Eater's Guide to Epcot's International Flower & Garden Festivalby Roan Poulter, contributing writer
Festivals and the accompanying food locations are no longer a rare treat at Epcot. Between Food & Wine Festival, International Flower & Garden Festival, and the Festival of the Arts, there are more days these stands are operational than there are without them.
This represents, I believe, an almost titanic shift in Disney dining. Disneyland, and to a lesser extent the Magic Kingdom in Florida, have time-honored classic dishes, so popular and embedded into the Disney theme park experience, that changing them is nearly as existential a crisis as is a beloved ride closing. What would Disneyland be without the corn dogs at the Little Red Wagon, or the fried chicken at the Plaza Inn? Dole Whips and the burger toppings bar at Pecos Bill's are staples that connect our long-term memories on a visceral level. As much as I hate to say it, turkey legs are a treat I can only eat at Disney, and even then I have to lie to my cardiologist.
So then why are the food carts so revolutionary? Because they allow Disney the creative license and statistical data to discover the next perennial favorite. I am firmly convinced that the baked mac and cheese available at Animal Kingdom Park and Friar's Nook at the Magic Kingdom is a direct product of the Food & Wine favorite. Disney parks dining is a behemoth endeavor, where directional changes are difficult and costly. Epcot's statistics on the popularity of dishes almost certainly plays a vital role in the renaissance that is occurring within the parks. For me, the best part is knowing that my patronage and, importantly, re-patronage of certain dishes, could lead to better counter service choices in the future. That's enough soapbox.
Flower & Garden kiosks are renamed buildings from Food & Wine and Festival of the Arts, though fewer than at Food & Wine. Some are regional, while others focus on a specific ingredient, like the Berry Basket, Pineapple Promenade, or Honey Bee-stro. World Showcase features international cuisine with farm fresh vegetables or fruits playing prominent roles. Meat lovers need not fear, there are still selections for carnivores, though generally sauced with, or lying upon, things that grew in the ground.
Some of the fine details from the Festival of the Arts are missing, but portion sizes and prices make it less of a foodie delight and more of a tapas-style dining experience.
What We Had:
Seared Scallops (served with French green beans, butter potatoes, brown butter vinaigrette, and Applewood smoked bacon). I found the vinaigrette overpowered the scallops, which was a shame as they were perfectly cooked. The vegetables were done to magnificence and almost made up for the overwhelming sauce, almost.
Beef Tenderloin Tips (served with mushroom bordelaise sauce and whipped potatoes with garden vegetables). Perfectly cooked tenderloin tips with a savory and salty bordelaise sauce that bordered upon magic. My only complaint is that there wasn't more of it. For nearly $7, I could have easily concealed the tips in the center of my palm.
Canard Confit Aux Gnocchi à la Parisienne (Braised Duck Confit with Parisian Gnocchi): Maybe the best dish we tasted. The duck was cooked perfectly, no simple task under a brazier, and sauced perfectly in that it neither concealed or overpowered the roast duck flavor. This was my first gnocchi and I found it paired well with the duck, a heavy pasta texture that gave the dish a nice caloric bump. The serving size was also generous, which always makes me smile.
Spicy Blackened Shrimp and Cheddar Grits (served with brown gravy and local sweet corn relish): I had a moment of hesitation when the server handed me this dish. The aesthetics said to me, pile of leftovers scraped into a cardboard dish. But I would have missed out on the most creative and true to the festival dish. The flavors of the ingredients not only paired well to create a fresh and savory mix but allowed the flavor of the shrimp to shine. It is a bit messy, removing the tails covered in brown gravy, but well worth the cleanup.
Strawberry Tart and Pistachio Baklava: I know this wasn't from the festival, but nothing looked as good as these amazing pastries from Morocco. Delicate and fresh as daisies, there are a limited amount of times I can walk past them without ordering one of each to split with my wife.
Beef Brisket Burnt Ends and Smoked Pork Belly Slider (with Garlic Sausage, Chorizo, Cheddar Fondue and House-made Pickle): Dessert for our inner carnivore. If your life has not taken you to a place where they serve burnt ends, you need to get in your car and drive there now. This brisket is truly amazing, melting in your mouth while what seems like generations of smoky flavor impart a long forgotten wisdom to your tongue. What maniac put a small sausage on the toothpick I cannot say, but I want to shake his hand. For what greater pièce de résistance could be found for a double-pork slider sauced with fondue than a greasy pork sausage. Goodbye after-dinner mint, your place in history is null and void.
Our ratings are as follows:
- Dad (42): 4.6 of 5 Some dishes seem unnecessarily complicated to include more vegetables. Wish I could sleep on a pillow full of Burnt Ends, pork belly, and fondue sliders.
- Mom (42): 4.5 of 5 – Wishes her husband would embrace the garden side of the festival and shut up about the sliders. Everything was well prepared but hesitates to total the cost of the day.
- Daughter (19): X.X of 5 – Not Present.
- Son (17): X.X of 5 – Not Present
Reviewer's Request: If you have a restaurant you've always wanted reviewed, please let me know in the comments. Otherwise I'm wandering the parks, forced to stumble upon some worthy establishment by dumb luck. Please realize that I won't be able to eat at Victoria and Albert's every week, I live on a budget, too, ya know.