Friday, February 17, 2006

Valentine's Day Meets St. Patrick

It's February in Florida, and once again I'm reminded of why I love living in the Sunshine State. Today it was sunny and in the low 80s, while Chicago was an arctic 12 degrees, with wind chills dipping below zero. How wonderful it felt to step outside in the balmy warmth and see the flowers blooming and the hedges budding. Back at our northern condo, I remember my impatient wait to festoon my barren balcony with flowers. Usually, I had to wait until May or risk a renegade frost killing off my floral array. Now, I'm already overdue on perking up my flower beds. In the back yard, my impatiens have been thriving for a year, but in the front all I've got is some raggedly remnants of last summer.

This week was Valentines Day, and also my 14th wedding anniversary. My husband somehow managed to slip that by me under the guise of romanticism. Now, in retrospect, I can see the convenience of easily remembering the date and of being able to combine a gift. It gives me sympathy for the poor devils who have the misfortune of being born at Christmas.

Actually, we were supposed to be married in September while riding on a roller coaster. I wasn't big on marriage in general, but I knew that if I ever did it, it would have to be in some unique way. My husband's persistence won me over...that, and the fact that he cooks and does laundry. His domesticity made him a definite keeper. At the time, he had no desire to visit Disney World, but I knew that if I could lure him to Florida just once, I could have the chip installed to remedy that minor flaw.

Thus, we planned our September wedding, complete with a minister who was willing to tie our knot in a speeding coaster train. We changed the date at the last minute, so we ended up saying our nuptials in a relatively boring way: At the top of the John Hancock building, with a panoramic view of Chicago spread below us. I would have preferred a horseback ceremony, but outdoor options aren't too feasible during a Chicago winter, so we had to be flexible.

Now, nearly a decade and a half later, we're living in the "Disney Town" (yes, the chip installation was successful), and the weather is no longer a consideration. We've gotten lazy over the years, so don't do much celebrating on the 14th itself. Instead, we do a Disney cruise at the beginning of the month and then go out for a low-key dinner on Valentines Day itself.

This year, we cruised on February 5th, and when we returned, we plunged full force into all of the work that had piled up while we were gone. I've started a new aspect of my counseling business, and it has been quite successful (and time consuming), which is why I've neglected my blog for a while. Before I knew it, it was February 13th, and we hadn't made any plans.

I knew that we would need reservations to dine at any sort of decent restaurant...and that the likelihood of getting any was akin to the temperature rising to 80 degrees in Chicago. Still, in a fit of optimism, I dialed 407-WDW-DINE to see if we could get into a Disney World eatery. First, I tried Jiko and Artist Point, both of which have excellent food and are sometimes good for last minute ressies. Nope, no luck at either. Then (yes, I know I'm insane) I tried Ohana, but of course I struck out again. Finally, I asked the agent to look for anything. It's rare that I've had a bad meal at Disney World, so I was willing to shoot blindly. I didn't hold out much hope; I was shocked when she said, "How about Ragland Road?"

For those who aren't familiar with Downtown Disney/Pleasure Island, Ragland Road is the new Irish pub and restaurant. I had been wanting to try it anyway but just hadn't gotten around to it. Both my husband and I enjoy Irish cuisine (he's partial to shepherd's pie, while I love black and white pudding). I figured I would grab the reservation, then look up the menu online. If it looked absolutely awful, we could always cancel it.

Once my ressie was confirmed, I consulted to see what sort of taste treats we were in for. There was no black and white pudding, but I'd barely made it through the list of appetizers before the drool was running down my chin. "Goats Town" (herb-crusted grilled Irish goat's cheese salad served with fruit compote) was right up my alley. I decided that I could combine it with Drunk Chicken (whiskey glazed chicken kebab) and Colpucinno (frothy Colcannon soup, a creamy potato, bacon and cabbage soup). With three appetizers, I wouldn't even need a main course.

There were plenty of choices to appeal to my husband, too, from mussels to a "house" version of shepherd's pie. Even though we had waited until the last minute, it looked like we'd be having a lovely Valentines feast after all.

On the appointed day, I was logged on my laptop juggling my two jobs: finishing up travel agency paperwork and emailing online counseling clients. I work with a service that provides therapy via email and also online chat. I heard the ringtone that signaled a client requesting a chat session.

I accepted the chat, but it went a little longer than I had planned. Thankfully, my husband is very understanding of my profession and its unpredictable schedule. By the time I was free, we had less than 15 minutes to make it to Pleasure Island. I crossed my fingers and hoped that the hostess would be sympathetic...if not, we could always head over to Earl of Sandwich for a romantic meal of subs and grey lemonade.

I was concerned about parking; on holidays, it can sometimes take upwards of 15 minutes of dedicated circling to find a parking spot within a day's hike of the stores. My husband spotted an area with plenty of open spots, and we soon discovered was nearly impossible to get to. But I was determined, and I piloted Canyonero through the vast asphalt wilderness of the Downtown Disney/Pleasure Island lot. Finally I found a way to access the Promised Land of open parking! It was relatively close to Ragland Road, too, so we tore out of our vehicle and down the pathway to the beckoning doorway of the Irish pub.

We were only about 15 minutes late, and they didn't hold it against us. Within 10 minutes, we were sungly ensconced in our seats and drooling on a menu that was just as tempting in person as it had looked online.

In order not have to make a decision, I stuck with my original three-appetizer plan. My husband opted to start off with scallops and then stick with the seafood theme for his main course. He had something called "It's Not Bleedin' Chowder," which consisted of mussels, prawns, scallops and fresh seafood infused with white wine and finished with cream with fresh potato. I don't know just how authentic Irish that was, but apparently it was very good.

I was very happy with my own choices, especially the goat cheese. Normally, I'm not one to say, "Wow, that was plenty of goat cheese!", but for once the portion was enough for me. It was served in a huge hunk, surrounded by field greens and a delicious berry compote. Definitely a keeper! The soup and chicken were no slouches either. I was amazed at just how tender and moist the chicken skewers were, and the honey/whiskey sauce was to die for. I also loved the fact that they serve flavored ice tea; I think it's the same type as Max's (Market Street Cafe) in Celebration.

Ragland Road itself is a lovely, if somewhat claustrophobic, restaurant. Tables are packed into every available spot, and there are multiple bars where you can eat or just enjoy a libation. The close proximity to your fellow diners makes for a sort of unofficial preview of the food. I was casting sidelong glances at our neighbors' desserts; one was some sort of chocolate souffle that came with a side of cream, so I decided that that's how I would top off my meal.

There was another tempting banana caramel dessert that almost tempted me away, but my husband decided to order it so I figured that I could stick to my chocolate and still get a taste of that one, too. My souffle was good, but the banana dessert was amazing! I still salivate every time I think about it. It attracted the interest of some nearby diners, and we gave it a glowing recommendation.

In deference to the holiday, Ragland Road handed out roses and had live romantic music, which started just before we left. But somehow it seemed strange to be celebrating Valentines Day in a place more suited to a St. Patricks Day fling. Still, it was a great experience, and we'll definitely return for dinner; it will be a regular part of our Disney World restaurant rotation.

This dinner was a great experience, and in looking back, I suppose that it's very fitting for two people who abruptly changed their carefully-laid wedding plans. Sometimes the best experience in life are the spontaneous ones.

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