might have stayed constrained on for fear of "blowing my cover", however tenuous it might have been.

- The Happy Bear