I Have Never Been So Happily Full In My Life
Victoria & Albert's at the Disney Grand Floridian Resort
I'm a bit of a foodie. Well, at least, my friends and family tend to think of me as one. I do tend to like the finer foods, going out of my way to eat at a better restaurant over a cheaper one. By that I mean if I'm presented with the option of an Outback or a Longhorn, I'll recommend just going home so I can cook nice steaks for everyone instead. If I have to eat out, I'll pick sit down over fast food, and I'll veer towards a somewhat more expensive restaurant so I can get better ingredients and a cook that cares. And, yes, a couple or three times a year I like to eat at a place that charges $50 or more for a plate. I don't drink or have many other vices besides food (and obsessive amounts of DVDs) so I may as well enjoy the finer things in life once in a while.
Every once in a while I do lust after the really gourmet food. I watch cooking shows occasionally (although admittedly not as often as I used to since I gave up Cable TV and stopped having easy access to the Food Network) and I've taken some notes on what the pro chefs do. I'm nowhere near in their league, but they have helped me up my game, certainly. And it's also shown me there more to food than just the basic dishes everyone knows how to make. That's why, when given a chance to sit at a really fancy restaurant, to get treated right (even if I am paying out the nose for it) I'll leap at the opportunity.
That's basically how I ended up eating at Victoria & Albert's, the only five star restaurant in Florida. It's the super fancy restaurant at the super fancy resort on Disney property, the Grand Floridian, and it is exactly as high class (and expensive) as you'd assume a five star restaurant would be. In planning our recent trip to Florida, my wife was browsing around the Disney sites and found out about Victoria and Albert's. She put in a request for a reservation (which, mind you, go even faster than a reservation to make your own lightsaber) and was set on their wait list. We waited a couple of months and then, not hearing anything from them, we traveled to Orlando only to hear from the restaurant, after getting off our flight, letting us know we had a reservation set in stone.
So you are aware, being a fancy, five star restaurant, Victoria & Albert's has a strict dress code. My wife and I, on the flip, are strict t-shirt and jeans people unless we have to dress otherwise, and assuming we weren't going to this fancy-assed place, we didn't pack for it. So the first day of our trip to Orlando was spend scrambling around to find clothes to wear; we weren't going to miss out on this experience because we didn't have the right shirts and pants. Fully attired and ready to go, we prepared for the experience the day of (mostly by not eating much that day since a multi-course meal was ahead of us) and got ready for the most expensive meal we'd ever paid for (and, possibly, would ever pay for again).
I do want to preface this tour of the meal by first stating that, just for food and top at the end (no alcohol or other drinks included) we spent $600 on the meal. As I put it to my wife, we each ate our way through a Nintendo Switch, per person. If you've ever wanted to know what it would be like to eat the culinary equivalent of the cost of a game system, we're about to show you. In short, though, it was glorious and I highly recommend doing it at least once.
Amuse Bouche & First Bread Course
The entire meal is advertised as an eight course affair including both the amuse bouche and the dessert course at the end. They even let you see the menu, personalized for each diner, so you know what to expect for the night's festivities. Now, just because they say it's "custom for each diner" don't expect that the dinner you're having at your table (of about 25 or so in the whole restaurant) is different from the other tables. Overhearing the attendants I heard each of them discussing the meals being served and we all, more or less, have to same courses. However, depending on likes and dislikes, allergies and so forth, the meals are customized per person. My wife is gluten and lactose intolerant and can't eat any shellfish (and that allergy has started extending to fish in general) so I ended up having a number of courses that looked different from her meals.
We started with the advertised Amuse Bouche, caviar served on a light and flavorful crab salad. Having had caviar before (I had rich friends growing up and, just once, got to experience it with them) I knew more or less what to expect from the texture and flavor. Still, the caviar served at the restaurant was better quality than what my friend's family had purchased. That caviar was very salty while, here, the caviar was lighter with a lovely, buttery flavor. The crab, meanwhile, was light and moist with just a hint of vanilla. Combined, the two flavors made a delightful, melting bite that fills the mouth with warmth.
As my wife was unable to have the crab, or the caviar (well, we assume, and why take the risk?), her version of the dish was hearts of palm in a delicate salad. It was served the same way and, honestly, with the mix of vanilla and flavors they infused into it, you couldn't really tell the difference in flavors (yes, I tried both versions). Naturally, the hearts of palm provided a crunchier experience, but I wouldn't say it was worse in any way. I honestly liked both and she loved the fact that they somehow made her dish taste like crab even without crab in there.
Note that after this initial small tasting, the next course could have been an add-on of a caviar selection. My wife and I opted out, not just because she couldn't eat it regardless but also because the caviar on offer started at over $150 an ounce. Too rich for my blood, especially considering how much we were already spending for the meal. A line had to be drawn in the sand.
After this came the first of the bread courses. It's worth pointing out that bread, as expected with a meal as it might have been, was not listed on the menu making this the first of many bonus items we weren't expecting in our otherwise eight-course affair. My bread was a firm baguette served with just a basic butter (although the waiter made sure to give us a story about where the butter came from and how special it was, but, really, it was butter). The baguette was a tad crusty, as baguettes usually are, and was much chewier than I would have liked after the delicate bite of food we had before. My wife's bread was similar, a soy pumpernickel-style bread that was amazingly dense. She was happy, though, because it ate like bread and good, gluten free bread is a rare find.
Second and Third Courses
Venturing deeper into the actual meal, we were given a small plate, what would be considered an appetizer in a less reputable restaurant. The body of it was slices of finely aged ham with two gastro-chef bubbles, one of tomato gazpacho and the other of a basil reduction. This was also served with tomatoes, a fig, and a bit of 25 year balsamic vinegar. The ham positively melted in mouth, almost like jelly, and I seriously could have eaten two or three more plates of it, it was so savory and delicious. The tomato gazpacho was sweet and light while the basil reduction had a more earthy, savory flavor, and pairing the two up I liked how each complimented the ham and brought out brightness in the tomatoes. I found that even though basil isn't my favorite flavor on its own, I liked how it paired with the ham and tomatoes better than the gazpacho
If there was a sour note for me, it was the fig. I've not eaten many figs in my life and this one tasted like fresh farm, grass and earth without much sweetness. I felt like its flavors overpowered the rest of the items on the plate, so I just ate it on its own and mixed everything else together for proper, flavorful bites. That said, my wife strongly disagreed and felt that the fig was a perfect compliment. We did both love the 25 year balsamic, though, which added a sweet, strong flavor. We were two full courses in and both were winners so far.
Moving into the third official course, I was served a tooth fish with a creamy dill sauce and potato glass. I started in on the potato glass first because, dang, I hadn't seen something like that before. It was tasty and crunchy and felt like a chip even as it looked like glass. No clue how the made it but it was a fun little item. The fish wasn't anything to write home about, though; just a basic, kind of chewy, white fish. The creamy dill sauce dressed it up nicely, and paired with the chip it did all come together, but after the awesome dishes we'd had before, this was a bit of a letdown.
To mirror what I was served, my wife had a plate of white asparagus served with a sauce vierge (a light sauce made with dill and other seasonings). As with my dish, she felt this course was a tad plain, even if the flavors were nice. Overall, both of us were left waiting for the next big moment to happen in the meal.
Note that at this point I could have added on another course, wild turbot with toasted capers and preserved lemon, but that was another paid add-on for $35 and I declined. No clue how that would have turned out, but I already knew I had enough food ahead of me. Plus, if I'd gotten it I would have had to make my wife wait on more food while I ate this course alone and I didn't want to do that to her.
Surprises and then the Fourth Course
We already knew from the bread that the restaurant was willing to go off script once and a while, and they didn't not hesitate to do it again for our next two "courses". We were expecting the poussin ballotine (a chicken dish) next, but instead our attendant came out with a second amuse bouche. The plate, for each of us, was a kobe short rib with chorizo glaze and a creamy cauliflower dollop (or, in the case of my wife, a cauliflower puree with chive). The smoky short rib was tasty, especially with the sweet and tangy chorizo glaze. That said, the short rub itself was a tad dry, ending up less moist than I would have expected from the slow cooking. However, the flavors were wonderful in both versions of the dish. It really came together on this plate.
Then came a second round of bread, this time a ciabatta for me that was light and fluffy. It was served with a herbaceous rosemary better that I would honestly eat with every meal. It was delightful. My wife, meanwhile, had a robust gluten free bread served with a darker, Spanish olive oil. She now wants to find that olive oil again so she can eat it with every bread from now on. It had a deep, earthy flavor that she's been craving ever since.
From here we finally got the chicken, a poussin ballotine served with chive gnocchi and house-made ricotta (or, for my wife, chive risotto and artichokes). The chicken, prepared sous vide, was super moist, light and flavorful with a tasty, smoky finish. Flavor of the meat was stronger than the veggies on the side, so while most of the meals were meant to be eaten with all the flavors in a single bite, I elected to eat the chicken separately. The chive gnocchi had a cheesy start, followed by a bright green finish. The dish also had a chive crisp, like a salty and delightful green onion chip. I really enjoyed that bit.
For my wife, the artichokes were lost in the dish. Roasted flavor of the veggies was nice, she reported, but they felt out of place, lost among the meaty flavors and the chives. I can see why they added them, to give her something to balance the ricotta on my plate, but honestly I didn't really notice the ricotta -- it didn't add much to the dish for me -- and I think the artichokes suffered the same fate. Still, the meat and chive-infused sides were great, really making this dish stand out.
Fifth Course, and then More Bread
Speaking of standing out, we come to easily my favorite course of the whole meal: Texas wild boar with elote (grilled corn) and salsa verde. The boar was cooked two ways, both as a slow cooked cheek and a medium rare tenderloin. The cheek was the less impressive side of the dish, tender yes but not nearly as flavorful as the tenderloin, even though it was served with the elote on top to make for a mixed bit of food. But the boar tenderloin more than made up for it. This was a delicious smoky, tender and delicious cut of meat. I hadn't had wild boar before but, after this, I can now see why people think about hunting it. If this is how good wild boar can be, I just might be a convert to its charms.
My wife, who prefers her meat a little more cooked than I do (famously willing to eat past-well done steaks) did prefer the cheek to the tenderloin since it was more done. She and I did agree that the flavor of the cheek was accented by optional salsa verde which added some sweetness to the dish. It was optional, so I tried it both ways and preferred it with the salsa. Tenderloin was still the big winner for me, though. This is another serving I could have had three or four portions and still wanted more.
We then proceeded to have yet another bread course, this time a truffled brioche with truffle butter for myself. It was amazing, but I was already filling up at this point so despite how good it was -- and it was amazing, light and flaky and it melted in my mouth -- I could only eat half of it. Meanwhile, my wife had a slice of some kind of peasant bread. She liked it, especially after dipping it in the previous bread course's Spanish olive oil. She's seriously obsessed.
The Main Event
And now we're on to the main course, Australian Kobe-style served "steakhouse style". This was another meal where I could have done an add on, if I wanted to, swapping out the Aussie Kobe for a Miyazaki Japanese Beef, but that was an additional $60 and neither of us felt like spending the extra $120 bucks (for the pair of plates) to try it out. Everything so far had been great so we trusted their base selection.
The beef, as you'd expect from Kobe, was amazingly tender. Flavorful with just a hint of salt and the natural beef flavor, this was am amazing steak. Hands down it would have been the highlight of the night if nor for the wild boar we'd just had before and, honestly, I felt like the boar tenderloin was better. Only be degrees, mind you, and both meats were dreamy. My steak was served with a spinach souffle, amazingly creamy accented by smoky chips scattered on top. The steak was delicious on its own, but also paired nicely with the souffle, creating a warm, meaty feeling in my mouth that I savored. Note, though, that I did prefer the souffle and steak without the weird little chips they scattered on top as the texture was better as a pairing. There was also a sweet and zesty reduction served on the side that made the meat sing.
Instead of the souffle bites, my wife had little wrapped up spinach balls. They were plain but fun, a mouthful of fresh, green flavor paired with the garlic crunch. She felt like the garlic chips worked much better in this context as they didn't detract from the texture as much. We both also had onion rings -- hers were gluten safe while mine very much were not. She and I agreed that the onion rings were a lot, very herbaceous and powerful. She enjoyed them, though, while I felt like they were just too much for the otherwise delicate flavors of the dish. It competed with the beef when paired together.
Along with everything else my wife also had a scattering of mushrooms cooked in the sauce reduction. These I really loved (since she shared them with me), but then I'm a big fan of sauteed mushrooms with my steaks. They had a lovely flavor, tender like the beef and another great thing to pair with the meal. Instead of mushrooms I have a cheesy fried round. It was weird, bland and uninteresting, and didn't hold a candle to those lovely mushrooms. I set it off to the side and ignored it.
Overall this course was good. Really good. As I said, it would have been the highlight of the night but there were those couple of sour notes that kept it from quite reaching the finish line. But then, if I hadn't had the wild boar right before I might have felt like this was the best dish of the night. Just can't say enough good things about that wild boar.
Also note that at this point I was feeling quite full, verging on too full, and we still had two dessert courses (that we knew about) to go.
Dessert, Dessert, and, Oh Yeah, More Dessert
With the main course out of the way, it was time to move on the dessert courses. The menu listed two but, as we'd soon find out, there were actually three rounds coming our way. We started with round one, where I chose to have the cheese plate instead of a traditional dessert. When I selected to have the cheese plate at the start of the meal, I assumed I'd want to avoid too many sweets at the end. Honestly, though, the selection of four chesses provided, from a gouda to a super sharp English cheddar, were too much after the meal we'd just eaten. I mostly picked at the sweet items around the rim -- a bit of honeycomb, a dried apricot, some raisins, a few candied nuts, and some plum compote. These were delightful, and I took little nibbles of the cheese while enjoying the sweets. Mostly, though, I had dessert envy as my wife had a light and smooth strawberry sorbet was that was creamy and full of fresh picked flavor. It was accented by a basil leaf, which she said tasted good in the creamy dessert.
Up next was another surprise, a kind of pre-dessert, if you will. I was served a sweet corn flan with a butterscotch crisp. The flan was light and creamy but not too sweet, delicate and delicious with just a hint if crunch from the crisp. There was a drizzle of orange marmalade at the bottom giving an occasional citrus pop. This was delightful. My wife had a chocolate, blueberry, raspberry jam on some kind of breading. The chocolate was a wall swirled around the dessert which housed everything else within. The flavor was very sweet, the chocolate a welcome hint between that of the berries. We both enjoyed our desserts and, at the same time, didn't have any envy for the other person.
Dessert three, final dessert, was again different for the two of us. Mine was a pairing of chocolate mousse two ways with a side of avocado gellato. The gellato was sweeter than I expected from something made with avocado, although it was coated with a powder on the outside that had a sharp citrus bite that detracted a little from the sweet avocado. One mousse was dark chocolate was wrapped in a white exterior; while you expect a bit of white chocolate flavor it's the dark you taste. This mousse was lovely and rich with a kick of heat from a bit of chili pepper worked in. I liked the flavor but actually would have enjoyed it more without the chili flavor, despite normally enjoying spicy things; I just felt like the spicy detracted from the dark mousse.
Then there was a white mousse in a milk chocolate wrapper. This one was sweeter, more basic, but delightfully cooling after the spicy heat. It also had a chocolate with caramel drizzle inside to pair up, kind of like the dark chocolate with the avocado. I liked the caramel, and loved the white, but even with the flaws I liked the pairing of dark mousse with the gellato better.
My wife's dessert was just listed as a "chocolate bar" on the menu, but it was so much more than that. Dense, fudgy, and flavorful, the bar of dairy-free mousse was accented by flakes of 23k of gold on top and raspberries on the side. The rich flavor was one that stayed in the mouth, but in a friendly way. She really loved this, the texture making her feel like she was eating a proper mousse, something she doesn't get to enjoy much with her dairy issues.
After all this we still had a tea and coffee service to go. We selected the Imperial English Breakfast (despite it being nearly 10:00 PM and nowhere near breakfast), which turned out to be a lovely, light, and flavorful black tea. What was fun was watching the tea brew as they used a fancy percolator unlike any I'd see before. We watched the tea brew, drank our cups, and then sat in the restaurant over-full and super happy.
And Still More
After all this we didn't think there was much more they could do -- the meal was done and we were ready to cash out. Check cleared, though, they still brought out a couple of additional extras. For one, there were two boxes of chocolate, one for my wife and one for myself, that were sent home with us to enjoy later. Heres included a number of jellied candies and marzipans while mine was a variety of chocolate liqueurs, candies infused with rum and cointreu and the like. They were very tasty, but we had to wait a couple of days before we were hungry enough to eat them.
Honestly, this meal left us so full that we weren't hungry for an entire day. The experience was amazing, a posh place full of posh food that treated us right. And, when you consider we were there for four hours, slowly eating away at this essentially 14 course meal, I really think it was worth the $600 (all told) for the pair of us. I don't know if I'd do something like this again -- that's a lot of money to shell out, no matter how good it was, and it was fabulous -- but I'm really happy I had a chance to have a meal like this. And, more importantly, I'm glad we were able to do it at Victoria & Alexanders. This was a fantastic meal that will be hard to top in the future.