Sunday, July 3, 2011

Restaurant Review: Jiko

Jiko is another one of Walt Disney Worlds' signature dining experiences. It is located in the Jambo House building of the Animal Kingdom Lodge resort. The word Jiko (pronounced jee-ko) means the "cooking place" in Swahili. Actually it literally translates into "stove" or "kitchen", but Disney gave it a bit more flair.

Brief Description: Jiko is a blend of traditional African, Indian & Mediterranean cuisine. Flavorful vegetarian dishes, wood fired flatbreads, an interesting variety of meat & fish entrees, and fresh salads make up the unique menu at Jiko. Jiko also boasts an award-winning wine list featuring an impressive selection of South African wines. Jiko is for the adventurous eaters out there, but if you approach it with an open mind (and palette) you will find Jiko to be a surprising and pleasant break from the ordinary.

Decor: To be honest, I am sort of on the fence with Jiko. The idea was to invoke the feeling of the African plains at sunset. While the use of lighting fixtures made to look like migratory birds, two wood-fired stoves and back-lit screens try very hard to direct your mind to a scene in Out of Africa, the somewhat stark & simplistic decorations and elemental colors used, come across bit harsh and severe. I feel like there's a war going on in the decor. And it's no surprise either-Disney is trying to achieve a fine dining atmosphere AND pay homage to the uncomplicated beauty and wild animal power that Africa holds in our minds. Well, my mind at least. But these are my own person aesthetic observations. In the end, I still give the decor good marks, because Jikos' environment is subdued and pleasant. Noise levels are low and overall it is a very relaxing place to enjoy a meal. I won't give it low marks because I don't find it as visually pleasing as other Disney restaurants.

Service: Although some of our service experiences have been better than others, we have always gotten good service at Jiko. A noticeable trend in some of the finer restaurants in WDW is a mature waitstaff. There is always a difference between a staff of career waiters, and a staff of college kids working for this weekends beer money. You immediately notice this difference the moment you sit down. You are greeted by you server and they start right in on what I like to call the "assessment". They introduce themselves and start to get a feel for you & your party. They point out some different dishes in each menu category and familiarize you with the menu offerings, taking the initiative to explain some of the more unfamiliar dishes/ingredients. This is really important in a restaurant like Jiko. Many of your first time guest are going to be a bit lost and confused over the menu items, taking the time to help them, in a very respectful way, is the epitome of good service. This level of service seems to be the standard at Jiko. The only difference in our experiences have simply boiled down to one server have a bit more of an outgoing, even theatrical, personality over another. I like to add one more plus to Jikos' service column-wine knowledge. This is big. While many of us know what wine goes with a filet or a lovely piece of seabass, a lot of people might find themselves a bit unsure when trying to choose a wine to compliment a maize crusted corvina or a seared barbarie duck breast. You can feel confident that you can sit back and ask your server for a suggestion on an nice wine to accompany your meal and be quite pleased with their suggestions. Overall, I give the service at Jiko high marks.

Menu Selections/Approachability: My opinion is that no other menu scares folks like Jikos' does. Cat Coras' new place Kouzzina might come close, but I would still bet more people know what pastichio is than mealie pap or bobotie is. The chefs at Jiko have done a great job at blending traditional African foods with ingredients most folks recognize, but I will be honest here-this menu is not for the picky eaters out there. When dining at Jiko, one has to have a certain sense of culinary adventurism. You also need to have a palette for spices, and lots of strong ones a that. Now while I had suggested in my Citricos review to ask for ingredients be substituted or left on the side, this might prove a bit impractical at Jiko. The reason being that if a dish, let's say a meat, is rubbed with a certain spice, it is to enhance the flavor of the meat. Some dishes would actually suffer from the absence of these spices, making them very disappointing. My advice, as always, is to talk to your server and/or chef. The beauty of any fine dining restaurant is the presence of an actual chef. Someone who knows how the food is prepared and knows that will and will not destroy the dish if it is left out or changed. All in all, Jiko does present a more adventurous menu, but if you give it a chance, you will find it's uniqueness is what makes it such a jewel in the Disney dining crown. Be open to it and be pleasantly surprised.

Execution/ Food Quality: As far as freshness and food quality goes, Jiko has always delivered for us. Meats are always cooked perfectly, seafood is always very fresh, and overall presentation is beautiful. The dishes always look & taste great. I will say that Jikos' strength lies in it's appetizers & entrees. In my opinion the desserts at Jiko were a bit unremarkable. I think the issue here is many traditional African desserts wouldn't make the cut at a restaurant catering to Westerners. So they went to the test kitchens and tried to fake it. What they came up with was a selection of  impostors. Not sweet enough, not sophisticated enough and just overall disappointing, in my opinion.
My only handicap in critiquing Jiko on execution is being unfamiliar with some of the traditional ways these foods are supposed prepared. I will be honest in saying that there are times when I will not like the texture or consistency of a dish, yet I am not 100% sure if it's because that particular dish is not my thing, or it wasn't prepared as it should have been. And sadly until I get to check visiting Africa off my bucket list, I will have to remain in the dark about this.

Value: Jikos' prices fall in line with other Walt Disney World signature dining restaurants. With an average appetizer price of $11, entree price of $35, and dessert price of $9, it's obviously an expensive meal. But when you take into account some of the more exotic items on the menu, you can easily see what drives up the price. Wild boar, ostrich & duck are often present on Jikos' menu. Exotic spices and intricate food preparations require a high level of skill to execute as well as contribute to the cost & time needed create these dishes. There is also the dining experience they create at Jiko. I think that taking all this into account, Jiko falls right in line with other fine dining restaurants in the value department and is well worth the money.

Transportation Rating: I am giving Jiko a transportation/ease rating of 4. The lack of resort-to-resort transportation makes this a multi-leg trip. First you have to get a bus, or other means of resort-to-park transportation to a park or Downtown Disney (depending on which is closer), then catch a bus going to the Animal Kingdom Lodge resort. You could also take a bus from your resort to Animal Kingdom park then catch a resort bus for Animal Kingdom Lodge. There are two stops at the resort, one for Jambo House & the other for Kidani Village-so you need to pay attention and get off at Jambo House. Once there, it is fairly simple to find the restaurant from the lobby. The return can be tricky if you're dining after Animal Kingdom park closes. Then you must take a bus to any park still open or Downtown and then a return bus to you resort from there. It can be tricky and you do have to allow yourself plenty of time to wait for buses.

My final word on Jiko is that is an wonderful experience. New interesting dishes, excellent waitstaff, a killer wine list and a relaxing dining atmosphere await you-if you're brave enough and keep an open mind, Jiko could easily become one of your new favorite WDW restaurants.

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