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Review Posted on Monday, April 11, 2016
Epcot's Coral Reef Restaurant is one of those locations that seems to collect rather divisive reviews. Most guests seem to be okay with the restaurant, but those guests that don't like it… REALLY don't like it. From my standpoint, the knowledge you take into this popular seafood "themed" restaurant, is a really important factor.
Located next to, (and slightly inside) the Living Seas attraction at Epcot, the Coral Reef usually offers an all-day menu… so there's virtually no difference between the lunch and dinner menus. I think a few guests look at the prices, and assume the experience is going to be on-par with some of the best, high-end seafood restaurants that they've ever been too. That… is probably not going to be true.
While all the entrees are quite good, I would not place the Coral Reef on the higher end of the seafood culinary food chain (slight pun intended). If you go in thinking more along the lines of "a casual seafood chain/franchise that we go to occasionally"… then you'll be a lot closer to the reality of what the Coral Reef has to offer.
Not to dive too deep into editorial (more bad puns)... it's not "wrong" positioning really… being inside a theme park, the menu has to be accessible to all guests, and not just those that would appreciate high-end seafood. Conflicting with the need to have a million different things on the menu… is the simple fact that the master bathroom in your house is probably larger than the entire kitchen at the Coral Reef. Yep, it's that small.
It's amazing to me that they manage to get nine different entrees out of the kitchen, four of which, are not seafood at all (pork, steak, chicken, and a vegetarian "Chick'n Breast" dish, which is the topic of a whole different article). Of the remaining five dishes, three are either all shrimp or are a "shrimp plus fish" combos, and the other two entrees are fresh-water fish offerings.
Before I get into what I ate on my latest visit, the environment is worth mentioning. There's no missing the fact that one side of the restaurant is a giant fish tank. It really is "the" feature attraction at the Coral Reef, and it's not something you're going to find just anywhere. (Okay, you'll also find something very similar at a restaurant named "Sharks" at nearby SeaWorld, but I digress). You may find yourself drifting away from any conversation at your table and staring off into the deep blue sea, where all manner of fish, turtles, sting rays, and sharks swim by. There's even a printed card at your table with drawings and names of all the fish you might find in the tank… (which is a great way to keep little ones occupied I might add).
If you're lucky, you might even catch a human diver in the tank, hand feeding the fish! Years ago… there was a "Diving Mickey", but I choose to believe that seeing a swimming mouse was too much for the fish to handle, and the practice of diving characters was ended.
While all of this might seem "romantic", it's not a place I would recommend for a quiet-date-night kind of dinner. The Coral Reef is always chocked full-o-people, and is almost never "quiet". I've also witnessed some "experienced" park-goers requesting seating right by the tank windows so they can get the best view. While it is very cool sitting right by the tank, it comes with a price… and that price is a never ending flock of small children wanting to squeeze themselves between the four inches of air that exists between the glass and your chair. I'm just warning you ahead of time.
Onto the food at my most recent visit… most meals begin with bread and butter which is sprinkled with a dash of black sea salt. You'll find these same dinner rolls at a few different Disney-system restaurants, but that's fine… because they are good rolls. The dash of black sea salt is fun, but there could be just a bit more of it sprinkled on there. You may not be offered another basket of these rolls, unless you ask for them. As far as I know... they are complimentary though, and they're usually so good, I can't stop at just one!
Up next, the Charbroiled Octopus appetizer. There is Calamari on the menu, but this… is not that. The Charbroiled Octopus is an actual complete tentacle that has been broiled and plated so that it looks like it's grabbing onto a mound of Mediterranean Potato Salad. A few micro greens and a grilled lemon round out the dish. For those that have never tried Octopus prepared this way, it has a slightly sweet flavor similar to a scallop, but a texture that's a bit more like… well I hate to say it, but like chicken.
If you're thinking to yourself "but this dish sounds rather high-end", it is probably the most exotic thing you'll find on the appetizer menu at the Coral Reef. From a preparation stamping though… it kind of makes sense. Octopus is one of those things that you have to cook, and then let rest (even overnight in the refrigerator), and then quick chargrill before plating. The woody "char" is the thing that really gives the dish a great smokey flavor, and together with the lemony potato salad, the whole dish tastes as great as it looks. This one gets high-marks from me… so if you like the idea of a smokey scallop but with a bit more of a "fillet" type of texture, give this one a go. Plus you'll have a great "I actually ate this" photo on your phone!
For my entree, I went with a southern favorite, Shrimp and Grits. While being a great dish, the flavors were very, very subtle. A good mix, that let the shrimp be the star of the dish... but some of the spicier things that were listed in the description (like Andouille Sausage and Creole Spice Emulsion), seemed like they were there more for color and not flavor. If you're thinking about this dish but are concerned that it's going to be too "hot" in a spicy sort of way… it's really not that spicy at all.
I'm not as good with shrimp sizing as I should be, but my guess is these were 21/25's and there were five of them on the plate (they probably weigh them, so if smaller or larger shrimp come in that day, you'll get more… or less… depending on the weight). The lemon grass placed on top is not just for color, they're very edible and pack a surprising flavor.
The desserts at Coral Reef unfortunately fall victim to the same mass-produced afterthought concept that most table service theme park desserts fall into these days. I am a little more sympathetic to it at this location, because they're just so short on space back there. All of the desserts are of the pre-made, kept chilled in a cup or glass variety and then get a schmear of fresh color or punchy flavor droplet here and there on the plate.
Again, that doesn't make them "bad" per say, it's just the same thing you'll find at every other in-park restaurant The Baileys and Jack Daniel's Mousse seems to be a popular choice with adults, just don't expect there to be a whole shot of Jack Daniels in there.
The "Turtle Cheesecake" also seems to be a top pick and is said to look like a turtle. The cheesecake is a round, half-scoop dome with brush-strokes of chocolate on the plate to finish out the turtle's appearance. Then they stick a giant glass looking piece of blue sugar art in it's back, representing… well, I don't know what that's supposed to represent. Personally, I'd rather see the little guy swimming in a pool of chocolate sauce, but then you'd have all sorts of environmentalist complaints about oil slicks and such. Oh… you just can't win with food that looks like a cute animal.
To end my dinner, I selected the Vanilla Panna Cotta Tart which was more like a Key Lime pie set in a very tall, thick gram cracker type of shell. Thankfully, it didn't look like a cute animal, and it was very tart and limey. There was a swoosh of raspberry sauce on the plate along with a chocolate swirl on top of the dessert itself. I was happier with this selection than I have been with any of the other desserts at previous Coral Reef meals.
All in all, a great theme-park meal that combines a really unique environment with really good eats. Now… if you're looking for stunning new culinary seafood dishes, or a quiet high-end room where you can have meaningful conversation, this isn't the place. It is a location where everyone in your party should be able to find something on the menu to enjoy, while looking at a really cool giant fish tank.