Where to start? Shall I begin with telling you how excited we initially were for this reservation? Or, how I made three reservations for three different days at three different times before FINALLY deciding on the one we kept? Perhaps I should tell you how anxious I became after reading the first few opening reviews, and how I almost changed the reservation because I’m OCD and have micromanagement issues and need EVERYTHING to go just so or I spend weeks agonizing over what I should have done differently.
To be honest, I think most of you already know all of those stories. And really, even if you don’t? They aren’t that interesting. No, I think I will start by telling you how the Universe, in its infinite wisdom, along with the magic of Disney once again reminded me of what is truly important.
Our reservation at California Grill was scheduled for 7:40 on Monday evening. At 6:00pm we’d also scheduled a mixology class at the Festival Center in EPCOT. So we changed into our “evening casual” clothes around 5 and made our way to EPCOT. Following our mixology class (which ran a bit late) we quickly headed to the front of the park, where we caught the monorail to the T&T Center and then transferred to the Resort Loop Monorail to continue on to The Contemporary.
The sun was just starting to set as we zipped along to the resort stops, and despite the fact that we were running a tad late (3 minutes, but who’s counting) I took a moment to lean back, listen to the litany and luxuriate in the view. It was breathtaking.
Upon arriving at The Contemporary, I realized I had no clue where the check in desk was! I knew there was a separate desk you needed to visit before being escorted up to the 15th floor, but I had no idea where it was! After a few moments of, ermmm, well, hmmmm, we located a helpful floor plan and found our way to the check-in location on the 2nd floor.
We were welcomed by a rather aloof CM who took our name, handed us our pager and instructed us to wait near the elevator for Donna, who would escort us up to the 15th floor. Seconds later, the elevator opened and out stepped Donna. Donna was lovely and friendly and quite excited to hear it was our first visit. On our ride up to the 15th floor she spoke of the view, the menu and, as if she knew me, the drinks - including a refreshing sounding "cucumber fizz". Very soon, the doors opened and we stepped out of the elevator and into the California Grill.
It really is a beautiful spot. With sweeping views of the Magic Kingdom, it is open, uncluttered, and has one of the most amazing wine storage walls I’ve ever seen. As we anticipated a bit of a wait, we made our way to the bar to enjoy a drink before dinner. We had no more than sat down and ordered martinis before our pager was flashing brightly indicating our table was ready.
Our gracious (and good looking!) bartender offered to bring our drinks over to our table for us, and we accepted. Personally, I detest trying to make my way through a restaurant with a fresh drink sloshing and splashing all over me, so I’m always pleased when bartenders in restaurants offer this level of service. In good form, he gave us several minutes to get settled and then arrived with two lovely and perfect dirty martinis (with five olives!). He asked if we’d like them charged to our dinner bill and we said yes, but tipped him separately for his kindness.
After a few moments, our server, Gary, arrived at our table. I’m not sure exactly how long it was, but I was halfway through my martini when he arrived. Chalk that up to fast drinking or slow service, I’m not sure which, but I wasn’t bothered as I was busy taking photos of napkins and menus. He introduced himself and brought with him a basket of bread. We ordered another round of martinis, declined wine and he asked if we were on the dining plan. After the Dining Plan Disco, he excused himself to order our drinks and get the handheld scanner (also known as an encased iPod) to "scan one of our Magic Bands" (the alternative to “May I see your room card, please” for those on the dining plan) and we delved into the bread basket as we hadn’t eaten in at least 45 minutes.
The bread. Oh my. The Lavender Focaccia bread. The aroma was simply exquisite. It was delicate and aromatic and done perfectly. It added such a lovely depth of flavor. Gorgeous - especially coupled with the sea-salt sprinkled butter.
As we were nibbling, we took a look at the menu and decided we’d start with an appetizer. We initially thought we’d enjoy a cheese board, but upon looking through the sushi offerings, we were both intrigued by the “Pork Belly Nigiri” (House-cured Pork, Bacon and Yuzu Rice, and Spicy Teriyaki). Gary returned somewhere around the bottom of my martini with fresh drinks, but no handheld scanner. He deposited our drinks, and left once again - before we could order our appetizer. About halfway through martini two, Gary returned - this time with the handheld scanner. As an aside, the scanning of bands at table service restaurants was the only time we ever experienced CM’s and guests having problems. During a typical meal, our server would have to scan our bands numerous times over the course of 3-5 minutes before it worked correctly. Not a big deal, but when you’re in the midst of enjoying a nice dinner, it’s a bit of a buzzkill. Gary finally managed to scan my band, and once again departed, indicating he’d return when he had us in “the system”. We’ve now reached the end of martini number two and bread basket number one - but ordered no appetizer. It’s also 8:20 (we were sat at around 7:45). I am aware it seems to be taking longer than necessary, but I’m determined I will not be annoyed, and instead I will order another martini. Gary eventually returns and asks us if we’d like to order. What a novel idea! Food! At a restaurant! (Ok, maybe I was slightly annoyed.)
We order the Nigiri and then step outside onto the balcony to enjoy the view for a moment, both concluding that we thought the view from our table was exponentially better. Our table could not have been in a more ideal location. It wasn’t a window table, sitting back just slightly. But it was perfectly placed just between two window tables with a stunning, unobstructed view of the castle. We lingered outside for a few more moments enjoying the breeze before being unceremoniously beckoned back in by Gary who announced, “Hey guys, your sushi is here.”
The sushi was fantastic. Nice and crisp, with the perfect saltiness both from the teriyaki and the pork. We enjoyed it immensely and would definitely order it again.
Martini number three arrived just as we were finishing our sushi, and we placed our entrée orders before Gary could get away again. Jon ordered Pork Two Ways (Grilled Tenderloin, Goat Cheese Polenta, Mushrooms, Lacquered Belly, and Applesauce) and I ordered Georges Bank Scallops (Handmade Potato Gnocchi, Smoked Pork, Grilled Onions, Rapini, and Parmesan Foam).
Just as Jon completed his order, we heard someone behind us say, “JON!?” We turned to look and there stood two dear friends of Jon’s that we hadn’t seen in over two years. I noticed the wife’s balding head, but said nothing and, after hugs all around, she confided in us that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year and had been through radiation, chemotherapy, and a double mastectomy. She’s only 34. Six weeks prior she had completed her final surgery - silicon implants - and they were there celebrating, what else, but life itself. I, of course, had to hug everyone all over again - and cry. We invited our friends to sit with us, but they declined as they were in the midst of their own meal - Omakase (a 14 course meal, featuring mainly sushi that sounds DEVINE). They went on to say though that if we didn’t mind, they might join us for the fireworks as we had a spectacular view, and for their meal (served at the sushi bar) their backs were to the windows. We insisted they join us when the fireworks began and they found their way back to their table.
We sipped our way through martini number three as we waited for our meal, chatting about what a small world it is (after all). Just as the fireworks were about to begin (at 9:00 for those of you keeping track) our food arrived - as did our friends! They asked if we were sure they weren’t intruding and we told them not to be silly! They’d brought a bottle of sake over with them from their table, so we shared a toast to life and leisure just as the lights dimmed, the music started and the first firework went across the castle. Perfect. I breathed a small prayer of thanks to the Universe for its timing, and felt blessed to be right there at that moment, because ultimately, no matter how long dinner lasted, this moment would not.
The fireworks were amazing. Simply breathtaking. The only thing I can even BEGIN to compare our view to is, you know when you’re on Soarin’ and you’re in Disneyland for the fireworks? And it’s like you’re right inside the fireworks themselves…like you can feel their energy.
Fireworks over, friends departed, we turned our attention back to our dinners. Jon could do nothing but rave about his, pronouncing it one of the best meals he’d had - ever. Mine was also delicious, but I felt that much of the flavor and interest was in the gnocchi and accompanying dish rather than the scallops themselves. They were quite tasty and perfectly cooked, but if I’m being completely honest - there was just something lacking.
We dispatched our dinners in quick order (as we’d become quite hungry over the last two hours of dinner). And then it was time for dessert.
I didn’t even need to see the menu. My heart had been set on the Sundae Sampler for weeks. In fact, it’s what had sealed the deal on keeping the reservation in the face of uncertainty. Jon, assuming he’d be uninterested in dessert, was planning on ordering the same until he noticed the banana fritters on the menu. Mind changed.
From left to right, strawberry cheesecake sundae w/ basil, mini coke float, caramel corn sundaeDesserts and coffee were delivered, and we lingered for quite some time reveling in these sweet endings. Why not? After all, it was already after ten. (P.S. It was at this point that I realized a 9:45 seating would NOT have worked for us.)
Around 10:45, after a final lick of the caramel covered spoon and a heavy sigh from us both, we took our leave. We were pleased to find our tab (with 18% tip, six drinks and our appetizer) was only around $110 (making Cali Grill’s martinis the least expensive we’ve found on property). Not relishing the monorail/bus transfer hullabaloo back to the Beach Club, we wandered down to Bell Services and asked for a cab.
A few overall thoughts:
The view is not to be missed. It’s breathtaking and awe-inspiring, and embodies everything that is magical about Disney World.
The restaurant itself is very “West Coast”. It’s open and airy, but somehow doesn’t seem loud or cavernous. The colors are lovely, and it felt upscale but not pretentious.
The food was delicious. Quality, temperature, portion size - I have no complaints at all. Having said that, I’ve had meals that I personally enjoyed more. I’ve had meals on property that I personally enjoyed more. I had a meal on property that I personally enjoyed more during this trip. I wasn’t “blown away”. But then again, I didn’t expect to be. I also wasn’t disappointed - I'll just order differently next time :)
As you may have noticed, I wasn’t thrilled with our server Gary. He always seemed too busy and too rushed to be polite or engaging - much less magical. The camel/straw point is that he wasn’t that busy. He had 4 tables - ours, another 4-top, a 2-top, and a 6-top. In my opinion he should have been able to handle those 4 tables with appropriate attention. He never seemed to know whether he was coming or going and seemed to genuinely have a problem multitasking. At a restaurant of this caliber, I expect better. Further, he was knowledgeable about the menu, which I appreciate; but he was also a bit pushy - which I don’t. Also, I don’t like being called “Angel” - sorry, just a personal preference of mine.
The wine menu is exquisite. Had I not been firmly in the mood for dirty martini’s (following our mixology class), I would have been in heaven with the offerings they had - especially by the glass.
The cocktail menu is extensive. I was very tempted to try the cucumber fizz, but in the end I stuck with what I knew - I’ll try it next time though.
There will be a next time.