I field a lot of questions from people planning vacations to Walt Disney World who want to know about various restaurants. The queries are for restaurants throughout the resort, but it seems the bulk of them are about dining at Epcot. That's not so surprising -- the restaurants in the country pavilions have always been big draws to tourists and locals alike. They offer some of the better dining options on Disney property.
So I see a lot of questions about Les Chefs de France and Bistro de Paris, the Biergarten at Germany, and a stupefying amount of inquiries about Le Cellier, the darkly sequestered steakhouse at Canada.
But no one ever asks about Nine Dragons in the China pavilion.
At first I thought it was an aversion to more exotic cuisines, if Chinese food could be considered exotic. I figure the unadventurous American palate is the reason so many people seek to dine at Le Cellier. But that wouldn't explain the interest in places like Teppan Edo and Tokyo Dining in the Japan pavilion, the herring at Norway's Akershus or the Moroccan Restaurant Marrakesh, of course for the latter many red-blooded American men are willing to give up their red-blooded steaks to watch belly dancers while they dine.
But on a recent visit to check out the newly renovated Nine Dragons dining room and updated menu, it occured to me the reason so few people are interested in eating here. And it was the memory of sitting in another Chinese restaurant two decades earlier that made me think of it.
That restaurant was Ming Court on International Drive. When it opened near the convention center in 1989 it drew a lot of attention for its elegant design, which featured a wall that resembled the rolling back or a dragon and floor to ceiling windows that looked out on a serene koi pond.
While I sat at Ming Court looking at the menu, I noticed more than a couple of people come in, sit down, look over the menu then get up and leave without ordering.
The reason wasn't because the menu was missing their favorite egg roll or moo goo gai pan, it was because it had something most of them were unfamiliar with: food prices similar to those at other fine dining restaurants. For most people, Chinese restaurants are synonymous with inexpensive meals, food served in large portions at prices that make it an even better bargain. They don't expect Chinese restaurants to have entrees that drift over $20.
I think most people still have that notion, which is why I get so few questions about Nine Dragons, and why it was virtually empty when I visited recently.
Too bad because the food is very good, and the refreshed dining room is comfortable and affords diners a view of people passing by rushing to make their reservation times at Tutto Italia or San Angel Inn.
I popped in for a lunch and started with a bowl of chicken consomme with pork dumplings ($3.98), a golden broth with a rich mouthfeel. It had two big dumplings of chewy dough filled with well-spiced ground pork.
For my entree I had the shrimp with spinach noodles ($17.98), which looked very much like something you'd find served in the Italy pavilion. (But remember that Marco Polo is said to have introduced Italians to pasta after a voyage to China.) The noodles were fettuccinelike and were mixed with red and green sauteed bell peppers and dotted with flecks of hot pepper flakes and topped with cool, fesh coriander.
The shrimp had a thin film of crispiness and peppery spice.
For dessert there was a sponge cake with fruit filling that was slightly dry.
The dining room is a vast space, but for all its expanse it is a tranquil place, at least when not full. A variety of lanters decorates the room. Tabletops are polished wood and set with paper placemat adorned with Chinese figures, both ancient and present-day, with spaces for diners to practice writing the words for mountains, rain, sun and moon. There was one major annoyance: tables are set with a knife and fork; diners must request chopsticks. It should be the other way around.
The staff was friendly though not obsequious. And even though I paid with a credit card, none of the Chinese nationals questioned my ability to repay my debt.
Nine Dragons is in the China pavilion at Epcot. For dinner reservations, call 407-939-3463.