Czarina's Royal Table Holds Forth at Animal Kingdom Lodge's Jiko!

by The Czarina
AllEars® Feature Writer

Feature Article

This article appeared in the September 25, 2001 Issue #105 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.


with special guest contributor Deb Wills

(EXPLANATION OF SORTS: The Czarina is a Real Person who eats -- a lot -- at Disney World. She takes sole responsibility for her opinions stated below. Do let us know what you think about this column at eureka@eurekajim.org.)

Our thanks to the Disney Diners: Meli and John, Patt, Mike and Jenn, Andrea, and of course the Czar. Special thanks to Holly, who sampled the kids' menu and bravely tried many other things.

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Beloved Public, here we sit at our mink-lined computer station with its genuine Lucite mouse and gold-plated keyboard, sipping a low-carb breakfast shake and being fanned by the Royal Kitties, Duncan and Morsel, who had better stop whacking each other with those palm fronds if they know what's good for them. But we digress.

In front of us are two menus from Jiko, the premiere restaurant in Disney's new Animal Kingdom Lodge. These menus are covered with notes scribbled during two recent memorable dinners. Yet, we find ourselves strangely drawn to the little drips of sauce left on them. Just a minute. <sllurrrrrrp>

Deb Wills, who was at Animal Kingdom Lodge when it opened in April, dined at Jiko the first night it was open to the public. "I must admit, when I first saw the pre-opening menu, my stomach sank. I'm a rather conservative eater, you see, and the appetizers and entrees seemed anything but conservative to me. While I was right that the menu was a bit out of the ordinary, boy, was I wrong to hesitate to give it a try!!! I so totally enjoyed my initial experience at Jiko, that I rearranged my schedule and dined there three times that week. Each experience was a bit different than the last one, yet each was a memorable taste experience."

Deb notes that many things must come together to make a restaurant a first class experience. "It's not just the food or the server or the ambiance or the timing or the wine list," she says, "it's the *fusion* of each of those into a total dining experience. In the case of Jiko, they all blend together so perfectly that dining there now feels as comfortable as home and thankfully I don't have to cook or clean up!"

THE COOKING PLACE

The Cooking Place is an open-kitchen section of the restaurant with high bar stools, much like the ones at the Flying Fish and California Grill. The wood-burning ovens with beautiful ceramic tile actually form a Hidden Mickey as they touch the ceiling. Sit at the Cooking Place and you may be lucky enough to be cooked for by one of the Jiko chefs.

Don't like eating dinner on a barstool? No problem. The main dining area at Jiko is as beautiful as an African sunset. It is full of warm woods and ochre and cinnamon colored walls, delicate mobiles resembling flying birds, wine racks of forged iron like curling vines, comfortable chairs and lots and lots of space. Subtle, instrumental African music surrounds you softly. You will feel instantly relaxed.

APPETIZERS

Back to food and drink. Broadly speaking, this is fusion cuisine. It has African overtones, but this is not merely African food. It is food from many cultures, artfully (and sometimes even playfully) put together in joyous harmony. You will not find anything over-spiced or too zingy. More often than not, your palate will be delighted with a taste you recognize, combined with a little surprise.

It's been called "New African Cuisine," with the spices and herbs of Africa, as well as some Indian influences -- comfort food with a twist.

This is precisely what you will find on the menu at Jiko, as the Czarina explains:

Take the One Soup ($6.50). The menu says black bean soup, apples and celery. It comes as a fawn-colored puree in a beautiful square white plate. Your Czarina tasted. "Ahh," we thought, "bean with bacon soup!" It was as familiar as childhood. But a second taste revealed the fruity hint of apples and a mystery ingredient called "Durban spice." Suddenly our comfort food turned a corner, and blossomed into something new, something fun, something exciting. Try the One Soup, we implore you.

And the dipping sauce from the Duck Firecracker, with its minty overtones! Would that we had the crispy, duck-filled spring roll to go with it ($9.25). Or the brick-oven flatbread with its yogurt-curry topping sprinkled with smoked bacon and onions ($7.00). Delicious! Very thin crust, lightly spread with thick, spicy yogurt, and not too much bacon. Both of these are from the Cooking Place section of the Jiko menu.

So far, as you can see, we have been nibbling appetizers. With them, you need something to drink. Jiko has a full bar, and also features one specialty drink, the Sunriser ($6.50), made with coconut rum, banana liqueur and tropical juices. This was greatly enjoyed by our friends Patt and Jenn. Deb and I set about investigating the wine list.

WINES

The wine list is very special, selected by former Jiko manager Suzanne Bonham. Ms. Bonham chose all South African wines, in many cases from small boutique wineries almost impossible to find anywhere in the US but Jiko. The list is impressive, everything is available by the glass, and it pairs exquisitely with the food.

The Animal Kingdom Lodge has the largest selection of South African wines in the world -- outside of South Africa. All wines are available by glass or bottle and you can even sample selections before deciding. For instance, the Czarina decided to investigate the characteristically African Pinotages. After informing our server, we quickly had before us several different bottles of pinotage to taste.

The Saxenburg Pinotage, a lovely red, was light and fruity, but with a smoky hint. It was particularly good with an appetizer of marinated tuna with pickled vegetables ($11.25); sushi without the rice (but with a rice cake). I also tried a Warwick Old Bush Pinotage, somewhat heavier and more dramatic. I liked the Saxenburg better.

At a second dinner, I tried the Delaire Sauvignon Blanc, a smooth white that would be good with pork, and also the Backsberg Pinotage, which I recommend above all others, even though it is the one Pinotage you can find in American wine stores. What can I say? I just loved it.

As we were a large group, we got to sample everything on the Cooking Place and Appetizer menu sections. We strongly recommend going to Jiko at least once with a crowd, and sharing a dinner composed from these two menus alone. (Well, add dessert, of course). This is a convivial and relatively inexpensive way to introduce yourself to the Jiko experience. In our group, the Shrimp and Spicy Hummus Pitas ($9.50), Duck Firecracker, Crispy Cinnamon-Spiced Beef Rolls ($7.75), and Foie Gras Dumplings in a lentil broth ($10.25) were the favorites.

ENTREES

In our two visits to Jiko, the entrees were also passed around and sampled by our intrepid crew of Disney Diners. The signature entree is a Banana Leaf Steamed Sea Bass ($23.25) set on an asparagus puree inside its leafy package, accented with mushrooms and apples. This popular, mild fish was perfectly cooked, rich and satisfying.

Another fish dish enjoyed even by the non-fish lovers was Pan-Roasted Monkfish ($18.25) in a tomato butter sauce with crispy parsnips and vegetables. The third "safe bet" choice, according to us, was the Baked Chicken and Mashed Potatoes ($18.25) in an herbed sauce.

If you are somewhat adventurous, however, go for the Roasted Papaya ($16.50), stuffed with spiced beef. This is perhaps the most African of all the entrees, quite Moroccan tasting, an intriguing "sweet meat" option much enjoyed by the Czar and other tasters.

Deb and the Czarina shared a wonderful Rack of Lamb ($27.50) with a peanut crust, accompanied by a velvety-smooth baby eggplant with a tomato filling. Excellent for fans of crispy bones! Another winner is the clever Oak-Grilled Beef Tenderloin ($28.50), herb-crusted with a kind of pesto, paired with excellent mac 'n' cheese (a wink to American tastes), and sauced with a divine red wine and port reduction. And, if the beef tenderloin tastes familiar, you must have dined at California Grill where the same cut of meat is served!

DESSERTS

Jiko desserts are delicate teases, strictly for fun. The tastes are clean and refreshing. The menu does lack a "killer" dessert like the souffles at the California Grill, the warm chocolate lava cake at Flying Fish or the KoKo Puffs at Kona; but everything is enjoyable.

Since found Jiko to be full of surprises, we should have been surprised to find that the Chocolate Candies ($6.25) come in a bamboo steamer box. The Creme Brulee ($5.25) is "scented with Grains of Paradise Dust", and you have to guess what that means. The Champagne Noodles ($6.00)? Well, think Gummi Bears with fresh fruit steeped in chilled Moroccan tea! And the Strawberry Sundowner is a no-alcohol dessert drink served in a martini glass with a red licorice straw.

A CHILD'S-EYE VIEW

Ten-and-a-half-year-old Holly McKenna was among the Disney Diners sampling the fare at Jiko and she had this to say:

"When we got invited to eat at Jiko we sampled everything on the menu. I tried these: raw tuna, cinnamin [sic] beef roll, One Soup, brick oven flatbread, salmon, Shampane [sic] noodles, cardamom candies and creme brulee. I didn't like the tuna, the flatbread, the salmon or the champene [sic] noodles.

"I would suggest that if you brought along a kid, it would probably be best if the kid was at least 7 years old, but if they're younger it would be best for them to stick to the kids' menu. The kids' menu has things like fish and chips and macaroni and cheese and steak. They also have hot chocolate that's really good."

VEGETARIAN OPTIONS

Not many items on the Jiko menu are strictly vegetarian, but there are two salads (Cucumber, Red Onion and Tomato and Spring Field Greens), one appetizer (Maize Tamale, $5.50) and one entree (tofu, asparagus, hummus and tomato served in a bag, $16.50) that fit the bill. The Disney Diners did not include any vegetarians, but the salad and tamale were enjoyed by two of our crew. Vegetarians, vegans and anyone with special dietary considerations are urged to call Jiko a minimum of 24 hours in advance to arrange for dinner options.

THE STAFF

In today's competitive marketplace, service is what puts one restaurant a notch above its competitors. The staff at Jiko have been well-trained and educated in both the cuisine and wines! It is abundantely clear that everyone did his or her homework before they ever approached their first table of guests. Your experience begins at the podium, staffed by Cast Members from Africa who escort you to your table. As they walk you through the restaurant, listen carefully as they explain a bit about the ambiance and point out a few notable items.

Our group was treated extremely well by the entire Jiko

staff and I hesitate to list their names, in case I forget someone. In addition, we've learned recently that Chef Serge Burckel and Manager Suzanne Bonham, who were so gracious to us during our past dining experiences, have moved on to other career avenues.

Chef Anette Grecchi, previously at Narcoosees, Artist Point and the Hard Rock Cafe, is now at Jiko. At a minimum, look for more vegetarian creations. All Ears will be dining at Jiko later in the year and provide updates regarding menu changes.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Go to Jiko.

Go to be relaxed, treated like a friend, and surprised. Go for a special event or Just Because. You will never be sorry.

Even if you think "that kind" of food is not for you, rest assured that Jiko is only a few steps "outside the box." You will not be shocked or assaulted by strange flavors. Jiko, just like an African sunset, gets under your skin. You'll be back.



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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.