Although it has been open not so quietly for the past three and a half weeks, Kouzzina by Cat Cora had its grand opening Thursday with a noontime celebration attended by Cora and several members of her family. It was her way of demonstrating that the new restaurant, which replaced Spoodles on Disney’s BoardWalk, is a place for families to eat, drink and make merry together. What better way to prove that than with a shot of ouzo to toast the opening?
Kouzzina is Greek for kitchen, and the recipes here have been passed down through Cora’s family. There may be some slight alterations here and there as the recipes made their way from Greece to Disney via Cora’s native Mississippi, but there is a sincere attempt for authenticity, and most of what I tasted at the opening was quite delicious and worth recommending.
The guests at the invitation-only event started, right after the ouzo shot and the first of too many “opas,” with a modest salad of Spiro’s Greek salad. In this case, the Spiro is Cora’s father, who was at the opening with her mother, Virginia Lee, who, it should be mentioned, is one fun-loving lady. The small salad had a bit of tangy arugula, cucumbers and red onions, pitted kalamata olives and a wedge of feta cheese, the best part.
This was followed by a rather mundane spanakopita, the traditional triangular pie of flaky phyllo filled with spinach, feta cheese, leeks and dill. There seemed to be more phyllo than filling.
Next came cubes of chilled salt-roasted beets atop skordalia, a potato and garlic puree. In introducing this dish, Cora called the flavor “garlic forward,” which would lead one to believe that there would be another flavor behind it. But garlic was all I could taste.
Pastitsio was next, the dish often referred to as the Greek lasagna. (Notice how no one ever calls lasagna the Italian pastitsio?) This one was unique in the way it was served, in individual souffle-like dishes that made it look as though dessert had arrived already. There was also something desserty in the taste: cinnamon, which was used to stew the meat sauce that was layered with thick bucatini pasta noodles (this Greek “lasagna” doesn’t used flat noodles) and bechamel sauce on top.
While the pastitsio was served in individual dishes, many of the entrees are served family-style on platters, as was the case with the cinnamon-stewed chicken (yep, more cinnamon in an entree). This is the dish that Cora told me is her favorite, although she refers to it as kapama. (That word does not appear anywhere on the menu — not even in the glossary of terms — but basically means braised.) It had stewed tomatoes and was served with herbed orzo and mizithra cheese. The cinnamon in this dish was less pronounced than in the pastitsio.
I loved the oak-grilled lamb burger, but I’ll tell you something about it that isn’t mentioned on the menu: it has a fiery spicy note that may offend the less adventurous palate. But I liked the spiciness, mostly because it wasn’t dominating but rather complementary to the slight gaminess of the ground lamb. I’ll definitely be having that one again.
Fisherman’s stew had scallops, fish chunks, shrimp and mussels and fennel in a tomato-tinged broth. There was a slight spiciness to the broth but nothing that would be considered too hot by most.
We were also served side dishes of gigante beans, which were impressively large but mildly flavored, and Brussels sprouts, which were fantastic. They were sauteed with salty capers and sprinkled with lemon juice. Cora promised me the recipe and I’ll share it with as soon as I get it.
The only Greek coffee offered is in a frappe, with milk and sugar, that is chilled and served tableside in a cocktail shaker. The dessert course featured budino cake, the requisite baklava, and Greek-style yogurt sorbet, all of them worthy meal-enders
Tables are big sturdy wooden jobbies that seat four but can be pushed together for larger families and friends. Although a live band performed for the opening, recorded Greek music is played during regular hours. Whether there will be Zorba-like dancing with napkins remains to be seen. (That, I suppose, will be up to you.)
Changes to the Spoodles space were subtle. The walls sport a lighter color, and to my memory there are fewer gewgaws hanging about. The light fixtures are new, and the pizza station that serves visitors on the BoardWalk through a walk-up window that was visible in Spoodles’ dining room is now walled from view.
The main kitchen, however, is not only visible but a big part of the ambience. Will you see Cat Cora there? Not always. She has tapped longtime Disney chef Dee Foundoukis to be the executive chef in her absence. (Felipe Poma is the general manager.) But Cora says she plans to visit often, and when she does, I have a feeling she will greet her fans graciously. She seems genuinely accessible. And she repeatedly told the guests at the opening that she wanted them to feel as though they were at her house for dinner. And what cook doesn’t allow the guests to come into the kitchen?
Kouzzina by Cat Cora is at Disney’s BoardWalk. Reservations are through Disney’s central reservation line at 407-939-3463.