If you’ve been to Disney Springs in recent months, you’ve probably noticed the large-scale renovations going on with the classic Empress Lilly stationary steamship, formerly home to Fulton’s Crab House. The seafood eatery closed this past April to make way for an updated restaurant. This month, though, we finally get to enjoy this new restaurant in a familiar home, now called Paddlefish. With an updated menu and all-new décor inside and out, I was pretty excited to give Paddlefish a try and see how it compares in the now highly competitive Disney Springs dining arena.
Reservations are now open for booking for meals starting February 20th; in the meantime, the restaurant is working on a solely walk-up only basis. I was able to snag a table right away midweek for an early dinner, ready to sample from the extensive dinner menu. Be warned: lunch and dinner are not the same menus here (as is common at many Disney Springs restaurants like neighboring Boathouse, Homecoming, and Frontera Cocina), and they even have a special Sunday brunch menu, so check out TouringPlans’ menu pages to see which meal fits your budget and appetite the best. Disney Dining Plan is accepted here, as well as Tables in Wonderland, Annual Passholder, and DVC Member discounts.
The exterior of the ship, if I’m honest, has lost some of its character. Everything about Paddlefish screams modern, which fits the menu, to be sure, but the modern and sleek color palette and finishes reminded me more of the Contemporary’s lobby or convention center, not of a seafood restaurant on the water. Nevertheless, it offers great views of the new Disney Springs skyline from the upper decks, and indoor seating overlooks the water or the exterior paddlewheel, a beautiful sight indeed. On “nice” weather days, outdoor seating is available on the first and third decks, as well.
At first glance, the dinner menu doesn’t have a ton of vegetarian options, but it definitely impresses on the seafood end, featuring multiple varieties of dish and several preparations of most popular seafood selections, like lobster, clams, and shrimp. There’s also a pretty extensive “land” section for those who prefer their animals walk rather than swim to their table. A strong wine program and cocktail list round out the menu options, though I definitely balked at the prices of some of the cocktails at first ($20 is a lot, even for Disney pricing!).
In the interest of science, though, I had to try two of their most recommended cocktails to see how they compare to the rest of Disney Springs’ strong drink offerings. First up: the Backyard Fizz, a gin-based cocktail with cucumber and aloe liqueur. Homecoming and Boathouse both offer drinks in a similar vein, with mild gin and sweet, refreshing cucumber flavors at their core, but this amps it up a bit with the earthy and slightly astringent zip from the aloe (yes, the plant!) liqueur. I’m not sure the drink had $16 worth of alcohol to make it a good buy (and this is one of the cheaper drinks on the menu), but it was light and perfect for a warm day out on the deck.
Later on in our meal, I sampled the Gold Rush (priced at a hefty $20), served tableside with whiskey, ginger beer, and fresh lime. Again, this was not a huge pour of whiskey, but the tableside mixing presentation into a copper cup is flashy and will appease many diners looking for a little show with their meal. The fresh lime squeezed in before garnishing is a nice touch (and far preferable to bottled sour mix), but it was clear the whiskey had already been pre-mixed with sour or lime juice prior to service in the carafe.
In both cases, then, stronger and better versions of these drinks seem to be available just around any corner in Disney Springs for considerably cheaper price tags. That’s not to say neither drink was enjoyable, but I didn’t find either cocktail mindblowing, particularly for the cost. Casual cocktail sippers probably will enjoy Paddlefish’s drinks, but those looking for a more robust and liquor-forward beverage would do well to save their money and look elsewhere.
I’m happy to say, though, that aside from the drinks, I found the rest of the meal to be, in short, pretty great, especially for a newly reopened restaurant. Our server, Jeremy, was fantastic – he was very comfortable with the menu and its ingredients, and super enthusiastic about all of the dishes he’d personally tried. Even as his first table at the newly reopened restaurant, he took great care of us and definitely steered me in the right direction selecting dishes that really helped the restaurant shine.
The kitchen was working at perfect speed for us, as well. We did arrive before peak dinner rush, but even with tons of food coming to our table and neighboring tables, there was never a significant gap between courses (and we never had more than one course on the table at once, a big dining pet peeve of mine). As with any new restaurant, though, take caution with when you arrive and have a bit of patience for the next few weeks as they start to settle in.
Every meal at Paddlefish starts off with the house bread and cinnamon butter. The bread was nothing over the top – just simple rolls served at room temperature – but the cinnamon butter was a little different spin than most restaurants have. Given the seafood-centric menu, a sweeter twist on the bread seemed apt, and overall, it serves its purpose.
We started our meal off with several appetizers, sampling a bit from both the land and sea. Paddlefish’s social media accounts have really been pushing their “Bacon and Eggs” appetizer ($12), featuring a slice of braised pork belly and a panko-crusted 5-minute egg. This dish was, to be honest, a bit forgettable. The egg was perfectly breaded and fried, crispy and nicely seasoned, but the yoke was a tad overdone and not very runny, as a result. The pork belly was a tad tough, though the savory sweetness of the pork really worked well with the egg. Overall, the whole dish needed a dash of salt or a splash of acid to brighten the murky flavors of the pan sauce and the pork’s glaze, but it definitely had the makings of a great dish.
Closer to the “upscale bar food” end of the menu, the crab fries ($13) with hand cut potatoes, lump blue crab, and Louie dressing (a Thousand Island-like concoction), really knocked it out of the park. The crispy-outside-and-fluffy-inside French fries were absolutely addictive, cooked long enough to really caramelize the potatoes and gain a deep, rich flavor. The blue crab had a mild flavor but was plentiful on top of the enormous plate of fries, making this a very shareable dish for a family of 4 or more.
Our server had recommended the ahi poke ($16) by saying that it’s one of the dishes he’s tried that he craves all the time now, and after tasting it, I could definitely see why. The sweet black soy and citrus-y yuzu flavors of the dressing on the tuna helped elevate the rich and luscious flavor of the fish and diced avocado, and a punch from the Asian pickle and jalapeno on top of the dish balanced out all the sweetness. I nearly ate the whole portion myself (reluctantly sharing with fellow diners), but I really would’ve loved a cracker or some paired crunchy bite with it for some textural contrast.
It’s a tie between the ahi and our next appetizer as to which one I loved the most – the Maine mussels ($15) with yellow curry, cilantro and grilled breads was another definite hit. The yellow curry sauce was addictively rich and earthy, not at all a spicy-curry (if that’s your fear), with tanginess and sweet flavors helping compliment the mussels, which themselves were super tender, not tough or overcooked. These were the most perfectly cooked mussels I’ve had at Walt Disney World of late, a feat on its own, but then adding a unique and really tasty sauce on top of the dish really made it stand out. The grilled bread served on the side needed a bit more time on the grill, as it was sort of an afterthought, but I could’ve used anything to soak up that sauce with and it wouldn’t have mattered.
The only lackluster entrée we encountered was the Kurobuta Pork 2 Ways ($35), a 48-hour brined pork chop served with crispy pork belly, blistered green beans, and applesauce. The chef recommended medium on the pork (which was fine with me), but it arrived a little closer to medium well to well done. It was pretty tough to cut, and though not necessarily dry, it could’ve used a pan sauce to help balance out the dish. The green beans weren’t particularly special (I did not notice any “blistering”, just simple roasting), and the pork belly was tough and not as flavorful as the chop. The true star of the dish, oddly enough, was the chunky applesauce – sweet without being cloyingly so, well-textured, and great with everything on the plate.
Though we were dining for dinner, I thought it would be nice to sample another favorite of the land side of the menu, sure to be popular, the house burger ($19). Seared crusty on the outside, this 9oz custom blended patty arrived at the table a picture perfect medium on the inside, incredibly juicy and dripping with flavor. The house-made sweet and sour pickles crunched along with the crisp red onion on top, giving way to the sweet, red peppery pimento cheese underneath. On the side, we got another serving of the best fries in all of Disney Springs (same as the base fries from the Crab Fries appetizer). This was a really good burger and fries, and worth the $19 – a great option for those looking for a cheaper, full meal at dinner (and definitely a great option if you drop in for lunch).
Another recommendation of our server, the lobster risotto ($36) featured a vibrant saffron yellow risotto dotted with diced lobster, topped with poached tail and claw pieces, finished with a Meyer lemon oil. The lobster on top was a little tough for my taste, though my dining companion had no complaints, and the flavor was spot-on – sweet and succulent, perfectly paired with the tangy but sweet meyer lemon flavors. The risotto was equally flavorful, savory and rich, but I craved a bit of textural contrast and some herbs – fresh vegetables or a few sprigs of herbs would’ve really brought the dish to the next level.
The best entrée by far, though, was the fish and chips ($33). Like with the cocktails, I balked at the price here for a dish you can find so many places (who doesn’t crave Rose & Crown fish and chips from time to time?), but after my first bite, I had no regrets ordering this dish at all. The hearty Atlantic halibut was enveloped in a complimentary crispy (and not at all greasy) salt-and-pepper seasoned batter – bold enough of a flavor to stand out but not overwhelm the fish. The fish didn’t really need any additional flavor at all, standing well on its own, but the tangy tart malt vinegar aioli (a fun take on tartar sauce) was a perfect accompaniment for both the fish and the sweet potato fries. My only minor gripe was that the sweet potato fries seemed relatively normal compared to the amazing fries we’d already had, and could’ve used a bit longer in the fryer to get a little crispier, but overall, the dish really worked.
Upscale eateries sometimes tend to overwork desserts – often times simpler fare is really all that’s necessary. After my first bite of our first dessert, the chocolate bourbon pecan tart ($10), I was worried Paddlefish had gone too far. A gratuitous amount of whipped cream hides a skillet chocolate cookie-like tart dotted with pecans, topped off with a piece of candied bacon. The filling of the tart was a bit too gummy for me, and while the classic Southern flavors worked together, I prefer the chocolate pecan pie at Homecoming to this.
Much better, though, was the charred carrot cake ($10), an upscale take on a classic. Caramelized carrots gave the cake a deeper flavor than your grandma’s carrot cake, and the texture was far less gummy and cloyingly sweet and sticky than what you may fear. The cream cheese frosting was a tad on the sweet side for me, but overall, this was a successful dessert for anyone craving a nice piece of cake.
Best of all was the key lime pie ($9) – perfectly bruleed meringue smothers the entire slice of pie, rendering a beautiful sight in addition to a tasty bite. Tart lime flavor burst through every bite I took, with a thick graham cracker crust grounding the slice away from the too-sweet-or-tart realm. This dessert was definitely rich, and perfect to share at the end of a great meal at Paddlefish.
If you love seafood, this is a better stop than neighboring Boathouse, full-stop (or most other seafood-oriented restaurants at Walt Disney World). The few issues in execution I encountered in my meal really lay with the land-based options, so for those, I would look elsewhere for the time being. Standout dishes like the Maine mussels, ahi tuna poke, fish and chips, and key lime pie prove this restaurant is capable of great things, and for those dishes alone, I’m looking forward to all of my future visits to Paddlefish. Even in the highly competitive dining landscape of Disney Springs, the restaurant stands out for its high-quality ingredients and preparations, and is definitely worth a stop on your next visit to Walt Disney World.