Disney raises the bar for cocktails, decadent dishes and desserts at Epcot Food and Wine Festival

The entrance to Epcot beckons you to "Taste your way around the world."

The entrance to Epcot beckons you to “Taste your way around the world.”

Last year, The Atomic Grog spent one whirlwind day at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, sampling food and drinks from 16 different marketplace kiosks. For 2012, Mrs. Hurricane and I vowed to take a more leisurely approach, so we dedicated parts of three days to the same task. The result: We tasted 38 items from 25 of the 29 booths surrounding Epcot’s World Showcase Lagoon. With our indulgences finally fully digested, we’re ready to share a recap and reviews below.
See below: Photos of the food and drinks

2012 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival: Through Nov. 12 at Disney World, Buena Vista, Fla. Access to the festival marketplace is free with theme park admission; food, seminars, and special events are priced individually.
* Official site | Facebook page | Epcot | Walt Disney World | Disney Parks Blog
Atomic Grog preview: 17 reasons to sink your teeth into Epcot’s Food and Wine Fest
Related: 30 great ways to celebrate 30 years of Epcot magic

Freddy Diaz of AlambiQ Mixology in Miami shakes up a craft cocktail during a seminar presented by the Peter F. Heering Company.

Freddy Diaz of AlambiQ Mixology in Miami shakes up a craft cocktail during a seminar presented by the Peter F. Heering Company.

The Epcot International Food and Wine Festival teases you with the enticing admonition to “taste your way around the world.” For the past 17 years, guests have circled the globe more times than the nearby space shuttle astronauts. The futuristic Disney World park is the logical setting for such an adventure, its World Showcase already the site of 11 pavilions representing countries as disparate as Norway and Morocco.

While we barely made a dent in the nearly 200 food and drink items offered up at the booths, we managed to sample most of those on our hit list. It’s highly recommended you plan ahead. Browse online reviews and photos before you go. And if you have a chance, be sure to check out a few of the many low-cost beverage seminars. We attended an informative wine seminar, plus an excellent cocktail seminar. Click here for the review:
* Miami mixologist shows how to jazz up your tired old cocktails with exotic liqueurs

The sun is setting on the 2012 festival, but many of the following reviews should still be relevant in 2013. The most popular items remain from year to year.

Overall impressions and highlights

* The cocktails continue to improve. We tasted a noticeable difference in several returning drinks. Disney World mixologists still have some catching up to do with the rest of the craft cocktail world, but they’re making great strides.

Hurricane Hayward finds a much-improved Mai Tai at the Hawaii marketplace.

Hurricane Hayward finds a much-improved Mai Tai at the Hawaii marketplace.

* The latest culinary trends are everywhere: Steamed buns, truffle oil, house-made ketchup, chili-infused chocolate, beverage and dessert foams. Most were right on point and in no way gratuitous.

* Some of the best bites are unexpected flavors from exotic lands: A Scandinavian cocktail made with pear-infused cognac, a Polish flatbread that was better than any deep-dish pizza, a Hawaiian pork slider with pineapple and spicy mayo.

* The vegan and vegetarian options are becoming much more varied, and also very tasty. Let’s hope the Terra booth returns next year.

* Straw dispensers are now everywhere. Perhaps someone heard me complain last year, when it was impossible to locate them anywhere in the festival marketplaces. If you’re going to sample exotic cocktails, especially frozen ones, a straw is essential.

* In the Festival Center – home to the seminars, wine and merchandise shop, and other festival favorites – the new Ghirardelli chocolate area is a must-do. Not only are there generous free samples and lots of eye candy (chocolate sculptures of Disney icons), but you can buy a small cup of “drinking chocolate.” Think liquid candy bar.

Now, on to the reviews of the food and drinks at our 25 stops along the 1.2-mile World Showcase promenade. The only booths we missed were Cheese, Fife & Drum, New Zealand, and Craft Beers. Instead of a booth-by-booth rundown, I came up with some general categories that sum up all our noshing nicely …

The Xanté Sunshine cocktail from the Scandanavia marketplace.

The Xanté Sunshine cocktail from the Scandanavia marketplace.

Pleasant surprises

* The Xanté Sunshine cocktail ($7.50, Scandinavia) and Seven Tiki Mai Tai ($7.75, Hawaii) were noticeably superior to the same drinks we sampled last year, not nearly as cloyingly sweet and much more balanced. And the Singapore Sling ($7.75, Singapore), now featuring the floral Hendrick’s gin, was just as good if not slightly better. Did someone see my critique? Xanté, a cognac-based pear liqueur, tasted much more up-front in the Sunshine (2 ounces Xanté, 1 ounce fresh lime juice, 1/4 ounce elderflower syrup, 3-4 ounces fresh lemonade). Perhaps I just got a better batch on the day I visited, but the sour lemon/lime was in perfect proportion to the strong and sweet elements.

As for the Mai Tai, I’m certain the recipe was tweaked. It’s now served straight-up instead of on the rocks, and it seems to have a much more potent rum kick. I also detected a sour element, perhaps an attempt to bring the drink more in line with a classic Mai Tai. Hendrick’s may not be a classic dry gin, but it gives the Sling a unique twist. Click here for the recipe and a further review. Unfortunately, another cocktail we sampled fell flat. The Bacardi Frozen Dragon Berry Colada ($7.75/12.75, Caribbean Islands) tasted more like a strawberry milkshake than a cocktail. One look at the recipe explains why (the ingredients are sweet, sweet, sweet and sweet). I thought the mantra “one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak” was invented in the Caribbean. Anyway, let’s hope that next year the Caribbean marketplace at least brings back the Frozen Rock Coconut Mojito from 2011.

Where’s the beef? Everywhere

Most of the mouth-watering entrees that we enjoyed most featured juicy bites of succulent beef. I swear, I fully intended to try lots more veggie items. The Disney chefs seem to enjoy putting out top-notch beef dishes.

The China marketplace's Mongolian Beef in a Steamed Bun.

The China marketplace’s Mongolian Beef in a Steamed Bun.

* Argentina featured both a Beef Empanada ($4) and Grilled Beef Skewer ($5). The empanada, a flaky pastry stuffed with nicely seasoned ground beef, is very filling a great deal for the price. The skewer features tender meat with a garlicky chimichurri sauce and creamy boniato (tropical sweet potato) purée.

* The Le Cellier Wild Mushroom Beef Filet Mignon with Truffle Butter Sauce ($6.50, Canada) is everything it was was purported to be. The filet was cooked perfectly and the sauce not too overwhelming.

* China’s Mongolian Beef with Chinese Steamed Bun ($4.50) was one of the highlights of the festival for both of us. Beyond the tasty beef, the pillow-soft bun is filled with sauteed onions, fried noodles, and spicy sauce. Highly recommended.

The Crispy Shrimp Taco (left) and Taco de Filete in Mexico.

The Crispy Shrimp Taco (left) and Taco de Filete in Mexico.

* Mexico’s Taco de Filete ($5.50) seemed to offer a much more generous portion of beef on its flour tortilla than last year’s Rib Eye Taco. And the sauce made with cascabel chili peppers gave it great flavor and just the right amount of kick. A non-beef option in Mexico, the $5.25 Crispy Shrimp Taco, is just as good if not better. It gets its kick from a chipotle lime mayo and added crunch from colorful cabbage. Don’t forget to squeeze the accompanying fresh lime over both dishes. They’re somewhat messy, but worth the effort.

* Morocco’s Kefta Pocket ($5) is ground seasoned beef in a pita pocket that achieves the ideal spice level – not too mild, not too strong. The meat was very well cooked, but Mrs. Hurricane said the pocket was unfortunately served lukewarm. She said it would have been much better if the tangy slaw in the filling was cold and the meat was hot.

Dishes at the South Africa marketplace include the Seared Filet of Beef (left) and Spinach and Paneer Cheese Pocket.

Dishes at the South Africa marketplace include the Seared Filet of Beef (left) and Spinach and Paneer Cheese Pocket.

* In South Africa, the Seared Filet of Beef was a generous portion of tender meat accentuated by a hint of distinctive spice from the braai sauce. Served with smashed sweet potatoes at priced at just $5, this is a good deal and ranks right up there with the Le Cellier filet.

Tried and true …

The festival’s old standbys continue to bring comfort and pleasure.

* The Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup ($4, Canada) was savory to the extreme. It’s clear why this creamy, spicy, and very cheesy soup featuring sharp cheddar, smoked bacon and Moosehead beer is wildly popular in the Canada pavilion’s Le Cellier Steakhouse. Top notch as always. Click here for a recipe.

* France’s Eiffel Sour Cosmo Slush features top-shelf liquors (Grey Goose Cherry Noir Vodka and Grand Marnier with cranberry juice) and is a slight variation of last year’s Parisian Cosmo Slush, which used Cirok Vodka. While not exactly sour, it’s still very refreshing on a hot day. Just beware that the bright red drink will stain everything, including your lips. Take advantage of those straws. The $9.75 price is a little steep, but it’s just 41 cents more and the same size as the signature cocktails in the drink stand in front of the France pavilion: the Grand Marnier & Grey Goose Orange Slush and Grey Goose Citron Lemonade Slush.

A perfect pairing from Hawaii: The Kalua Pork Slider and Seven Tiki Mai Tai.

A perfect pairing from Hawaii: The Kalua Pork Slider and Seven Tiki Mai Tai.

* Only in its second year at the festival, the Kalua Pork Slider with Sweet and Sour Dole Pineapple Chutney and Spicy Mayonnaise ($3.25, Hawaii) is already at the top of many critics’ lists. It’s both sweet and spicy with lots of meat and served on an authentic Hawaiian bun. The bread can be a bit dry, but that’s easily solved with a Mai Tai or Kona beer. The serving is small, but the price is right. You might want to get two.

* The Lobster and Seafood Fisherman’s Pie ($6, Ireland) is comfort food at its best. The lobster is joined by scallops, shrimp and mashed potatoes in a traditional baked pie that never fails to satisfy.

* Italy’s Ravioli di Formaggio All’emiliana ($5.50) is a cheese ravioli baked to a crispy perfection and featuring creamy beef bolognese, parmesan, and mozzarella. The balance was spot on, just the right amount of meat and sauce.

… and something new

Just when you thought you’d tried everything, new dishes come along to tempt your tastebuds. This year it was Zapiekanki, available at the Poland booth for just $3. A cheese bread with toasted mushroom, caramelized onion and drizzled with house-made ketchup, this savory and comforting item is Disney’s version of the open-face sandwiches that are popular street food in Poland’s big cities. With the rich and spicy ketchup more like a tomato sauce, it’s very reminiscent of a deep-dish mushroom pizza. One of our favorites.

Griddled Greek Cheese with Pistachios and Honey from Greece is paired with Bunratty Mead Honey Wine from Ireland.

Griddled Greek Cheese with Pistachios and Honey from Greece is paired with Bunratty Mead Honey Wine from Ireland.

Get creative with pairings

Many booths offer suggested wine or beer pairings. In South Africa, the Fairview Pinotage ($3.25) went very well with the Seared Filet of Beef. But it’s also possible to mix items from different booths for a unique flavor combination. Though not a stretch of the imagination, I couldn’t resist combining the Griddled Greek Cheese with Pistachios and Honey ($3.25, Greece) with the Bunratty Mead Honey Wine ($5, Ireland). As a honey lover, I wasn’t disappointed in this combination. The rich and dense griddled cheese was unexpectedly good, reminiscent of high-end bar food. And the mead, a moderately intense white wine with hints of honey, made for a nice pairing.

Spinach and dough are made for each other

If you’re a vegetarian, or you just want a break from all the meat, there are quite a few options dotting the food kiosks. Among the best we found were those that offered up healthy spinach in a doughy pastry.

* In Greece, go for the Spanakopita ($4), a rich and comforting phyllo pastry stuffed with spiced spinach and cheese. Highly recommended by Mrs. Hurricane

* South Africa’s Spinach and Paneer Cheese Pocket ($3.25) features a crispy crust filled with a large portion of spicy curry, spinach and paneer cheese filling. It was one of Mrs. Hurricane’s favorites.

Beers were a mixed bag

While I fell far short of tasting a majority of the dozens available, my sampling of brews at four different booths yielded uneven results.

Hurricane Hayward, a proud Floridian, shows off his festival passport as he enjoys a beer at the Florida Local marketplace.

Hurricane Hayward, a proud Floridian, shows off his festival passport as he enjoys a beer at the Florida Local marketplace.

* The Altenmünster Oktoberfest ($3.50/6.75/$12.25) in the Brewer’s Collection booth was solid but not outstanding. This pale lager brewed in Bavaria lacked anything special, but it did quench my thirst nicely.

* The Florida Beer Company Florida Lager ($3/$5.50/$12), was also a bit bland. Maybe I’m spoiled by flavorful dark beers, but this selection at the new Florida Local marketplace was too light for my tastes. Lager lovers may appreciate it, though.

* I found my best taste of beer at the Germany booth. The Altenmünster Dunkel ($3/$5.50/$12) is the prefect dark beer for the festival. It’s not extremely heavy, but it features rich caramel and other flavors that seem to pop in your mouth. Note that it’s also available at the Brewer’s Collection.

* The 17th Anniversary Festival Beer ($3/$5.50/$12), a Samuel Adams chocolate bock at the Hops & Barley booth, was dark and rich but milder than the Altenmünster Dunkel. It did have a pleasant flavor, however, and went down smooth on a hot afternoon.

Decadent desserts were plentiful

Epcot’s pastry chefs have out-done themselves with some new treats, while the old standbys remain hard to resist.

The Desserts and Champagne booth's Dessert Trio: Dark Chocolate Mousse (front), Yogurt Panna Cotta (right) and Lemon Custard Verrine.

The Desserts and Champagne booth’s Dessert Trio: Dark Chocolate Mousse (front), Yogurt Panna Cotta (right) and Lemon Custard Verrine.

* Australia’s Lamington ($3) is simply a small yellow cake topped with chocolate icing and rolled in grated coconut. But this traditional Australian treat is executed impeccably and hard to resist of you’re a fan of both chocolate and coconut, as I am. Not the best dessert deal, but elegant and worth the money.

* Sweet indulgence reached new heights at the Desserts & Champagne booth, where three delectable treats cost just $1.50 each. The Dessert Trio ($3.75) is a great way to sample all three, which we did. The Lemon Custard Verrine featured a nice balance of tart lemon and a sweet blueberry compote. A must-do for lemon lovers. The Dark Chocolate Mousse with Chili and Salted Caramel was a burst of flavors and textures, the best of the three. The velvety and rich mousse, distinct spicy chili notes, and crunchy caramel all came together in perfect harmony. The Yogurt Panna Cotta also had lots going on with its sweet, pudding-like yogurt on top of a thin slice of orange cake and a layer of raspberries and pomegranate on top. All the flavors and textures didn’t seem to blend as effortlessly as the other two desserts, but it was good nonetheless.

* France’s Créme Brûlée au Chocolat au Lait ($4) tasted extremely fresh, its crispy crust protecting a creamy, chocolatey filling. It obviously wasn’t sitting around for hours and tasted like it was just brûléed.

Among the delicious dishes in Italy are Ravioli Di Formaggia all Emiliana (left) and Cannoli al Cioccolato.

Among the delicious dishes in Italy are Ravioli Di Formaggia all Emiliana (left) and Cannoli al Cioccolato.

* Italy’s Cannoli al Cioccolato ($3.50) was one of our favorites in 2011 and it remains a highlight. The hard cannoli shell is covered in chocolate and filled with a creamy filling of ricotta, chocolate and candied fruit. Another dessert with its many parts in delicious harmony.

* In Morocco, you must try the Baklava ($2.95), a classic sweet and exotic treat. Loaded with chopped nuts, honey and cinnamon, this large flaky pastry is very dense and rich. We made it our last taste of the festival, and the sticky-sweet goodness of the phyllo dough treat was a fitting finale.

* The only item I had time to try at the new vegan Terra booth was the Chocolate Cake with Passion Fruit Sorbet and Coconut Foam ($2.75). This interesting and unusual combination works well, though the foam was not terribly impressive. I’ll take a sauce over a foam any day. The rich chocolate cake is nicely complimented by the coconut and passion fruit flavors. And the thick, frozen sorbet appeared to be made with fresh pulp.

Don’t believe the hype

For years, festival fans have sung the praises of the Belgian Waffle with Berry Compote and Whipped Cream ($3, Belgium). The dish was good, but nothing as orgasmic as some write-ups would lead you to believe. The waffle itself was nothing exciting, but the very sweet and intense compote is worthy of praise.

Off the mark

There were several promising dishes that seemed like a good idea but fell short in their execution and ended up as disappointments.

The Lettuce Wrap with Roast Pork and Kimchi Slaw from the South Korea marketplace.

The Lettuce Wrap with Roast Pork and Kimchi Slaw from the South Korea marketplace.

* Japan’s Sukiyaki Beef Pan ($4.50) promised marinated thinly sliced rib eye with sauteed onions and teriyaki sauce in a bun, but it instead delivered a sloppy mess. While the meat was cooked well, the seasoning didn’t stand out and the bun was pedestrian. The bread quickly became soggy, making it a trick to eat. Different bread and more spice could have made this a winner.

* South Korea’s Lettuce Wrap with Roast Pork and Kimchi Slaw ($3.25) also suffered from a hard-to-handle presentation. The meat was extremely juicy, though it too could have used some extra spice. And the lettuce was wilted, not crispy. It held together, but barely. Enough juice puddled up in the container to make a pork soup. Easily the messiest dish we tried.

Aside from those misfires, the 2012 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival lived up to our expectations and delivered an experience that was entertaining, educational and completely satisfying. Just like Epcot itself. If you can’t make it for the final weekend, make plans now for 2013. You won’t regret it.

Fan sites, reviews: Disney Food Blog | Food and Wine Festival Facebook Fans | Yelp
Eating (and Drinking) around the World
2011 Atomic Grog coverage: Cocktails come of age at Epcot Food and Wine Festival

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BONUS RECIPE: Singapore Sling
(As served at the 2012 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival)

The Singapore Sling, available at the Singapore booth, now features Hendrick's gin.

The Singapore Sling, available at the Singapore booth, now features Hendrick’s gin.

* 1 1/2 Henrick’s gin
* 1 ounce cherry brandy
* 1 ounce pineapple juice
* 1 teaspoon grenadine
* Splash of club soda
* 1 maraschino cherry for garnish

Pour gin, brandy, pineapple juice and grenadine into a shaker. Fill with ice and vigorously shake for 30 seconds. Pour into a tall glass and top with club soda. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.

Posted on the official Epcot Food & Wine Festival page on Facebook.

This is a streamlined version of the recipe we posted on last year’s Food & Wine Festival report. It leaves out Cointreau, Benedictine, lime juice and bitters. It retains the same basic punch, however, and is well worth recommending as an alternate recipe. And it’s similar to some other recipes for the Singapore Sling, considered one of the first tropical drinks and believed to have been invented in the early 1900s at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.

The definitive brandy for this recipe is Cherry Heering. Don’t be tempted to use cheaper brands. Also be sure to use a natural pomegranate grenadine. Henrick’s is not a traditional dry gin. It forgoes the usual heavy juniper taste in favor of more floral and citrus flavors. If you’re looking for a more classic gin flavor, feel free to use a different brand.

Click on the link below for our full report on the cocktail seminar we attended at the Food & Wine Festival, featuring Cherry Heering and perhaps the best Singapore Sling recipe to date.
* Miami mixologist shows how to jazz up your tired old cocktails with exotic liqueurs

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17th annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival photo gallery
(Click on thumbnails to see larger images or to view as slideshow)

All photos by The Atomic Grog, October 2012

About Hurricane Hayward

A professional journalist and Florida resident for more than 30 years, Jim "Hurricane" Hayward shares his obsession with Polynesian Pop and other retro styles on his blog, The Atomic Grog. Jim's roots in mid-century and reto culture go back to his childhood in the 1960s, when he tagged along with his parents to Tiki restaurants and his father's custom car shows. His experience in journalism, mixology, and more than 20 years as an independent concert promoter make him a jack-of-all-trades in the South Florida scene. A graduate of the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications, Jim is a longtime web producer for The Palm Beach Post. In his spare time, he has promoted hundreds of rock, punk, and indie concerts under the Slammie Productions name since the early 1990s. In 2011, he launched The Atomic Grog to extensively cover events, music, art, cocktails, and culture with a retro slant. Jim earned his nickname by virtue of both his dangerous exotic drinks and his longtime position producing The Post's tropical weather website.
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