Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sad News from Kouzzina

Unfortunately, it appears that Chef Miguel will be leaving Disney in the beginning of January. It would be amazing if things changed by then, but it doesn't look like that will be the case.

He will certainly be missed, and I'm not sure that we'll be returning to Kouzzina in his absence.

Hopefully he'll continue to have a distinguished cooking career elsewhere.

Plan your trips for next year accordingly!

Friday, November 11, 2011

November 2011 - Can we get a redo?

Yet another Disney World trip is in the books... and that’s pretty much where this one should stay. No matter how many times you go, and no matter how well-planned you believe you are, sometimes debacles just happen.

Now, I suppose in retrospect that it really wasn't all that bad. Things could have gone much worse, though my mom still refers to it as the "vacation from hell". Trying to accentuate the positives, we did have a number of new experiences (I got brought up to dance at Tam Tam Congo, and was pulled into the Ziti Sisters' show in Italy, for example), and we all had really good food...

Still, the trip had an anxious muted tone that led to a less enthusiastic documentation on my part. I’ll try to give a rundown of the highs and lows, with a little food porn thrown in for good measure.

Day 1

We opened the trip at Gasparilla Grille, as always. Before we went down, we spoke with Chef Tyler (who deserves a plug along with my sincere thanks, but more on him later). He told me over the phone that he makes a vegan tempeh Reuben, yes, a vegan tempeh Reuben! Obviously I jumped at the opportunity, and though he wasn’t actually there to make it for me that morning, he left all of the ingredients and instructions for the chef on duty. I ended up having two of these sandwiches, one on the first day, one on the last, and though both hit the Reuben spot, I think you can tell from the pictures that the one Chef Tyler made for me on the last day outshined the first. With marinated tempeh, a vegan Russian dressing, sauerkraut and “American cheese” on rye, it brought me right back to the hot Reubens of old. An excellent throwback sandwich and an inspiring opener to the vacation.

I’m hoping if enough vegans go down and request it that they may stick this sucker on the menu. (Hint, hint…)

There was some confusion about my mom’s food which led to a long wait and unfortunately, to her being fed bread which we think she shouldn’t have had. (We learned later that they changed the recipe of their ciabatta loaves to one that uses sourdough, something she’s allergic to. Cue the ominous foreshadowing music…) Thus, for anyone with allergies, even if you’ve spoken with a chef before you get to Disney, always double check before you actually order in the restaurant. Brands and recipes change frequently down there. Better safe than hospitalized.

While waiting for her food I browsed the snack selection, and though potato chips are generally vegan, I was impressed to find that the Disney brand kettle chips that they sell in the park (both original and BBQ flavored) actually have a Vegan logo on the back of the bags! That’s what I call validation that we’re making headway!

From Gasparilla we hopped a bus downtown to make my bi-annual Babycakes pilgrimage. It’s always exciting because every time I go in there I find something new. I know Babycakes donuts get mixed reviews from some. I suppose if you go in expecting a greasy fried Dunkin’ kind of donut, you may be disappointed. Rather, they remind me of really good coffee cake with a hole in the center. In fact, the chocolate crunch donut reminds my taste buds of the Louisiana Ring cake I used to scarf down by the giant wedge growing up.

This time I tried the apple cranberry toastee slice, (my favorite of the slices), a spicy pumpkin chip slice, a decadent banana chip slice, the mandatory donuts (coconut and chocolate crunch), a crunchy thin chocolate chip cookie and a mini red velvet cupcake. (None of the pics came out very well, so you’ll have to use your imagination.)

With a fridge full of tasty treats, that night we ate as always at the Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show, and as always, the salad, tofu and couscous were excellent. I’ve written about it before, so I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

That night is where the trip took a turn for the worse. Due most likely to the sourdough bread, (though we don’t know for certain) my mom ended up going by ambulance to Celebration Hospital at 3:00 am. We were there the entire day and didn’t get released until around 5:00 pm the following evening.

(By way of setting the stage for what was soon to be an obvious pattern of mishaps plaguing this vacation, going to the hospital wasn’t bad enough, but the stretcher getting into the ambulance malfunctioned and almost tossed my mom out of it!)

Day 2 – Celebration Hospital

On a positive note, if you ever need to go to a hospital, Celebration is basically a resort with doctors. Not only is the hospital state-of-the-art, the staff is fantastic and the building and grounds are, themselves, gorgeous.

Truth be told, since we’d spent a night there five or so years ago, I remembered that they had a mostly vegetarian restaurant on premises and I was kind of selfishly looking forward to checking out their vegan selection. Sad to say, it turned out to be quite a disappointment. They do sell “vegetarian chicken soup”, vegetarian hot dogs, and a few other hot vegetarian meals, as well as fresh fruit juices and dairy smoothies. Vegans, however, are basically out of luck.

I considered ordering a cheeseless pizza but held off because I wasn’t sure what might be hidden in the dough and sauce, and I had a difficult time getting straight answers out of anyone in the kitchen.

Case in point, they had vegetarian minestrone soup on the menu, so I asked a line cook about the ingredients. (I’ve been spoiled by Disney because every restaurant there, including all of the Quick Services, have a handy binder with every ingredient list for everything on the menu.) Not having such a book, he brought out a chef to help me. I explained that I was vegan and asked if there were any animal products in the soup. The chef told me “no, it’s completely vegetarian.” He said it was just vegetables, a little tomato and pasta. I asked if there were eggs in the pasta to which he replied “There’s always eggs in pasta. It’s just flour and eggs.” I thanked him and decided not to inquire about anything else that night.

The next day I asked someone different about the lentil stew which looked hearty and nutritious. The woman said there definitely wasn’t any cream in it, but couldn’t say for sure whether it included butter or not. Consequently, while in the hospital I lived off of an assortment of chips, popcorn and granola. Thankfully, like most Disney Resorts, they carry vanilla Silk. They also sold a series of vegan protein bars I’d never heard of and didn’t have the nerve to try.

Oh, and I should mention that they do, at night, have a rather nice salad bar. Due to bad timing on my part I got down there after the dinner rush so the pickings were slim. I did make myself a small salad with lettuce, cukes and vinegar the first night to assuage the guilt of eating a whole bag of bagel chips earlier in the day.

Since I’m sort of travelogue-ing the mishaps along the way this time as well as the food, I should mention one hilarious (in retrospect) situation from our hospital stay. I stayed with my mother the whole time she was in there, but we sent my aunt back to the Polynesian since there was no reason for all of us to sit in that little room. While my aunt was at the Magic Kingdom that first day, I got a rather frantic call on my cell from my cousin who was checking our houses, saying that he’d accidentally tripped my aunt’s security alarm and that the security company was unable to shut it off. Never, in all the years that he’s been checking our houses has that ever happened. And with perfectly inopportune timing! When he tried to call my aunt to see what to do, she was riding the train around the Kingdom and, unable to hear him, assumed it was me on the phone and hung up on him saying she’d call back later, leaving him in the screaming house with the cops on their way!

Long story short, it all worked out with no jail time and nerves relatively intact. At least we got a good laugh out of it afterward.

Day 3 – Hospital/Crystal Palace

The night of our release we ate at Crystal Palace for the first time in years. If you’d ever had a bad experience there in the past, I highly recommend trying it again. Chef Alfonso has really turned the place around as far as I’m concerned. We had an excellent meal (and not just because it was the first hot food I’d eaten in two days).

There are a number of vegan items on the buffet, including the corn, cucumber salad with ginger, soy bean salad, Moroccan couscous and parsley salad, regular salad, broccoli with puri puri and key lime ponzu (loved this!), vegetable medley with arugula oil (green beans with carrots and mushrooms), ratatouille, cinnamon and lemon infused basmati rice, and fresh herb pesto vegetarian pasta. Along with all of these offerings, the chef made me a delicious batch of special smashed potatoes that were super buttery and piping hot. Just the comfort food I was looking for that night. He also sautéed me a large bowl of mushrooms to augment the buffet’s pasta at my request.

For dessert he served me a special vegan brownie with berries and tofutti. The brownie was soft and fudgy and though, in all honesty, I didn’t love it by itself, it was great with the ice cream and berries. A perfect cap for the night, leaving me somewhat more optimistic about the days to come.

That night we scoped out a good spot to watch the Main Street Electrical Parade, and next in the line of mishaps for the trip, watched as the lightning bug got stuck in a track right in front of us! The parade ground to a halt for probably a good 5-7 minutes while they brought in a special vehicle to pull him free. Never saw that happen before!

Day 4 – Animal Kingdom

Our next lunch was at Tusker House, for which I have a couple of updates. I have reconfirmed with another chef (Chef Andrew) that indeed the samosas are egg-free and completely vegan. Like always he fried some separately for me. Likewise, the chutneys and sambals are all honey-free and vegan-friendly. I suspect there’s been some confusion because the recipes they supply if you want to make the dishes at home differ from the way they actually make them in-house. For instance, my aunt asked for the recipe for the Tangeirine couscous salad on their buffet which, according the recipe, uses honey. It was explained to us that due to the quantity they make for the restaurant they can’t afford to use honey, so it’s basically a suggestion for making it taste right at home.

I did find this time, however, that no breads are really vegan-friendly as, as I recall, even the pita contains L-Cystein.

For dessert they serve Rice Dream and Toffutti and also carry the ever-present Divvies chocolate chip cookies.

I took pics of my plates but since none of the food has changed since my last trip, I’ll forgo another similar posting.

Having had such an amazing experience at Kouzzina back in May, we booked two dinners there this trip. Thankfully Chef Miguel was there for us both times. It might be fair to say that he’s something of a young, up-and-coming Chef TJ, and if you can, I’d highly recommend asking for him personally and following him wherever he may end up.

On a bit of a bummer note, Kouzzina no longer offers two drinks with the Disney Dining Plan (it’s questionable whether it was ever really “legal” even though they gave them to us back in May. Our server told us someone was fired after nine years of employment for offering this to guests… whoops…). Regardless, I started with my mango smoothie. It was icier this year and less ice creamy than last trip’s, but was still like drinking a frozen mango, so all’s good.

And I can't forget to mention their amazing sesame seed and black salt-crusted bread, dipping olive oils and kalamata olives...

Chef Miguel offered to make me an appetizer since my mom and aunt were both having salads. Never one to pass up a course, I agreed. Out came this beautiful, crunchy little quinoa “crabcake” with an onion, tomato, olive relish surrounded by a drizzle of dill oil. What a light, beautiful way to start off a meal.

For my entrée, I got the same basic sampler platter as last time; the one difference being the substitution of fingerling potatoes with rosemary in place of the chick pea “crab cake” which would’ve been slightly redundant after my fantastic appetizer.

I think my favorite part of the plate was the Briami (roasted vegetables in tomato over orzo) that was absolutely bursting with flavor. (It's the small square plate in the lower left corner of the pic.) I could’ve made an entire meal on it alone.

For dessert, I got treated to his amazing berry crumble a second time, the only difference being the substitution of chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla. The balsamic adds such a depth of tart savoriness to balance out the sweetness of the berries and ice cream. Truly amazing. I was so full, however, that I had to take a little home to finish later that evening.

Day 5 – Hollywood Studios

For lunch at Hollywood Studios, we usually fall back on the vegetable sandwich and baked fries at Backlot Express. Next time, maybe we’ll try something different, but they tend to be very accommodating there. One point of frustration, however, is that they keep changing the breads, so this time I could only have a tapioca roll for my sandwich. It was fine, but a bit small. The pesto is still vegan. Oh, and that day they’d run out of mushrooms. And in my opinion, mushrooms are the star of the sandwich so it was a bit lackluster; but a meal’s a meal and the fries were awesome.

Dinner was once again at Hollywood and Vine. I do have to make a major amendment to my earlier posts regarding this buffet. There is now NOTHING vegan on the buffet! (Except the cucumbers with ginger and the plain salad and vinegar.) All the nice salads, the bean cassoulet, everything, now use a consommé seasoning mix that contains whey protein. This is a totally unnecessary addition, and I’m thankful that Chef Eddie pointed it out to me.

Also thankfully, he made for me a delicious pasta dish with peas, onion, broccoli, garlic, tomatoes and a load of mushrooms that had been cooked down in a red wine reduction. (Fully making up for the loss of ‘shrooms at lunch!) It was totally satisfying and I was thankful to have something I could eat there in the end.

For dessert, I had the customary Rice Dream shake and Divvies cookies. (It appears I may not have taken a pic of the shake. But you get the idea...)

For whatever reason, maybe the stars had fallen into a bizarre misalignment or what have you, I recorded a record of no less than five mishaps at the Studios in that one day.

On the way there, the bus we were riding had a malfunction with the automated announcements that kept repeating half of its spiel over and over, cutting off midway through a sentence during the bulk of our trip.

That afternoon, during Lights, Motors, Action!, at the point where the driver of the hero’s red car is supposed to get out to greet the audience, his door got stuck and they were unable to get him out. He ended up having to wave at the crowd and drive off.

Next up was the American Idol Experience. Mostly it went fine, with a little “live” moment when they went to show the replays of all three contestants only to have the reel fail entirely, forcing them to skip it and go straight to the voting.

Later that night at Fantasmic, during the Pocahontas section where someone yells, “Look, it’s John Smith” and the spotlight dramatically shines on the top of the mountain where John Smith is supposed stand triumphantly before swinging across to the other side to save the day, the light turned on to reveal… a bare section of empty mountain. After a few seconds the spotlight awkwardly clicked off and the show went on. I’m sure most who’d never seen the show wouldn’t have even picked up on it. We may have seen it a few too many times…

Lastly, Hollywood Studios had magic hours that night until 12:00 am, so one of the last things we wanted to do was to try to get into the Toy Story Mania ride since the wait is redonkulous during the day. We got in line around 10:30 pm or so, and there was still a thirty minute wait to get in. After chatting with a nice Swedish couple in Halloween costumes and admiring the impressive animatronic Mr. Potato Head, we were literally the next group to enter the ride when they announced that it had just gone down and that everyone needed to turn around and walk out the way they’d come in because they needed to vacate the building before they could start repairing it. Of course!

Day 6 – EPCOT

For my lunch I opted for the basic veganized vegetarian plate at the Tangierine Café like always. Again, steer clear of the normal bread, falafel and lentil salad. All else is fine.

While at the Café I also purchased a mint tea from the coffee bar. I guess the girl must have liked me (or my shirt ( which she said with a smile that she agreed with), because she gave me a huge takeout cup of the hot tea. The second time I was there, a different girl gave me a tiny plastic mug about a third of the size. (Perhaps I need to invest in a few more of those shirts…)

As far as the Food and Wine Festival goes, they are now marking all of the vegetarian options on the various signs with a big white V in a green circle. Sadly, however, not one item from any country is wholly vegan. Only one, South Africa, had a veganizable dish. Their Bunny Chow is a vegetable curry served in a bread bowl. The bread bowl is made with egg and dairy, but they gave me the curry by itself on a plate. The curry had the standard Indian flavor palate with a moderate amount of heat. If I could eat only one thing there, I’m glad it was a curry.

I meant to get back there a second or third time but it never happened. Our last day at EPCOT (a Saturday), the World Showcase was teeming with people. I’ve never seen it that busy before. As good as the Chow was, it didn’t warrant spending a half hour in line to get a little paper plateful.

Here's what it's supposed to look like:

1900 Park Fare – First Time

At last we come to my one and only Chef TJ meal of the trip. It was, as always, stupendous, maybe even a little more delicious, or geared to my tastes, than normal. It was, as always, a shining highlight of the trip.

Course 1

Never shy about fried foods, Chef TJ started me out with a line of fantastic spring rolls bathed in a sweet BBQ sauce and horseradish mustard. Crunchy, awesome sweet and sour perfection! Next to it was a sizeable mound of hummus adorned with a plumage of fresh potato and plantain chips.

Course 2

Like little pakoras, these vegetable fritters were Indian spiced and floating in red pepper soup with a balsamic drizzle and a dollop of Tofutti cream cheese to mellow out the not-insignificant spiciness. This may have been one of my favorites of Chef TJ’s to date. Loved them!

Course 3

The salad: lettuce, pickled ginger, crispy tempeh with grapes and a sweet sesame dressing in a soy paper wrap. All the sweet, spicy, Asian flavors you would expect with fun textural elements and a slight bitterness from the crispy tempeh.

Next to it: a fantastic mushroom soup with fresh basil and cashews. Never would it have occurred to me to add either of those toppings to a mushroom soup, but the brightness of the basil and the fatty cashews added such richness and depth, you can bet I’ll be doing the same thing the next time I make mushroom soup at home.

Course 4

This one smelled so good and I guess I was so intent on eating it that I goofed and forgot to take the picture first. Luckily by this point I was so hopelessly full that I had the second half wrapped up and snapped a picture of it in its container.

Though it doesn’t look quite as pretty in this picture, it was phenomenally flavorful. The base is grilled romaine with all the delicious smoky grilled taste I sometimes miss not owning a grill at home, topped with the surprisingly cohesive combination of tomatoes, horseradish, onion marmalade, pistachios, mangos, and avocado. On paper, the combination sounds straight up odd, but in the mouth… incredible! The closest analogy I could come up with would be a grilled piece of steak covered by a delicious rich tomato sauce with the almost parmesan overtones from the pistachio and a hint of sweetness from the mango. My mouth is watering talking about it…

Course 5

You know with Chef TJ that just when you're at the point of utter gastric collapse, it'll be time to usher in the obligatory enormous, sweet, spicy, plate of fried abundance. God, how I love this! Around the base were arranged whole carrots, broccoli raab, perfectly dense and crisp tofu, asparagus, potatoes, and spinach. Hidden underneath the heap of noodles were oyster and enoki mushrooms and red peppers. I took most of this plate back to the room and ate it on the beach around midnight the next night, listening as the Magic Kingdom rehearsed for their Christmas Party and flashed arrhythmic lighting patterns on the castle.

Course 6

A typically “light” dessert for Chef TJ. Upon a base of a virtual quarter of a pineapple were alternating scoops of vanilla Tofutti, raspberry, mango and lemon sorbets, and hunks of banana, all topped by two Enjoy Life cookies (which truth be told, I’m not a big fan of). The tower of sweet epicness was surrounded on the bottom by Divvies caramel corn and vegan chocolate chips (which I could eat by the double fistful).

Yet another fantastic meal! So much thanks and warm wishes to Chef TJ! It’s always a pleasure seeing him.

After dinner, since we literally closed the restaurant, we got to sit and chat with TJ for a while. In the course of the conversation we talked about the other dining options at the Grand Floridian. It turns out that they will do a vegan version of the Tea Room service if you ask ahead. You may get sandwiches, or you may get special miniature versions of Chef TJ creations, depending on who’s working at the time. He recommended we try it and so next time we very well may.

We also discussed Victoria and Albert’s which I’ve heard good things about. I knew they have an alternate vegetarian menu but he said they’re more than happy to cook vegan. The only downside is that it takes two Table Services for the meal, so I think next time we’ll likely forego the luau and do Victoria and Albert’s instead. Chef TJ said it’s a “must do once” experience.

Lastly, he gave great reviews to the California Grill at the Contemporary (a restaurant he helped open long before his Boma days), and said that they are also very accommodating to vegans. I’d be interested to hear of other vegans’ experiences in any of these restaurants.

Day 7 - EPCOT

For lunch this morning we went to Sunshine Seasons. Passing on the tofu noodle bowl this time, I tried the roasted vegetable sandwich. The chef made three special ones for my whole family, each very similar. It appears that I could have gotten the hummus on it, but I didn’t want to confuse the issue. It was tasty as is, and the thick ciabatta bread made for a hearty sandwich. The vegetables (eggplant, zucchini, and red pepper) had the nicely smoked grilled flavor that I feel brings the veggies to life and adds so much character to a sandwich. It reminded me of the roasted vegetable sandwiches that Tusker House used to serve back in their old incarnation when they were a Quick Service location. I ended up with a similar iceberg and tomato salad like the rest of my family’s, simply because something got a little mixed up in communication. It was fine, though I would’ve rathered the couscous salad or one of their other takeouts.

Speaking of which, they now have a vegetarian meal in their coolers with hummus, tabouli and a few other salads and slices of pita. I don’t know for sure whether it’s a 100% vegan, but, as I recall, I didn’t spot any obvious dairy or egg ingredients.

After a moderately light lunch, I was ready for our early dinner at Chefs de France. Like always, I ended up with a beautiful, light vegetable plate. Though they’re not generally super filling, I always look forward to Chefs de France meals because the vegetables are so fresh and pure. It’s a closer meal to how I would eat at home, just ratcheted up a few notches. This plate was loaded with asparagus, spinach, tomatoes, lightly grilled yellow and green squash, green beans, a wedge of potato and a skinned red pepper inside of which was hidden a beautiful tomato sauce to bring all the flavors together.

For dessert they served three amazing sorbets: raspberry, peach, and my favorite, coconut. Chef Laurent said they just got a new sorbet machine imported from Italy. Their sorbet was always my favorite in the past, and this batch was so smooth and creamy… And I thought it couldn’t get any better.

Day 8 – Magic Kingdom/EPCOT

The next morning I returned to Tartuga Tavern, who by the way are only open from 11:00 am-3:00 pm, so plan accordingly.

Like last time, I got a special batch of delicious vegan nachos with black beans and their black bean salsa.

Due to our trying to rearrange the schedule to get in with Chef TJ once, we ended up with two counter services that day, both in different parks. So we hopped over to Epcot for a second round of Sunshine Seasons.

I opted for the tofu noodle bowl this time, to which the chef added some extra tofu and broccoli.

It’s tasty, but just not filling enough for a whole dinner for me. Close, but not quite. While scouting around for any new vegan dishes, I found that they had a vegetable barley soup at the soup station. The chef assured me that it’s completely vegan. I totally recommend grabbing a bowl if they have it when you’re there. It has a hearty homemade taste, with chick peas, beans, corn, etc. Very satisfying. I believe the flatbread cracker it comes with has egg wash on it so I declined without asking for confirmation.

Day 9 – Animal Kingdom

Lunch was a repeat of Tusker House. Nothing new to report here. Still filling and still yummy.

Now, we’ve seen some pretty hilarious mishaps at Flights of Wonder in the past, birds are birds with minds of their own, after all, but the two that we were treated to this time were really entertaining.

At the beginning of the show, one of the first birds to fly out is supposed to circle the audience and land back up on stage. Instead, he took a few extra swoops around before landing and staying perched for a good minute or more, on some poor woman’s head! One of the handlers had to come out to retrieve the wayward bird amidst the sea of laughter and camera flashes.

Then, as anyone who’s seen the show knows, (and I supposed I should issue a bit of a Spoiler Alert here) there’s a poignant moment at the end when the raven is supposed to return the tour flag to Guano Joe. Only, Poe, this particular raven, completely ignored the storyline and instead strutted around the stage eating all the leftover treats, leaving the two human actors to try to save the storyline. Absolute unscripted brilliance thanks to a hungry bird.

That night we headed over to Wolfgang Pucks for dinner. But first, since I’d expertly rationed my Babycakes stash to run out that morning, it was time for a refill. This time I tried the lemon cupcake that almost reminded me flavor-wise of a lemon meringue pie, and a rich homemade “Mounds” candy of chocolate covered coconut. Do try at least one!

But most exciting of all was that they were baking fresh waffles to order! Big, square, soft of the inside, crunchy on the outside hot vegan waffles! The man asked if I wanted chocolate chips in it… um, yes? It was then smothered in maple syrup and joined by a side cup of vanilla sauce. (I don’t even want to think about the caloric content.) That was the first I’d seen the waffles there; hopefully they’ll be an all-the-time inclusion to the menu.

Already full of waffle, I waddled down to Wolfgang Puck Express West Side. I have a sort of sad update regarding this restaurant too. A few years ago they made me a great vegan (I believe) pizza, but I learned that they now use honey in the dough, so pizza is off limits for strict vegans.

Chef Danny was nice enough to offer to make me pasta from the Café side. I got a big platter of spaghetti with mushrooms, tomatoes, peas, and broccoli. It was spicy, garlicky, and a totally satisfying pasta dish. Definitely worth the trip downtown, though their pizzas still looked awfully tempting.

Our trip up until this point had been fairly tense and not entirely celebratory since my mom had spent the entire vacation sick and in pain for various reasons not related to the sourdough bread.

That night she felt so terrible that we ended up returning to Celebration Hospital by ambulance at 11:00. We were released around 5:00 am the next morning, and though we missed a lunch, headed out to the park around noon to make the most of the day.

Day 10 – EPCOT

Already late in the day, I grabbed another veg platter from Tangierine Café, along with the smaller mint tea.

I think Turtle Talk with Crush, though ostensibly made for kids, is one of the funniest and most ingenious attractions in all the parks, so we always try to catch it a few times because every show is vastly different. The very last show we went to on our last night at Epcot was the strangest by far.

Everything was proceeding normally, the crowd was receptive, but Crush seemed a tad, stagnant. He was “swimming” pretty much in the center of the tank regardless of who he was speaking with, and at the point in the show when Dory is set to appear, Crush made the announcement that he was going to cut it short and watch everyone leave. And like that, we all stood up, the doors opened, and Crush just sort of hung there saying goodbye as everybody was ushered out mid-show.

I’m sure technical problems happen all the time, but out of all of our 20+ trips, we’ve never been there to experience such an inordinately high percentage of them. Which is rather funny because during the Main Street Electrical Parade, I happened to be sitting next to a man who designs software for Disney, who explained that they just opened up a whole computer room in January that monitors all of the shows and rides in real time and logs any malfunctions so they can improve the performance of the attractions. They must have been working overtime!

On another interesting Disney Insider note, in speaking to a manager who I met on a bus one night, I got some pretty cool insight into the workings of the emergency end of Disney World. Below the parks, I learned, there are medical crews stationed every hundred yards or so. They drive fast golf carts through the tunnels giving them an average response time to an emergency in the park of about 28 seconds!

Also, if you ever need to call 911 while you’re down there, (and for some reason, a cast member isn’t around to do it for you) make sure to ask for the Reedy Creek Fire Department/Ambulance. They have a contract with Disney to take guests to Celebration Hospital for free. (Disney always pays for a return cab back to your hotel too.)

The other reason to ask for Reedy Creek is response time. Their ambulances are all pre-screened and approved for Disney. If you call the general 911 and get the Orlando Ambulance, not only will they want to drive you to the Orlando Hospital which is further away, but before they can bring the ambulance onto property, two security guards need to search the ambulance inside and out to make sure they aren’t bringing in any prohibited items. That could be life or death time depending on the severity of the emergency.

One last fun fact that I learned from him speaks highly of Disney’s already legendary guest services: should you get admitted to the hospital while visiting the Disney parks, they’ll provide your family with a complimentary hotel room for the length of your hospital stay. If you’re already in a hotel and you’re due to check out, they’ll try to keep you in the same hotel, or if necessary, move to you a comparable one. And even if you’re not staying on Disney property, they’ll put your family in a free room in one of their hotels for the time that you’re admitted to the hospital.

Anyway, I suppose we should get back to the food now.

That night was our last at Kouzzina, and of course, with Chef Miguel.

Again, he offered an appetizer, but I was so off that day (having had too few hours of sleep and being so stressed and run down that bed sounded more appetizing than food), I asked for something very light. He accommodated with this perfect little “chickpea ceviche” as he called it. Mixed with the chicks were baby zucchini, fresh oregano, cilantro and lemon. A delicate little beginning to a hearty comforting meal.

At the end of our first meal there Miguel told me he was going to make me something special, “comfort food”, for our second night. I didn’t know what to expect, but he said it was big. And it was. Here are three pics documenting its eventual demise:

The pictures don’t do it justice, but this was honestly the best vegetable pot pie I’ve ever had. The crust alone was revelatory. It was buttery (he used Earth Balance), savory, and also a little sweet with a hint of cinnamon. Inside was a thick creamy sauce filled with every imaginable vegetable. The list goes from the customary: carrots, peas, fingerling potatoes and broccoli, to the intriguing: brussel sprouts, purple cauliflower, red pepper, eggplant, and zucchini. I’ve never had one like it. It was, as was promised, complete comfort food, and I swear, when I was eating it, I felt worlds improved.

Then came the dessert which was a full-on roller coaster for the taste buds. I like to think of them as “extreme sorbets”.

The one on the left was a made-in-house meyer lemon with chamomile. This was super tart, like puckery, with a prevalent undertone of the herbal, flowery chamomile. Next to it was a beautifully rich, sweeter, but still slightly tart berry sorbet made of cassis, or black currant, also made in-house. And on the right, a scoop of vanilla Tofutti covered with the rose jam that they import from Greece. This one was sweet and creamy with a strong floral taste akin to rosewater. Going back and forth and down the row was an enormously enjoyable experience as my tongue got ratcheted from the super sweet and floral to the astringent and the fruity and back again. I do enjoy exciting food.

And so ended another spectacular meal with Chef Miguel. He’s a young chef, and a major asset to not only Kouzzina but to Disney in general with his kind smile, outgoing personality and significant culinary skill. I sincerely hope he’s there for many years to come.

When we returned to the room that night a very thoughtful surprise was waiting for my mother. They'd been sent by the manager at the Polynesian who I can't thank enough for all that she did for us during our stay.

Day 11 – Magic Kingdom

As I said in the beginning of the post, we returned to Gasparilla for a second lunch where I was treated to one of Chef Tyler’s must-have Reubens and my once-a-trip indulgence: a root beer float with a big scoop of vanilla Tofutti.

Just because I don't think the first pic does it justice, here's a second mid-consumption:

And the float:

Due to our hospital stay, we had a couple of extra quick services to use, so though I didn’t really need it, I opted for one more of those fabulous nacho plates at the Tortuga Tavern a little later in the afternoon.

I also saw that they now sell a non-alcoholic sangria. After checking their mix (artificial yes, but also vegan), I was given one by the very kind manager as a special treat. The drink came with floating raspberries, blueberries, maraschino cherries, mandarin slices and lime. They add Sprite to give it some fizz, and though maybe not exactly what I was expecting, (and maybe a tad artificial-tasting,) it was a rather refreshing and welcome treat. I'd certainly get one again.

That night we returned to 1900 Park Fare for a Chef TJ-less meal, and I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew he’d been talking with Chef Tyler to make sure my mom’s food would all be correct, but I didn’t know exactly what I’d be getting. That morning at Gasparilla, Chef Tyler had said that he’d been up since 5:00 am and consequently didn’t plan on staying for dinner service at 1900 PF.

Lo and behold, though, when we arrived, Chef Tyler had stayed on to make my meal for me at 8:00 at night. I have to extend a massive thanks to him for another delicious meal, and for making the last meal of the trip such a special one.

For the first course I had a heaping bowl of red pepper hummus and crispy seasoned potato chips. Yum!

For my entrée, he made me three small, though hugely filling, dishes. On the left was a bulgur salad with raisins and zucchini with lemon, dill, and agave. It was sweet and very tasty.

In the middle was, for a mushroom lover like myself, total heaven: mushroom risotto with enoki and oyster mushrooms. Soooo good!

And on the right, a mound of soba noodles with tofu that had been marinated in a rich, flavorful chimichuri sauce with cilantro, oil and saracha. Perfectly spicy and with the noodles, unexpectedly creamy. I felt at times that it had an almost cheese-like consistency. It was, however, so filling that I had to take some home.

In fact, I was so full that for dessert I could only ask for a little Tofutti to cap it off.

The meal was delicious, unique, and completely unexpected. What more could I ask for?

And so wraps up our strangest trip to date. Not that we’re at all dissuaded. In fact, we’re hoping to return next spring for a healthier, and hopefully hospital-free, vacation. Until then, I plan to spend the winter trying to get caught up on my sleep, while hopefully shedding those extra Disney pounds…

As always, thanks for reading!