Jiko -- The Cooking Place at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge finds its voice
When Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge first opened nearly eight years ago, its signature restaurant, Jiko, left a bland impression. The name is Swahili for The Cooking Place, and the menu was supposed to focus on South African cuisine. But what was offered was a cuisine without a country. Soon after, Anette Grecchi-Gray, one of Disney's pioneering women chefs, took over and started making improvement. Now, Grecchi-Gray has left the company and left the restaurant in the hands of chef Brian Piasecki, who admitted when he took over Jiko that he had never been to Africa and knew little about the cuisine. Whatever he did to educate himself seems to have worked. Jiko now serves food that is creative and well-executed, a fusion of styles and techniques that utilize the seasonings and spices associated with African cuisine.
I liked the berbere-braised lamb shank ($27), a sizeable hunk of meat, slow-cooked so the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender. The berbere is a spice mixture of chilies, ginger, coriander and other flavors associated with Ethiopian cuisine. The rub gave a spicy note to the mild lamb. Arctic char ($31) was another favorite, a fatty-fleshed fish with characteristics of both trout and salmon (in flavor -- not in appearances; that would be an odd fish indeed). The fish was mild flavored and spiced up with fennel pollen salt. It was accompanied by mealie pap, a South African staple of cornmeal mush. Some good appetizer choices are kalamata olive flatbread ($9), or ostrich schnitzel ($13) -- try ordering that one five times real fast.
Service was of the type that Disney is well-known for. And be sure to give the wine list a good look-see. It's the largest collection of South Africa wines in North America. Ask for a taste of the Delheim Gewurztraminer, which goes perfectly with the Portland Pier scallops ($31) and its accompanying spicy eggplant kottu.
The restaurant was designed by Jeffery Beers and is a salute to the opening scenes of The Lion King. The columns are supposed to represent the decorative neck-stretching rings worn by Swahili women, and the light fixtures are floating sculptures of birds that get smaller as they disappear in the distance.
Of course, you do have to put up with the occasionally under-dressed tourist, but Jiko has become one of Disney's better dining choices.