Over the past 30 years and on several occasions I’ve had the pleasure — and it was always a pleasure — of dining at Victoria & Albert’s, the ultra fine dining restaurant at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. Sometimes I’ve been in the sumptuous dining room and other times I’ve been at the chef’s table, overlooking the kitchen. Over the years I’ve seen some changes (including the hotel’s name, which was originally the Grand Floridian Beach Resort).
One of the first big changes was to correct a design flaw that allowed guests sitting under a central dome in the dining room to hear intimate conversations of other guests sitting across the room.
There have been operational changes, moving from two seatings a night to just one every evening; adding Queen Victoria’s Room, which offered a degustation menu, with most courses served from a gueridon, in a more intimate room; doing away with that room’s separate menu, and the gueridons; and at least one major renovation of the chef’s table alcove, one of the most sought-after dining experiences in the Southeastern United States.
Oh, and the best change of all: Allowing the serving staff to wear tags with their given names rather than Victoria or Albert (gender specific).
But through all of my visits there remained one welcome constant: Scott Hunnel was always at the helm in the kitchen. My most recent visit, a return to the chef’s table, marked the first time in my three decades of dining there that Hunnel was not in the kitchen.
To be sure, Hunnel is still there and technically still in charge — he’s still listed as the executive chef on the printed menu — but he also has a higher helm. He now is the executive chef for all of the hotel’s restaurants, which include Citricos, Narcoossee’s and various other venues.
Now running the day to day operations of Victoria & Albert’s kitchen is Aimée Rivera as chef de cuisine. And with all the other changes that have occurred, I’m pleased to announce a constant: The experience of dining at Victoria & Albert’s is still luxurious and sublime and, though pricey, a bargain for true aficionados of fine food.
We started our chef’s table experience with an amuse bouche of New England Langoustine with Imperial Caviar plus avocado and lime nuage cloud cakes.
My party opted for the wine pairings, which brought another welcome constant: the sommelier expertise of longtime maître d’hôtel Israel Pérez. For this course he chose the nonvintaged Chateau de Bligny Blanc de Blancs Brut sparkling wine.
We skipped the supplementary caviar course, which came with an added cost of $125 for half an ounce or $250 for a full ounce, and went right to the Bison Tenderloin, rolled and filled with horseradish cream, served with a boiled quail egg, arugula puree and a nosegay of edible flowers. Hiedler Thal Grüner Veltliner Niederïsterreich Kamptal 2016 added its own flowery notes.
Rivera shared hosting duties with sous chef Matthew Eiler, who introduced the next course, Glacier 51 Tooth Fish with Nantucket Scallops. I loved that Eiler referred to it as Patagonian Tooth Fish rather than by its marketing name, Chilean Sea Bass. It was served with roasted broccolini and a mimolette cheese sauce with dots of mustard oil. The fish had a wonderfully crispy crust that was fashioned out of fried broccolini buds. This was arguably my favorite course of the evening.
Pérez paired it with a white Chateauneuf du Pape, a 2016, from Domaine Bois de Boursan in the Rhone Valley.
We were surprised with a course of Tagliatelle with shavings of Italian white truffles. A small serving but big flavors. A larger portion would have been deadly.
Eiler told us that he wanted to make the Roasted French Quail more of an American dish, so it was stuffed with cornbread and wrapped with bacon from Wisconsin. And instead of a classic sauce bigerade, the saucier reduced a full bottle of Grand Marnier to produce a sweeter grace note. Pulenta Estate Gran Malbex X, Mendoza 2014 was the accompanying wine.
Kurobuta Pork Belly was served with a lookalike log of pressed pineapple, topped with peanuts. Ramey Syrah 2013 from the Sonoma Coast accompanied.
Australian Kobe-style Beef, cooked sous vide with rosemary and thyme, was served with a potato pinwheel and dehydrated chive powder. Each plate was given an eyedropper dot of Giusti 100-year-old balsamic vinegar (available online for $999 for 3.4 fluid ounces).
Pérez poured Napa Valley’s Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon, 2015, to pair with the oh-so-tender beef.
With the main savories over, it meant that the meal was beginning to end. Just four or five courses to go.
Colston Bassett Stilton Cheesecake with Burgundy Pears would have been dessert enough, especially with the Taylor Fladgate 20-year-od Tawny Port.
But there were also cheeses and cookies and chocolate cake and friandises set up on a side table for us to go to and help ourselves.
Coffee service is still the lesson in physics that looks like a lab experience (a brilliant way to keep conversation going).
But there is one other change at Victoria & Albert’s and indeed the Grand Floridian to report. Longtime pastry chef Erich Herbitschek, known for his masterful creations of delectable diadems, has retired. Kristine Farmer is now the head pastry chef, and while her creations may not be as extravagant as her predecessor’s, they are every bit as delicious.
The excellent service remains, too. And it is always fascinating to watch the many chefs work quietly and efficiently in the kitchen.
Victoria & Albert’s has won numerous awards, and I was pleased to present two more to the staff that evening: Foodster Awards for Best Fine Dining and Best Restaurant Overall.
I paid my first visit to Victoria & Albert’s in 1988 when the restaurant was new, and I was too. I knew then that the Central Florida dining scene was going to be ok as long as we had a restaurant like this for others to emulate. I still feel that way.
Some things never change.
Victoria & Albert’s is at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, 4401 Floridian Way, Lake Buena Vista. It is open for dinner daily with one seating each evening. The phone number is 407-939-7707.