Monday, September 09, 2013

California Grill re-launch Blog Party review and trip report

After seven months of refurbishment, the California Grill is back with a new menu, subtle decor enhancements, and one Mother of All Parties to kick off the re-launch.

I was fortunate enough to be selected for the DisneyParks blog meetup at the California Grill this past Sunday–this was a (free) event open in theory to the public, but only 70 folks were chosen from the online registration. The first seventy, that is, and each got to bring a guest. Disclosure: not only did I get free food, I got a swag bag surprise in the form of actual money (more on this later).

First, let’s talk about the restaurant. Seven months of rehab gets you an updated look, with stuff like new fixtures, new booths and tables, and new carpeting. Probably the most significant change was the way the bay windows worked. Previously, the lower section was a real wall, and the windows dominated the top half of the wall. Now, it’s floor-to-ceiling windows, and the effect really is a nice one. This has the air of an exclusive club up here, and it definitely raises the expectations of the patrons.

By and large, those expectations will be met by the menu. The food available got as thorough a scrubbing as did the decor, and the new menu sparkles from starters to dessert. In fact, the second thing I ate (an appetizer) ended up being my favorite for the night: the three-meat meatballs with picholine olives, herbed rozo, chimichurri, and lavender mint. It’s $15 as an appetizer (it’s not on the entree menu), and even if that means only three meatballs, I will honest to goodness be back to pay for this appetizer, even if I have to eat it at the bar. Some foods are just unreal, the way they activate taste buds in the way only sublime fine dining can.

We sampled the fish (halibut, I think), duck pate, and the desserts (a chocolate confection more airy than its chocolate-on-chocolate appearance would indicate, as well as a soda float), and found them all satisfactory. The sushi menu was extensive, and we frankly gorged here. While it was expertly assembled, it was “only” competently conceived, if you can follow what I mean by this. In other words, the sushi was great. It just wasn’t transcendental. There was something transcendental about the sushi in the former menu up here; maybe the loss of sushi chef Yoshie had a bigger than anticipated effect. The standout here was the pork belly sushi–something that sounded gross to me on paper, but ended up tasting like char-sui dim sum mixed with a tasty vegetarian-based nigiri roll. Good stuff. It will cost $22 on the menu.

The other standout – besides the divine meatballs – was the oak fired filet of beef, featuring heirloom tomato risotto, baby vine tomatoes grated to infinitesimal size, petite basil, and tomato butter. To fully grasp the magnitude of my endorsement, consider that I almost never seek out steak or steakhouses, and am just as likely to order ground beef as steak on my burritos. Couple that with my legendary aversion to tomatoes of any kind – never mind mentioned THREE TIMES on the menu – and you’ve got all the makings of a dish I will hate. But it was the special kind of yummy you can’t recreate in your kitchen no matter how perfect your recipe is. I had seconds of this for sure. It will be pricey on the menu, though–$49 as an entree (the paper menu they gave us didn’t indicate the portion size).

As mentioned earlier, not only did I get free food, I got a swag bag too – a gift upon parting that I didn’t open until out of the elevator and back at the lobby. Inside I found two sweet bread rolls, two paper menus with prices, and a cloth pouch with a $50 Disney gift card.

I was dumbfounded by the gift card at first. Some degree of flummoxation is inevitable when something that unexpected happens to you. This was followed by elation. Fifty dollars? Not only did I get free food, I got outright PAID to be here?

Not too long after, however, came other emotions. Guilt was first. What had I done to deserve this? And then a kind of moral nagging from deep within my psyche. Was this money meant to ensure a positive review? Not a bribe exactly, but something like payola? That led to confusion. Should I refuse it?

It got me thinking about my role. I’m not media to Disney – they don’t invite me to the press events – but I *do* have something of a microphone/sandbox in the form of this publication. I guess I’m quasi-media. Bloggers are sometimes called “citizen journalists.” Should I act like a journalist? What would a journalist do?

I know some reporters – including at least one food reporter – and the way THEY do business is to hide their affiliation, visit the establishment more than once, pay like everyone else, and then write reviews that way. This model works because there is a whole media machine behind it. It’s not their personal money spent on food; it’s a spending account and the newspaper/magazine/TV station pays for it ultimately.

Bloggers don’t tend to have that kind of disposable income. Nor do people expect that level of objectivity. So maybe I shouldn’t feel guilty about keeping the gift card?

About this point in my musings I read somewhere online that the actual media members had received similar swag bags in THEIR evening at the California Grill, a few nights earlier, complete with those same $50 gift cards. That cleared up my confusion at least. If the media was getting actively paid, surely I should allow myself to accept the gift card with no reservations.

Disney clearly spent some money on this thing. 70 reservations plus their guests must have meant at least $14,000 in food costs and another $10,000 in labor. The gift cards added a few extra thousand dollars. Was it money well spent? I can tell you that I, for one, came away more impressed with the food than expected, and more likely to pay rack rate prices in the future than I was previously. I had been to the California Grill twice on my own in the past decade, and the new menu had looked expensive to me at first, but now, less so.

And I have definitely notched some positive feelings about the DisneyParks blog. This was my first meet as their guest, and it felt truly wonderful to be that pampered (a key fact that didn’t fit anywhere else in this review: all the wine/beer you wanted was also free that night). In many ways, the blog is filling the niche I would have expected from D23, at least for events out here in Orlando, and they are doing it in style.

Oh, and those decorations included prints of Mary Blair artwork – she did the Small World designs and the Grand Canyon Concourse right here at the Contemporary Resort – as well as actual photos of Mary, which is even more rare. Bravo.

Kevin Yee is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History.