Review: Dinner at California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort

Our coverage of Disney’s Contemporary Resort continues with a fresh look at the dinner experience at California Grill. Recently, I reviewed Sunday Brunch at the same restaurant for a second time in this review. We also checked out the Club Level Lounge experience and took a look around a room in the Tower. Last year, there was consideration for the Celebration at the Top event, which is still offered most Saturday and Sunday nights and includes about 90 minutes of open bar, in addition to select appetizers in one of California Grill’s private dining rooms.

California Grill is best known for its panoramic views from the 15th floor of the Contemporary. Unfortunately, said views will not be showcased as I’m rocking phone pictures. But you may be able to see that the sun is setting behind me.

I like booking a dinner reservation about a half hour before sunset to enjoy the vivid colors in the sky as darkness descends on the resort.

A lot of people are interested in enjoying the fireworks view. If you don’t want to come back to the restaurant later, you probably want a reservation between 30 and 75 minutes before the start of the show. That gives you plenty of time to be seated if they’re running behind and you won’t have to unnaturally try to extend things by booking much earlier in the evening and squatting for an hour after dessert. There is no guarantee of a window table, so you’ll want to be flexible on whether or not you plan on seeing the show from your table inside the restaurant or outside on the balcony.

Of course, if you’re heading outside anyway, it doesn’t matter quite as much where you’re seated. But window tables are one of the best parts about eating at California Grill and probably at least half of why you’d select it. Put in a request for a window table when you check in.

We’re rewinding a little further than I’d like for this one…all the way back to December 9, 2017. Above is the menu offered at that time and I’ll post the updated version as we move through each course. Fortunately, everything we tried remains present. Or at a minimum, I’ve Photoshopped Brussels Sprouts from somebody else’s scallops and placed them on the plate here at California Grill for the sake of continuity.

California Grill offers a relatively-inspired cocktail menu with boutique and freshly-made ingredients where possible. Of course, you’ll pay a couple dollars extra for the privilege. You’ve also got to give the Food and Beverage team credit for adding M.I.A. Beer Company’s Tourist Trappe, which took home a First Place Medal in this year’s Can Can Awards. (I’m not making that up.) On the Disney wine list, the GoGi “3 Blings” stands out as being a reasonable price for a little bit of a splurge. Retail on the bottle is $75, so the markup is “only” 73%. The MacMurray Estate Pinot Gris is a $16 bottle that the restaurant charges $59 for, which is a markup of more than 250%. Of course, you are also paying more than double for the Kurt Russell wine.

We probably spend between one and thirty minutes a week together depending on how quickly you scroll through these posts trying to figure out if anyone actually reads this many words about a chocolate chip cookie. Poor Erin has put up with my nonsense for over a year now, so I thought we would celebrate with a couple of the $100 California Grill’s Signature Cocktails.

“This Ultra-Premium Cocktail Pairing, partners a traditional champagne cocktail with Louis XIII which takes 4 generations of cellar masters to create. This cocktail includes a souvenir Riedel, California Grill etched champagne flute.”

You may have gawked at the price of Louis XIII on more than one occasion as the cognac appears on most Disney dessert and cordial menus. I’ve always wanted to try it, but justifying $135 for a sip always seemed rather frivolous, even for me.

But the $100 price for the drink is actually a fantastic value. You come away with a full ounce of the cognac along with what is basically a Kir Royale with a full glass of Veuve mixed in with a little bit of a fruity liqueur. The drink is graciously poured tableside by a manager, who will carefully pour the cognac into the fancy glass on the left. I was fully expecting it to taste like your standard Hennessy, but it was much lighter and more complex than that. They say over a thousand different brandies are used in the creation of Louis XIII and a 750ml bottle will run you around $3,500. Remy Martin actually started shipping a 1.69 ounce miniature bottle of the stuff for a whopping $600 each.

So paying $100 for the ounce of Louis along with the champagne cocktail and the fact that we got to take the California Grill glasses home with us almost made me feel like we were getting away with something. Obviously most people aren’t going to down a few of these every visit, but if you’ve had your eye on the Louis XIII for a while, I can’t imagine a better opportunity.

Erin supplemented her champagne with a $13 “Blueberry Lemon Drop Martini – Three Olives Blueberry, Fresh Lemon Juice, Fresh Pomegranate Juice, with a Sugar Rim.” Light and refreshing.

I added a terrible picture of the $13 “Sazerac – Hudson Manhattan Rye, Lucid Absinthe, and an Assortment of Bitters.” Spicy and strong, just as it should be.

I’ll also mention that California Grill offers an expansive lounge area with low-top tables facing the window in addition to about a dozen stools at the bar itself. This area is first-come, first-served with availability rarer and rarer as fireworks time approaches. But if you don’t want to commit to a full meal or just want to grab a drink and enjoy the view, you can ask at the podium whether or not there’s space upstairs. You’ll just want to be prepared for the possibility that there isn’t. You can always come over if you don’t have anywhere else to go.

Bread and butter are served. I missed the lavender focaccia a little bit, but the sourdough rolls work well enough.

California Grill is probably not known for its flatbreads, but two or three offerings are typically available.

It may just be all that time spent at Pinocchio Village Haus, but flatbreads seem more like a lounge thing than a restaurant thing. They’re very shareable and typically-inspired.

The restaurant is known for its sushi, here with an awkward angle of the $26 “New Moon Roll – Maine Lobster, Avocado, Barbecue Eel, Rice Pearls, Gochujang Dragon Sauce.”

Pricing is obviously on the high side, but I think the quality justifies the money and the roll is much more sizable than your typical $12-$14 roll from the local Japanese restaurant.

This is $13 at Morimoto Asia with the Spicy Tuna. Proficient, sure, but it’s just six chintzy pieces without any real flourishes.

Anyway, the sushi was presented as elegantly as I’ve ever seen it – each piece packed with a sizable hunk of lobster with avocado slices carefully placed on top. The Dragon Sauce was sweet and spicy with a surprising complexity throughout the bite. The rice pearls may be mostly for show, but they seemed to add a crunchy textural contrast to the softer rice. Altogether, I’d order another round in a second.

The Spicy Kazan Roll is really good too. The pieces surround quite a bit of hot seafood in the center.

But it doesn’t end there with a number of seasonal salads and soups available.

Since “literally” the day California Grill opened, the star of the show has been the $15 “Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli – Tomato-Fennel Broth, crispy Mushrooms, Tiny Basil, Arbequina Organic Olive Oil.”

This rustic-y presentation is on the newer side – you might remember that it’s historically been served in a basic white bowl. The broth is surprisingly light on the tongue, but packs an impressive, fresh tomato flavor backed up with a little onion and just a touch of olive oil. It does a nice job of mellowing the intensity of the goat cheese, two types of which are packed densely into the raviolo. Basil and garlic otherwise show through with the al dente pasta doing a nice job of holding everything in, in addition to adding a chewier component to the otherwise soft filling. The mushrooms on top add a little bit of an earthy vibe in addition to a little bit of a crunch. A lot of reviews say that it’s so good that you won’t want to share, but I’m not sure Erin and I agree with that sentiment. It’s very rich and tangy and you might appreciate trying something else alongside it. Definitely order one though.

We decided to go a little surf and turf, first with the $46 “Jumbo Sea Scallops – The Chef’s Garden Baby Brussels Sprouts, Kabocha Squash-Apple Jam, Shaved Celery, XO Sauce.” This was a dynamic dish with a lot of little things going on. The scallops were large and expertly seared – plump and soft with the perfect amount of edge-crispiness. They held up nicely to what probably isn’t exactly XO Sauce, but you’re going to find a spicy pepper quality to it with some sherry wine, ginger, and soy combining to make a really interesting flavor combination when combined with the sweeter squash and apple jam. I would have liked some larger Brussels, but you can probably chalk that up to me ordering Baby Brussels and then complaining that they are small. Not the most intelligent choice on my end. But what was there did an admirable job of soaking up the sweet, spicy quality of the sauce and their crunch was welcomed against the creamier celery. Overall, it was a satisfying, filling dish with the Asian influence that I like to see at California Grill.

We paired that with the $49 “Oak-fired Filet of Beef – Potato-Rutabaga Gratin, Leek-Brussels Sprouts-Manchego Cheese Fondue, Tamarind-Barbecue Sauce.” California Grill has served a similar steak forever. Here, it arrives with a fruity, tangy barbecue sauce that has just a little bit of spice that’s quickly tempered by some brown sugar and honey.

This may or may not look kind of gross, but the thickness of the beef helps let the natural flavor of the meat shine against the glaze. The rectangle of potatoes was prepared nicely with a distinct potato flavor enhanced by the cheesy, herb-y topping.

Overall, it was a good steak and a fine plating, but the quality was lower than the Snake River Farms beef that a lot of Disney restaurants are serving these days. The sauce might be on the elegant side of things, but you’re still dipping your filet into barbecue sauce. Erin would have done away with the sauce completely.

A number of desserts sounded good, but there was no way it was happening with all of the food that preceded it.

Since we were celebrating, a Boston Cream Pie Cupcake was delivered anyway. A nice touch.

Daniel Sicilia took over California Grill back in August of 2017 and seems to be doing a great job with things. The longtime Chef de Cuisine, Brian Piasecki, departed back in early 2016 and was replaced by Dennis Thompson for about a year. California Grill does see its fair share of terrible reviews – more than a lot of other signature restaurants. A lot of those poor reviews are due to bad service. Luckily, I’ve always had good luck. Hopefully the issues that persisted during Mr. Piasecki’s seven years have been mitigated.

For me, California Grill is my favorite restaurant on property to do a little bit of celebrating. The view is spectacular and the atmosphere is lively and fun. Nobody has arrested me for ordering the Celebration Cocktails, either, which is good. Objectively, the food and service are probably not going to be the best. There’s at least a half dozen places to get a better steak. And there’s better seafood too. But the whole experience is greater than the sum of its parts. Expect a special time.

We’ll see what’s next.

Comments

  1. Betsy says

    I have been visiting WDW for 30 years but had never visited CG until September of 2016. My husband and I had a late dinner while my parents stayed back at our resort with our son. A a window-side lounge table opened up while we were waiting for our table, so we had our meal there. We had drinks, sushi, and apps, and our meal culminated with Hallowishes and a $6 Uber back to the Caribbean Beach. My husband declared it his favorite evening at WDW ever. I feel like CG takes a lot of flack in the Disney internet community, but I think your review is spot on. I can’t imagine a better place to have a special evening at WDW.

  2. Tina says

    California Grill will always have very special place in my heart. I had my first experience there around 8 years ago, when my husband and I dined there on Valentine’s Day. I was stunned when we were seated a window-front table and having never experienced a signature restaurant at Disney before, I was blown away by the view, by the Mickey confetti, by the specially printed menu… Anyway, the food was incredible and the view for the fireworks was magnificent. A memory I will cherish forever. Subsequently, we’ve eaten there on three different occasions and we’ve always had excellent service and very good food. Truly, some of the best meals I’ve eaten at Disney have been at California Grill. You really nailed it though; this is one restaurant where all the parts come together to form something truly magical.

  3. krikiter says

    TIL – the singular of ‘ravioli’ is ‘raviolo’.

    I’ve occasionally had mediocre service at Cali Grill, but the food and view has never failed to impress. I’ve always felt I’ve gotten my money’s worth for the experience.

  4. TiggerGirl says

    Wait. ..there are places on property to get better steak and seafood? Cause we just ate there last week and I had the filet and it was THE best filet I’ve ever had. BF had the swordfish and raved about that too. I’m not saying you are wrong I just need to know where its better because we were very happy with our entire experience.

  5. John says

    Couldn’t agree more with any review you’ve ever posted. When evaluating California Grill, you have to take the total experience, and that total experience is always very special. How special ? On my 40th Bday a few years back we did dinner at California Grill and, as luck would have it, got stuck with probably the worst server I’ve ever had at Disney. She was terrible. Took nearly an hour after seating just to get water and bread. Luckily we had cocktails we brought from the bar to tide us over. (Bonus story element – my sister road the elevator up with John Schneider, “Bo Duke” from the Dukes of Hazard, and we spent 30 minutes before dinner hearing endless stories about how she used to have a poster of him on her bedroom wall).

    Anyway, many of us waited tables in a former life, so we are generally sympathetic to being in the weeds, and were obviously determined to have a good time – which we did. Food was very good and we ordered many, many bottles of wine. Unfortunately, the service didn’t improve – we often had to ask the manager or another server to help with our meal. At the end of the night, we still loved the evening, but when I got the final bill for my wife and I and it topped a grand, I cringed at the idea such a poor server would be getting such a huge tip for basically ignoring us all night. On the way out, though, the manager asked us how we enjoyed our meal and I mumbled it was good and started walking away, when the wife turned around and decided for once to actual voice some dissatisfaction. Normally I just leave and never return if I get angered. I’m glad she did because the manager did a miraculous job of making it up to us – we mentioned we had an Illuminations cruise the next night and when we went to board, there was a huge shrimp tray, some cheese and a GREAT bottle of wine waiting for us on the boat. Glad he did that, because we’ve been back several times since (most recently on December 1, 2017) and every trip since then has been spectacular – both food and service wise.

    There are other restaurants I think I like better than California Grill (Jiko, Flying Fish), but there still is no “night out” I look forward to more than California Grill.

    • dusty cheatham says

      first josh jina & I are glad you found erin & she is in your life. all these years I have heard nothing but good things about cali. grill. our date nite has always been citricos @ grand flo. we enjoy adult bevages from mizners & then take them down stairs pull up a comphy couch or chair& people watch. I know it is what old people do. but the last 3 meals since a chef change has for us been subpar. service has never been a problem . nancy comes to mind. we have 4 trips planned to our happy place birthday & aniv in sept jina & I must give cali grill a chance. I love steak & she loves scallops we will call it the josh & erin special .

  6. Psac says

    I know this article was so two weeks ago, but I’m looking forward to our meal here next month. I’m surprised the filet has such an odd presentation, I remember when Chef Daniel Sicilia was at Yachstmans was when that restaurant had its peak. Our meals at Cali Grill have been great the last two years or so, so I can only imagine it being even better. Also About five years ago, we had a horrendous server, and even had to escalate to a manager (only time ever at WDW), but since then we haven’t had any problems.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *