Thursday, February 28, 2013

Doing Disney with Grownups

I always enjoy having fun with the younger generation – especially when it involves anything Disney. When a trip came up to go to Disney World and explore their Epcot Food & Wine Festival, I didn’t have to think twice.

I had never been to any of the Disney properties without kids, at least not since I was a kid. It turned out that I got to see a whole new world (pardon the pun).

The trip was put together by the Disney’s Golden Oak public relations team and we were checking out the many benefits owners of that property get, including VIP tours. I was flown to Orlando We were given rooms at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. It was my first time staying on any Disney property.

It seemed like a place with too many kids for a grownup Disney vacation, but once I saw the animals roaming outside my window, I was hooked on the experience.

The property was just beautiful, with ponds and flowers among the African motif. There was a large pool just outside the lobby area. I thought it was a bit cool to go swimming, but there were some diehards who insisted on enjoying sunny Florida. 

I hadn’t eaten since an early breakfast so I went to The Mara, a cafeteria-like restaurant with a large selection of items to eat in or take out. I ordered a falafel sandwich and butternut squash soup and both were certainly better than any cafeteria fare I had eaten.

I walked around for awhile and then went back to the room before taking the shuttle bus over to the  Kidani Village. It was another lodge in the Animal Kingdom which I was told had even better viewing of the animals.  It also had another spectacular lobby, though slightly different in design.

I walked through to the back and asked around until I found the best place to watch the animals. The animals were basking in the sun and enjoyed their room to spread out and wander. I was also fascinated by the many species of birds on display. I stayed for a bit, but had to get back to the room and change for the evening plans.

We met in the lobby to take a bus to Epcot. It was quite an experience (reserved for VIPs) to be able to park the bus right behind the rides and just walk in through a back entrance. We were then told we had two hours to “sample” our way around Epcot before meeting for our own private lakeside viewing of the fireworks.

A lot of the international food outlets are available at Epcot all year round, but there are even more during the International Food and Wine Festival (the 2013 dates are September 27-November 10). Disney made it easy for me to try what I’d like by giving me a card I could use to pay at each booth.

Some good finds were the Griddled Greek Cheese with Pistachios and Honey from Greece, a Beef Empanada from Argentina, Spinach and Paneer Cheese Pocket from South Africa, and Swedish Meatballs with Lingonberries from the Scandinavian kiosk, my favorite dish. Portions were large enough to taste a few without feeling stuffed.

I couldn’t try everything and look forward to heading back to sample Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, Morocco, and New Zealand. There was also a Cheese booth which offered fondues and cheese samplings.

As soon as we saw the Champagne & Desserts booth we knew we had to stop. I sampled the Moet & Chandon Ice for the first time. It was wonderful “Ice cold,” as it’s meant to be served. I had also washed down some of my food with a great German Riesling, a Sigalas Assytiko from Santorini and Fairview Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa.

During the fireworks, we continued to get VIP treatment with an ice cream sundae bar. I made myself a small portion (with hot fudge, of course) and enjoyed the light show. I had almost forgotten just how uniquely Disney managed to do their displays.

I returned to my room and was not surprised to find that Disney does even chocolates on the pillow in their own special way.  I couldn’t wait until another day of VIP surprises in “the happiest place on earth.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Revisiting Michael Jordan at the Intercontinental Chicago

My friend Cortney and I had a big night of eating (and drinking) around Chicago so we were more than satisfied for breakfast with just nibbling on the beautiful tray of fruit, nuts and cheese the hotel had left us. After all, we had quite a lunch a head of us.

I managed to work up an appetite with a little Michigan Avenue shopping. The Intercontinental Chicago is right on the Magnificent Mile so it was a stone’s throw from dozens of stores. Fortunately, I didn’t have too long to do any serious damage to my pocketbook, mostly picking up some interesting things at the Home Goods/Marshalls location.

I met Cortney back at the hotel and we went downstairs to the Michael Jordan Steakhouse. I hadn’t been there since the opening night and, quite honestly, there wasn’t a lot of food to be tasted then. I was really looking forward to the opportunity to see if the menu could stand up to the legend himself.

We were joined for lunch by Julie and Lauren from Isabelli Media Relations, the firm that represents the hotel and the steakhouse. We got to sit in Jordan’s favorite booth. (I knew it was the truth because it was the one I saw him sitting in the night of the opening.) It was great to have some recommendations because everything on the menu sounded so good!

Mixologist Peter Vestinos redesigned the restaurant’s cocktail menu and we had to, of course, check out what he accomplished. We chose The Danish Sangria (Block 9 Pinot Noir, Peruvian Pisco, Cherry Herring Saccharum and soda) and the Old Cuba (Bacardi 8 Rum, mint, lime, simple syrup,  Argyle Brut and Angostura bitters). Cortney and I agreed that The Danish Sangria was the outstanding one, though the other was also very good.

While we sipped our cocktails, the waiter came over with the restaurant’s signature starter, garlic bread. This is no ordinary garlic bread. It starts with fresh baked bread on a plate put on the table. Then, the waiter pours a buttermilk blue cheese fondue directly on it.  I’m sure you are salivating as you read this, and you should.

The garlic bread is worth a trip alone and I think someday I have to go back there and have a whole basket for myself as my whole lunch! I couldn’t do that on this day because we already had plenty of food coming. For me, it was a big plate full of house smoked, local brisket, smothered in barbecue sauce and served on a pretzel roll. It was definitely a two napkin meal, but worth every drip.

Cortney raved about the flaky crab cakes and we also enjoyed tastings of our tablemates’ orders, the grilled cheese with tomato soup and the cob salad.

Just when I didn’t think I could consume anymore, the waiter came over with a “selection” of some of the steakhouse’s best desserts. It looked too good not to check out and I’m glad I found room. The Maple-Mascarpone Cheesecake was creamy and flavorful and I found the 23 Layer Cake to be a chocolate lovers dream, but there was no doubt the Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie was the one I found to be incredible.

It took some coffee and digesting before we were ready to head out of Chicago, but I’m sure it won’t be long until I’m back to check out some more great hotels, food, wine and spirits.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Another Chicago Food, Wine and Spirits Getaway

It was time for another trip to Chicago and I had no problem finding new things to check out. This time I brought my friend Cortney along for the adventure, which started at the InterContinental Hotel on Michigan Avenue.

We had quite a welcome as the hotel manager left us a beautiful spread of fruit, cheese and wine. We nibbled a little as we dressed, but saved our appetites for our first stop of the night – Eno Wine Bar.

The Eno Wine Bar is located downstairs at the InterContinental Chicago. It’s not very large, which makes it a cozy spot for a quiet date, or catch up with girlfriends. There is a good size wine selection and wines are available by the glass, in flights or by the bottle. The waiter was quite knowledgeable and helped us make decisions on what to get.

Courtney and I enjoyed a start with the Jean-Louis Denois Brut Blanc de Blanc before switching to a wonderful house branded sauvignon blanc-riesling blend from Washington. Wine isn’t the only thing Eno has with their own label on it, there’s also a delectable set of chocolates, of which the Black Truffle Sea Salt was my favorite.

The chocolate, as well as cheeses, are paired with wines. You can also order a la carte and include some of their tasty flatbreads, which change seasonally.

After our aperitif at Eno, we hopped into a cab and headed to Zocalo Restaurant & Tequila Bar for dinner. Zocalo features flights of a different kind, either tequilas or cocktails. The tequila selection is like none I’ve ever seen and while I was tempted to start comparing, we both decided to stick with the cocktails.

I absolutely loved the Chile Mango Margarita, made with Agave Loco Pepper-cured Reposado Tequila, triple sec, mango passion juice and lime, then rimmed with chili. It was fruity and spicy, a combination that suits me.

The food at Zocalo also has a Yucatan influence, using more fruit and varied spices than most of the Mexican restaurants do. The Trio de Guacamole showed this off, especially in the Fruita, an excellent mix of avocado, mango, guava and habanero.

For a main course, I was more than satisfied with my Chile Relleno, fire roasted and stuffed with a blend of three cheeses and then baked in a puff pastry covered with ranchero sauce. Courtney went for the Carne Asada and said the tequila skirt steak was the best she’s ever had.

We had a tough time deciding on dessert, especially with a selection of dessert martinis and after dinner drinks available. We finally decided that we preferred to eat the sweets and shared samplings of the Pay de Queso, Crepas de Cajeta and Churros y Champurado. I’d have to say the crepes, filled with apple, topped with caramel sauce and served with dulce de leche ice cream, were my favorite.

After dinner we decided to walk off some food on our way back to the Intercontinental. We needed time to rest and digest before our big lunch the next day at Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse.