Thursday, June 28, 2012

[Disney] Day 46: The Meal to End All Meals

Ah, Victoria & Albert's. Disney's premier dining establishment in Orlando and, quite possibly, across all of their resort locations. The main dining room is a small, elegant and reserved setting featuring haute cuisine and foods the likes of which I rarely see. One group a night, though, gets to sit in a small dining room off the kitchen at the Chef's Table. It's not an easy reservation to get. You can book 180 days out but even that is rarely enough as those guests staying on-property have the ability to book 190 days out and usually take the best dates.

I decided I wanted that to be the capping experience of the trip - after all, if I wasn't paying for the airfare or most of the hotels I wanted to splurge somewhere. Initially I had targeted a day closer to my arrival home for the dinner. I called 180 days out and sure enough Resort guests had booked virtually every night for the next 190 days. The only thing left was a Sunday night in June, 189 days out. One quick phone call later and I had a dummy booking at a Disney hotel for 9 days that was later cancelled (tee hee) after I'd successfully snagged that Sunday night V&A Chef's Table slot.

I'd done the Chef's Table one before, about 14 months earlier, and it was the best dining experience I'd ever had. The food was fantastic as one would expect for a meal that costs more than some round-trip flights. But the quality and rarity of the ingredients and the coolness factor of getting a view of a working kitchen put it over the top. I was curious to see how experiencing the Chef's Table for a second time would compare. Here's the abstract, with the full review to come below: the food on the second trip tasted even better. I had been saying for the past year that for the experience I'd take V&As but if I wanted the absolute most delicious food, I'd head to California Grill on the top floor of the Contemporary Hotel with a view of the Magic Kingdom. I can no longer say that as the taste of this particular menu blew everything else away. That being said, as a value proposition the second meal was a bit lacking. The price had gone up in the past 14 months and they gave you considerably less for that. I still had an amazing time and don't regret it for a second but it does mean it's likely to be a bit longer than 14 months before my next trip ;) Now for the full review.

If you're the lucky group heading through the main restaurant to the Chef's Table in the kitchen, you are requested to arrive at 5 PM. I met two of my friends who were joining me for the evening at 4:30 in the lobby of the Grand Floridian. As usual I was there a bit early and grabbed some photos:

I'm back at the Hong Kong Disneyland hotel!

Someday when they catch Big Bird and stick him (her?) in here, I want to be on hand to watch and cheer.

Asiana Lounge?

This hotel is so damn classy it's got a band that plays every night. I am not classy enough to be here.

Words I hate: pamper

Beautiful out despite the rain

On the way over I was debating whether to pay the $12 for valet parking. Normally I would never, but I was wearing a suit and tie and Tropical Storm Debbie was happening outside. Thankfully valet parking was included (who knew?) so I didn't have to make that call.

After my friends arrived we headed up to the second floor to have a drink in Mizner's Lounge. Those of you who have been faithfully reading my trip report will remember that I met a couple of American guys in Tokyo Disneyland. One of them had told me that if my meal was on Sunday then I'd find Tammy working the Lounge - sure enough she was there and was delighted to have me pass on my "hello" from our mutual friend. If it meant that my amaretto sour was just a bit stronger, well, who am I to complain!

Mmmm, liquid gold

At 5 PM we checked into V&A's. The normal maitre d'hotel, Israel Perez, was off for the night so his replacement Melissa walked us through the dining room and the kitchen to the back. Israel was a great guy and all, but Melissa had a much warmer personality and I instantly felt more comfortable. It probably helped that I'd been through this before. The last time at the Chef's Table I was so uptight and worried about being proper that I probably missed a quarter of the fun!

Thirteen consecutive AAA five-diamond awards

We settled into the nice little dining area, set off by a small railing from the kitchen. Gentlemen (using the term loosely here) were told they could take their jackets off but that they had to don them if traveling through the main dining room to the restrooms. They also brought out a small stool for the lady's purse.

Our two waiters introduced themselves to us. They were both extremely friendly and talkative and really set a nice tone for us. The main chef, Scott Hummel, was off for the night, so we would be in the hands of Thomas, one of his longtime assistants.

The evening started with a champagne toast shared with chef Thomas. After that, our waiters took our drink orders. One of my friends had an amaretto sour while I started hitting the Diet Coke hard. My glass never reached more than half empty before it was replaced. In that manner I went through at least ten over the course of the evening.

We were handed the menus which you see below. This was a new touch, as last time we were kept in suspense. The reason behind the change quickly became evident: during my last trip to the Chef's Table literally everything other than additional alcohol was included. This time there were upcharges for four of the rarest ingredients, including my main reason for coming, the Wagyu beef. This was both surprising and unwelcome and, frankly, a bit tacky. In the main dining room they've done this all along, but if you're going to pay an extra $100 to sit in the Chef's Table then you know what? Just charge me an extra $125 and don't make me think about whether I want to pay another $40 on top of it for the best beef in the world. I'm sure this was due to rising commodity costs, but it threatens to take one out of the experience and having the menu ahead of time ruins a lot of the surprise. 

Ah, the good stuff

This was okay too, I guess

Back to the meal! We started with the amuse-bouche. The clear winner here, by unanimous acclaim, was the porcini mushroom cappuccino. It tasted like essence of mushroom. We were all blown away by it and declared it one of the four or five best of the night. Having had quail egg before, I was not overly amazed by it, though it was well done. In general I have an open mind while eating, but chicken liver is one of the few things that I absolutely hate. That being said, and it's a sign of the skill in the preparation here, the chicken liver terrine was good. Not saying I'd order it off a menu, but to get me to say that liver is good is about as high a compliment as I've got in me. Finally the cauliflower panna cotta did an excellent job of distilling the cauliflower taste down to the basics and doing so in an unexpected form. 

At this point we had the first of three bread services. Each came with a different type of bread and a different type of butter. There were also six different salts to try. Each of the butters was fantastic and the breads ranged from good to excellent. Plus it's always fun to try Himalayan rock salt. 

Next up was our first appetizer, the Maine lobster with herb aioli and miniature greens. The lobster was excellent and the flavors of the dish melded well together. It was not a standout dish compared to everything else but, taken on its own, it did well. When you have this many courses it's hard for any one thing to stand out, even writing this the day after!

The next course definitely won for most impressive presentation. The hot "smoked" lamb comes out in a goblet filled with liquid smoke, which prevents you from seeing what is inside. It also looks vaguely Haunted Mansionish, as one of my dining companions pointed out. Once the aromatically-pleasing smoke clears you are left with a really incredible pairing of the least-gamy lamb I've ever had with some Fuji apple. Independently they were tasty but eaten together really moved them into the divine region. One of the best courses of the night.

It was just warming us up, though, for probably the most surprisingly amazing course of the evening. Copper River Salmon is only available for about six weeks a year and even during those times is very difficult to find. I'd had it once before and was underwhelmed by it. Not so hear. Just a few weeks earlier I'd had what I declared to be the best piece of cooked fish in my life. This was several levels beyond that. It was absolutely incredible and, save for the Wagyu beef that I've now had twice, it was the most incredible piece of protein I've ever had the pleasure of eating. 

Thankfully I finally learned how to use chopsticks properly before this trip. I still kinda suck with them, though.

Raw wasabi - very, very mild.

I asked our waiter if I could have a few mementos of this variety and he brought me this lot - very much appreciated!

The poulet rouge "oscar" which came out next did little for me, but that's generally the case with fowl. It's just not my thing. The king crab was delicious and the two types of asparagus added a nice dimension, but as has always been the case when I've had multicourse meals (not that often, I swear), I could lose the poultry course and be just fine.

For our next course we were able to try some veal tenderloin. The veal had a nice, subtle flavor that was much more pleasing that I normally find veal. The star of this course was the truffle bread pudding which won me over completely on truffles. 

What I wouldn't give to swipe a jar of those brandied cherries

Not sure I qualify but what the heck

Pay phones? Really? In 2012? In Victoria & Albert's?

Finally we reached the main course. I could tell you about the bison, which was delicious. Or the short ribs, which were amazing. But really all I'm going to say is that the Wagyu beef was, once again (having tried it once before at V&As) the best non-dessert food I've ever eaten. We all sat there in silence as we ate it, not wanting to forget a second of it. 

The very last piece. What a sad photo.

Having successfully passed the main portion of the meal, we decided to press on through to dessert. At this point in my previous trip my dining partner and I had felt quite stuffed and so decided to talk a thirty minute walk and watch the fireworks from the pier. This time while I would not say I was still hungry, I definitely was not stuffed. And since the folks I was dining with had quite a drive ahead of them we proceeded onto the cheese course, which passed without comment.

Very neat coffee contraption

It was then time for the first dessert course, which also came beautifully plated. As someone who loves fruit-based desserts and could take or leave chocolate I was in heaven. The blood orange mousse was out of this world and the caramel cookie in the background turned out to be delicious. For me this was one of the top three courses of the night, along with the Wagyu and the salmon.

The chocolate course proved a bit much for me, but here's some chocolate love for those who like such things:

Shot o'chocolate

Edible gold

Finally we closed with an assortment of sweets, including the famed chocolate-covered brandy cherry. I could eat a whole jar of these, though I doubt that would feel as good the next day.

Errr, one of each please

The mysterious black box containing the check

After settling up our bill, I bid farewell to my friends and returned to the bar for one last drink with Tammy, Jessica and the rest of the spirited bar patrons. Naturally it was blue and glowing. What can I say, I like it that way ;)

A lovely way to end the evening

Overall, I was very pleased with the meal. The quality of the food was outstanding. Much of the last meal I'd had at V&As tasted good but it often seemed like the menu was chosen more for the rarity or "wow" value of the ingredients than for the taste. Which isn't to say it wasn't good, it just wasn't the single best tasting meal of my life. This run through might have been just that, with only a few meals that could rival it in my mind. But the value remark remains. Last time the Wagyu and a caviar course were included, which would have cost an extra $70 or $75 now, despite the overall meal already being more expensive. Last time the courses were also a touch larger, though that may have just been chance.

On my last trip there was a parting gift, in that case a loaf of orange-flavored bread, which made a nice breakfast. I've read that people have also been given jars of brandy cherries. No such luck for us and I have no clue if that was just our bad fortune or if it's a new cost-conscious policy. There were also no surprises during the meal, though I suspect that may have been because with head chef Scott off for the night, his assistant might not have felt he had the authority to do so. In case you're wondering what I mean, during my last meal at V&As my companion and I had made a special point to ask if we could try Wagyu as neither of us had ever had it. Not only did Chef Scott serve us tenderloin Wagyu, he brought a giant slab of the raw stuff back so we could watch him cut it. We were so amazed by the process that on the spur of the moment he cut off some ribeye, threw it on the grill, and gave both of us the most delicious piece of meat we are ever likely to try (hur hur). He also let us try some Wagyu tartar.

Again I'm not sure if the change is part of more of a cost-conscious approach to the Chef's Table, but it's a bit of a shame. That being said, I had an abundance of absolutely delicious food, and wonderful companions to share the night with. It is a night I will treasure always and it was a great way to end the trip, even with a tropical storm raging outside.

Come back tomorrow for some final thoughts on the trip.