Rainforest Cafe – Orlando, FL

Rainforest Cafe
Disney Animal Kingdom
505 N Rainforest Road
Lake Buena Vista, FL
(407) 938-9100

Downtown Disney.  A destination location without a doubt.  Flooded with families and young children on a hot day in Florida, the scene is a quintessential vacation scene.  Sun, fun and shopping.  What’s not to like.  Especially for the kids.  But there is a dark side.  When it comes to eating, things can become a) quite pricey as they have you a virtual hostage and b) choices are limited.  With only two hours to kill and figuring we should at least check things out (no kids in tow of course) on a business trip, a colleague and I tried to squeeze in both some gift shopping and a late lunch.  Seeking shelter from the bright sun, our reprieve from the unwavering heat ended up being the Rainforest Cafe.  Not the only choice nor a preferred one, just the closest one…

In hindsight, I’ve learned this is a big chain in the States with roots in thirteen states.  As well, they have some international representation in places such as Tokyo, London, Paris, Mexico City and Dubai!  I suppose this theme-style restaurant that stretches the ideal through its menu and motif remains a popular one, despite the downturn of other such adventurous chains like Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe.  Inside and once seated, we got that “have you been here before?” query, no doubt something each server is required to ask patrons.  The reason?  Well, if it were not for the “warning” regarding the every-thirty-minutes sudden explosion of sights and sounds that occurs throughout the entire restaurant – attributed to the animal-themed decorations and props – I’m sure there would be quite the number of shocked customers.  Heart attack-inducing loudness I might add.  Complete with a thunderous roar of artificial sounding thunderstorms and lightning.  Yes, we are after all, in a rain forest people.

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River Side Hotel Dinner Cruise – Bangkok, THA

River Side Hotel Dinner Cruise
195 Ratwiti Road
Bangkok, Thailand
+66 (0) 2883 1588

Just about everyone who’s read a book in their lifetime, knows the age old expression “when in Rome (do as the Romans do)“.  But who knew the Thai’s would be coming along for the ride… literally.

The Chao Phraya River, though not an impressive sight during the day, becomes this magical waterway lined with some of the most incredible ancient structures that are lit up with lights, thus providing a breathtaking view that differs from what you can see from land during daylight.

Led by a Finn of all people, along with folks from Indonesia, the UAE, China and other nations, I found myself in a large group being taken for an unexpected dinner cruise aboard a vessel docked at the River Side Bangkok Hotel.  The taxi ride to this older part of the city was a bit doggy, but I must admit that it didn’t take a lot of arm twisting to get me to go.  After many trips to Thailand, I was running out of new things to do, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity, as well as get a free meal to boot!

As I alluded to in my opening, I truly expected this to be a complete tourist trap, but low and behold, the entire ship was packed with Thai couples, families and friends out for a weekday dinner.  No other foreigners, aside from our group, to be seen for the entire voyage.

Before our ship set sail, we discovered this uncovered beer garden near the dock.  With at least an hour before we were to board, this made for a great opportunity to get going with some refreshments, and nothing beats a few cold bottles of Singha after a long day of networking.

I could imagine that this is a popular spot a little later in the evening (we were only there around 5pm) for those who aren’t interested in paying for the trip down the river, but would just prefer to have their drinks and food in the comforts of this wide open space.  If I was working nearby, I could see this as being an almost daily stopover on my way home…

The River Side Luxury Cruise is a journey aboard a massive boat.  It easily holds a few hundred people, complete with two decks (the top uncovered), and a large dance hall on the main floor with live entertainment provided by the in-ship band.  With numerous servers floating about catering to all the diners, it makes for a chaotic environment which is coupled by the gentle swaying of the ship as it gets into the open waters of the river.  Thankfully, our waitresses quickly delivered the many bottles of beer, wine and spirits that our group requested.

Despite the pleasant start to our journey, there was a part of me that was still hesitant about the food.  Would it be any good?  After all, it is aboard a ship, which probably had to have a restricted cooking space and the limitations that go along with it in terms of putting out great food.

Now I haven’t posted all of the possible photos of the food that arrived, but our first dish of a vegetable Thai curry was a solid opening volley.  A rich, creamy texture with the requisite spicy kick that pervades the food of this culture, I was really pleased with whoever ordered this for our group. The battle over the steamed rice quickly ensued and we had to order more.

Of all of the places that I’ve visited around the world, Thailand has always struck out one of the fantastic places for fresh seafood.  Even aboard a river patrolling ship this held true, as these giant prawns were amazing!  With the delicate slightly salty scent that suggested they were recently plucked from the sea, each bite into the juicy meat was met with a satisfying grin.  They were also very easy to separate from the shell, so this made scarfing them down all the more pleasant.  I can’t even remember how many plates of this were ordered, but I surely raised my cholesterol level as a result of one too many.

The simplicity of a fresh steamed white fish always makes for a great meal in my books.  Coupled with the taste enhancing ingredients like fine sliced onions, mushrooms, ginger, cilantro, lemongrass and the distinct access of fish sauce, I can honestly say this was as good as I’ve had in other places across Thailand’s coastal regions.  The fall-of-the-bone meat was oh so satisfying.

Leaving the food angle, and as described earlier, there was some in-ship entertainment, comprised of a six person band that went through various songs, Thai and English.  They really only got going later in the night after all the dining was done, and people were really getting into it to my surprise.  The dance floor in front of the stage was packed with locals bouncing around to the beats.  Quite the bit of entertainment in and of itself, just watching the crowds rather than the band.

Lastly, I thought I’d close this review by showing you the “views” from the ship itself, that I took from one of the outer walkways.  Some of the most impressive wats in Thailand are along this river, including my personal favorite, Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn).  I’d gone during the day earlier in the week and climbed up to the highest deck that you can.

As a result of my four hour journey on this dinner cruise ship, I learned that I should never let any preconcieved thoughts affect my expectations…especially when they involve food.  This was a great lesson in having an open mind.

The Flair Bar – Seoul, KOR

The Flair Bar
572-2 Shinsa-dong, Kangnam-ku
Seoul, South Korea
+82 2 545 5554

Life imitating art. That’s what I thought the moment the performance show began at The Flair Bar.

At the end of a long night that included a fantastic barbecue dinner hosted by my local business associates at their favorite neighborhood restaurant, followed by a few pints at a local pub, my colleague and I were being walked back to our hotel by our gracious Korean hosts when I could see a look in their eyes as if to say, “do you really want to call it a night?”. I glanced over to my still awake colleague and gave him a “why not?” expression and our friends then proceeded to lead us down another busy street lined with shops still open and welcoming revelers still looking for another place to fuel up on more liquor and socialize.

Now I am sure many of you are familiar with Hollywood actor Tom Cruise, and perhaps one of his movies in which he portrayed a cocky bartender who learned to toss bottles of booze with the dexterity of a circus performer. Clearly, this place had patterned their place after the movie set and had the concept down pat as after we had sat down at a table and ordered a round of drinks, suddenly things came to life. The lights lowered, and a blast of music came on followed by a boisterous voice on the speakers. Looking closer, I noticed it was a young woman on the microphone who was standing towards one side of the long counter bar that anchored the room.

Although I had not a clue as to what she was saying, it was clear that the patrons sure did, and had probably been sitting waiting for the show to begin. It seemed like she began things by introducing her team of flair artists, who came from the back kitchen area one by one and did a short routine of throwing bottles up in the air. They then broke into a larger team routine in which team members juggled together. The MC then shouted out questions and some members of the crowd began saying things back, which turned out to be orders. The flair bartenders engaged in more difficult tricks all the while composing the drinks that were being ordered. Despite not knowing the language, the visuals themselves served to help me understand what was going on and to be that up front and personal to the show, was quite entertaining.

The show then evolved into a sort of auction. Special drink orders, even food items were being put up for bids from the engaged customers. My colleague even got into the action, not even knowing what was up for bid. I think people can easily get caught up in the lively atmosphere that is created – much of the credit goes to the MC, who was commanding the show and getting a lot of audience participation. In the end, my friend lost out on a bid for what turned out to be some special cocktail, but seeing our disappointment, and probably since we stood out as foreigners, we were presented with a 12 inch pizza as a consolation prize.

The flair bartenders were a talented crew. The array of tricks they performed was impressive, and coupled with the energetic mistress of ceremonies, this last stop on our evening turned out to be quite the high. I am quite glad that we stopped in, and appreciate the incredible luck we had in finding such an innovative establishment, that we probably never expected to find in Seoul. In places like this that have a “gimmick”, that alone is not enough though. The level of engagement that the crowd has with the performers, is a critical element in creating the atmosphere that we found so enjoyable. If you ever find your way to the Kangnam district in Seoul, I’d suggest you give this show a chance.