I had a fun time recently taking part in a progressive dinner of sorts that had me and some other media members visiting the premium restaurants at Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. We had been invited by the two hotels' PR team as a way of reacquainting ourselves with some restaurants we may not have visited in a while.
It had been a long while since I had been in Kimonos, the elegant sushi bar in the Swan where we started our evening. In fact, it occurred to me that the last time I did a full review of Kimonos I liked the food but I took management to task for not offering a nonsmoking section.
Florida changed the constitution to mandate restaurants be nonsmoking in 2003. Before that, many restaurants had voluntarily offered separate sections -- "Smoking or non?" was part of the host's greeting in most restaurants.
But Kimonos did not offer one because, someone told me at the time, the space was too small. (I was also told, off the record, that it also had to do with the hotel's clientele, which was largely Japanese and who expected to be able to smoke.)
When it opened, Kimonos was one of only a handful, maybe a dozen, of specialty sushi bars in the area. There weren't even all that many Japanese restaurants that also featured sushi. In the 1996 Central Florida Zagat Survey (which I most certainly did not work on without credit because that would have been a conflict of interest, so don't even ask) there are just over a dozen Japanese restaurants listed, and not all specialized in sushi. Today there are over 200 restaurants where sushi is offered.
But few still do it as good as Kimonos. We started our evening with an array of freshly prepared items from chef Vinh Trieu, including assorted sashimi and nigirizushi, and beautifully displayed specialty rolls, including Dragon, Jalapeno, Spider and Kimonos signature roll with tuna, yellowtail, salmon and wasabi mayonnaise. The tastes were all so orgasmically wonderful that I almost needed a smoke afterward.
From there we moved on to Il Mulino, the trattoria that is based, loosely, on the legendary restaurant in New York's Greenwich Village.
Here we had a pasta course of Rigatoni con Funghi, prepared by executive chef Christine Cobian. Besides the rigatoni tubes, the large bowl also had agnolotti del plin (or pinched), a specialty of the Piedmont region, chewy wild mushrooms, plus carrots, zucchini and pattypan squash. All deceptively light tasting.
For our entree we trekked across the causeway that separates the two large hotels to Todd English's bluezoo. This is an elegantly styled seafood restaurant that had a shaky start when it first opened, in late 2003 or early 2004, but has found its comfort zone. Perhaps English's greatest contribution to the restaurant, or rather his kids' input, is the name (I mean besides Todd English). As he told the story at the time, he took his kids to an aquarium and one of them declared that it looked like a blue zoo. I don't know if the kid, who is almost certainly now a legal adult, specified the name should be lowercase, but there it is.
Here we had our choice of entree, only one of which was seafood, to which my companions and I replied, "What part of bluezoo don't you understand?"
We were served an amuse bouche -- can you have an amuse bouche three courses in? -- featuring hearts of palm and charred peaches topped with nitro tomato foam. (More show than substance, but then so is the Dancing Fish grill at the open kitchen. Don't ask.)
Most of us selected the Miso Glazed Mero, a Hawaiian sea bass, from Christopher McDonough, the executive chef here. The fish had wonderful moist flakes under the slightly sweet glaze. It was accompanied by rice infused with ginger and shiitake. Don't judge by the size of the portion in the picture -- the restaurant was taking mercy on us with all the other food we had had so far.
And maybe that's why when we made our way up the escalator to Shula's Steak House, we were served dessert instead of the signature slabs of beef.
The desserts were from various venues throughout the resort, but all under the direction of world renowned pastry chef Laurent Branlard. And I mean world world, not Disney World.
On my way back over the the Swan where I'd left my car, I crossed the causeway just as a show was getting underway. Have you ever seen the Dancing Fountains of the Bellagio in Las Vegas? Well, the Swan and Dolphin have the Dancing Palm Trees. Sort of. It's at the end of the video above (or click here).
Check the website for Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin for restaurant times and reservation information.