It's different than before. The "new" California Grill, the top-floor restaurant at Disney's Contemporary Resort, reopened almost a full year ago, after a major renovation. It seems brighter now, and it's lost some of its glamor and style, the ambience that somehow made you think that just maybe you could be dining at New York's Rainbow Room. That is, if you could look past the clods in t-shirts and flip-flops.
In fact, the original designer, Martin Dorf, told me that the Rainbow Room was his inspiration. But the new design, by San Francisco's Puccini Group, has none of that former romance. It's brighter now, more boisterous, as though it has now been made to embrace the t-shirted crowd.
Fortunately, the attention to the food has stayed in focus, and Brian Piasecki remains at the kitchen's helm. The menu has been retooled but keeps the basic tone the restaurant always had, even if some of the longtime favorites have new names following a retweaking.
The grilled pork tenderloin, for example, is now Pork Two Ways. The grilled tenderloin is basically the same, and it's still served with the polenta, still blended with goat cheese. But pork belly has been added, along with a touch of applesauce. The presentation is more artful than I recall the original being. Still a menu highlight, even better with the belly.
And if you really like pork belly then you're going to want to try the sushi. That's right, a nigirizushi of rice rolled in seaweed and topped with a thick slice of pork belly, proving that even sushi goes better with bacon.
Goat cheese was the star ingredient in the ravioli appetizer, a moon-pie-sized dumpling floating in a tomato broth flavored with fennel and sprinkled with grated parmesan and topped with a sprig of baby basil. Delicate and bold at the same time.
My guest and I also had the wood-roasted mussels, which also had a tomato broth and house-cured bacon (a pattern is developing). The mussels were good and plump, but I would have liked more of the smoky broth to dip the freshly baked bread in.
Of course one of the restaurant's major draws has always been its eye-level view of the fireworks over the Magic Kingdom, and that stays just as special. It's a little annoying, however, that the kitchen basically shuts down during the fireworks and no food is delivered. Keep that in mind if you plan your meal to coincide with the pyrotechnics.
The decor still prominently features the open kitchen. Hard to believe that when California Grill first opened in the mid nineties that it was one of the first restaurants in the area to have a kitchen with the cooks on display. At least one that didn't feature short-order cooks.
California Grill is at Disney's Contemporary Resort. It is open for dinner daily. The phone number is 407-939-3463.