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Once you know the meaning of the word Jaleo, it all makes more sense. Commotion, uproar, din, jumble — all those translations could describe the new restaurant at Disney Springs. It can also mean revelry, defined as lively and noisy festivities, especially when alcohol is involved. Let’s go with that one.
Jaleo (say hah-LAY-oh) is a Spanish restaurant from José Andrés. In fact, the official name is Jaleo by José Andrés. Andrés has been a well-known chef for many years, but he has been particularly celebrated over the past year for his organization’s efforts in feeding the hurricane victims in Puerto Rico and federal employees affected by the recent partial government shutdown in Washington, D.C., where he is based. He has been recognized as Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation and last year was named that organization’s Humanitarian of the Year. He has twice been on Time magazine’s list of “100 Most Influential People.” The original Jaleo, which opened in Washington in 1993, is a finalist for Outstanding Restaurant in this year’s Beard Awards. He has also been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
The Disney Springs Jaleo is the chain’s fifth — others are in the D.C. area and Las Vegas — and the largest.
And it certainly is big. Occupying the lakefront space previously occupied by Wolfgang Puck Cafe, it is multileveled and sprawls over 22,000 square feet, with multiple bars and seating, both inside and out, for 543 people. (Puck recently opened Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill elsewhere at Disney Springs.)
The central dining space is an atrium of sorts, with tables and booths situated beneath a tall six-sided glass and mirror art piece that presumably doubles as a chandelier. A vast mural of a Spanish coastal village (with a red chandelier hanging over the water, for some reason) covers the wall next to the sweeping staircase that leads to the second floor.
Beneath the stairs is a show kitchen with a wood-fired paella station, where you can watch the flames engulf the massive pans bubbling with rice and seafood and saffron. Beaded and block-and-wire curtains attempt to break up the dining areas, and stenciled tile flooring and bare-topped tables give the feel of a tapas restaurant in Barcelona or Madrid.
The menu is as sprawling as the space and can be intimidating to the non Spanish speaker. I was somewhat relieved when my guest and I were invited to experience the chef’s tasting menu, which, according to the menu, is a culinary journey through España with “José’s favorite tapas and plates.”
It’s a long journey.
We started with Ibérico ham, sliced tableside by a wandering cortador de jamones.
More of the ham was featured in José’s Taco, a slice of jamon as the wrap with pearls of green caviar as the filling.
Next came Gin and Tonic Oysters, which were just that: raw oysters on the half shell with a bit of gin and tonic on top. Quite refreshing.
Aceitunas modernas y clásicas featured olives two ways. The first were little green blobs on a spoon, a molecular gastronomic burst of flavor a la Ferran Adrià. It was paired with a gordal, or fat, olive stuffed with a piquillo pepper and an anchovy.
Ensaladilla rusa, a sort of Russian potato salad with tuna, carrots and peas mixed with mayonnaise and topped with fish eggs, was the only thing I tasted all evening that I wouldn’t want again. The texture was too smooth and the taste too salty.
But the Patatas Bravas, with fried hunks of potatoes on a plop of tomato sauce and topped with splotches of aioli, was wonderful.
And a tapa that is unique, we were told, to this Jaleo, delicate hand-picked squid, lightly breaded and fried and served with an ink sauce, was just as good.
The squid was served with Pan de Cristal con Tomate, crispy pieces of bread spread with a tomato sauce. Salty and delicious.
Roasted sweet onions topped with pine nuts and blue cheese was a bit ho hum.
But the simple Croquetas de Pollo were extraordinary. The outside of the fritters was golden and crispy and the inside was creamy and mouth filling. (In Vegas the croquetas are served, for some odd reason, in shoes — not elegant slippers or stilettos but sneakers. That was apparently deemed unsuitable for Disney Springs, so they’re served on hard plastic tuffets.)
Several items on the menu are described as traditional or popular or famous, but the Gambas al ajillo is presented as “the very, very famous tapa.” It is a simple but satisfying dish of shrimp and thinly sliced garlic sauteed in olive oil with a touch of brandy, topped with an Arbol chile.
For a meat course, we were served an Ibérian pig skirt steak, tenderly grilled and served with a honey aioli and a cilantro based mojo verde. But all the juicy meat really needed was a pinch of the sea salt provided on the marbled plate.
Paella followed, naturally. Ours was a simple mix of vegetables — carrots, green beans, zucchini, peppers — and mushrooms.
After all that food, the thought of dessert was overwhelming. But the Cítricos con Helado de Acite de Oliva was a perfect ending. It featured slices of grapefruit topped with a grapefruit granita and a scoop of olive oil ice cream. Cool and refreshingly light.
Service was polished and prompt and responsive to our needs and wishes. Management was ever present throughout the restaurant.
Prices are not insignificant, but the quality is level with the pricing. A full complement of tapas can be a splurge, but you owe yourself a little revelry now and then.
Jaleo by José Andrés is at Disney Springs. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 321-348-3211.