Saturday, September 29, 2012

Day 4: Dining Hollywood Style!

On day 4, we ventured out to Disney’s Hollywood Studios where we had two goals: ride two of the best rides, Tower of Terror and Rockin’ Rollercoaster, as many times as we can and get last minute reservations for 50’s Prime Time Café at 11:00am so we have enough time to let our tummies settle before dinner at Hollywood Brown Derby. Mission: Accomplished.

50’s Prime Time Café is every parents dream and every child’s nightmare. Inspired by the 1950’s culture and lifestyle, every bit of this restaurant from the décor to the personality of the table servers brings you back in time and places you smack dab in the middle of a 1950’s family home. Our host, personifying a high-school nerd, high socks and all, guided is to our dining room style table equipped with an antique TV playing everyone’s favorite 1950 shows in black-and-white. The greatest thing about this restaurant is that you have no idea who’s taking care of you that day. Could it be the ruling momma who slaps your elbows off the table and demands you to finish your plate or else? Or the kind aunt who likes a cocktail or two? Or how about crazy, cousin Bob? Apparently, mom and dad were out for the night and well, cousin Bob was there to babysit. 

After demanding us to the set table ourselves cause in his words, he was too lazy, cousin Bob took our order. Now I only came there for one thing: a Vegan Chocolate Peanut Butter and Jelly Milkshake. YES! I gave Bob my order and well, I got the crazy look. He said I was demanding, but I didn’t get offended. I knew he was playing a role. At least I hope. At any rate, according to Bob that wasn’t enough. Although they had a Vegan Meatball and Spaghetti dish which I devoured on our last trip here, this time I wanted something light just to hold me over til dinner. So I went for a simple plain Caesar Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette. Nothing fancy, but I thought it was important to have some greens with that milkshake.
After watching cousin Bob struggle to pour my milkshake into my glass, which you know I enjoyed every minute of, although I can’t say the same for him (LOL), I finally got a taste of my long waited peanut buttery milkshake. And boy was it peanut buttery! And sweet! It was a lot to devour, but when it comes to peanut butter, no drop is left behind! Just a note, they are filling so I recommend sharing one; unless you’re greedy like me, then have at it! 

After THAT a walk, or three, around the park was very much needed... I had to burn off that milkshake to make room for dinner. 

Dinner time rolled around and we headed back to Hollywood Brown Derby to experience dinner like the movie stars. As a replica of the original restaurant located in LA, this restaurant had the same 1920’s movie star feel and vibe. It was very nostalgic and left me feeling as if I was missing several pieces to my outfit, like long gloves, a boa and a long-stemmed cigarette? 

After being seated, our waitress Lynn, came over, congratulated us on our anniversary (kudos once more to Disney!) and offered us a complimentary glass of champagne beautifully garnished with a strawberry slice, as well a fun shower of stars to decorate our table. 

Now making my order was quite simple. There was only one vegan dish on the menu according to my waitress and based on previous research, the Noodle Bowl – a giant bowl filled with rice noodles, edamame beans, mushrooms and other yummy veggies swimming in a broth seasoned with Red Curry and topped with a seriously large piece of wok-fried coconut tofu.  I was quite shocked by the massive size of the tofu which turned out to be pleasant in both taste and texture. For those of who know tofu, texture can make or break a tofu based dish. Thankfully, this was firm tofu which seemed to be well pressed. The outside was well seasoned and crusted with coconut providing a contrasting crunch to the softer interior. I really liked it. Actually, the tofu was the highlight of the dish; my favorite part. Overall, the dish was tasty and very soothing, but nothing different then other Asian inspired noodle soups that I have had. Again, the coconut crusted block of tofu is what really sets this noodle bowl apart from others. 

After filling up to near capacity on soup and noodles, we were offered to see a dessert menu. I had viewed it previously online and I had seen no dessert dish that could have even been veganized. So I asked my waitress if they had any vegan desserts available. Her response was that she believes most of them are. As she walked to get the dessert menus, I looked at my husband in horror. He said, “I don’t think she knows what a vegan is”. But I had explained it before! I panicked wondering if my noodle dish really was vegan, but remembered that I had looked it up previously online where it was noted that it was a vegan dish. However, you will soon learn in future posts, you can’t trust the internet either (Sigh). So lesson learned, always call the chef and pray he or she understands what you are talking about. Better yet, follow the same rules as those with allergies: check once before you arrive and make a note with the chef ahead if applicable; check twice with the waiter/waitress and/or chef before you order; and check a third time when the food arrives, especially if you’re skeptical. I’ve gotten so comfortable in my veganism and how mainstream it has become that I forget to do the third check and just assume. 

Looking at the menu and feeling quite stuffed, we both denied dessert and ended our meal on a good note. Of course, I craved dessert so what to get? Well we decided to wait and stay for the Fantasmic show, which is one of the best Disney shows to watch no matter how many times you attend! Of course nothing is better at a nighttime live show then…cotton candy and cinnamon-sugar coated almonds (and something that lights up!)! Yeah I know it’s loaded with sugar but it’s a once in a very rare blue moon that I actually purchase and eat cotton candy so hey why not. I was enjoying the moment. And my sweet tooth craving…satisfied!

Although it was a sugar-loading day, one in which I’m sure I gained a pound from alone, it was also a day of nostalgic eating. From the present to the 50’s to the 1920’s, every dining moment was a different experience, even if the food wasn’t as different. While I would always return to the 50’s Prime Time Café for a vegan milkshake, I can’t say I want to return back to Hollywood Brown Derby. Unless, of course, they offer to serve me two Coconut Crusted Tofu blocks with some veggies and then I may give in.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Day 3: Jiko, the cooking place

On day 3, we headed out to the Animal Kingdom park to enjoy the amazing early morning safari and enjoy one of the best rides at Disney, Expedition Everest. For animal lovers, this is the place to go. Out of all the safari rides we have been on at Disney, this one was by far the absolute best!  The animals were out and about and boy were they lively. Actually, lively is an understatement! The giraffes were galloping across the fields one after another chasing a poor wildebeest away from their lands; rhinos were rolling back and forth in the mud with excitement and pleasure; and cheetahs were running across the field, with speed and determination. The experience left us happy and thrilled to have seen such activity.

After wondering around the park, it was finally time to grab a snack. Knowing that I had a large dinner to look forward to, I didn’t want anything too heavy. With very few vegan food options to choose from at the Animal Kingdom park, I prepared to enjoy a hot tea and a peanut butter pack to hold me over. However, while roaming the park in search for some food that had caught our eyes previously, outside the window of one kiosk sat an example of a tropical fruit salad beautifully served within a pineapple bowl. I immediately ordered one! While it was a bit expensive, at $7.99 each, I was impressed by the presentation and the selection of fruit. Instead of the typical melons, grapes and strawberries, this fruit bowl contained pineapple, mangoes, strawberries, grapes  and my favorite, lychees! Each bite was juicy and super satisfying! 

While I was pretty hyped about my new yummy finding, what I was more hyped about was the culinary tour we were planning to take back at the resort, not to mention dinner! Our mid-afternoon culinary tour took us inside not one, but two of the most veg-friendly restaurants in Disney which happen to also be on site at the Animal Kingdom Lodge; Boma and Jiko. Boma is a buffet-style restaurant whose design and food was inspired by the African market. Guided by a native from Bonswana, we discovered the purpose and meaning behind every piece of décor and offered to taste some of the cuisine. I tried an amazing cauliflower curry soup while Tim downed the famous Zebra Dome, a non-vegan, chocolate covered, kahlua infused sponge cake that contains a native plant that I cannot recall the name of! Afterwards, we were led to Jiko, translated as “the cooking place”.

 Jiko, a sit down restaurant that contains the largest selection of South African wines in the world, is also inspired by the African culture, with a focus on the country of Swahili. I don’t know what it is, but I fell absolutely in love with this restaurant. As a wonderful ending to our tour, we were invited to stand at the counters that lined the Tandoori oven cooking area and enjoy a dish called the “Taste of Africa”. This dish contains a basket full of three types of tandoori bread, pappadum (v), naan and lavash, and four types of vegan dips, which you can read descriptions of below. The pappadum, the only bread that was vegan, was thin, crispy and spicy. The dips were all unique and flavorful in their own way, making it difficult to choose a favorite. If I recall correctly, I believe I favored the Bhuna Masala while Tim liked the Sagh Dahl. After 30 minutes of enjoyable education on the food and culture of Africa, we headed back to concierge level to await our dinner reservations at Jiko.

The great thing about Jiko is that it has its own vegan and gluten-free menu, meaning no questions need to be asked. As I mentioned I absolutely fell in love with this restaurant: the design, culture and food all had me trapped. Since there was a complete vegan menu, I was a bit obligated to order an appetizer, entrée and dessert (WHAT!?). For my appetizer I dined on a Pickled Artichoke Flatbread topped with a flavorful tahini, lemon, garlic dressing.  I had been craving vegan pizza and this satisfied that craving immediately. It was so good it was memorable and a dish I continuously wished I bought more of throughout the remainder of my trip. I will admit, the dressing was the highlight of this dish; without it, the dish would be great but not amazing. I definitely would order it again.

I slowly nibbled on my flatbread waiting for my entrée to arrive. I had two very difficult choices: Chermoula-Roasted Tofu or Egyptian Kushari. As a person who loves a meal with complex flavors and textures, the kushari won. As a mixture of well cooked lentils, couscous, chickpeas, raisins, vegetables and romesco sauce, the kushari definitely met my expectations in taste, but it didn’t exceed them. I guess because I knew what to expect since I have had and made a similar dish several times in the past and because I’m a person who always looks for something new. It was still very tasty and just what I wanted.  

As for dessert, now THAT was not a hard decision when the choices contained sorbet, tofutti and gasp, coconut milk panna cotta, with a blackberry sauce and mixed berries. Yep not a hard choice at all! I have actually never had panna cotta before so this was an all around new vegan and foodie experience. The panna cotta had a soft, jello like texture with a sweet, light coconut flavor. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either. It was just…different. I think the texture through me in for a loop; one I’m not a big fan of. Either way it was a new experience that I do not regret. 

I did end up taking part of my flatbread back to the room, which served as a wonderful midnight snack.

Overall, our experience at Jiko was unique; a unique taste of Africa.

Returnable? Uh yeah! I have a whole vegan menu to go through! Plus I want more of that pickled artichoke flatbread! Mmmmm!


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Day 2: The Vegan UNPLUGGED!

On Day 2, we headed  to the Magic Kingdom  where one look at Cinderella’s castle glowing in the morning sunlight makes you stop, breath and say, “Yes, I am currently standing in the most happiest, most magical place on earth”. To think that would be enough, the view becomes even more amazing and that feeling becomes even stronger when you stand in the streets at night to watch the castle glow in flashing lights of the fireworks show. Nothing can beat that right? Wrong! On our trip we discovered this view can become even more spectacular (Gasp! No way!) when observed from the window lined, rooftop restaurant at the Contemporary Resort called the California Grill.

But first the treats! During our travels throughout the Magic Kingdom park, we discovered several yummy, vegan treats. 

My absolute favorite, most addicting vegan snack at Disney are the Cinnamon-Glazed Almonds and Pecans. Roasted almonds coated in hardened cinnamon and sugar are the best excusable snack in the entire world! You can claim they are half healthy and at the same time, indulge in every sweet bite as if it’s a piece of your favorite candy.  Yes, they are that delicious!

Another treat I was dying to try was the Nestle’s Delicias Frozen Pineapple Bars sold at every frozen treats vendor cart within the Disney parks. I had read several reviews on these yummy vegan pops and made it a goal to try one while on my trip. And I am so glad I did! It was like biting into a frozen slice of perfectly ripened, pineapple. Not too sweet, slightly tart, and loaded with chunks of pineapple to provide a chewy texture and fresh homemade feel This tropical treat served as the perfect mid-morning refresher to a hot and humid day.

As if I didn’t have enough sugar, I had to go for the grand finale before I left the park prior to dinner. I had read that I could get a vegan sundae at the Main Street Plaza Ice Cream Parlor using tofutti or rice dream ice cream. As we walked in, we immediately took in the sweet smell of freshly cooked waffle cones that filled the air as the look of the parlor sent us back to the Victorian era of the late 1800’s. Scanning the different sundae options, I decided the one with peanut butter drizzle sounded the best. I asked about what was vegan and what was not and upon looking at the ingredients list that was provided, I learned the waffle bowl and the chocolate fudge were both not vegan. That left me with ice cream, peanut butter drizzle (aka melted peanut butter) and a cherry in a plastic cup. As a peanut butter addict, PB and ice cream was a combination I couldn’t deny! Of course, you can imagine the taste of every bite; a contrast of cold and hot, sweet and salty. It def could have used some choco chips, but nevertheless, it was worth every nutty calorie!

Now, to go back to that spectacular view. As I mentioned before, Tim and I made reservations to the California Grill and the Contemporary Resort, one, because they had a veg options and two, because we wanted to experience the Magic Kingdom fireworks show from a whole new point of view. Our reservations were at 9:30pm, so no doubt, we were starving.  We headed to the bar while waiting for our seats and ordered a local Organic Blonde Ale by the Organic Brewing Co. for Tim and for me, a special sangria: a recipe made by our server himself. The beer was amazingly light yet still had that unique profile that only local craft brewing companies have, and of course, I have yet to hate a Sangria! It was smooth, sweet and well balanced between the liquor and wine. Let’s just say it almost gone by the time we sat down and well, that didn’t take long! 
Not too long after, our buzzer went off indicating it was time for us to be seated. Upon sitting, we noticed we scored a window seat that provided a straight view of the castle and the upcoming fireworks. Excited, we chatted with our waitress, Erika, and ordered our food. I asked her about the vegetable potpie which I believe I recall her saying was pretty veg friendly. Why I can’t remember? Because she offered be a vegan option I couldn’t resist. It was an option I had read so much about: The Vegan Unplugged. I pretty much leave it all up to the chefs to make four small vegan dishes for me to enjoy. I have no idea what they will make. All I do is sit and anticipate what is to come. Of course there was no way I was going to turn down a custom chef made meal. So I ordered that and, well, sat anxiously.

During my wait, I enjoyed some crusty (and yes, vegan) bread with some very flavorful EVOO (aka Olive Oil) while Tim enjoyed his bread with Himalayan Salted Butter. The fireworks show had begun before our meals arrived which ended up perfect! The show was absolutely spectacular to watch from a far-off bird’s eye view and our seats were so perfect, we didn’t even need to go out to the observation deck.

Right before the show ended, our food arrived. My plate was split into four sections containing a small portion of one of the chef’s creations:
1.       Fresh mixed greens tossed with Roasted Beets and Candied Pecans 
2.       Lightly dressed, pearl couscous with tomatoes and mushrooms, topped with watercress 
3.       Toasted flatbread triangles coated in a tangy, tomato paste, topped with roasted onions, tomato slices and watercress. 
4.       Stir-Fried roasted corn salad with a mixture of veggies including olives, baby root carrots, beech mushrooms and so much more topped with an herb salad mix

The first dish (1) was light and refreshing. The greens had a bit of a bitter bite to them, but it went actually quite well with the savory sweetness of the well-cooked beets and the candied pecans.

The couscous in the second (2) dish was also very well prepared. It had a chewy bite to it and it packed some flavor which mostly came from the well seasoned cooked veggies. 

The toasted flatbread triangles in the third (3) dish were meant to represent a sort of pizza. While I found the tomato paste a little too tangy, the bread and veggies mellowed it out a bit. 

While each dish had something I loved most about it, my top favorite was the stir-fried corn salad (4). It was loaded with flavor and texture. Plus, I was baffled by these baby root carrots that seemed to just have been pulled from a nearby garden. It was a veggie I had never seen before! The sauce, which seemed to be soy based, was seriously plate lickable. Of course, I didn’t lick the plate, that would have been rude (;)), but I did however make sure every single bite of food was gone. I wanted to make sure the chefs knew how much I enjoyed every single dish that was made. Every single dish was very well cooked and prepared and each one packed a balance of flavors. When I don’t have to add salt or more dressing to my dish, then you know it was seasoned well; and that doesn’t happen too often.
After being completely satisfied and impressed with my meal, it was dessert time! I never turn down dessert when it’s available; especially when I am on vacation. Tonight’s offering: Raspberry Sorbet with Mixed Berries. Now I’ll be honest, as a vegan, eating sorbet can get old pretty fast, but it was only my second day, so sorbet  did just fine. Of course, like all sorbets, it was sweet, light and refreshing. It paired well with the tart berries that lined the outside of the bowl. A pretty healthy ending to yet another wonderful meal. Thankfully this time I didn’t walk out like I was ready to explode. My tummy was perfectly happy.

That leaves the major question: “Would we return?” Oh absolutely! Knowing that every return provides a mystery and a new adventure to explore four, new, custom made, vegan dishes makes the California Grill a must to visit during every trip. Plus the view of the fireworks cannot be beat! It’s a serious win-win all around. Another highly recommended place!

So want to see how spectacular that view really was? Here's a little bit of the magic I brought home especially for you :) PS. Forgive me for geeking out in the middle of it.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Day 1: Meet, Greet and Eat with Chef TJ!

Beth and Chef TJ

Over the years, Tim and I have developed this foodie connection where anywhere we eat out has to accustom both of our diets; vegans and omni. If a vegan option isn’t available, we don’t go and vice versa. So I wasn’t concerned when I decided to leave the dinner reservation planning in his hands. Yeah, I had my opinions, but for the most part, it was all him. However, there was one request I did make; I HAVE to have dinner by Chef TJ. Now most of you probably have no clue who Chef TJ is, but for vegans and those with allergies who travel to Disney, he is a major celebrity! Google Chef TJ along with the key words “vegan” and “Disney” and you will be awarded with an array of pictures and reviews of the 3-5 course meals he prepares just to please his special customers! He has been working as a chef for years at Disney World and has built this reputation that I am so sure he will never be able to escape. After making my request, Tim was able to talk to concierge service and get reservations on a day that we knew for a fact he would be there; our first day! Already a perk for paying the little extra for this amazing service! 

Our first day was a bit relaxing. We arrived at the resort Wednesday afternoon and took advantage of all the perks of concierge service. At 3:45, we headed out to the Grand Floridian Resort to prepare for our meal at 1900 Park Fare; my meal with Chef TJ and Tim’s meal with the buffet! (I was secretly bragging inside!). We reached our destination a bit early, so we explored this grand resort; a resort we deem for only the rich and famous. Decked out in Victorian style décor and large enough to have its own stores, restaurants and all day orchestra, the Grand Floridian is any vacationers dream castle. For us, a visit did us JUST fine.

After exploring , we headed to 1900 Park Fare to check-in. Since it is a signature character breakfast, getting our pics taken before our meal wasn't surprising. Thankfully, we had an amazing photographer who absolutely adored us and well, we absolutely adored him back! If there is anything I have enjoyed most so far, its the random people we have met while on our trip! Anyways, he asked for sass, and well I gave it. The results, a pricey set of pictures that we adored so much that we purchased it…or maybe its because we adored our photographer so much! While talking to him, he sent recommendations left and right from the buffet…prime rib, pork, sushi, etc. Then I mentioned I was vegan, excited to see Chef TJ; quiet he gave me a high five and told me “You go girl!”. That was my confirmation. I was DEF in the right place!

Once we sat down, our waitress came over and saw the “Special Diet” stamp on our receipt. She gave me a smile and asked if Chef TJ had come over to speak to me yet. I smiled, extremely hard, I’m sure, and told her no. Her reaction was my second confirmation, I was seriously in for a treat! My heart was racing with extreme excitement! He arrived at my table and I told him I was vegan and gluten-free; he told me “Not a problem” with ease and prceeded to show me around the buffet, pointing out what was “safe” for me to it, which in his words, was  “not much”. He then told me “we can go from there. I’ll have some things coming out for you no worries. I’ll have dessert for you too. Do you have time?” YES! I have time! Plenty of time! And off he went to make his creations…

Options from the buffet
 As I picked through my buffet plate filled with salads, grilled veggies and a flavorful tomato soup I wondered, what he as making and how many dishes I would have to stuff into my small stomach. Not too long after finishing my small plate of well, greens, Chef TJ came out with the appetizer course: Fried Kettle Chips with Black Bean Hummus, garnished with a sprig of thyme. All I could think was, he’s going to kill me through gluttony. I just know it. With hummus being literally one of my favorite dips, I couldn't help but devour the whole bowl. My husband looked at it ith interest, and some envy, and decided he was going to enjoy my meals with me. The kettle chips with fresh and extremely crispy, but not salty at all! The black bean hummus, was light, flavorful, and thick and refreshing when enjoyed with a piece of thyme. It was somewhat palate cleansing. But it was also heavy, so I nibbled on it slowly, anticipating the next course.
Black Bean Hummus with Fried Kettle Chips and Thyme
Grilled Romaine with Pear Chutney and Pappadum

What arrived next was literally the best part of the entire course….okay minus dessert: Grilled Romaine with pear chutney. All I could thing was holy YES! I have ALWAYS wanted to try grilled romaine! The flavors of the dish were seriously out of this world! Smoky and chargrilled refreshing lettuce with a tangy bite from the lemon and balsamic compared with the sweetness of the pear chutney made this dish  major winner! So much so my husband kept on asking for more bites! All I can say is if you ever go, request the grilled romaine.

While I was already feeling quite full, I wasn’t ready to give up. I knew dessert was waiting and my entrée? After cleaning both the bowl of hummus and the plate of romaine, Chef TJ once again brought me out another impressive dish! I looked at it with wide eyes with a bittersweet feeling of excitement and somewhat sickness. A plate loaded with carrots, asparagus, and fried tofu covered in a sweet asian sauce and topped with fried rice noodles. I went right for the tofu, which was cooked to perfection. It was crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside; a sign of perfect preparation. The sauce, which brought the dish from good to great, was sweet, tangy and a bit spicy. Every bit was followed by an “mmm”.  However, after finishing about ¾ of my plate, I had to throw the towel in. I was stuffed and I wanted to make sure I could fit in dessert…which at the moment seemed impossible.
Asian Fried Tofu and Veggies with Fried Rice Noodles

After all three courses were complete Chef TJ came over and asked me how my food was. 

“ You didn’t like it?”

Thinking he must have seen my half full, half empty entrée plate, I shook my head fiercely, and kindly yelled, "No I LOVED it! I’m just full!" He smiled, happy that I was satisfied and told me dessert was coming out next. I waited a while for dessert happily since it gave me time for my food to settle. Then out came Chef TJ with this tower of amazingness…pineapple, banana, strawberry, choco cookie, vanilla ice cream, more banana, a chocolate ice cream cookie sandwich, and another strawberry topped with Mickey shaped sprinkles. When we booked this trip, I knew I would have to throw my raw, organic, non-processed food lifestyle out the window and enjoy for once, as long as it didn’t make me sick…and this was JUST the beginning! He placed the towering dessert in front of me and proceeded to generously lather the tower in Hershey’s chocolate syrup as I sat there literally gawking, mouth wide open and all.


“Haha! Oh, I WILL!”.

Dessert Tower!

Before he left I got a picture with him and thanked him for the deliciously memorable dining experience.  And then I devoured my tower of sugary goodness, down to as much as my stomach could handle…which was practically most of it.

So if you are planning a trip to Disney World and you’re vegan, gluten-free, or have an allergy, I recommend…no I demand that you make reservations at the restaurant that Chef TJ would be cooking at during that time. Not only will his cheeky personality and desire to please you make you feel welcomed and at home, but his food, I promise you, will shock you and send your taste buds into a culinary whirlwind. Even with a stomach so full that combustion is possible with a finger poke, you’ll still be craving for more of his exclusive culinary creations.