Sometimes having unlimited resources is a good thing. Where else but at Disney can you stay in a hotel overlooking 33 acres of savannah filled with 200 African animals? The Animal Kingdom Lodge is an impressive feat of design, and within it is an equally impressive new culinary treat: Jiko-The Cooking Place.
Walking through the front door means emerging from a low-ceilinged entryway into the hotel's grand, six-story main lobby. The thatched, arched expanse above you is like a beautiful ancient grass cathedral. You can spend an hour appreciating details -- the giant mud chimney of the fireplace, the immense ostrich lamp framed by a wall-length picture window, the Zulu shield chandeliers -- and still miss things. Designer Peter Dominick calls it "an architecture of emotion," and he is quite correct.
In the restaurant, mosaic-covered columns are accented by large copper-colored rings echoing Yoruba neck rings. Suspended from the midnight-blue ceiling are metal-mesh "birds of fortune" flying toward a distant sunset (the sun sets every 20 minutes; watch the back wall change).
The staff, which comes from many African countries, is both courteous and gracious, wearing beautiful jalabas and kitenge dresses, clothing originally from Kenya and the berbers of Morocco. That Pan-African mix shows up on the menu in most delightful and surprising ways.
Breads come from the red, open ovens in the center of the room (the "jiko") and are superb, particularly flatbread with yogurt and onions ($6.25). The maize tamale appetizer ($5.50) may look like Mexican food, but unwrapping the corn husk reveals creamy corn-custard cubes spiced with caraway and truffle oil. You will sit in wonder at the flavors. Try the "One Soup," a sweet and spicy mixture of black beans, apples and celery ($6.50). The South African wine list may be unfamiliar but, according to Wine Spectator, can challenge any in the world.
Accompanying a generous beef tenderloin ($27.50) is what's listed as "macaroni and cheese." I heard every other table ask about it, which may be the idea, but to call oven-baked fusilli with three cheeses "mac and cheese" is grand understatement. "Baked chicken and mashed potatoes" is another misleading description for a slow-cooked Moroccan "tagine" (a stew of meat, fruit, vegetables and spices) that's presented in a mini enameled oven, crisp and delicious with a sauce of olives, grapefruit juice and garlic that's tart and sweet. The salmon ($20.50) comes perfectly seared on a bed of purple rice and orange dressing. It's one of the best fish dishes in town.