Monday, March 26, 2012

Gluten Free on the Disney Cruise Line -- Part 2

In the previous post, I described the rotational dining system on the ship and the dinners we ate on the Disney Magic cruise ship.  Lunch and dinner are more "free-style" and you can choose from a number of options.
Funny napkin-hats made by our server

The one exception is the Character Breakfast, which is at an assigned day, time, and place.  The character breakfast always takes place on the morning AFTER you eat at Animator's Palate for the first time.  It's a lot like the character breakfasts offered at Disney World.  The characters come around to the tables to sign autograph books and have their pictures taken with the kids.  There was a number of choices on the menu, and I chose to have the scrambled eggs served with grilled ham and pineapple.  They served it with the same GF rolls they serve at dinner.  It was a pretty good breakfast, although the orange juice was pretty watery.  I think that it just wasn't stirred enough before they poured it, as it was fine for all the other breakfasts I ate on the ship.  Obviously the highlight isn't the food, it's the characters.  The kids loved seeing Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Pluto, and the waiters made funny hats for everyone out of napkins. It's definitely a "don't miss" event.
The kids wearing their napkin-hats with Minnie Mouse.
On shore-days we ate fast breakfasts.  I usually had a banana and a strawberry smoothie at Goofy's Galley, a pool-side snack stand.  Top-siders and Parrot Cay also had buffet breakfasts (Parrot Cay was only open for breakfast on shore-days), but I chose to avoid them rather than wait for a chef to go through it with me. On at-sea days, we ate at the more formal restaurants, since we had plenty of time.  Lumiere's is the only "a la carte" option for breakfast, unless you have a reservation at the adults-only restaurant Palo's.  In the mornings it was quiet and we were finally able to enjoy it's lovely ambiance.  (At dinner it was terribly noisy and crowded.)  The menu had a lovely french toast dish that made me wish I could eat gluten, so I asked the chef if he could make it for me with GF waffles, which they did.  Between the waffles was grilled pineapple and it was topped with a maple-glazed fruit salad.  Yum!  They were the kind of waffles you buy in the freezer section, so I'm sure it would have been much better with french toast, but at least I had a semblance of the real thing.
Gluten free waffles with pineapple and strawberry coulis

We also had a brunch at Palo's, the adults-only restaurant.  This was the best meal of the entire trip!  Palo's did a fantastic job of making sure I had plenty of GF food to eat.  The chef came out to talk to me and we started with buffet appetizers, which featured a number of GF offerings, including fancy cheeses, shrimp, crab claws, humus, grilled tomatoes, asparagus, and hard boiled eggs.  Delicious!  There were also lots of olives and pickled vegetables. The only pickled item I tried was the pickled artichoke hearts, which were excellent despite the fact that I usually avoid things that are pickled.  (This is dietary finickiness on my part, not gluten-avoidance.)
Seafood buffet and olive bar at Palo's
We then moved on to the main course, which was made to order.  The chef made me Eggs Florentine with Udi's toast, which was cut into a pretty little circle to mimic the more traditional English Muffin.  Hooray for Udi's!  It was topped with sauteed spinach, poached egg, and a white sauce specially prepared for me with corn starch instead of flour.  He even brought me a side order of Udi's toast.  He mentioned that they can also do their breakfast pizzas with a GF crust, but he didn't recommend it as the crusts simply aren't very good.  I appreciate honesty like that.
Eggs Florentine at Palo's

There was an amazing dessert buffet with several choices available for me.  I chose a panna cotta with mango (very good), white-chocolate dipped strawberries (who can resit that?), and a chocolate pots de creme (not particularly good).
Desserts at Palo's

Palo's is an "upcharge" restaurant.  Unlike the other restaurants on the ship, you pay a fee for eating there.  Brunch was $20 per person, and the price included one mimosa (champagne and orange juice).

We ate one additional meal at Palo -- afternoon tea.  Unfortunately it was not as big a success.  It was probably not the wisest action to even attempt something like afternoon tea, which is usually a gluten-fest; but I was over-confident after the fabulous brunch they served me.  The big problem came down to the fact that there are no chefs on duty during afternoon tea.  They prepare the meals ahead of time, and the waiters just serve them.  There is no one available to make special requests to.
Tea sandwiches at Palo's

They knew in advance that I was coming, and the chef did prepare some sandwiches for me.  They were not on Udi's bread, but on two different breads -- a white bread that I didn't recognize and a brown bread that I think was Food For Life brand brown rice bread.  It was untoasted, and as we are all aware, unless it's Udi's, gluten free bread pretty much has to be toasted to be edible.  I ended up eating the fillings out of the bread with a fork.  Still, the meal could have been salvaged at that point.  I can forgive yucky GF bread.  Most GF bread is yucky.  But at that point the waiter told me that he had nothing for me AT ALL for the other two courses.  I protested.  The second course was supposed to be scones with jam and clotted cream.  Now I never expected GF scones, but they served me those darn tapioca rolls at every single meal and I'd had Udi's toast at Palo's the previous day.  I asked him to find me rolls or toast to eat my jam and cream with.  He reluctantly agreed and finally came out with a GF roll (not properly warmed up, it was frozen on one side and warm on the other), but at least he figured something out.

He didn't intend to give me any dessert either.  The dessert plate he brought my husband had the white-chocolate covered strawberries I ate the day before, but he didn't have any extra for me.  Luckily, he was willing to share.  I'm fairly certain the triffle was also GF (though I wasn't going to risk it) as it was just strawberry compote, custard, and whipped cream.  It didn't seem to have any cake or ladyfingers in it.  If so, why didn't the chef put one aside for me?  He finally went and scrounged up a lemon sorbet from the freezer.

I felt bad for the guy.  He obviously wasn't supposed to have to do anything but bring the pre-set dishes out, and there was no one for him to turn to.  There apparently no chefs, managers, or anything in the restaurant.  So the guilt falls on the chefs who failed to prepare something for him to serve.

As I said before, afternoon tea is a hard thing to do gluten-free, but they had things on hand that they could easily have substituted, so they really should have been able to do better.

For the record, the afternoon tea is also and "up-charge" meal.  It's ten dollars a person, well worth it if you aren't gluten free, but I think this one is best avoided by celiacs.

Skip afternoon tea, but definitely try the brunch.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Gluten Free on the Disney Cruise Line

The ship: The Disney Magic
The itinerary: Eastern Caribbean (St. Thomas and St. Maarten)

It would take me too long to describe all the wonderful experiences we had on this cruise, so I'll confine myself to describing the food.  

Disney has a "rotational dining" system.  You have an assigned dinner time (5:45 or 8:15) in one of their three restaurants, rotating through them so that you eat in each one twice.  Your servers and table number stay the same no matter which restaurant you are in.  So, for example, you eat in Lumiere's on Monday at table 20 with Constantine the waiter.  On Tuesday, you eat at Animator's Palate at table 20 with Constantine the waiter.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  

This should be a great thing for a celiac, since you don't have to explain your dietary needs over and over again with each new waiter.  However, my particular servers had very limited English and no understanding of what was in the food whatsoever.  And I was stuck with them for the duration.  Sigh.  To be fair, they were very nice and would have been great waiters had I not had special requirement.

The first night on board, we were assigned to Animator's Palate, which was exciting for me, as that was the restaurant I was most anxious to try.  Animator's Palate is not just a restaurant.  It's part show as well.  The paintings on the walls start out black and white and, one by one, they turn color.  At the end of the evening, Mickey comes out and does a little dance, and the waiters -- who were also in black and white -- are now sporting colors as well.  It was a fun show, and I imagine it was more impressive when the Magic was a new ship in 1998.  It still holds up well.

The first night on board, the chefs hadn't had time to prepare anything special for me, so the waiters were instructed that whatever I ordered, it would come without a sauce.  So I had Naked Chicken.  They did, however, have GF rolls (the same kind they have in Disney World restaurants).  For dessert, I ordered off the kids menu -- chocolate pudding.  There was a reason it was on the kids menu, not the adult menu.  It had a layer of pudding topped with a layer of Hershey's syrup, topped with sprinkles.  A little sweet for my taste, but sure to please a kid.

At the end of the meal, one of the waiters brought me the menu for the following night and told me to pick what I wanted and the chef would make it GF for me.  
Lamb with scalloped potatoes

So, the next night was Parrot Cay, a Caribbean-themed restaurant.  It happened to be formal night, and we were all dressed to the nines, and contrast of the wild tropical decor and the tuxes was kind of funny.  The lamb, which I chose the night before, was fantastic.  It was served with a scalloped potato dish and had a nice sauce.  Yea!

The third night was dinner at Lumiere's (named after the Candlestick in Beauty and the Beast), which is their French(ish) restaurant.  My dinner (chosen the night before) started with a really nice avocado and orange salad (mine was missing the avocados and had to be sent back, but we got it all straightened out).  I had lamb again, since it was such a success the previous night, and this time it was served on a bed of polenta.  I was happy with my food, and my husband felt Lumiere's had the best food on the ship.  However, it was really really loud in there and we were seated right next to the waiter's station, so there was lots of hustle and bustle.  I was feeling overwhelmed, so we left, forgetting to order my meal for the next day.  Oh, no!
Lamb on a bed of polenta

It turned out not to be a big problem.  I simply had to go back to the "no sauce" policy.  I had prime rib (naked, of course), but it did have a grilled tomato and some little sweet potato croquettes, which was nifty and different.  At this point, we had begun our second time through the rotation.  Animator's Palate only does the whole show (with Mickey) on your first time through the restaurant.  This time, colors came and went, but there was no show.  The kids still thought it was fantastic and would yell out --"look, now Ariel's lit up!" and so on.  
Prime rib with grilled tomato and sweet potato croquettes

The second time through Parrot Cay, I was a little sea-sick, which is a shame  because the Caribbean chicken I ordered was fantastic.  I worried that it would be too spicy, but not to worry.  It was flavorful, but not hot.  Sometimes I forget that when I'm not in Texas, spicy doesn't mean "burn your tastebuds off."  I can take a fair bit of heat, but Texans begin having jalapeno-eating contests when they are toddlers.  But I digress....
"Chef's Surprise" Desert at Lumiere's

The second time through Lumiere's was just as noisy.  That night was the "semi-formal night" and we were dressed up again.  The ambiance at Lumiere's seems more appropriate to formal attire, so that was nice.  I had a fresh fruit cocktail and an asparagus risotto.  I normally love risotto, but this one was made with a really strong cheese and was a little under-cooked.  It was the only thing I ordered on the ship that was a total flop.  Since I wasn't eating my dinner, I decided to get dessert.  I had been avoiding the dessert out of a desperate desire not to gain too much weight during this vacation, but it was time to splurge.  I was told that I couldn't have any of the desserts on the menu, but that the chef would make me something "special."  The dessert was a mocha mousse cake and it was tasty, but I don't really like the idea of not knowing what I am getting until the waiter puts in down in front on me.  Part of my "control-freak" nature, I suppose.

Chicken Satay

The last night of the cruise, we were back at Animator's Palate for the final meal.  The menu was appropriately titled the "Until We Meet Again" diner.  I had ordered chicken satay, mostly to see what they would do, and I was impressed with how good they were.  They were pan-fried in olive oil with some spices and served with a mint/yogurt dipping sauce.  I also had a potato leek soup, but it was a bit watery.  For my main course, I had steak. Thus concludes the seven night dining adventure on the Magic.  "But wait," you say.  "You only covered dinners in the main dining rooms and not the other meals."  True -- but that is a post for another day.


Gluten Free at Universal Studios Orlando


My kids were dying to go to Universal Studios in Orlando to see the Harry Potter attractions there.  We had to be at our cruise ship by 2:00, so we needed to use our time as efficiently as possible.  Guests who stay in the Universal hotels get early admission to Harry Potter -- one hour before they let the masses in.  As I type this, the current wait at the main attraction (Forbidden Journey) is one hour.  (I love this Facebook app that tells you the wait times at Disney and Universal.  So cool.)  Frequently it is even longer, and we were short on time, so we stayed at Lowe's Royal Pacific, one of the three Universal hotels.  According to online reviews, they have gluten free options at the hotel restaurant, but we opted for room service, which we ordered the night before.  To avoid any hassles, I didn't even mention gluten-free.  I just ordered fruit and tea.  Unfortunately, mine was the best meal.  Mark and the kids pronounced the omelets inedible.  So avoid room service and eat in the Islands Restaurant.

So we were off to Harry Potter Land, arriving about 15 minutes before they opened the gates for early admission.  The kids were geared up in the Hogwarts robes -- Caroline was a Gryffindor and Colin was a Ravenclaw.  (By the way, Hogwarts robes are acceptable attire, but they discourage elaborate costumes -- anything that might cause you to be mistaken for a Universal Studios employee.)

The attraction is amazing.  Just blows you away.  The kids were awestruck.  We rode the Forbidden Journey ride with NO WAIT!  Then the kids and Mark went back a second time and rode it again.  By this time there was a 10 minute wait.  While they rode, I went into the gift shop and bought the photo.  Whoever thought up this idea of taking pictures of people on a ride and then selling it to them as a souvenir was an absolute genius.  We didn't even look very good in the photo and we bought it anyway.  It's like free money for Universal Studios.  Genius.

The biggest highlight of the trip was that my daughter was selected from the audience at the Ollivander's Wand Shop show.  She got to come up to the front and try out wands until one "chose her."  (The wand chooses the wizard in the Harry Potter world, not the other way around.)  Then we had to buy the stupid wand.  They really have amazing talent for separating you from your money.  There was no way both kids were not going home with a wand after that!
Three Broomsticks pub in Hogsmeade

When we were done with all of the attractions, we headed over to the Three Broomsticks for some Butterbeer, a cream-soda-ish concoction from the HP books.  Universal Studios advises that the Butterbeer itself is gluten free, but there is strong possibility for cross contamination.  Well, it's not like I'm going to make a regular practice of slurping down Butterbeer, so I went ahead and took the risk.  (Sorry Mom.)  It's BUTTERBEER, for goodness sake!  So worth it!  They serve it either cold or frozen (like a Slurpee) and I preferred it frozen.  For the record, I did not get sick (but we all know that "not sick" does not necessarily mean "not glutened" -- so drink at your own risk.)

The crowds were so light that we were finished with all the attractions before noon and even rode a couple other non-HP rides (a Jurassic Park raft ride and a Rocky and Bullwinkle themed flume ride).  We ate lunch at Mythos in the park.  Mythos has won awards for "Best Theme Park Restaurant," a difficult feat for anyone who is not Disney.  Their website describes the cavernous interier as looking "as if it’s been carved from the rock by the very gods whose images are etched into the walls."  It really does, too!  It's like eating a cave, but a really clean cave with adequate lighting.
Mythos Restaurant at Islands of Adventure theme park

I am so glad we took the time to eat in a sit-down restaurant.  It was fantastic!  They had a gluten-free menu and the waitress was very knowledgeable.  I ordered the "Risotto of the Day" which was mushroom risotto topped with shrimp.  I am not a huge shrimp fan, and I asked if they could leave off the shrimp.  The waitress suggested that I substitute chicken instead.  Yea!  I was so happy.  It was absolutely delicious and I ate every bite.