Tiffins at Animal Kingdom wows with a fascinating theme and otherworldly takes on fish and lamb.
The whole fried fish is served on fermented black bean sauce, with green papaya salad.
Debi Harbin Photography
The increasing (and long overdue) attention being paid to the Orlando culinary scene has put competitive pressure on the area’s theme parks to up their restaurant game. Visitors and locals, indoctrinated by celebrity chef television and the ever popular Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, are no longer satisfied with the odd giant turkey leg or 1950s-era buffet. They want truffles, Wagyu beef and organic greens as well as breakfast with Mickey.
So if E-ticket means epicurean for you, the new Tiffins restaurant at Disney’s Animal Kingdom will be an exciting and welcome ride.
The Tiffins backstory (and this one is genuine) tells of the world travels of legendary Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde, lead designer of Animal Kingdom and the much-missed Adventurers Club at the equally lamented Pleasure Island. His discoveries flung him from Nepal to South America, and influences from those treks inform the space as well as the menu.
The 252-seat restaurant is presented as three “galleries” full of original art and artifacts from Asia and Africa, along with an animal preservation theme in the largest room. Collections of beautiful antique tiffins, multilevel metal lunch boxes used in Southern India and Nepal, grace the entrance. And the artwork on every wall is of museum quality, with a few surprisingly political works scattered among the wood carvings, repurposed plaster molds and frayed prayer flags, and silk and steel sculptures.
A first look at the global menu reminded me of a similar theme at Jungle Skipper Canteen, recently opened at the Magic Kingdom. Tiffins is far more ambitious, and truly delivers on its promises. Dishes are adventurous, flavors are alive and often bold, and the presentation is equal to any fine dining table in town. Nothing proves my point better than, as it’s listed, the “whole-fried sustainable fish” ($43), a head-on seasonal catch—yellowtail snapper on this occasion, lightly battered and fried and served on fermented black bean sauce with green papaya salad. A progression of tart, citrusy, deep and salty tastes complements the perfectly cooked flesh that flakes lightly at the touch of a chopstick or fork. It’s a delightful dish for sharing, and you get to look your meal in the eye and say thanks.
A berbere-spiced lamb chop ($41), fragrant with clove and cardamom, might be the best lamb I’ve ever had. The berbere rub, complex with notes of ginger, coriander, allspice and peppers, both elevates the meat and flavors the underlying lentil and root vegetable stew. A dab of citrusy-tart chermoula sits on top to brighten the rich mélange perfectly.
A meal can be made of the appetizers. Savory black-eyed pea fritters ($11; make your own will.i.am jokes); wonderfully delicate seasonal fish crudo with corn salsa ($15); smoky grilled octopus with a braised artichoke barigoule ($16), each with a distinctive flavor and point of view, and all exceptional.
Executive Chef Anthony De Luca, now off to direct things at the Contemporary Resort, fine-tuned the menu and taste profiles in the not-open-to-the-public Disney Flavor Lab, where “food and beverage research and development” are the order of the day. And a fine job he did.
Tiffins is on a stretch of Discovery Island that borders the construction gates for Pandora: The World of Avatar land, which is at least a year away from completion. Go now, while foot traffic is channeled elsewhere, and make some global discoveries of your own.
Next door, the Mongolian-styled Nomad lounge is the only indoor, sit-down cocktail bar at Animal Kingdom, a welcome air-conditioned respite. Along with a lovely outdoor riverside patio, the themed cocktails, a full and very high-end bar and a small bite menu of Indian butter chicken wings, Wagyu beef skewers and a savory cheese selection are highlights.