I was invited to attend a media dinner at Jiko - The Cooking Place recently, and I jumped at the chance. I've always enjoyed the food at Jiko, the premium dining venue at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, and I relished tasting some of the new menu items now being offered by executive chef Jonathon O’Brien.
The menu is still, of course, appropriately African centric, and to its credit, Jiko doesn't pull back on spicing, when bold spicing is called for, or fall back on the "common denominator" entrees that appeal to a broader array of tourist palates, i.e. steak and potatoes. Isn't it much more appealing to offer something new and exotic?
Well, exotic to an extent. Such as with the boldly flavored dips that are offered with the bread basket, which itself is chockfull of anything but the, um, white bread variety of bread. Instead you have crispy pappadam made with lentil flour and with a hint of pepper, or lavosh, the flatbread, with poppy seeds, or naan, the Indian bread, here with yogurt and flax seeds. And to accompany them, vibrant dips with multiple layers of flavors. There was bhuna masala, a dark red curry fashioned out of tomatoes, coconut, tamarind and chile peppers. And sagh dahl, a slightly milder dip that the hot bhuna masala, made with lentils and spinach. And hummus, made special with the addition of kalamata olives, or chermoula, a Moroccan marinade of herbs, olive oil and lemon juice that is usually used with fish but is pretty tasty just with bread.
We also sampled a couple of the flatbread selections, the best being the kitfo leb leb, an Ethiopian style topping of beef tartare, aged goat cheese and the wonderfully spicy berbere, a blend of garlic, chile peppers, ginger, basil and who knows what else.
Warm avocado soup was mildly flavored and not very exciting, even with the addition of a poached egg. The chopped bacon offered a bit of crunch.
A duo of appetizers included the grilled wild boar tenderloin served on a poof of mealie pap, a type of porridge and drizzled with a bit of truffle oil. Good enough to be an entree. And tuna biltong, biltong being a South African style of cured meat. The wild boar was better.
The seared Barbarie duck breast was one of the winning entrees, served with potato and spinach masala with a port wine reduction sauce. I also liked the Berkshire pork tenderloin, with tandoori squash puree and black-eyed peas, graced with zough oil, made with a variety of chile peppers.
For a vegetarian option there's bunny chow, which does not contain rabbit. Rather, it's a South African stew composed of the types of things a bunny would chow down on. Some around the table liked it, but I found it rather bland. However, I loved the chickpea falafel cake that came with it. Quite yummy.
For dessert, the coconut pana cotta was a favorite. Wine-soaked coriander cake could have been soaked in more wine, for my taste.
The dining room, which somehow portrays a scene out of The Lion King, with a flock of birdlike light fixtures soaring about, seems to have lost some of its fine tone and has taken on a cafeteria feel, at least that's what it seemed like to me when I took a stroll about. I dined in the private dining room, separated from the main dining room by racks of wine.
The wine cellar, by the way, still boasts the largest collection of South African wines outside of Africa, and the list has many wonderful selections. Chat the able servers up for a recommendation with your meal, and try something new.
Because that's why you come to a restaurant like Jiko. Sometimes when we step outside our comfort zone we find ourselves in a new spot that is every bit as a comfortable, just different.
Jiko - the Cooking Place is at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge. It is open for dinner daily. This link will take you to the restaurant's web page. To make a reservation, call 407-939-3463.