Epcot Food and Wine Festival continues to deliver delicious bites, a bounty of booze

As the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival approaches its 20th anniversary next year, it shows no signs of getting stale or losing momentum. Foodies flock to Disney World every fall for this massive event, which was expanded this year to 53 days. We hit dozens of food and beverage booths during a recent two-day visit, our first since 2012. If you’re visiting during the fest’s last few days, or want to file away some tips for next year, check out the reviews below.

Hurricane Hayward samples the flavors of Brazil at the 2014 Epcot Food and Wine Festival

Hurricane Hayward samples the flavors of Brazil at the 2014 Epcot Food and Wine Festival. (Atomic Grog photo)

2014 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival: Through Nov. 10 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. More at EpcotFoodFestival.com.

The festival is believed to be the largest food and wine event of its kind in the world, and its size and scope can be overwhelming. More than 250 food-and-beverage menu items are available (priced from $3 to $8) at 36 booths and kiosks encircling Epcot’s World Showcase Lagoon amid the 11 permanent international pavilions. It’s a great atmosphere for sampling the food and drinks from more than 25 international regions, with many nearby diversions such as acrobats, musicians, and Disney’s famous attractions.

There are also nearly 400 culinary, wine and beverage demonstrations featuring hundreds of the industry’s top experts; concerts starring a wide array of retro rock, soul and blues bands; cultural exhibits; and special events such as food and wine pairings, VIP parties, special breakfasts and lunches with celebrity chefs, and much more. Many fans spend multiple days or weeks exploring everything the festival has to offer, making it the centerpiece of their vacation every year. It’s also a popular destination for central Florida locals, especially on weekends.

Tony Abou-Ganim (left) and Dale DeGroff present a mixology seminar at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival at Disney World on Sunday, Nov. 2

Tony Abou-Ganim (left) and Dale DeGroff present a mixology seminar at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival at Disney World on Sunday, Nov. 2. (Atomic Grog photo)

The seminars, which are reasonably priced and sometimes free, cover a wide range of topics, from obscure wines to culinary demos featuring Food Network stars such as Robert Irvine. My personal interest lies in cocktails, so when planning our trip I went straight for the list of mixology seminars. I was excited to pick up tickets to a demonstration featuring one of the biggest names in modern mixology, Dale “King Cocktail” DeGroff. When we arrived, we found out that he was sharing the stage with another pioneer of the modern cocktail revival, Tony Abou-Ganim.

The cocktail seminar we attended in 2012 featuring Freddy Diaz of AlambiQ Mixology in Miami was one of the highlights of the festival [see story], and this year’s event proved to be equally entertaining. DeGroff and Abou-Ganim were informative and funny, and their drinks were eye-openers. Some of the most fascinating moments were their stories involving their decades of experience honing their craft at some of the country’s most famous watering holes, serving celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Madonna, who for better or worse helped link DeGroff’s name to a fledgling drink called the Cosmopolitan. He showed off his distinctive technique for making a proper Cosmo, and Abou-Ganim joined him to demonstrate why a martini should actually be stirred, not shaken (sorry, James Bond).

The seminar was so packed with fascinating info, in fact, that it will probably yield several separate in-depth stories. Look for those in future blog postings. In the meantime, let’s take one last trip around World Showcase and sample flavors from around the globe.

A two-day tour of the best of the fest

The distinctive Greece marketplace is always among the most popular

The distinctive Greece marketplace is always among the most popular. (Atomic Grog photo)

Mrs. Hurricane and I spent less than two full days in Epcot, but we managed to visit 19 booths and sample 33 menu items. By comparison, in 2012 over the course of three days, we hit 25 booths and tasted 38 items [see review]. Add to this a cocktail seminar, chocolate tasting, and several nearby restaurants, and we certainly experienced a gala of gluttony.

We tried to focus on new and interesting menu items this year, but many old favorites remain: beef tenderloin in Africa, waffles in Belgium, cheddar cheese soup and filet mignon in Canada, crème brûlée and martini slush in France, lobster and seafood pie and meade in Ireland, ravioli in Italy, et al. Check out our past reviews (2012 and 2011) for our favorites from the past. Many of these return year after year.

There were also many items on my short list that I had to skip. I still have not tasted the highly touted lamb chop in Australia, or cronut and Dole Whip with Crème de Cacao at the Refreshment Port. If time permitted, I would also have definitely checked out the escargots (France), lobster alfredo and carrot cake (Hops & Barley), Frozen Primavera cocktail (Italy), beef skewer and salmon (Patagonia), Frozen Szarlotka cocktail (Poland), scallop and Innis & Gunn beer (Scotland), kimchi dog (South Korea), and crabless crab cake and chocolate-blood orange cupcake (Terra).

So what did we eat? A wide assortment of sweet, savory and spicy dishes plus a variety of cocktails and beers. Disappointments were few and far between, and most of the tapas-sized portions were fair for the price.

Puerto Rico offered a wide variety of flavors of the Caribbean, including conch salad, San Juan Breeze rum cocktail, and a delicious flan

Puerto Rico offered a wide variety of flavors of the Caribbean, including conch salad, San Juan Breeze rum cocktail, and a delicious flan. (Atomic Grog photo)

Best of the best: Bobotie (Africa), roasted duck and Mongolian beef buns (China), crispy pork belly and Xingu Black Beer (Brazil), Beer flight 2: Altenmünster Oktoberfest, BraufactuM Roog, BraufactuM Darkon and BraufactuM Progusta IPA (Brewers Collection), vegetarian moussaka (Greece), cannoli (Italy), spicy hand roll and teriyaki chicken bun (Japan), mango-strawberry margarita (Mexico), beef empanada (Patagonia), FlanCocho (Puerto Rico).

Steamed buns are all the rage in today’s Asian street-food scene, and Disney hit three home runs at this year’s festival. In China, I loved the Beijing roasted duck in a steamed bun with hoisin sauce. It was crunchy, sweet and spicy. Mrs. Hurricane raved about China’s Mongolian beef bun (see review below), and she also enjoyed Japan’s teriyaki gyoza bun (steamed bun filled with chicken, vegetables and sweet teriyaki sauce). We’ve never been disappointed with the cannoli from the Italy booth, even though it’s similar to the cannoli available at that pavilion year-round. As usual, they were sweet, creamy, crunchy, chocolatey, and delicious.

One of the surprise cocktails was the mango-strawberry margarita in Mexico. The pavilion features one of the best tequila bars anywhere (La Cava del Tequila), so the offerings at the outdoor booths tend to be a let-down. But this year’s drink offered a nice tequila kick, which cut through the sweetness nicely. Bonus points for serving the drink on the rocks and not blended. The remaining top favorites are reviewed in other categories below.

The Craft Beers booth was moved indoors to the Odyssey Center building at Epcot this year. Selections such as Sierra Nevada Kellerweis came with a tasty complimentary snack mix featuring nuts, fruits and spicy wasabi peas

The Craft Beers booth was moved indoors to the Odyssey Center building at Epcot this year. Selections such as Sierra Nevada Kellerweis came with a tasty complimentary snack mix featuring nuts, fruits and spicy wasabi peas. (Atomic Grog photo)

Good to very good: Cheese bread (Brazil), Sierra Nevada Kellerweis (Craft Beers), dessert trio (Desserts & Champagne), pork slider and Aulani Sunset cocktail (Hawaii), New Belgium Snapshot (Hops & Barley), warm chocolate pudding and chilled Irish coffee (Ireland), shrimp taco and sweet corn cheese cake (Mexico), Frozen San Juan Breeze cocktail (Puerto Rico), Singapore Sling (Singapore).

Pao de Queijo, the Brazilian cheese bread, was unspectacular but still good comfort food, Mrs. Hurricane said. She had similar sentiments about Hawaii’s Kalua pork slider with pineapple chutney and spicy mayonnaise, a favorite from past years. I wasn’t expecting much from the booth’s Aulani Sunset cocktail (featuring Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum), but it did have a nice kick to offset the overt sweetness. I also enjoyed the two American craft beers I tried (from Colorado brewers Sierra Nevada and New Belgium). The dessert trio is another returning favorite, though it seems to contain different sweet treats every year. This year’s trio of passion fruit coconut creamsicle, blueberry lime cheesecake roll, and chocolate espresso opera cake was not quite up to past standards, but it was big enough to split and we gobbled it up.

In Mexico, we both got the crunchy and spicy shrimp tacos (fried shrimp, pickled habanero pepper and onions on a flour tortilla) and shared the sweet corn cheese cake, which gives typical cheesecake a nice twist. Despite being a “slushy drink,” the Frozen San Juan Breeze featuring Don Q Limón rum was not too sweet, managing to be both refreshing and sour. The Singapore Sling (featuring Hendrick’s Gin and Cherry Herring) is a longtime favorite [see recipe], a classic cocktail that never disappoints (even though it’s batch-made like most of the marketplace drinks).

Hurricane Hayward starts the day with a decadent dessert trio

Hurricane Hayward starts the day with a decadent dessert trio. (Atomic Grog photo)

Nothing special: Pepper bacon hash (Farm Fresh), chicken gyro (Greece), conch salad (Puerto Rico), chicken curry (Singapore), Soju Fruit Slushy cocktail (South Korea).

I heard and read rave reviews about Nueske’s Pepper Bacon Hash with sweet corn, potatoes, hollandaise and pickled jalapeño, but it struck me as an underwhelming hodgepodge. The gyro and curry both suffered from being too bland compared to some of the other fare, and the curry contained too little chicken, Mrs. Hurricane reported. I tried the cocktail because it seemed exotic with its Jinro Chamisul Sojo, a rice-based spirit (similar to vodka) that’s popular in South Korea. But it turns out that Jinro Soju is hardly exotic (it’s one of the world’s best-selling brands of liquor), and the fruity drink was refreshing but unremarkable. Puerto Rico’s ensalada de carrucho (Caribbean conch salad with onion, tomato and cilantro) was fresh but lacked zing.

Forget about it: Griddled Yard Bird (Farm Fresh), Tzatziki Martini (Greece), spicy shrimp roll (Morocco).

I don’t understand why they changed the Florida Fresh booth to Farm Fresh, other than to perhaps avoid using all local ingredients. The Yard Bird, a thin piece of boneless chicken with soggy skin and one-dimensional sauce on top of bitter greens, didn’t encourage any enthusiasm for the new concept. In Greece, the martini fit the theme, but the combination of Crop Organic Cucumber Vodka and BOLS Natural Yoghurt Liqueur turned out to be very bland and flavorless. Mrs. Hurricane and I were both surprised by the generic taste of the shrimp roll, which was neither spicy nor indicative of Moroccan cuisine. We’ve been disappointed at this booth before, which is a shame because we’ve always enjoyed the food at the Morocco pavilion’s two long-running eateries (Restaurant Marrakesh and Tangierine Cafe). We even returned at the end of the evening to watch the Illuminations fireworks show from the pavilion’s new waterfront Spice Road Table, which features Mediterranean tapas. The decor and theming were as good as the view, and we had no complaints about food, which included a nice hummus plate and a wonderful hidden gem, the beautifully spiced rice-stuffed grape leaves with fried capers, raisins, and nutmeg.

In Brazil, the crispy pork belly and Xingu Black Beer was one of the best pairings of the festival. Also pictured: Pao de Queijo

In Brazil, the crispy pork belly and Xingu Black Beer was one of the best pairings of the festival. Also pictured: Pao de Queijo (cheese bread). (Atomic Grog photo)

Best pairings: Crispy pork belly and Xingu Black Beer (Brazil), warm chocolate pudding and chilled Irish coffee (Ireland).

Brazil hosts one of the most inviting marketplaces of the festival, a large space offering lots of seating with native plantscapes. The menu is a bit more modest, but the recommended pairing of Kaiser Brewery’s Xingu Black Beer and the crispy pork belly with black beans, tomato, and cilantro was perfect. Over in Ireland, the chilled Irish coffee featuring Bunratty Potcheen (a spirit similar to moonshine) was a great accompaniment to the warm chocolate pudding with Kerrygold Irish Cream Liqueur custard.

Best savory bites: Mongolian beef buns (China), vegetarian moussaka (Greece), beef empanada (Patagonia).

My pick in this category was the moussaka, a tasty suprise from Greece based on a traditional potato-based dish that dates back to the Ottoman Empire. It was as rich and satisfying as any meat dish [see recipe]. Mrs. Hurricane returned to one of her old favorites, the beef empanada (formerly in Argentina, now in the new Patagonia booth), a flaky pastry stuffed with spicy ground beef. She also loved China’s Mongolian beef in a steamed bun with chili mayo, which was messy but finger-licking good. It might have been her favorite bite of the festival outside of the flan (see below).

Best sweet bite: FlanCocho (Puerto Rico). Mrs. Hurricane allowed me just one bite of this decadent dish she ordered, but it was still a highlight. “Brilliant” is how she described the dense, creamy flan sitting atop a layer of rich chocolate coffee cake and drenched with caramel sauce. It was also a huge portion, close to a normal dessert priced much higher.

Among the tastes of Greece were the savory vegetarian moussaka, tzatziki martini, and chicken gyro

Among the tastes of Greece were the savory vegetarian moussaka, tzatziki martini, and chicken gyro. (Atomic Grog photo)

Best spicy bites: Bobotie (Africa), spicy hand roll (Japan).

New to the festival this year, bobotie is a traditional South African dish served at Disney World’s Tusker House (in Animal Kingdom) and Boma (in Animal Kingdom Lodge). It’s similar to quiche with an egg base enhanced by spices and eclectic ingredients such as raisins. The version at the Africa kiosk is a unique dish that also features turkey and mushrooms, plus garlic oil, and distinctive spices such as curry and garam masala [see recipe]. It’s even gluten free. I’m sorry it took me so long to sample the sushi at the Japan booth. The spicy hand roll draws raves every year, and now I know why. It includes tuna and salmon, along with a boost of heat from the Kazan Volcano sauce.

Best adult beverages: Beer flight 2: Altenmünster Oktoberfest, BraufactuM Roog, BraufactuM Darkon and BraufactuM Progusta IPA (Brewers Collection). The BraufactuM beers from Germany, available in Disney World only during the Food and Wine Festival, were the stand-outs of all the brews I sampled, running the gamut from smooth to bitter and loaded with flavor.

The Puerto Rico marketplace will return in the spring during the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival

The Puerto Rico marketplace will return in the spring during the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival. (Atomic Grog photo)

Best overall booth: Puerto Rico. New for 2014, this colorful marketplace takes up one of the largest spaces and features not only some great food and drinks [see menu] but also the sights and sounds of Puerto Rico with piped-in music and live entertainment on some nights. It’s also one of the few areas in the festival with plenty of seating. Several culinary demonstrations in the Festival Center also highlighted the cuisine of this island. Part of the reason for the more expansive presence could be the commonwealth’s reported three-year commitment to the festival, plus the next two Epcot Flower and Garden fests, thanks to $700,000 from private investors [see story]. A newspaper in Puerto Rico is also reporting a rumor that investors are hoping to raise $100 million between 2017 and 2027 to establish a permanent Puerto Rico pavilion at Epcot’s World Showcase, though a Disney spokeswoman told the Orlando Business Journal that the rumor isn’t true [see story].

It will be interesting to see what surprises Disney has in store for next year’s 20th anniversary. In the meantime, there’s also the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival, which has expanded in recent years to include food and beverage marketplace booths. The event, which typically spans some 75 days from March through May, has become a mini version of the Food and Wine Festival. Sounds like a good enough reason to revisit Puerto Rico for a cocktail and some flan.

Official sites
* EpcotFoodFestival.com | Epcot | Walt Disney World | Disney Parks Blog

Fan sites, reviews
* Disney Food Blog: Comprehensive guide | Marketplace menus, photos
Special events | Seminars and demos
* Facebook fan page | Yelp | Eating (and Drinking) around the World | Eating WDW
* Beers and Ears: Food and Wine Fest Survival Guide | Beers list | World Showcase beers
* WDW Info | All Ears | WDW Magic | Tasty Chomps

Past Atomic Grog coverage
* 2013: Eat and drink your way around the World at Epcot’s food and wine fest
* 2012: Mixologist shows how to jazz up your tired old cocktails at Food and Wine Festival
* 2012: Disney raises the bar for cocktails, decadent dishes at Food and Wine Festival
* 2012: 30 great ways to celebrate 30 years of Epcot magic
* 2011: Cocktails come of age at Epcot Food and Wine Festival

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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