Victoria & Albert’s, the crown jewel of Walt Disney Resort restaurants, named for someone who wore the actual Crown Jewels, has finally returned to the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa after its pandemic-forced closure and a renovation that has refreshed and revitalized the 34-year-old dining room.
Other changes have occurred, too.
Now in charge of the kitchen as chef de cuisine in the role that was defined by Scott Hunnel is Matthew Sowers, who was recruited by Hunnel more than a decade ago. (Aimee Rivera was chef de cuisine when the restaurant closed in 2020; she has left the company. Hunnel was promoted to an executive chef position that oversees culinary operations at several resorts, including the Grand Floridian.) The other major personnel change is Kristine Farmer as pasty chef, replacing Erich Herbitschek, who retired.
But we have a long way to go before we talk about pastries because some things about Victoria & Albert’s remain the same, including that dinner here is an evening-long affair.
Something else that remains the same. The dining room is still under the able direction of Israel Pérez, the sommelier and gracious maître d’hôtel.
Opulent is an apt word to describe Victoria & Albert’s decor, reimagined by Walt Disney Imagineering. It’s brighter than before and less, well, Victorian. Walls are a creamy white and columns are decorated in white plaster appliqués of vines, flowers and butterflies. Those same images adorn the once-problematic dome in the center of the room, which now is more akin to a round coffered ceiling. Elegant bouquets of white hydrangeas and flowing orchids are set about the intimate space. As before, a harpist, now situated in the center of the restaurant, sets the mood, though you’re as likely to hear tunes of Sara Bareilles and Tracy Chapman as you are Puccini. (You really must hear Chapman’s “Fast Car” played on a harp.)
Tables are still covered with flowing, crisp Frette linens and the flatware is still Sambonet, just as when the restaurant opened in 1988. But the Royal Doulton china has been replaced with more modern pieces by Bernardaud.
The food creations they carry are every bit as wonderful as before.
The 10 (or so) courses of the chef’s degustation menu, priced at $375 per person plus an optional $200 wine pairing, change frequently depending on market availability and the whims of the chef, though one or two furniture pieces,” such as turbot, said to be Queen Victoria’s favorite fish, should always be on the menu in some form or other. With so many courses, of course, the portions are not large. (Neither are they too small.) The wine pours, too, are measured to be consumed with just the course it is meant to match.
Here’s a rundown of what I was served.
We started with three canapés: compressed pink pineapple with Thai basil and spiced mango sauce; New Zealand langoustine tartelette, with watermelon, limes and a nasturtium leaf; and a savory eclair filled with potato espuma, topped with miso caramel and Iberico ham.
A creamy cauliflower panna cotta followed, topped with Royal Belgian caviar.
The first of three fish dishes was a Danish hiramasa, or yellowtail kingfish, cured in citrus and dotted with yuzu crema, sitting in a carrot vinaigrette.
The wild turbot was butter poached and sat on braised baby leeks and crowned with shaved fennel.
Glacier 51 toothfish (sea bass) denotes its Antarctica origin. It was presented as a play on sushi, with bamboo rice wrapped in daikon radish, pickled daikon to simulate ginger, and four types of mushrooms.
Green Circle chicken was served on a ploof of corn pudding with a drizzle of truffle honey glaze surrounding.
Colorado lamb followed, served with pickled blueberries and violet mustard.
The beef was wagyu A-5 from the Miyazaki prefecture served with a potato rösti. When people talk about food that melts in your mouth, they’re talking about something like this.
A “preparation of cheese” was meant to tell the story of life on the farm, which is a lot to ask of a cheese course. It was served on a round wooden platter with a piece of Le Fromager, an ultra creamy cheese from the Rhône Valley, at the top followed by a honeycomb and a progression of plums – semifreddo, compressed and served on kalamata “soil,” and fresh cubes.
Pastry chef Farmer presented no fewer than seven desserts, including honey elderflower ice cream; a warm chocolate cookie; a spectrum of chocolate, featuring a dark chocolate flourless cake, a milk chocolate mousse, golden chocolate custard, panna cotta, all served with an espuma made with chocolate, Grand Marnier and champagne; pistachio petit fours; and tropical caramel.
Besides the wine pairings – all of them masterful and spot on – Victoria & Albert’s offers pairings of zero-proof cocktails that go far beyond your Shirley Temples and virgin bloody marys, but we’ll talk about those another time.
As from the beginning of time, each table is attended by two servers, still a man and a woman but no longer wearing “Victoria” and “Albert” name tags. (That bit of silliness was done away with not long after the restaurant first opened.) Shortly before the pandemic shutdown, in late 2019, the Victorian-style uniforms were replaced with smart tuxedos. It’s almost as if the room was redecorated to match the contemporary uniforms.
Sadly, guests are no longer required to dress as smartly. The dress code has stopped stipulating that gentlemen wear jackets, although the official code asks guests to “dress accordingly in semiformal/formal attire that respects the restaurant’s elegant and opulent aesthetic,” and I don’t know of any sartorial set of rules that wouldn’t include a jacket for men as part of a semiformal outfit. So you may now find some fellows dining in shirt sleeves, as I did on a recent evening where the dining room was reserved for a media dinner.
An essential component to the enjoyment of the evening is the encyclopedic knowledge of the servers. It’s astounding the amount of details regarding the ingredients, their source and the various methods of preparation of each dish that they can recite, though the information is never presented as rote or rehearsed; it’s more like they’re telling the story of each dish, as though they’re proud to be serving it.
And why shouldn’t they be?
Disclosure: Attendees of the media dinner were offered complimentary meals and beverage pairings.