Carving a Niche for Upscale African Restaurants

jikofishThe last time I visited DisneyWorld, I had a turkey leg for lunch and a cheeseburger for dinner. But as I learned on a recent trip back to Orlando, there are far more interesting food choices beyond the park gates. My strategy of experiencing Disney on the cheap by knocking about its resorts led me to Jiko: The Cooking Place, a 13-year old dining room at Animal Kingdom Lodge.

Later, when I called Disney’s press office with follow-up questions, spokeswoman Pam Brandon described Jiko as “one of the most popular restaurants in DisneyWorld.” I’m not surprised. The décor, which leans heavily on earth tones and sultry curves, would seem sophisticated even if you hadn’t spent the day dealing with toddlers in mouse ears. But the real appeal is the exclusively South African wine list, which runs for pages, and the menu of African-influenced dishes.

It’s not uncommon for touristy restaurants with “exotic” themes to slap unfamiliar names on familiar dishes: Most Hawaiian luaus, for example, serve huli huli chicken. While the dish is authentically Hawaiian – a Honolulu chicken processor in the 1950s came up with the ketchup and soy sauce recipe – it doesn’t have much to do with the traditional Polynesian feasts that luaus purport to recreate.

Jiko’s menu is considerably braver. From one of two wood-fired ovens, I had a flatbread with beef Carpaccio and berbere, the punchy spice mixture that rules Ethiopian cooking. And over the concerns of one of the cooks manning the open kitchen, I selected for my entrée a “Nigerian-style” pan-roasted whole Florida black seabass with sweet potatoes and pickled chile peppers. Both dishes were excellent.

“We used to tone down the spices, but we said, ‘our guests really want the flavors of Africa’,” Brandon told me.

Although Brandon describes Jiko’s clientele as “well-traveled,” she concedes that the restaurant’s staffers are trained to point out which red wine is most similar to a California cabernet, and a filet mignon is still the kitchen’s bestseller. “Americans love a good steak,” Brandon says. “But we add spoon bread and a South African red wine sauce.” (Apparently even the accompaniments pose a challenge for the most cautious eaters: My server’s menu spiel included the suggestion that the sides could be swapped out for mac-and-cheese.)

Yet those departures from the theme are the exception, which raises an important question: If Americans are ready to embrace African flavors in an upscale setting, why do they have so few opportunities to do so?

“I believe (Jiko) is one of the only upscale African restaurants in the U.S.,” Brandon says.

According to Brandon, the answer is twofold. First, Disney is initially capturing guests’ attentions with storylines, not seasonings. Diners who might not patronize a restaurant for the sole purpose of acquainting themselves with African cuisine can’t resist the chance to feel as though they’ve travelled to South Africa for supper.

Perhaps more importantly, Disney also has the ability to source ingredients from all over the world. An independent restaurant is far more likely to be at the mercy of its distributors, who may or may not offer a great deal on quality berbere.

Still, it’s nice to think other restaurants might someday emulate the Jiko model, especially since African cookery is so powerfully relevant to the way Americans eat. Because as much as I like cacio e pepe and spaghetti with anchovies, I wouldn’t mind having more chances to choose between inguday tibs and grilled boar with mieliepap.

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