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A food critic’s first bite: Epcot International Food and Wine Festival

Here are some hit dishes - and a few to skip - at this year’s foodie fest.

Tell someone in Florida you’ve never been to an American theme park before and well, you’ll get a look.

No, I’ve never been to Walt Disney World.

Kenyan coffee barbecue beef tenderloin with sweet potato and corn mealie pap and kachumbari slaw is served at the Africa marketplace. [Walt Disney World]

I lived mostly in Switzerland until I turned 12, so my experience with the world’s most famous mouse until now included one rainy trip to Paris’ Euro Disney when I was 9 and spent a lot of time singing along to The Little Mermaid in German.

And the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival? Frankly, I had never even heard of it until a few weeks ago. I moved here from New Orleans this summer to become the Times’ food critic, and I’m still learning a lot about Florida.

A food-lover’s mecca, the Orlando festival is about to embark on its 24th year, which at a record 87 days will be the longest in the event’s history. My colleagues and editors decided when the Orlando food fest held its annual media preview, I simply had to go.

You’ll love it, they said. The food is so good!

The concept of spending a leisurely afternoon or evening drinking and eating “around the world" while sampling dozens of different international cuisines seemed pretty impressive. And I had to admit, the whole idea of popping in for a glass of French bubbly in Paris, a shrimp bao in China and a plate of ravioli in Italy all in an afternoon, well, that sounded pretty good to me.

That’s how I found myself driving through a torrential rainstorm a few weeks ago to check out Florida’s largest culinary celebration. Still, I’ll admit, I was pumped.

An Impossible slider with wasabi cream and spicy Asian slaw on a sesame seed bun is served at Earth Eats. [Walt Disney World]

But things started going south pretty quickly. As part of my Orlando excursion, I spent a couple days checking out Universal Orlando, where it rained the entire time. I spent more time watching poncho-clad tourists slip and scramble in their flip-flops trying to escape the downpour than going on rides. It increasingly felt like my rainy Euro Disney experience was coming back to haunt me.

But I was hopeful for Epcot.

The preview, though technically inside the park, didn’t take place outside in the public space, but in a convention hall-type room right on the periphery of Epcot’s backstage area called the World Showplace Pavilion.

In keeping with the cattle call-like media preview format, the organizers had invited dozens of reporters, bloggers and social media influencers to the event. At 5 p.m., the lot of us were herded into the dark, windowless space to sample the food and interview the festival’s organizers and chefs.

There was fondue! Mimosa flights! Joey Fatone!

Unfortunately, most of the food offered wasn’t that good. There was a rubbery, cold fish tostada. A small pile of shrimp topping bland “Thai” noodles. A vegan rice dish that tasted like boxed pilaf. Nothing was downright terrible; it just wasn’t very interesting.

Was I missing something? Or worse, were all the people gushing and raving about the festival just... crazy?

A colleague and longtime festival-goer who had joined me at the event put those thoughts to ease.

“This really isn’t that good,” she said, pushing her fork around her plate. She also assured me that the few dishes served weren’t an accurate representation of the annual celebration’s culinary breadth and quality.

Hearing this made me feel a lot better and also, hopeful. And to be fair, the dark confines of a convention hall clearly couldn’t convey the magic of skipping down cobblestone streets in France or getting lost in the United Kingdom’s English gardens. We all know food tastes better when everything else is enchanting.

So, spoiler alert, I still haven’t been to the Epcot International Food and Wine festival. But I hope to soon.

RELATED: Epcot Food and Wine Festival will open the same day as Star Wars land

In the meantime, here are a few of my initial thoughts on what not to miss (there were a few good dishes) and a couple items to maybe skip at this year’s fest.

Don’t Miss

Warm Raclette Swiss cheese is charred and scraped over a plate with baby potatoes, cornichons and baguette slices at the Alps Marketplace. [Walt Disney World]

Swiss cheese raclette with baby potatoes, cornichons and baguette, Alps Marketplace

What’s not to love about melted cheese? Like some of the other festivals’ past hits, this dish carries a theatrical element in which guests can watch the chefs carve away at large blocks of Swiss cheese, which is melted to order, then pooled onto a plate of crunchy cornichons, warm baby potatoes and crusty baguette.

Jerk-spiced chicken with roasted sweet plantain salad and mango chutney yogurt, Islands of the Caribbean

This returning dish is one of the festival’s biggest hits for a reason — the chicken is tender and coated in a warm spice rub that lingers with a smoky, soft heat but isn’t overpowering. Cooling the dish off are the candy-like sweet plantains and the creamy and fruity chutney yogurt sauce.

The blueberry and almond frangipane tart served at the the Alps Marketplace. [Walt Disney World]

Blueberry and almond frangipane tart with creme fraiche, cream and almonds, Alps Marketplace

This delicious little confection is part-custard, part-cake and manages to strike the perfect balance between sweet and tart with a touch of crunch from the almonds. A hint of citrus lends the final zing to the delicate treat.

Fruit and nut energy snack, Active Eats

This is chock-full of apricots, almonds, pecans, coconut and puffed rice but somehow still feels like dessert, thanks to a generous drizzle of chocolate.

Maybe skip

The Pacifico true striped bass tostada with slaw and fire-roasted tomatillo sauce is served at the Coastal Eats marketplace. [Walt Disney World]

Pacifico true striped bass tostada with slaw and fire-roasted tomatillo sauce, Coastal Eats

I wasn’t impressed with this dish, mainly because I couldn’t discern anything that made it stand out in a genre that’s got some pretty strong contenders. The fish was bland, the tomatillo sauce lacked seasoning and the tostada format made it slightly awkward to eat. Simply put, there are better fish tacos — and tostadas — elsewhere.

Smoked corned beef with crispy potatoes, cheese curds, pickled onions and beer-cheese fondue, Flavors from Fire

Not for the lactose-averse, this decadent item packs in both cheese curds and a beer-cheese fondue. The dish comes toppling with smoked corned beef and the crispy potatoes here are really just potato chips, lending the plate a certain late-night munchies appeal. It’s flavorful, but a gut-bomb. Pickled onions add a much-needed acidic break from all the heft, but you still might need a nap afterwards.

Spicy Kenyan vegan githeri with white beans, pigeon peas, curry rice pilaf and kachumbari slaw, Africa Marketplace

It’s great that the festival’s organizers are working toward adding more vegan and vegetarian-friendly options, but this dish doesn’t do much to further that agenda. Essentially a spicy rice pilaf studded with a few peas, beans and topped with a crunchy slaw it felt more like an afterthought or a side dish.

Shrimp and cold noodle salad, Thailand

Though the shrimp carried some decent flavor, the noodles were bland and sorely in need of some spice and seasoning. There’s just nothing here you can’t find at any middle-of-the-road noodle joint.

If you go

This year’s celebration is held at the Epcot World Showcase and kicks off on Thursday. The festival, open daily, is busier on nights and weekends so lines tend to be shorter during the weekdays and mid-day hours.

Leaving the festival this year are Greece and New Zealand’s marketplaces. In their place, a new Swiss-inspired Alps Marketplace is debuting as is the Appleseed Orchard Marketplace in the O Canada! Theater.

Returning events outside the marketplaces include the celebrity-packed Sunday Brunch with the Chef series, which kicks off Sept. 1 with Jamie Deen, Paula Deen’s son and the owner of Lady and Sons restaurant. Other guests in that series include Carla Hall (Sept. 8), Fabio Viviani (Sept. 15) and Buddy Valastro (Oct. 6). Tickets to the brunch are $139 per person plus Epcot admission.

The Eat to the Beat concert series kicks off Thursday with rock group the Plain White T’s, followed by country’s Sawyer Brown on Sept. 1 and 2. Other acts include Sheena Easton (Oct. 31 and Nov. 1), 98 Degrees (Oct. 7 to 9), Kenny G (Oct. 14 and 15), Smash Mouth ( Sept. 16 and 17) and Boyz II Men (Nov. 4 to 6). Performances are included with admission and take place three times a day at the American Gardens Theater in the American Adventure Pavilion.

Tickets for the festival start at $113 and can be purchased at Food and drink is extra.