Recently, California Grill at the Contemporary Resort added “Brunch at the Top” to the restaurant’s signature dining slate, offered every Sunday from 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM. I booked a Dining Reservation for this meal on a whim one recent weekend to see if it was really worth the $80 price ($48 for kids ages 3-11, Tables in Wonderland discount accepted).
Right off the bat, there was an upscale note to the experience — when I mentioned my brunch reservation to the security guard at the resort’s gate, he told me that my meal included complimentary valet service (not something I’d normally use, but if you’re going for a fancy meal and it’s included, why not go all the way?). A valet escorted me to the check-in area just outside the main entrance of the resort, where a California Grill Cast Member cheerfully checked me in, took my phone number to notify me when my table was available, and led me to the escalators just inside the main entrance. As soon as I stepped off the escalator, I was greeted by both a text message that my table was ready and another Cast Member from California Grill, who whisked me off to the restaurant’s private elevator.
I was welcomed by name once I stepped inside the restaurant, handed a beautiful cocktail, and immediately shown to my table. As we walked to my table, we passed a live band playing smooth jazz (in what’s usually the restaurant’s lounge area during dinner) and the appetizer buffet (set atop the restaurant’s bar and sushi counter). The entire restaurant glowed with early-afternoon sunlight, bright and welcoming – a different sight than the one you get with a late-night dinner and fireworks viewing here. Start to finish, my arrival experience was probably the smoothest and fastest I’ve encountered at any Walt Disney World restaurant, save maybe Victoria & Albert’s, but it’s certainly close; this definitely impressed me already, even before I’d had a bite of food.
I hadn’t done a ton of research about the brunch menu prior to my arrival, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the meal includes a pastry board to start, unlimited access to an appetizer buffet, choice of one entrée, and a dessert tray. Unlike a few specialty meals at Walt Disney World I’ve had, I wasn’t going to end up munching on a Mickey premium bar three hours later to curtail my hunger while thinking about the $80 I’d already spent on a meal. My server delivered the pastry board within just a few minutes and explained that I should just let him know about 15 minutes before I wanted my entrée, to give me time to enjoy the appetizer buffet fully. This was a nice touch, making me feel a lot less rushed than I’d anticipated in a place sometimes more interested in serving more tables than serving them well.
I took a few minutes to enjoy the pastry board with my complimentary signature brunch cocktail, a bright Bellini-esque drink made with wine and fruit juices. The pastry board had four different items on it: a caramel-apple-walnut monkey bread, a Tillamook cheddar biscuit, a cranberry scone, and a mini-loaf of olive brioche. It’s a pretty smart decision to have two sweet and two savory pastries, with accompanying strawberry jam and orange blossom honey butter on the side – pretty much everyone at the table will find something they like. The biscuit and brioche were both buttery and soft, with subtle flavors (the olive brioche probably won’t scare you off if you normally dislike them – it mostly just adds a salty flavor and a bit of texture to the bread). The cranberry scone wasn’t too dense, fluffy and full of cranberries, both tart and sweet. The real winner, though, was the monkey bread – an absolutely divine cross between a cinnamon roll and an apple fritter, topped with caramel and walnuts. Even though I was intent on not filling up with bread, I ate the entire piece and then took another one home with me. I should note that I was given one piece of each kind of bread, as I was a smaller party; many of the larger parties around me received a board with multiples of each pastry, and servers were more than willing to refill any particular kind of bread upon request.
Though you’re given a drink upon arrival, both the menu and your server will remind you that several other alcoholic (and non-alcoholic) options are available for an additional cost. Probably the most lavish of them all is on display at the front-end of the buffet, the Bloody Mary Bar. It’s a pretty simple set-up – pick your vodka (top-shelf Belvedere is more expensive than Absolut Pepper); then pick up to five garnishes; the bartender will make your drink to order and your server automatically adds it to your check. Garnish options include olives, pickles, peppers, shrimp, celery, garlic, carrots, cheese – your typical upscale Bloody Mary condiments.
For those sticking to the sweeter end of the cocktail menu, you’ll find other brunch staples like a gin & tonic sweetened with elderflower liqueur; the mimosa-like Bittersweet Harvest made with Riesling, orange juice, and bitters; and the double apple mule. I’m a big fan of the mule drinks Disney has started serving in recent years, so I took a chance and tried this one – it was sweeter and more cinnamon/ginger-packed than most mules, with way less sour mix than you’d expect. The apple whisky and brandy are like drinking pure green apple juice and pack a slight punch, but the drink as a whole is definitely not on the strong end – perfect for the brunch crowd and to enjoy while grazing the appetizer buffet.
The buffet itself is slightly daunting, especially when you remember an entrée and dessert are still on the way. I decided to sample a few of the more unique items that I hadn’t seen before at other breakfast offerings around Walt Disney World. First up was the charcuterie station, packed with five different kinds of meat, two kinds of mustard, local Zellwood pickles, peppers, and onion jam, along with crackers and breadsticks. The beef sausage was a better version of the summer sausage stick your family from upstate always sends for Christmas; smoky and salty, perfect with the acidity of the pickled peppers. The bison and sweetbread terrine was my favorite – perfectly dense so it doesn’t fall apart when you eat it, not too fatty, and great with a dollop of whole-grain mustard and some of the sweet onion jam. Pork rillettes (just a fancier way of saying pâté), orange honey ham, and porchetta round out the charcuterie table. I loved the terrine and orange honey ham, and the accompaniments were great for cutting the fattiness and saltiness inherent in a giant plate of meat, but I was a little sad there were no cheeses on the table, as you’d commonly see with a charcuterie plate ordered at California Grill dinner or elsewhere.
Turning the corner on the buffet, you reach the salad corner – deviled eggs with spicy aioli and crispy bacon; fregola pasta salad with sautéed veggies and lemon vinaigrette; baby iceberg salad with tomatoes, bacon, and avocado-buttermilk ranch dressing; and kale salad with apples, craisins, quinoa, almonds, and apple vinaigrette. The deviled eggs were incredibly creamy and “Disney-spicy” (AKA not at all spicy), but the kale salad was as exciting as it sounds – veggies and fruit disguised as decadent by adding a bit of goat cheese. I’m not a kale fan, and the dressing combined with the apples here was a little too mushy, but this is a protein-packed option for vegetarians.
My two favorites here were the fregola salad – a bright pasta dish packed with zucchini, tomatoes, onions, peppery arugula, and hearts of palm (though none were “crispy” as the menu indicates, it was still great), and the iceberg salad – the steakhouse classic with a wedge of lettuce skewered by a toothpick full of herb-marinated cherry tomatoes and drizzled in a creamy ranch dressing, with blue cheese crumbles and a slice of bacon added on for good measure.
The next stretch of the buffet features one of California Grill’s specialties – sushi. Here you can sample their spicy tuna roll; California roll; shrimp tempura roll with mango and orange (toppings were a bit sweet for me, which overpowered the natural sweetness of the shrimp); and various nigiri selections. Soy, wasabi, and ginger settings are located on the end of this section of the buffet – I missed them my first time around, but my server was kind enough to bring one over. Sushi here is great quality, as always, and not a typical brunch offering, but with most cities around the country seeing an influx of high-quality sushi restaurants, it was easy enough to pass by most of the bar in favor of some of my earlier-mentioned favorites. Rounding out the end of the buffet was the greek yogurt/fresh fruit/granola bar common nearly everywhere now for breakfast, and a bagel bar with smoked salmon, capers, egg, onion, and greek yogurt toppings, much like what is also served downstairs at The Wave during breakfast. Overall, I was impressed with the variety of options on the buffet – for picky and adventurous eaters alike, there’s something that would serve as a great savory appetizer prior to your entrée. I noticed some parties seemed to only grab one or two items off the buffet; others, like me, sampled a bit of everything while waiting for entrees.
A few minutes after I’d let my server know I was ready, my entrée arrived. I’d struggled a bit over what to get – with lobster eggs benedict and steak and eggs on the menu, it’s hard to say no – but ultimately decided on the chef’s frittata, packed with heirloom tomatoes, roasted poblano peppers, chorizo, and goat cheese, served with a side of sautéed marble potatoes. The frittata was served in a shiny six-inch round dish, a thin layer of just-cooked creamy eggs, and definitely delivered some continuous heat from the poblanos. It wasn’t overly spicy – I could still taste the sweet tomatoes and the pockets of salty goat cheese, but if you don’t like even slightly spicy things, I’d avoid. The marble potatoes were slightly crispy on the outside, fluffy inside, and served as a suitable neutral-flavored side dish to help round out the meal. All in all, my entree was a rich dish that fit the bill – brunch-appropriate, decadent enough to feel special but not overly-complicated, and most importantly, just plain delicious. It wasn’t a huge portion, but it didn’t need to be because of the appetizer buffet and bread board. The menu also offers house-made sausage patties, bacon, and marble potatoes as additional sides upon request at no charge, if you’re at all concerned about not having enough food.
A few minutes after my entrée plates were cleared, my server brought over a pedestal covered in colorful desserts. There was no real clue on the menu as to what the dessert offering would be, so I’d expected a single cookie served on a tiny plate. This was overwhelming, but looked too good to pass up. The plate included a strawberry jam linzer cookie, a lemon madeleine, a mint chocolate truffle, chocolate toffee brittle, and a caramel-filled macaron. I’d already been impressed with my food prior to this course, but the dessert put it over the top. The madeleine was a soft cake with a bright lemon flavor; the salted caramel of the macaron perfectly offset any overwhelming sweetness from the meringue; and the mint chocolate truffle was like eating the best, least synthetic Andes after-dinner mint you’ve ever had. All five offerings were divine – a suitable close to an excellent meal.
There weren’t a ton of kids around the restaurant at any point when I was there (probably due to the $48 price tag and the food options on hand), so for those looking for a celebratory or romantic meal, this is a great alternative to fighting for a dinner ADR 180 days out, with the same quality food at a comparable price. I’ll be honest – given the price tag, I was reluctant to think this meal would impress in both value and quality, but it did, and then some. From the impeccable service beginning before I even arrived at the restaurant, to the high quality and variety of food, and the incomparable location (even during daytime hours, that view is spectacular), “Brunch At The Top” takes advantage of California Grill’s strengths and exceeds even the loftiest of expectations.