Before Downtown Disney came along, the words "gourmet dining" were rarely used to describe lunch or dinner at Disneyland. Casual, outdoor and fast were the words to live by for families spending a day at the amusement park.
When California Adventure, Downtown Disney and the Grand Californian Hotel and Spa opened in 2001, the food got more interesting and varied. Adults could even have a glass of wine with their meals. And the hotel's Napa Rose Restaurant clinched the fine dining title in the Disney Resort land.
Add one more gourmet destination to the list: Carthay Circle Restaurant on Buena Vista Street inside California Adventure.
The restaurant is in a two-story Mission Revival Style structure, a copy of the original Carthay movie theater in which Walt Disney's first full-length animated feature, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," premiered in 1937.
The restaurant has two levels. The first floor is more casual, but has an incredible bar, and a menu of appetizers and lunch fare. The second floor is a series of formal dining rooms.
The atmosphere and decor suggest the 1930s. Carthay's manager, Brian Van Amber, said that one of the ways the restaurant pays homage to the 1930s is its revival of the art of mixology. Prohibition had been repealed in December 1933, and booze was back. Disney himself was quite fond of a "Scotch Mist," one of the drinks listed on the bar menu.
Every detail of these seemingly traditional cocktails is carefully crafted, even the ice. There is more than one kind of ice available, all made from purified water and some shaped by the ice press into spheres. These melt slowly, so as not to water down your drink.
The creative talent behind Carthay Circle is Andrew Sutton, executive chef of the Napa Rose. While the Napa Rose is true to Northern California Wine Country taste, Sutton said he wanted Carthay Circle to pick up the "warm flavors and brighter heat" of Southern California. He has worked the past few years with chef de cuisine Gloria Tae, who describes her style as "California Rustic with Asian accents." They concentrate on using locally grown, locally raised ingredients and sustainable seafood.
I started with a Lobster Pad Thai Imperial Roll, which was a wonderful combination of crunchy greens compactly rolled around lobster meat. A colleague sampled the Vietnamese Twice Cooked Beef Taco with the Fresh Pineapple Mint Salsa. It was crispy and crunchy and the sauce was the perfect complement.
Next came Crispy Gordita, a little base topped with portobello mushrooms and a spicy sauce; Pacific Ono Ceviche, with avocado, tomatillo-cilantro and plantain chips; and Fire Cracker Duck Wings, which tastes exactly like its name sounds.
For my main dish, I selected Short Rib Raviolis sauteed in Sage Brown Butter Portobello Mushroom, with Carrot Puree and Cabernet Jus (on the lunch menu). Oh, those little stuffed pastas were really, really good. My colleague had Sauteed Salmon with Saffron Couscous, Dried Cranberry and Lemon Vinaigrette and reported that it was wonderful, too. (Incidentally, Sutton has recently won a cooking challenge with that recipe, using Skuna Bay salmon, that will send him to compete in Louisville at next month's Kentucky Derby.)
The gentleman I sat next to had Petit Beef Filet Mignon Braised with Kobe Beef Cheeks, Fingerling Potatoes, Watercress and Zinfandel Essence. He mentioned that he did not need to use his knife to cut his meat.
Dessert was in three bites: Rocky Road Brownie with marshmallow ice cream, drizzled with caramel sauce; toasted lemon pound cake with a smear of lemon curd and marinated blueberries; and my favorite, a pear tart, fashioned with a pastry crust folded in on itself.
Each course was accompanied by wines, with flavors and nuances that complemented the selection.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that a great many parties in the restaurant included children. While this is a rather posh eatery, we were at the Disney resort, the most family-friendly place on earth, after all. There is a special menu for diners age 9 and younger. It features suggestions such as mini crispy tacos, "sloppy joe" sliders, orrecchiette pasta with tomato sauce (definitely not Chef Boyardee!). Even the familiar grilled cheese with tomato soup. (Better than Campbell's.) I ran into a family I knew and both little boys had cleaned their plates.
Finally, there are some intriguing salads. I was attracted to the Honey Crisp Apple Salad and the Roasted Beet Salad. And there was a Warm Artichokes Tart that I would like to see in my future.
Cathay Circle Restaurant at California Adventure
Where: Buena Vista Street, California Adventure, Disneyland Park, Anaheim.
When: Open for lunch and dinner.
Cost: Entrees are from $11 to $41; separate lounge menu; also menus for children.
Reservations: Disney Dining, 714-781-3463.
Our rating: Four stars