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!

1 comment:

  1. The festival food all look yummy. We eat at Cucina Cucamonga a lot and wash it down with beer. The pimento dip at River Belle was good. We even got extra bread and celery. I had the brisket salad but the brisket was sliced cold. I wished it was warm brisket. The dessert was ok. We've gotten good service at Cafe Orleans. And food is always good. We eat at the table service restaurants just to try them. You're right. Counter service food is almost always better.