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What Took Us So Long?
Wolfgang Puck's Grand Cafe
Upstairs Dining Room
by Debra Martin Koma
AllEars® Senior Editor
This article appeared in the August 23, 2005 Issue #309 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
There are several Walt Disney World restaurants that top my "favorites" list: California Grill, Jiko, Artist Point. These are the places I return to often. But there are still some Disney restaurants (just a few) that I haven't gotten to yet. One spot that had been at the top of my "Must Try" list for some time was the Upstairs Dining Room at Wolfgang Puck's Grand Cafe at Downtown Disney West Side.
Having recently visited this upscale eatery and experiencing one of my finest dinners ever on Disney property, I have one question: What took me so long?
Those of you who "know" food, and probably even those of you who don't, know that Wolfgang Puck is the Austrian-born chef/ restaurateur who is largely responsible for putting Californian-Asian-fusion cuisine on the map -- he's sort of the Arnold Schwarzenegger of Fine Dining. Since opening what's arguably his most famous restaurant, Spago, in West Hollywood, California, in 1982, Puck has branched out to conquer the rest of the culinary world.
In 1997, he opened the Grand Cafe in Downtown Disney, so named because it houses four venues under one roof -- there are the noisy, hectic downstairs Cafe, the open Lounge and Sushi Bar, and the counter service Express. And finally, upstairs, away from much of the hustle and bustle, is the Dining Room. Today, Puck's is managed by the Levy Corporation, which also operates two other Downtown Disney establishments, Fulton's Crab House and the Portobello Yacht Club, but the mark of the master chef is still very present in the menu, the quality of the kitchen, and the level of service.
After winding your way through the noisy open kitchen area with cramped tables downstairs, the airy and more sedate upstairs is a welcome relief. As you glance around the room, with its sleek, black-lacquered furnishings with a faintly Asian feel, and the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Lake Buena Vista, you can almost believe you've been transported to a trendy southern California nightspot instead of being seated in Orlando.
Our server for the evening, Lindsey, greeted us promptly as we were seated, and immediately asked us if we had any special dietary considerations that she needed to be aware of. When was the last time a Disney server had asked us this question without prompting? This was no perfunctory routine for her -- she not only asked the question, but was able to speak knowledgeably about what types of accommodations the kitchen would be able to provide for a variety of special diets, as well as which menu items we should avoid for our particular concerns (in this case, shellfish allergies). Lindsey further impressed us with her knowledge of the wines on the very affordable wine list, and we settled on a rich cabernet sauvignon.
Fresh crusty bread accompanied by three different spreads was delivered swiftly to the table, along with lemon-garnished water. Both were periodically replenished by the unobtrusive and pleasant Carlos as the night wore on. The best of the accompaniments with the bread was a kalamata olive tapenade -- a savory, if somewhat salty, spread.
After allowing us to soak in the ambience for several unhurried minutes, and watch as the stars began twinkling over the lake, our first courses were brought. I started with Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Layer Torte ($8.95) -- layers of creamy, pungent chevre, made pink by the juice of the alternate layers of dark red sweet beets. Accompanied by a cluster of sweet toasted hazelnuts and a citrus-shallot vinaigrette, the torte was also joined by a small salad of tender micro greens. The combination of flavors -- the sharp cheese and the sweet beets -- along with the contrasting textures (creamy, crunchy, crispy) made my tastebuds very happy. Were I a vegetarian, this could easily have been a deliciously satisfying main course.
Across the table, my dinner partner, Deb Wills, adventurously tried the Seared Ahi Tuna Sashimi ($12.50). Five razor thin slices of sesame-encrusted tuna of the highest grade were accessorized with a neat row of fresh avocado slices, and an assortment of baby mixed greens, on an Asian-inspired sweet ginger and cucumber dressing. The fresh flavor of the raw tuna was not disguised by heavy garnishes or over-cooking -- the flames over which it was seared must have barely licked the outer edges of the fish, as it was prepared perfectly. The avocado presented a rather bland counterpoint to the wonderful tuna, however -- some garnish with a bit more character might have been an even better choice.
For my entree I chose the Braised Duck Pappardelle ($19.95). The tender, very broad (they were at least 1-1/2" wide), freshly made noodles were tossed with chunks of juicy duck breast, oven-roasted tomatoes and cloves of garlic. Though duck has a tendency to be a bit stringy, that wasn't a problem in this dish. The unmistakable flavor of fresh thyme permeated the light sauce, a duck stock reduction, which was further accentuated by the freshly grated Parmesan that topped the pasta.
The restaurant's signature entree owes its place on the menu to the roots of Chef Puck -- the Wienerschnitzel Kartoffelsalat was a crispy veal cutlet with a side of warm Austrian potato salad ($24.95). The more than generous-sized serving of lightly breaded veal covered almost the entire plate, its golden brown outer crust enveloping juicy, milky-white meat inside. Having been to Germany, Switzerland, and Austria a number of times, and having sampled my share of schnitzels over the years, I can safely pronounce this version comparable to the best I've tasted. The heaping helping of gently warmed potato salad in a lightly tart vinaigrette dressing, garnished with lemon wedges and greens, was a perfect side dish to enhance the veal. This was a very homey meal, though, and those looking for something more exciting might prefer to opt for one of the menu's trendier choices, like the "Chinois" rack of lamb or the grouper with a tropical fruit-chipotle relish.
Entrees this good didn't leave us with much room for dessert and yet somehow we managed to squeeze it in.
You can't dine at a restaurant owned by an Austrian chef and not try the strudel, can you? And who are we to buck a tradition? We couldn't do it -- and so we tried the signature dessert, Wolfgang's Apple Strudel ($7.95). The tenderness of the strudel pastry proved it was clearly handmade with care, and encased multiple layers of sweet and juicy warm apples. A scoop of vanilla bean gelato melted alongside the pastry, on a prettified plate that was garnished with strawberries and drizzled with strawberry sauce. It was, in a word, perfection.
Tying the strudel for top dessert honors were the unusual Banana Beignets (also $7.95). Imagine crispy little deep-fried banana donuts sprinkled with powdered sugar that practically melted on your tongue when you bit into them. There wasn't a hint of a greasy aftertaste. And for added good measure, just to wash it all down, the beignets came with a dollop of vanilla bean gelato, creme anglaise and banana jam as complements -- the dessert was just heavenly.
After reflecting on the meal over rich, freshly brewed coffee, we realized that a very large part of our enjoyment of the unhurried evening was due to our server, Lindsey, who had so overwhelmed us with her thorough knowledge, agreeable manner, and highly efficient service. If all of Puck's servers are of the same caliber as Lindsey, you'll be guaranteed a wonderful dining experience. Oh, if only more servers throughout Disney shared her enthusiasm and dedication to working as waitstaff.
All in all, our dining experience Upstairs at Wolfgang Puck's Grand Cafe left us wondering why we had waited so long to try this gem of a restaurant. We'd suggest you move it to the top of your "Must Try" list soon.
Reservations are available in The Dining Room after 6 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. Call 407-938-WOLF (9653) or 407-WDW-DINE for advance reservations. Admission fee to Pleasure Island is not required.
NOTE: Disney Dining Experience is NOT valid at the Upstairs Dining Room (but is valid at the downstairs Wolfgang Puck Cafe).