LAKE BUENA VISTA
It's not the most exclusive. It's not the most exotic. It may not even be the most magical.
But no other fine-dining restaurant at Walt Disney World has the cachet of the California Grill.
"It started the food revolution at Disney," chef de cuisine Brian Piasecki said.
The restaurant, which is perched atop the iconic Contemporary Resort, opened in 1995 and helped make Disney a destination for foodies as well as families. Now visitors have their choice of other destination restaurants, including Victoria & Albert's in the Grand Floridian and Jiko in the Animal Kingdom Lodge.
So when California Grill closed this year to undergo a "reimagining," longtime patrons could be forgiven if they worried about the changes in store for the restaurant with scenic views of the Magic Kingdom and its nightly fireworks.
The answer: In both the mood of the dining room and the menu, the new California Grill is lighter and more refined.
Disney showed off the results of the seven-month hiatus at a media preview and tasting earlier this month. Guests were even greeted by a post-summer-shower rainbow outside the restaurant's new panoramic windows. ("The rainbow's just for you," joked Maribeth Bisienere, a Disney vice president of food and beverage.)
Forget the rainbow. What about the food?
Piasecki, a Walt Disney World veteran, described his culinary challenge thusly: "How do we give (the dishes) more variety, yet keep them classic and familiar." On the menu, that translates to more trendy ingredients and playful presentations.
One example: Pork belly, the current hip ingredient in gastropubs and Michelin-starred dining rooms, is cured in-house and used "lacquered" in an update of a popular entree (Pork Two Ways) and also made the star atop sushi (Pork Belly Nigiri). Similarly, duck is used four ways — house-made sausage, rillettes, prosciutto and a liver pate — in the charcuterie appetizer Duck in All its Glory. The pate and sausage, especially, do the fowl proud. Other of-the-moment ingredients that pop up as supporting players include foams and bone marrow.
On the dessert menu, there's now a whimsical sampler that includes a trio of Caramel Corn, Coke Float and Strawberry and Basil sundaes. There are Warm Homemade Fritters — doughnuts — that are banana-stuffed, cinnamon-dusted and served with toast caramel marshmallows and a trio of dipping sauces.
Didn't leave room for dessert? You'll regret it.
"We put some fun plays on the classics," Piasecki said.
As for the spacious dinning room, Disney describes its makeover as "mid-century modern" and says it was inspired by classic California hilltop homes. That spirit hits guests when they step off the elevator and into the 15th floor restaurant: The new windows now afford diners a floor-to-ceiling view of the Magic Kingdom and Seven Seas Lagoon. The interior, which now has custom globe lighting, also seems radiant and roomier, with oranges and yellows that seem appropriate for a restaurant with California in its name and Florida in its address. Fabric art now adorns the walls.
Some other highlights:
• A wall showcase holds 1,600 bottles of wine. In all, there are some 250 wines on the list, with 80 available by the glass. (There also are sakes, craft beers, ciders and signature cocktails.)
• Disney has given Piasecki an all new onstage kitchen with toys such as immersion circulators and custom-made ovens.
• There are two new communal dining tables that each seat 10 with views of the Magic Kingdom.
• There is a new sushi counter and the offerings now include a 12-course omakase. There's no menu. Omakase means "to entrust" in Japanese, and diners are put in the hands of the "sushi team." About that team: It continues in the tradition of the retired Yoshie Cabral, who was a pioneer among female sushi chefs when she began at the California Grill. She trained the team and consulted on the changes. "She still calls me and gets updates," Piasecki said.
• Two dining rooms, Napa and Sonoma, are available for private functions, as well as a private, glass-walled space in the main dining room.
• For fireworks fans, there are now two outdoor deck areas (with piped-in music) to view the magic.
Peter Couture can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.