Wednesday, March 25, 2009

table talk

If money (and calories) were no object, I'd eat all my vacation meals at Disney's table service restaurants. With very few exceptions, my experiences have ranged from pretty good to outstanding - which never ceases to amaze me, since I often go hungry at regular restaurants in the real world. Now, admittedly I live in "cow country", and I've (gasp!) never actually eaten at a real-life vegan restaurant, so my experience is limited. Never-the-less, I am of the opinion that Disney does a pretty good job of taking care of us veggie people.

Because money and calories *do* count in my world, I have to choose my dining experiences wisely. While having access to all the menus certainly helps, as a vegan I've found that choosing the right restaurant is a little more complicated than that. Many of my best Disney dining experiences have been meals not found on the menu. Whether or not I go home hungry often has more to do with the attitude of the chef than what the restaurant traditionally offers. (It's worth noting, though, that as a vegetarian I did often order off of the menu, with just the occasional small modification - the menus were a much better gage for me then for making a good dining decision.)

As for general table-service dining tips, I think I've given these before, but as a quick reminder: when you make ressies, mention your dining restrictions. I'm still not certain if this helps, but it certainly can't hurt. For extra attention and better options, call the restaurant directly 72 hours in advance and speak to a chef - this allows them time to gather special ingredients and make sure they have what you want/need. And, when you're first seated (whether or not you have ressies or called ahead), always ask to speak to a chef. I can't stress this one enough - though some wait staff are more knowledgeable than others, there's no substitute for the help you can get from a chef. (I recently heard a horror story from a couple of vegans who were happily munching on some animal-laden dishes from a buffet because of a misinformed server.)

Okay, now for the good stuff - let's talk restaurants and meals. Now it wasn't all that long ago that my table service suggestion sounded a bit like a broken record: Boma, Boma, Boma. Sadly, though, I recently received a detailed food report from Lee, letting me know that things have definitely gone down-hill at Boma (Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge). The special attention, personal vegan masterpieces and total pampering have pretty much been eliminated. While it still probably ranks as one of the better buffets for a vegan (much of the regular items are already vegan), it's not the "magical, unforgetable" experience I had come to expect.

But never fear - there is good news! The force behind most of my magical Boma experiences has simply moved to a new venue. Chef TJ can now be found at 'Ohana (Disney's Polynesian Resort), where I hear is still a vegan's best friend. I cannot rave enough about Chef TJ - if you have the pleasure of enjoying a meal with him, you will never forget it. Though 'Ohana is generally known for its grilled meat-fest, thanks to Chef TJ, Lee and his wife were instead treated to a 7 course vegan meal lasting 2-1/5 hours! While I haven't tried 'Ohana yet myself, it has suddenly risen to the very top of my "must try" list.

For a special, romantic, slightly-more-extravagent meal, I would recommend California Grill (Disney's Contemporary Resort). While it has been a few years since my last meal there, it made an impression on me. We were able to schedule our meal to coincide with the Magic Kingdom fireworks. I was served something called "Vegetarian Unplugged" - not found on the menu, but was available by request. You would definitely need to call ahead to see if it's still available, but if so, I highly recommend it. They had to make a couple of slight modifications to make it vegan, but I didn't notice anything lacking - a beautiful presentation of several different and unique dishes.

One of my regular happy haunts is Kona Cafe (Disney's Polynesian Resort). Hubby and I do lunch here almost every trip - lunch crowds are small, and it makes a nice break during the middle of our day. There used to be a vegan dish on the menu. While it was gone on my last visit, and short chat with the chef produced a wonderful alternative - a sweet and sour tofu veggie dish over rice noodles. This is just one of those places where I've always felt that they're eager to work with me.

Another favorite is 50's Prime Time Cafe (Disney's Hollywood Studios). With its focus on old-fashioned family favorites, it's a bit of an unlikely choice, but again, it's the service that makes all the difference. There's currently a stuffed grilled pepper on the menu that is easily veganizable - but be sure to ask, because the jasmine rice they usually use has whey in it (thanks for the heads up on that, Lee!) This is also one of the few places where I am always offered dessert - a nice treat for a vegan. The whole gimmick behind the place is to make you feel like family - and this extends to us vegan cousins. It took me years to tackle my bashfulness enough to try this place, but I was so glad when I finally did. I always feel welcome and cared for here.

The Rose and Crown restaurant (Epcot - UK pavilion) is one I plan to go back to. If I'm being completely honest, then I'd have to confess that part of the attraction for me is those British accents. I just love chatting with the servers here! But I was also treated to a wonderful curry dish that was unique and satisfying.

A few others that I would consider good bets: Garden Grill (Epcot - Land pavilion) - they seem eager to help, and they have a lot of fresh veggies to work with. They do encourage you to talk to a chef in advance, though. Brown Derby (Disney's Hollywood Studios) - while not my personal favorite dish, they do have a vegan Noodle Bowl with Wok Fried Coconut Tofu that many have raved about. Artist Point (Disney's Wilderness Lodge) - while I haven't tried this one in quite some time, I have been assured by more than one patron that their vegan Potato Chive Pot Stickers are "to die for". And, if money was no object, I wouldn't hesitate to schedule a special one-of-kind dining experience at Victoria and Alberts. Advanced (VERY advanced) reservations are an absolute must, as is a very detailed discussion with the chef at least 72 hours in advance - but I have no doubts that they would be willing to work with you, and give you a meal you would never forget.

While that's hardly a dent in Disney's huge selection of offerings, hopefully that gives you all some ideas. Are there any particular restaurants you were curious about? Just send me a note, and I'll share what I know, or what I've heard. Happy Disney Dining!

And, since pictures are worth a thousand words, here's an example of what I call a "TJ special" - an amazing tofu veggie dish that Chef TJ created for me back when he was at Boma.

And, because I'm feeling particularly brave today, I'll even share a old (very old) photo of me! Yes, this bashful vegan, after 15 trips to Walt Disney World has yet to get up the guts to have her picture taken with Mickey Mouse. However, she somehow managed to pose with Chef TJ, after an amazing meal at Boma (which should tell you something about just what I think of him!).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey! I'm doing a blog catch-up for a few minutes tonight. I love that you took and posted a pic of you and your chef! Great job on the blog - looks great!