There's still over a month left to go in the 2017 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, which began on the last day of August this year and runs through Nov. 13. Not only is the festival longer than in years past, it's also bigger, spreading out farther into Future World West than before.
Like other businesses in Central Florida, Walt Disney World was affected by Hurricane Irma when it hit the area in September. There was little damage, according to Epcot executive chef Gregg Hannon, but the storm did have an affect on attendance. Not only leading up to the projected landfall and the ultimate closing of the park while Irma was passing through, but also afterwards, especially with locals who were busy dealing with cleanup and facing unexpected repair costs. It's difficult to justify the expense of visiting the Food & Wine Festival -- and it is a costly affair that includes required admission fee to the park -- when you have to repair a roof or pay someone to remove fallen limbs.
And, of course, there's the heat, which makes some people want to wait for cooler times.
I was lucky enough to be invited to experience some of the festival's food items in the cool comfort of a media event inside the World Showplace. And I was invited to experience a Party for the Senses, which has some major changes this year. More about that in a moment. (Click on the video below.)
There were several food items that I liked and can recommend from the Marketplaces situated throughout the park.
The Spicy Ethiopian Red Lentil Stew with vegan yogurt and quinoa was a delicious bowl of low-burner fire, and a vegetarian item to boot. (Actually, I didn't realize it was vegetarian until after I had consumed it.) It's available in the Africa Marketplace.
The Crispy Chicken with Griddled Cornbread and Red Eye Gravy from the Farm Fresh kiosk is an innovative take on the chicken and waffles craze.
One of the new areas in Future World West is the Flavors from Fire stand that highlights spicy and peppery notes. The Sweet Pancake with Spicy Chipotle Chicken Sausage, accompanied by onion jam and maple butter syrup, was a winner.
There's a new attraction called Light Lab that's geared more toward kids and features glow-in-the-dark drinks.
I also liked the Seared Shrimp and Scallop Cake with cold noodle salad from Thailand.
And India is serving a Pistachio Cardamom Bundt Cake with chocolate coconut mousse that is very good (and another vegetarian option).
I always make a point of stopping by the France Marketplace to sample the escargot creation. This year the snails are nestled in a small croissant with a sauce of garlic and parsley, and they're delicious.
The only clunker I sampled was the Handwich with Zesty Cheeseburger and Cheddar Cheese Macaroni from the Epcot Legacy Showplace. The Handwich is a throwback to a couple of decades when someone came up with the really useful idea of making a cone out of bread and stuffing sandwich type things inside, allowing you to walk about and consume a sandwich of sorts with one hand. But whoever though it would be a good idea to put starchy macaroni and cheese -- with very little cheeseburger meat, by the way, inside a cone of bread? I just didn't get it.
I was invited to attend one of the Party for the Senses events, which are always a delight. I was especially looking forward to this year's because the festival team had made some big changes.
Most notably, everyone purchasing a ticket this year was given an assigned table. For the last several years, only attendees who paid extra were guaranteed seating while general admission ticket holders had to jockey for standing space at various hightop tables set up throughout the vast World Showplace event locale.
You can still pay extra over the $179 general admission fee (which does not include the required park ticket) -- $199 for "reserved seating," which affords you a private table for your party, or $329 for the "Wine View Lounge," which is a delineated area in the center of the party in front of the stage (it also gets you transportation to and from the main entrance).
The general admission level is called "guaranteed seating" and is at larger tables with other guests. Sort of like the main dining room on a large cruise ship where you're seated with strangers.
On one hand, it's nice to have a place to alight, somewhere you can sit and eat, maybe leave your wet umbrella and bags.
On the other hand, it wasn't always practical to use the table. For example, my guest and I were seated at the far end of the dirigible hangar, um, World Showplace. We were next to some really terrific food and wine stations, including Jehangir Mehta of Graffiti in New York serving Wasabi Avocado Duck next to Justin Vineyards' station, and Artisan Beach House's Paula DaSilva with Rabbit Carnitas Tacos paired with Stag's Leap Wines.
So we were able to grab some plates from those food stations and have a seat.
But of course the other chefs and wineries were stationed throughout the space, and it didn't make practical sense to pick up the BBQ Smoked Pork Belly Bao from the Boca station near the entrance and shlep it all the way back to the assigned table to eat it.
And along with giving everyone a place to call their own, the no-man's-land high-tops were removed, so there was no place to put your wine glass down while you ate. (Everyone was given a plate holder with a wineglass rest on it, but still.)
There were some other issues that need to be thought out a bit more, such as the confusing color-coding of the various areas and food and wine stations with obscure food-centric icons, which could be seen only if you were already standing next to the table (and only if you were in front of the video screen, which could be seen from just one end of the table).
But on the plus side, almost all of the food was about as good as I've ever experienced at a Party for the Senses event.
And the biggest surprise was that pork belly bao from chef Jose Camey of Boca in Winter Park, served with Alabama white sauce and sweet pickled escabeche. It was one of the best things I sampled all night.
So was the Rosemary Crusted Pan Seared Lamb Loin from Dan Marozzi of the Turf Club Bar and Grill at Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa. Tender and delicious, served on a pad of bamboo rice risotto. I had seconds. (My initial review of Turf Club many years ago was not a positive one; it may be time to revisit.)
Dominique Macquet of Macquet Restaurant Concept in New Orleans served a huge portion of Red Wine Braised Short Ribs with Morel Mushrooms that was as tender and delicious as in was immense.
Wine highlights included the Artemis Cabernet from Stag's Leap and Skywalker Rosé from California's Skywalker Vineyards. (Actually, it was so red that it was more rose than rosé.)
The entertainment for the party changed this year, too. Cirque du Soleil had been the attraction for several years, but with La Nouba scheduled to go dark at the end of 2017, there probably wasn't much incentive to promote it.
Instead, the featured entertainer of the evening was John Pizzarelli, the well-known jazz guitarist and vocalist. He and his band provided a pleasant background of jazz and pop standards. Unfortunately, it seemed that few people paid attention to the music or even knew they were listening to a renowned musician. Oh well, I appreciated it.
Of course, the food and music changes with each week's party, with chefs and wineries that are participating in demonstrations and tastings at the festival throughout the week coming together for the big event.
There are some issues for the staff to work out, but if you plan to attend one of the remaining parties, I hope the food and entertainment are as good as what I experienced.