Friday, April 29, 2016

Ghost Post Follow-Up and Tea at Disneyland Hotel's Steakhouse 55

This week is a bit of a follow-up to a couple of earlier blogs. Not only will you hear more about our recent dining-focused trip to the Disneyland Resort, but I’ve also got some more information about the Haunted Mansion Ghost Relations Department Ghost Post.

In my post about the Ghost Post, I noted that there was apparently content that could be unlocked in the Disneyland park. So, on a recent trip, we fired up the Phantom Radio app, which led us to Esmerelda, the fortune-telling machine on Main Street. (The app both told us to visit Esmerelda, and showed us her location on the GPS locator map part of the app.)

Friday, April 22, 2016

Disney California Adventure Food & Wine Festival 2016 and River Belle Terrace at Disneyland

Before I get into the meat of this week’s blog, I want to mention Syfy’s Wynonna Earp TV series. Some time ago, I blogged about my enthusiasm for the 21st century version of the comic, and how much I was looking forward to the show. Well, it has not disappointed at all. It’s funny, fast-paced, charming and exciting. It’s very much an origin story for the character, and should appeal to fans of shows like Buffy and Supernatural. It has become a favorite in our household after only two episodes, and seems to be getting a lot of positive reviews online. I highly recommend checking it out.

Recently, we visited the Disneyland Resort. We bought annual passes last fall, so have been visiting Disneyland more frequently than in recent years. This time, our primary focus was on eating, for a couple of reasons. One of those reasons was that through the entire month of April, Disney California Adventure is hosting the Food and Wine Festival, returning after an absence of several years. While we didn’t try everything on offer, we did try quite a few items, and here’s what we thought:

After looking at the brochure, we decided the first booth we wanted to try was the Gold Rush booth, for the Triple Cheese Mac with Smoked Chicken and the Apple Bacon Whoopie Pie. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the presence of mind to take photos of these items, but there are ample photos available online. (Like here.)

The mac and cheese was really good. The three cheeses combined nicely, and the smoked chicken had a distinct flavor that was not overwhelming. Similarly, the whoopie pie had a nice delicacy of flavor. I've had maple bacon pastries in the past that were way too sweet; this had a more subtle balance. Less subtle was the Flower Field Lemonade, which was really tasty, but really, really sweet. Overall, the Gold Rush booth set the tone for what we hoped would be a pleasant Food & Wine Festival experience.

Our next target was the By the Bay booth. I'd read good things about the White Cheddar and Ale Bacon Soup, served in a sourdough boule. My wife and I are both suckers for soup in a bread bowl, so there you go. While my wife isn't particularly interested in seafood, I also wanted to try the Chilled Shrimp & Snow Crab Cocktail. And, of course, we couldn't pass up the coconut tapioca layered with fresh mango, lychee boba, and mango coulis.

While we love cheese, soup, beer, bacon, and bacon ale cheese soup, we felt this iteration tasted a little bland. Cheddar is not the mildest of cheeses, but there wasn't a lot of flavor to this soup. We also didn't get very much in our little mini boule, which sounds like the old joke ("The food here is awful!" "Yes, and such small portions!") but there you go.

The shrimp and crab cocktail was more successful, I felt. It had a light, refreshing flavor that was perfect on a hot Saturday. My only complaint was that it was a bit tough cracking the crab claw to get to the meat. My wife didn't try the shrimp or crab meat, but she sampled the sauce and thought it tasted great.

The coconut tapioca was a definite winner. I'm not a particularly big fan of mango on its own--I find it a bit bitter--but paired with the boba bubbles and the coconut tapioca, the sweetness took the edge off of it. 

Our final lunch booth of the day was Wine Country. I am the complete sucker for braised beef. Braise it with wine? How can I pass that up? We also had to try the blackberry tart. While we were there, my wife impulsively decided to also try the beet salad, despite the fact that a really bad beet salad at a restaurant years ago had made us wary of that dish. This time, her love of goat cheese won out over the fear of beets.

The Zinfandel-braised Wagyu beef with creamy polenta and spring pea purée was delicious. The beef was extremely tender and rich, and both the polenta and pea purée complimented it nicely. It was so good, I was reluctant to share it with my wife. (But I did.) The beet salad was nicely dressed, with a good balance of ingredients. And the blackberry tart was nice. We especially liked the flavor of the rosemary vanilla bean creme fraiche, although the texture of both the creme and the crust were industrial strength.

We took a break, went on some attractions, went back to the room for a nap, and then returned to the festival for dinner. We decided to try a couple of specific items as “appetizers,” with our main dinner at the Cocina Cucamonga restaurant in Disney’s California Adventure.

Based on what I had read beforehand, I really wanted to try the Pork Belly Bao Taco at the LAstyle booth. We each got one of those, and split the Milk Chocolate Caramel tart.

The flavors of the pork belly bao taco were excellent. For starters, what’s better than a nicely-cooked piece of pig fat? The sauce was rich but not overpowering, the vegetables were crisp and refreshing, and the bao bun taco shell was soft and fluffy. This may have been my favorite item from the festival, although the chocolate tart from the same booth ran a close second. Rich and creamy, it was a fantastic dessert. Even though we were having it as an appetizer.

Our final booth selection was the tenderloin slider from the Farm booth. I am a sucker for sliders, and beef tenderloin, plus I had read good things about this item online. Be warned: the brochure for the festival says it is served with a smoked BBQ sauce and Bleu cheese. On the menu at the booth, it says it comes with a chimichurri sauce (which indeed it does).

Honestly, this was a bit of a disappointment. The tenderloin is not cooked to order, so it should come as no surprise that it is fairly well done, in terms of temperature. In fact, what comes as a surprise is that, as thoroughly cooked as it was, it was still fairly tender and edible. It was nicely seasoned, which is more than I can say for the chimichurri sauce. I’ve had many chimichurri sauces in the past, and this was easily the blandest, least flavorful I’ve ever tasted. (In fact, I’m not really sure I actually did taste it; it may have actually subtracted flavor from the slider.)

For our actual dinner, we decided to try Cocina Cucamonga Mexican Grill, a restaurant in DCA that neither of us had ever eaten at before. They had a special item on the menu for the Food & Wine Festival, a shredded pork tostada with grilled pineapple slaw and chipotle crema.

This dish was actually very tasty. I don’t always enjoy pineapple, but the sweetness of the fruit was offset enough by the chipotle, and together, they made a really nice combination. I was particularly surprised by the rice. Generally, I’ve found so-called Spanish rice to be a little bland, particularly at places like a counter-service restaurant in a theme park. However, this was much better seasoned than expected. Overall, this dish makes me willing to come back to this restaurant again in the future.

Separate from the Food & Wine Festival, we also tried the new BBQ menu at the River Belle Terrace on this trip. Previously, I had enjoyed breakfasts and lunches at the River Belle Terrace. We had also enjoyed the all-you-can-eat BBQ at Big Thunder Ranch, but, sadly, that restaurant has been closed for good. River Belle Terrace just launched their new menu a few months ago. I’d seen good reviews online, we like BBQ, and it’s a Disneyland restaurant we hadn’t eaten at yet, so of course we went.

We started with the creamy cheese dip, which was served with toasted bread and celery. It was a little spicy, but not overwhelmingly so. The toasted bread it came with made for a nice combination with the cheese. It was almost like eating a little tiny pot of fondue.

For our meals, my wife and I each chose sandwiches. All entrees come with baked beans and an additional side; my wife and I both opted for the potato salad. I considered the tater tots, but we had been driving all day, and I wanted something a little less greasy.

I ordered the beef brisket sandwich, which has smoked provolone cheese and fried onions with steak sauce mayo. I’ve had good brisket sandwiches and bad brisket sandwiches, and even smoked my own brisket. This was one of the better ones. The meat was moist and tender without tasting greasy or overly fatty. I could definitely taste the smoke in the cheese. The steak sauce mayo was a nice accent without being overwhelming. Most importantly for me, the fried onions were pretty unobtrusive. I’ve had sandwiches with so many fried onions that’s all I can taste; that was definitely not the case here. They added a nice touch, but didn’t turn it into an onion sandwich.

My wife ordered the pulled pork sandwich. She also appreciated the relative lack of grease, and commented that she enjoyed the cole slaw on it. I mention that because she normally does not enjoy cole slaw.

The baked beans were a nice combination of several types of beans, and the potato salad was well-made and seasoned. However, we both agreed that there was nothing particularly remarkable about any of it. They were perfectly serviceable sandwiches and sides, but didn’t really justify the price the restaurant charges. 

My wife had made a point of saving room for dessert. I hadn’t saved room, but ordered dessert anyway. As it turns out, that wasn’t an issue as, unlike the sandwiches, the desserts were not particularly big. In fact, they were kind of on the small side.

My wife ordered the maple, apple & bacon bundt cake, and she let me have a bite. It was moist and delicious, but the restaurant changes $8 for what is probably a $5 portion. She was particularly disappointed because she hadn’t had as much of the cheese dip or beans or potato salad as she had wanted, because she had expected a much larger dessert.

While we were waiting to be seated, I heard the couple in front of us tell the hostess that they just wanted to try the restaurant’s famous cheesecake. (This was the first time I had heard of their cheesecake, but there you go.) So I ordered the fried cheesecake, to see what the fuss was about. 

It’s for the best that I hadn’t been saving room, since it was even smaller than the bundt cake, The whole thing was maybe the size of a flattened Snickers bar. The breading/coating was pretty thick compared to the amount of cheesecake, so it was very difficult to actually cut through it without melted cheesecake squirting everywhere. It came with some fruit and--once again--some industrial-strength whipped cream. I’m glad I ate all my dinner, otherwise I would have gone away hungry.

I don’t like to complain about prices at Disneyland, because I go in knowing that it’s not a cheap place to be. However, in the past, I have generally felt like I’ve gotten good value for my money. In the case of the new River Belle Terrace, I don’t feel that’s the case. The quality of the food was just fine, but that’s not enough to justify these prices. It’s certainly no substitute for the defunct Big Thunder Ranch.

Overall, we’ve come to the conclusion that when we’re in the parks, we prefer to stick with counter service restaurants. The quality of food and service at the table service restaurants has been on a decline, while prices have increased. We figure that unless you’re getting a special experience, like at the Blue Bayou, the table service restaurants aren’t worth the expense in both money and time spent waiting. So I honestly can’t recommend the River Belle Terrace as a place to eat in Disneyland.

Overall, though, we had a great series of dining experiences on this trip. In addition to the Food & Wine Festival, we had a couple of particularly special meals. So special, in fact, that they deserve their own entries. So in the weeks to come, I will be writing about our afternoon tea at Steakhouse 55, and our dinner at the extremely exclusive Club 33.

Do you have a favorite place to eat at the Disneyland Resort? Have you had better experiences with table service restaurants than we have? If so, please let me know in the comments.

See you next week!

Friday, April 15, 2016

What's In the Box?!?: Kitnip Box and Haunted Mansion Ghost Post

As I write this, the past week has been a bit stressful. Fortunately, some of that stress was relieved by the arrival of a couple of subscription boxes, one of which was particularly exciting. So, let’s dive in!

This month’s Kitnip Box theme is “Royalty.” 

The first item of bling listed on the card is the Royal Ring by the ironically-named Vegan Cat. This is a relatively big toy, but it’s the first one I found any of the cats playing with of their own volition out of this box.

The Safemade Fuzzy Fun Toy rattling balls got the cats’ attention. Gizmo, in particular, likes playing with balls that he can bat around. However, he really likes the ones he can pick up and carry in his mouth, and these may be a bit too big for that.

The handmade crown by LeKiwi didn’t elicit much of a response when we tossed it across the room. However, we’ve found that these sorts of toys do better when the cats stumble across them and start wrestling with them.

Same goes for the catnip Keep Calm pillow from Ocala. Personally, I’ve gotten tired of the “Keep Calm” meme, because it frustrates me that it’s everywhere, and I doubt most people spreading it, wearing it, whatever, have any idea of its origins in wartime Britain. But, you know, a catnip pillow toy is a catnip pillow toy. The cats aren’t going to read it, anyway.

Third in variations on a theme, we have a catnip Queen Bee from Safemade. Again, this has been left out to be discovered and mauled.

Finally, for some variety in the toys, we got a pair of Royal Mouse Slippers from Ocala. They’re at least a different shape and size than the catnip pillows, designed more for chewing. They’re light enough that Gizmo could carry them around, if he so chooses. And the card says that they’re good for cleaning the cats’ teeth, which is something they all need help with.

Finally, while the card said this box contained dental treats—which we are getting our cats used to—we actually got holistic natural feline treats from Bench & Field. While treats are always welcome—in small doses—we are focusing their treat-getting on dental treats right now. And, if these aren’t crunchy, Rumplestilskin probably won’t eat them anyway.

Individually, there are some cute pieces this month, and, as you can see here, Gizmo is definitely interested in the royal ring. (Apologies for the pillarboxed format. I wasn't thinking when I took the video and held my phone the wrong way.)

However, the abundance of catnip pillows, while adorable, isn’t really stirring my creative juices as far as writing about them.

Those creative juices were much more stimulated by the arrival of our first Ghost Post box from the Ghost Relations Department of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. This box is limited to three monthly boxes, and the number of subscribers was limited to 999. Reading the description, we were intrigued at the idea this this isn’t a typical subscription box full of collectibles. 

“Each box is a chapter in an unfolding story that connects you directly to the ghosts of the Haunted Mansion. In the boxes, each item will have certain hidden qualities and secrets for you to discover, and each one will become a prop in your experience – revealing a little bit more of the story.” Each of the objects in the box is designed to interact with an iPhone app, and that all becomes part of the story.

It should be obvious from this blog that my wife and I are subscription box addicts, and we are also Disney addicts, particularly the attractions at the Disney Parks. I am really fascinated with the idea of stories based on the attractions, whether it’s the backstory to the Tower of Terror (and its connections to the Fiddler, Fifer and Practical Cafe in Disney’s California Adventure) or the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, or the Disney Kingdoms comics based on attractions like Figment/Journey Into Imagination or Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. So, despite the high price tag, we went ahead and subscribed, in the brief window before they sold out.

The box itself is a beautiful design, very much in keeping with the Haunted Mansion theme.

Upon opening, we found a letter and a manila envelope glued to the inside of the lid, while a couple of objects—a teacup and a small figurine—were nestled in a protective cardboard insert.

Underneath that insert, we found a few more flat objects: 

a cardboard kit that assembled into a housing for your “phantom radio,” which is the iPhone app, 

And a deck of cards featuring characters and images from the Haunted Mansion.

Inside the manila envelope, we found several more artifacts: a copy of the Grim Gazette (a newspaper from the spirit realm),

An instruction card detailing how to get and sign into the phantom radio app (along with some in-story history), 

An invitation to the wedding of Constance Hatchaway Harper Banks—a name familiar to fans of the Haunted Mansion—and the Marquis de Doome, 

And a broom advertisement with some mysterious holes punched and burned into it.

And this is the point at which I have to explain how I have decided to write about this box. So much of the fun comes from discovering how things work and the messages that are revealed, I don’t want to spoil things too much. Maybe in a few months, when we have all the boxes and the story is completed, I’ll post a more detailed description showing all the tricks. For now, I’m going to talk about them in more general terms.

If you look at the letter from the Ghost Relations Department, it says, “Most mortals find spirit writing easiest to read when the paper is dampened with water.” This was one of our first clues that there was more to this box than just scanning the items with our iPhones and listening to audio clips. Sure enough, when we dampened the paper with water, hidden messages appeared directing us to do different things with the objects. 

For example, the wedding invitation played one message when we pointed the Phantom Radio at it. However, a clue about the cold led us to put the invitation in the freezer briefly, and this was the result:

When we scanned the death notice that it had transformed into, we got an entirely different message.

The teacup and figurine were similarly multi-purposed. While they both played audio clips when scanned, the teacup also interacted with another object to reveal another hidden message. The broom ad also paired up with another object to reveal yet another secret. And when both the figurine and iPhone were inserted into the cardboard Phantom Radio, the figurine acted as a tuner.

One final cool wrinkle is that the phantom radio app will apparently play messages or reveal clues or something at specific locations in Disneyland. We will be going to Disneyland soon, so I will report on this feature once we see how it works.

According to the web site, this whole thing isn’t without its bugs. For example, some people have reported having trouble getting the phantom radio to work in the Disneyland park. Others have reported that their phantom radio played clips associated with objects in next month’s box, instead of the correct clips for this month’s objects. (We had one instance of that ourselves.) The Disney Store has promised an update of the app to correct those issues, so hopefully that’ll all be worked out.

Overall, this has already turned out to be a really fun box to play with. We went through everything once, and I already want to go and try to read and listen to everything again to try to put all the clues together. For us, the experience has been well worth the money, and we’re really looking forward to the next two boxes. Knowing that this had such limited availability is a plus, because it makes us feel as if we are part of a special club.

I’ll talk about future installments of the Ghost Post as we receive them. Then, at some future date, when it won’t matter if someone comes across this blog by Googling “Haunted Mansion Ghost Post,” I’ll go into more detail about all the secrets in the box. In the meantime, I hope you understand why I am reluctant to spill the beans.

See you next week!

Friday, April 8, 2016

What's In the Box?!?: March Nerd Block and Firefly Cargo Crate

Despite the threat of Superman vs Batman merchandise in this month's Nerd Block, that blockbuster-to-be actually formed a small percentage of the March content.

As usual, Nerd Block does not vary their packaging one iota. That's fine; you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, or a subscription box by its box. But it would be kind of nice to see some variation from time to time.

As soon as I opened it, it was clear what the big items were going to be.

Game of Thrones is a series I enjoy watching, although when I actually think about it, there are very few characters I actually care about. If I had to make a list, Grey Worm would probably be towards the bottom. He's a character who, to my mind, is distinguished from all the other hundreds of soldier characters we see by the fact that he has a name. So getting a Funko Pop of him doesn't particularly excite me. But that's the thing about subscription boxes, as I've mentioned before: they're a crap shoot.

I'm much more excited about the exclusive ShirtPunch Marvel Daredevil t-shirt this month. I really like Daredevil, both the comic and the Netflix TV show, and this shirt is a really nice design.

The other Game of Thrones item this month is a Funko mini mystery figure. Fortunately, this time, I got a little Dire Wolf. Not only do I like those animals just fine on the show--probably eve more than I do the humans--but this mini version is adorable. 

Another exclusive item this month is an autographed picture of Martin Kove from Karate Kid, and countless direct-to-video action movies. As a child of the 70s and 80s, this is fantastic!

This month's biggest "whatever" item for me is the Arrested Development Tobias Dress-Up Magnets. Arrested Development is one of those shows that I believe I am supposed to be crazy about, but I have never seen a single episode. So this really means nothing to me. (Again: crap shoot.)

Finally, the one Superman vs Batman item I received was a wall plaque. While it's got the characters that are featured on the movie on it, it isn't specifically depicting anything from the movie, as far as I can tell. So, instead of it being a piece of merchandise from a movie that doesn't particularly appeal to me, it's a nice picture of some of my favorite comic book characters. I appreciate that.

And, of course, there's a card explaining all the items.

Overall, this may not be my favorite Nerd Block of all time. But it came with a really nice T-shirt, a cute Dire Wolf mini figure, a nice superhero wall plaque, and Martin Kove's autograph.

Next month's Nerd Block is curated by Weird Al, so that should be fun. (Although it also includes items from Family Guy and Archer, two more shows I don't watch. Still, Weird Al!)

We also received the first in a new subscription from LootCrate: the Firefly Cargo Crate. Obviously, this is a subscription box designed to appeal solely to fans of the short-lived Joss Whedon-created science fiction TV series, Firefly, and its follow-up movie, Serenity. Fortunately, my wife and I are big Firefly fans, and as soon as subscriptions were available, I signed her up for a subscription.

The box is nicely designed, looking like an actual cargo crate from the show. Clearly, the postal service took the show’s setting of a run-down, dirty, lived in universe to heart, as you can see by the condition the box arrived in. Damage to the box aside, it’s a cool design, and the “Exported from Persephone” sticker was a really nice touch.

The box came packaged with a nice booklet, which not only details the contents, but also features some nifty articles. This month’s theme is Kaylee, so she is featured on the cover. There is also a new interview with Jewel Staite, who played Kaylee on the show. There’s a page of photos drawn from social media, and a “How to Speak Mandarin page.” The magazine also includes an interview with Maya Dinerstein, a Kaylee cosplayer who is a dead ringer for Jewel Staite. Ordinarily, we just toss out or recycle the insert cards and booklets that come with our sub boxes, but this is so nice, it may be a keeper.

All the contents of this box are exclusive, so if you are a Firefly collector, there is already value to this box. 

There’s a Kaylee Little Damn Heroes Mini Master, which is maybe 5 inches tall and so charming. The sculpt on the face looks more like Kaylee than it does Jewel Staite, possibly for licensing reasons, but even if it’s not a photorealistic sculpture a la Hot Toys, the pose and expression captures the character. And it’s pretty detailed, right down to the teddy bear patch on her knee.

Speaking of teddy bears, there’s also a teddy bear wearing Kaylee’s standard mechanic’s jump suit and flowered shirt. It even has a Kaylee patch on the knee! So adorable!

When my wife saw the “Exported from Persephone” label on the box, she proclaimed that she was going to cut if off and reuse it. Fortunately, that wasn’t necessary, since the box came with another copy of the sticker, ready to be used.

The idea of a blind box toy inside a subscription box—essentially a big blind box on its own—makes me smile because of the redundancy. But blind boxes are a hit, so the Cargo Crate includes one from Q-Bit. Apparently, the options were either Jayne Cobb or Simon Tam. We got Simon, which is appropriate. Now Kaylee won’t be lonely.

The box also included a Everything’s Shiny pin, styled to look a bit like Kaylee’s trademark parasol. 

Speaking of her parasol, we also got a 5-pack of little paper parasols for drinks, also styled to look like hers.

One particularly cool item—in a box full of cool items—is the pair of Firefly concept art mini-prints, showcasing early designs for the Reaver ships. They are nicely reproduced, and interesting to look at. If they are going to include something like this every month, we will probably need to get some sort of album or something to keep them in.

Finally, we received a pair of Firefly Board Game Cards, which go with the Firefly game, which we neither own nor play. The art is nice, but I honestly can’t say much else about them.

I should also mention that my wife also received an exclusive founding member Firefly Cargo Crate pin, in the shape of Serenity, a few weeks ago. I forgot to take a picture of that.

Overall, as a couple of Firefly fans, my wife and I thought this was a pretty good box, and look forward to the next one (featuring Jayne). If nothing else, we should get a nice complete set of Firefly figurines, and plenty of other cool stuff. Obviously, this box has a much more specific appeal than something like Nerd Block, or even the Marvel Collectors Corps. However, if you enjoy Firefly as much as we do, it’s worth taking a look.