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The winter squash soup; photography by Christie Hemm

The Magic Circle

by Jamie Gwen | Riviera Orange County magazine | January 29, 2013

It’s magical to think that you can go to a theme park and dine in high style. Magical to think that an Auberge du Soleil veteran chef can create not one award-winning O.C. restaurant, but two. And magical to know that the newest one was designed in four years, built in a year and inspired by a legacy that has lasted more than five decades. Talk about the theater of dining…

And Disney fans—rejoice. We saw Crush the Turtle, a street of Cars and a parade before entering the oasis that is Carthay Circle Restaurant, the latest dining destination at the Disneyland Resort. This one is nestled in the newly renovated California Adventure. After a ride on Soarin’ Over California, you can take a break from the bustle of the crowds and be transported to an earlier time—when lavish carpets were laid and chandeliers hung in a building on Buena Vista Street. The structure is modeled after the original Spanish-revival architecture of the 1920s, and the decor tells a story of Walt Disney’s legacy. His first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, premiered in 1937 at the Carthay Circle Theatre, which showcased other hits before it was demolished in 1969.

Well, it’s back. And this time it houses an establishment with outstanding SoCal cuisine, an atmosphere of culinary passion and the best-trained staff I’ve seen since dining at fellow Disney resto Napa Rose. The acclaimed Andrew Sutton, executive chef at the aforementioned eatery at Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, holds the same title at Carthay. Gloria Tae, Sutton’s protégé at Napa Rose, is its chef de cuisine. The interior is the spitting image of the original theater, with ornate furnishings and a palette of golds and browns to reflect Hollywood’s Golden Age. The two-story architecture boasts a lounge and bar on the first floor. The second level presents a gorgeous dining room, private expanses and patios that are magically delicious. And the food is pretty darn tremendous, too.

The 68-seat bar and wine lounge is reminiscent of the grand palace’s movie days—oh, and to be able to order a drink inside a theme park! Jose Barragan, the GM, highlighted some of the signature features of the cocktail service. The coolest of them is the creation of an ice cube sphere, formed from a contraption that has no power cord but that uses aluminum to conduct heat to create the ice cube. It’s a super-cool magic trick you just have to see. (And after my first Negroni, I was feeling whimsical myself.) Try some appetizers from the lounge menu. Your palate will be teased with multicultural offerings, like the lobster pad Thai imperial rolls served with a cashew-tamarind sauce. They were second in flavor and texture only to the Vietnamese beef tacos with fresh pineapple-mint salsa—bright with a tangy zest, a bit of heat and the finish of perfectly ripe fruit. Sutton knows his stuff, and these flavors jump off the plate like the second drop on Tower of Terror (without the woozy feeling). Order another classic cocktail from the list and make it the Bloody Mary. It’s killer.

Head to the upstairs dining room, and you’ll be greeted by a photo exhibition of Walt Disney and his wife, Lillian, at movie premieres. The sprawling windows create an atmosphere of sophistication, and the centerpiece is the pinnacle of the room—a 6-foot silver urn that holds white wine bottles for by-the-glass service, with a drain built in to trough the water that seeps from the crushed ice. I told you there was magic.

OK, back to the important stuff: the food. Kick back at your table, then immediately tell your server that you must have an order (or eight) of the signature fried biscuits. For now, let me take you there: Fiscalini cheddar cheese, crispy bacon and jalapeño are combined, then wrapped in biscuit dough and fried. These are balls of heavenly goodness, meant to be enrobed in the scrumptious apricot honey butter that is served alongside. I mean, come on, could that be bad? They come seven to an order, and in one month, three dedicated prep people on the Carthay culinary team made 28,000 of them to serve to food fanatics like you and me. Do the math. They’re that good. Then try the halibut ceviche with avocado, tomatillo and cilantro essence. It’s a twist on the traditional, made with a flakier fluke and swimming in a pretty sauce that ignites the flavors when combined with the plantain chips. Yummy. And, oh my, the winter squash soup accented with ginger, lemongrass and coconut could be some of the best you’ve ever had. I have always thought Sutton was a soup master, and here he proves it again.

The wine list is 250 bottles strong and 10 pages long, made up of Old World and New World wines, with an emphasis on California. We sipped a few of the offerings from around the globe. The Rochioli Sauvignon Blanc was an ideal counterpart to all of our starter choices, and the Seghesio 2010 Zinfandel is always a favorite, pairing perfectly with the celestial lamb chop you’ll soon read about.

For entrées, the citrus-seared Pacific wild swordfish can be traced back to the boat. (I like to know where my fish are swimming.) And the bold, Spanish-flavored influence is a nice complement to the meaty fish. Don’t miss the grilled quail with roasted cauliflower, chorizo, hazelnut and mint. It’s served with a roasted garnet yam, and it will have you licking the plate clean. Then there’s the lamb—perfectly tender with char and juiciness, and served with roasted root vegetables. Dessert honors the season, too, with a lemon pound cake that is so texturally dimensional that your eyes might roll back in your head. The honey glaze over the toasted cake is euphoric. The apple cake is lovely, with a crumb topping that’s like sweetness for the soul.

Plan now, as it will take you a couple of weeks to get a dinner reservation. Lunch is a bit easier. You’ll be happy to note that if you dine for lunch or dinner, you will receive complimentary center-stage viewing for the World of Color water show on Paradise Pier Bay.

My culinary opinion of Carthay Circle is that it’s a sanctuary to escape from the busy park and offers food lovers knowledgeable, legendary service with an ever-evolving menu of bold flavors and fine wines, all combined in a modern style. Was it a divine dinner at Carthay Circle, you ask? You can bet on my favorite churro cart it was.

Carthay Circle Restaurant
California Adventure
1313 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim
714.781.3463

Hours: 11am-10pm daily

Appetizers: $10-$16
Entrées: $18-$32
Desserts: $12

Who Goes There
Disniacs, gastronomes, those who want to have good food and fun

You Simply Must Order
In the lounge: the Vietnamese twice-cooked beef tacos with fresh pineapple-mint salsa; in the dining room: the barbacoa-style grilled quail

You Simply Must Beg For
The signature fried biscuits

Insider’s Tip
Order from the lounge menu and tickle your tongue with a variety of small-plate options that offer crazy-good global tastes.

Best Table in the House
The north-facing patio has a priceless view of Disneyland’s fireworks show. (Shhh, don’t tell!)