When Canadian friends Gavin and Sarah came visiting, it seemed natural to offer them part of the Florida Disney experience which many people simply miss: namely, one of the
signature restaurants. In this case, we chose Jiko, The Cooking Place, at Animal Kingdom Lodge.
It was also our first experience with staying at one of the Moderate resorts. We found an affordable room at Port Orleans, and I have to say how pleased I was with the accommodations. The room, though a little small, was quite nicely appointed and appropriately-themed. In fact, I found the grounds at Port Orleans to be more consistently-themed than some of the deluxe resorts. Strolling around the gardens was like strolling around the French Quarter—without the nasty smell. The only criticism I’d levy is that the
bathroom was way too small. Hardly a deal-breaker for a single night’s stay, but still somewhat irritating, especially banging one’s head on the door getting up from the john.
The food at Jiko is always great, but one of the main reasons I love the place is the atmosphere. The décor is beautiful, and it’s one of the few places on the property that’s quiet. Even the upscale California Grill, which we’ve talked about before, has a distracting din to it. Jiko keeps the chaos down, and coupled with the great food, makes it my favorite of the property’s restaurants.
We started at the Victoria Falls lounge half a flight above the restaurant while waiting for our reservation, a quick cocktail to ease into the evening. The lounge area doesn’t have that many seats, but it feels spacious, open to the ceiling two stories above and overlooking the Boma restaurant below.
As we went to claim our reservation, we grabbed a glass of wine at the tiny Jiko bar, which features only African wines. I’m a believer in crisp acidity to get the palate going, so Sarah and I had a glass of Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc (one of my all-time favorites, and the best the southern hemisphere has to offer), The Rocket Scientist had a glass of Graham Beck’s sparkling Brut Rosé, and Gavin had a glass of something that I neglected to write down.
While we were enjoying the wine, we tucked into a roasted mushroom flatbread, which was the perfect starter. The buttery mushrooms contrasted nicely with the crispy flatbread, providing a nice texture. It wasn’t the perfect pairing with any of our wines, but it wasn’t a distracting one either.
For appetizers, Gavin and Gretchyn went for the Creamy Spring Onion Soup. It was rich, creamy, and lively, another soup triumph for the chef. Sarah had the Jiko Salad with heirloom apple, pistachio, pumpkin seed, sheep’s milk cheese and pomegranate vinaigrette. I went for the Tibs Watt in Pannekoeke, which is braised beef rolled in crepes with pepperdew olive tapenade.
On the main course, Sarah and Gretchyn both went for the Corvina, a whitefish than none of us had ever heard of. The texture of the fish was great, a meaty version of halibut, pan-seared and dressed with edamame, spinach, and cherry tomatoes. Gavin went after the Spicy Grilled shrimp curry with citrus coconut basmati, summer vegetables and durban sauce. I asked the waiter whether I should have the Braised Beef Short Rib or the Seared Duck Breast, and he immediately jumped to the short rib. Since they were the same price, I knew he wasn’t up-selling me. I went for it and was pleased. It had been slow-roasted in a Cabernet tamarind sauce and laid on a bed of truffled potato puree, pearl onions, and baby carrots. All the food was remarkably good, wonderfully balanced, and in reasonable portions.
We brought our own wine for the main course, a 2008 Martinelli Zinfandel Giuseppe and Luisa. Martinelli Zins are huge wines, undeniable and aggressive, which I knew would pair relatively well with the richly-spiced food. I had also considered bringing a 2006 Glaetzer Amon-Ra, but that was more the excitement of the idea of maybe opening it, with going to Jiko as the excuse—but in my database, I’ve listed the beginning of the drinking window at 2015, and in a few years, I’m sure I’ll be happy that I didn’t give in.
The Jiko dining experience was everything that I had hoped it would be. The food was outstanding, the atmosphere relaxing, and the company perfect. As the hidden gems of Disney restaurants go, Jiko remains the brightest of jewels.