No Subtitle Needed at Disney’s Sanaa

The cuisine—African or Indian, or a bit of both—at the new restaurant in the Animal Kingdom Lodge speaks a universal language.

When I’m having dinner in a well-appointed restaurant, fine silver gleaming and a cloth napkin raised to my lips, the sight of a large animal staring at me through the window would usually be cause for alarm.

But that doesn’t apply at the Animal Kingdom Lodge—not when I’m eating at Sanaa and overlooking a transplanted African veldt. How sophisticated we are to sip a glass of Riesling as the wildebeest saunter by, and pick at lamb chops while gazing into a giraffe’s gentle eyes.

I happen to adore the main lobby of the lodge, called Jambo House, with its breathtaking wood-and-reed construction and soaring heights. The recently built Kidani Village addition is a smaller version of Jambo, but still has a warm feeling of handcrafting. A walk through the Kidani reception area and down the stairs leads to Sanaa, which, unlike Disney’s other lodge restaurants, Jiko (The Cooking Place) and Boma (Flavors of Africa), doesn’t have a subtitle. They probably couldn’t decide: depending on whom you ask, the cuisine is either Indian or African, or African cooking with Indian flavors.

Sanaa’s actual focus is East Africa, the area of Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and the Sudan. There, colonial conquests and trade along ancient spice routes created a melting pot of Dutch, German, Indian, Portuguese and European influences.

These show up in the regional food, and on this menu. Many selections are offered as combinations. Take the salad sampler ($6.99), three choices out of five dishes. I tried the roasted beets (French); okra, radish (Egyptian) and tomato; and roasted potato, corn and spinach (Indian, via Portugal). The Hayes Appetizer/Entrée Theorem states that if the starters are great, the rest of the meal will fail miserably, so I worried about my main course because the salads were superb: sweet, well-seasoned vegetables expertly cooked.

On this occasion, my theorem failed. I’ve been working on a recipe for tandoori chicken for years, and while mine is good, the most important factor with this dish is the tandoor, a high-heat clay oven. I don’t have one. Sanaa has two, and what comes out of them has a fragrance that is mind-altering. Sanaa’s tandoori chicken ($17.99) is boneless chunks marinated in spices and yoghurt meeting high, moist heat, and the result is smoky, mildly spicy perfection. I need a clay oven.

Cornish game hen ($17.99) comes crusted with a complex spice masala, served on roasted turnips and basted in a tart cherry chutney. There’s a fusion of distinct flavors—mellow, dark, hot, tangy—yet they all meld well together.

Several slow cooked items, offered as a combo (any two for $18.99), are most definitely Indian. Red curry chicken and shrimp with green curry may appear to be Thai specialties, but are really colors from the wide-ranging Indian palette. I particularly liked the perfectly cooked shrimp (the curry was a bit too mild), but I was disappointed with the chicken after so enjoying the tandoori.

Chef Robert Getchell tells me the beef short ribs, an African recipe, is his kitchen’s most popular dish, prepared here in a dark sauce redolent of cardamom. Not your mother’s pot roast, unless she is from Kenya. My choice of the firm farmer cheese called paneer was simmered with spinach in a peppery tomato and cumin sauce. One of my favorite dishes, it did not disappoint me at Sanaa.

Getchell is an 11-year veteran of Disney’s various kitchens. He brings with him years of experience with Indian spices and a stay as head chef at Boma. The chef told me that his Sanaa staff makes 200 pieces of nan flatbread a day in its gas-fired tandoors. When someone orders a sandwich, a burger or bread for the table, that’s when the nan is made, and it’s hard to beat for texture and flavor.

Like the other Animal Kingdom Lodge restaurants, Sanaa features African wines, but not exclusively; the impressive list is world-ranging, including a pleasant Chenin blanc from the Sula winery in India, which I had never heard of.

The word “sanaa” (sah-NAH) is said to be Swahili for artwork. The restaurant is decorated with handmade works from African craftspeople: hanging basket and pottery-jar lamps, Kente cloth hangings, beaded mosaics. The view through the giant windows overlooking the beast-laden grassland is another form of art. But the best sanaa here is what comes from the kitchen.

Sanaa Restaurant

ADDRESS Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village, 2901 Osceola Pkwy., Lake Buena Vista
PHONE 407-939-3463
ENTREES $13.99-$27.99

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