Artful African with Indian Influences
Sanaa is the newest full-service restaurant to open at Walt Disney World, the first since the Wave washed up at the Contemporary Resort a year ago.
Sanaa (say it with me: sah-NAH) opened May 1st with the Kidani Village, one of the properties in the Disney Vacation Club (say it with me: timeshare). Kidani Village is part of the Animal Kingdom Lodge compound, and Sanaa, Like the Lodge’s Jiko and Boma restaurants, has an African theme both in decor and menu. But unlike those restaurants, Sanaa uses the spices and cooking techniques of India to inspire the food.
I recently was treated to a menu tasting at Sanaa, and I must say I liked most of what I tasted.
I certainly liked what I saw. The dining room, which is supposedly modeled after an African market, is beautifully decorated and nicely appointed with hanging bottles that represent the market’s wares, and light fixtures that resemble loosely woven baskets. It’s colorful and bright, though not nearly as garishly so as the publicity photos depict. In fact, when the sun goes down the ambience is dark and moody.
Before sunset, however, through the nine-foot floor to ceiling windows, you’re likely to spot numerous wildlife (well, I guess technically they’re not wild) roaming about the resort’s “savannah.” Just after my companions and I were seated, an ostrich that had been pecking about several yards on away moved out of sight and two giraffes galloped by. Then a small herd of horned beasts, oxen perhaps, but I could be wrong, stopped by to graze. I don’t know of too many places in this country that can offer that sort of vista.
I recalled thinking that it was a good thing Jiko didn’t have views like that or it would be awkward ordering that restaurant’s ostrich strudel. But there was none on this menu, which was developed by John Clark, who oversees all the Animal Kingdom Lodge restaurants, and Sanaa chef Bob Getchell.
One of the more typical Indian dishes — at least typical of Indian restaurants in America — was the sampling of breads ($8.99), served here as a first course choice. The pirce includes a choice of three accompaniments, chutneys and raitas, from a list of eight. The paneer paratha, a naanlike bread filled with cheese and onions, was my favorite because it had a devilishly spicy taste of its own, even without one of the chutneys. Which is good because the heat was held back in the ones I sampled. The mango-lime pickle by rights should have been fiery as hell, but it barely singed the palate. A warning by the server that the coriander chutney was “very hot” was laughable.
Among the appetizers I sampled, the pulled duck with red curry sauce ($8.99) was a favorite. Here the spicing brooded and bloomed in the mouth. The duck meat was tender, and I liked the five-grain rice cake that served as the duck’s platform.
The mustard seeds that crusted the scallops ($8.99) with coconut cream sauce had been over toasted and leant a burnt flavor. Potato and pea samosas ($7.99) were chockfull of filling, but they were a tad soggy.
I enjoyed the tomato and paneer soup ($5.49). The broth was thick, and the cubes of cheese were like soft croutons.
There wasn’t anything distinctly African or Indian about the tandoori lamb chops ($20.99). They could have been prepared in a convection oven or a tandoor as far as I knew, but that doesn’t detract from their tender tastiness.
A section of the menu offers a choice of two of four entrees “slow-cooked in gravy” ($18.99). The chicken with red curry sauce and beef short ribs were both wonderful and well-seasoned (though neither really as full-flavored as they might have been), the the shrimp with green curry sauce was unremarkable.
I enjoyed the spice-crusted Cornish game hen ($17.99) with turnips and cherries quite a bit, and I say that with a bit of surprise only because I rarely find that bird worth the trouble. Here the spicing and turnips made it so much bigger than a tiny hen.
Banana leaf-wrapped “sustainable” fish ($21.99) featured halibut, unwrapped tableside and drizzled with a bit of ginger and pickled lime sauce. The fish may have been sustainable, but its moistness, alas, was not.
From the sampling of desserts, by pastry chef Ben Marrett, I liked the mango pudding ($4.49) and the vanilla coconut rice pudding ($5.49), but the carrot halva ($5.49) was just odd. Egg-less chocolate cake ($5.99) was OK, but I didn’t care for the cardamom-butter cake logs ($5.49).
The wine list, which was one of the last projects of master sommelier John Blazon before leaving Disney, does not have a gimmick like the cellars at Jiko (largest selection of South African wines outside of Africa) or the Wave (all screw-cap closures), but it is a thoughtful collection of wines from around the world. At Blazon’s suggestion, I had the Spice Rout Chakalaka from Swartland, South Africa, which is a blend of syrah and grenache. Perfect with the short ribs.
Sanaa’s arrival has been highly anticipated. So was the Wave when it opened last year. It turned out to be a bit of a disappointment and had the feel of a place that wasn’t fully finished.
That’s not the case with Sanaa. Much thought and study obviously went into this restaurant, and the outcome shows on the plate, in the dining room and even outside. It’s a unique dining experience that should entice locals as well as visitors.