Small plates fizzle on a big stage.
José Andrés is a big deal. A big man with big talent and an even bigger personality who’s enjoyed some awfully big success. As his philanthropic work in Puerto Rico suggests, he’s comfortable doing things on the grandest of scales and newly opened Jaleo at Disney Springs is grand. It’s 22,000 square feet of culinary target on his back.
Andrés, originally from Spain, is anecdotally credited with bringing the small plates concept to the States. In 1993, He joined the team that opened the first Jaleo in Washington D.C. (Disney Springs is the 5th), which was not long after his split with renowned chef Ferran Adrià at equally renowned elBulli and a quick dip of his toe in NYC restaurant waters.
The progeny of elBulli, known as Bullinianos, are no joke and Andrés is among the best. There’ve been very few kitchens around the world that have churned out the talent or had the depth of industry impact. There’s even a website dedicated to them: https://bullinianos.com/en/ . As an aside, one of my favorite restaurants in Spain, Compartir on the Costa Brava, was started by three elBulli boys.
When Jaleo opened its DC doors, Orlando Eats’ Go-Kart Romeo was a proud Washingtonian and it quickly became a firm favorite. As you might imagine, in comparison to Disney Springs the DC location is a more intimate affair with a slightly more extensive (and interesting) menu.
Despite many trips to visit Go-Kart, I never had the opportunity to visit Jaleo. To be honest, the food was intriguing but the atmosphere always struck me as a tad off-putting – very in-your-face, very franchisable, very merchandisable. Despite this, I was genuinely excited when I learned that Jaleo was coming to Orlando and equally excited to try it.
If you’ve read our review of Winter Park’s Bulla (HERE), you’ll know that I’ve spent a good deal of my life in Spain. I can make a deeply dubious claim to being one of the most Spain-savvy gringos in Mouse Town. I won’t do it. But I could. Hey, don’t want to be associated with dubious claims. You know, like planting a flag on the Yankee small plate revolution. Anywho. Let’s dispense with the pleasantries and talk food.
Our meal kicked into gear with a smorgasbord of nibbles – the first being Jamón Ibérico de Bellota ($36) cut by hand at the table from a Fermín leg cured for 36-48 months. It’s by far the best Spanish ham I’ve had in Orlando but far from the best Spanish ham I’ve had. When ordering Jamón Ibérico you want to know the percentage of the Ibérico breed it’s derived from, 100% being the best. When not specified, it generally means it’s a blend. 100% Ibérico produces an almost ethereal fattiness, whereas when blended (say, with the Duroc breed) you get a lower fat meat that’s not as ‘melty’ in the mouth. When it comes to Jamón Ibérico fat is where it’s at. Percentages aside, this was damn fine ham. If you’re into the treat that is meat, go for it. It’s very good. Just know that if you fall down the jamón rabbit hole there’s no coming back – it’s an expensive addiction.
Pan con tomate (tomato bread, $12) was spot on delish. I believe we were told that Jaleo ships the bread (pan de cristal) in from Barcelona. I believe it. We ship frozen loaves of the wonderful pan de cristal to the haunted mansion on a far too frequent basis (it can be ordered online). In any case, this is one of those oft-remarked-upon restaurant barometer dishes that’s at its best when it’s equal parts quality and simplicity. Good bread, good tomatoes, good olive oil. Get the execution right and – boom – everyone loves you. Everyone loved Jaleo’s Pan de Cristal con Tomate.
Anchovies from Don Bocarte ($30) were equally gorgeous – clean, beautifully textured and worked exceptionally well when layered atop the pan con tomate. Heavenly. This may seem like an insane amount to pay for anchovies, but if your insane about anchovies it’s not. They’re a taste of what anchovies should be and, like pan de cristal, you can buy them on ye olde interwebs.
Sobrassada ibérica is spreadable cured sausage, made with Ibérico pork and Spanish pimentón (smoked paprika). At Jaleo, it’s served with honeycomb and toasted bread ($15). This was a tasty bite but I’m a bit of a sobrassada junkie (who doesn’t like spreadable meat?) and didn’t feel it delivered the spicy kick or fatty flavor punch it should. Although a tad dumbed down, we’d order it again.
All of the above? A brilliant start but a brilliance born of curation rather than creation. Regardless, phase 1 found us on cloud nueve and eager for more.
Then the food-food arrived.
For us, phase 2 was about testing Jaleo’s hand at the tried and true. It was largely a cavalcade of traditional tapas /slash/ kitchen measuring sticks. It was also a big ole’ bummer.
The classic tortilla ($12) at Jaleo – a potato and onion omelet – was muy meh. Fairly flavorless with an odd juxtaposition of dry/spongy and runny. Winter Park’s Bulla turns out one of the best tortillas we’ve ever had (anywhere) and at half the price of Jaleo. If you’re into your tortilla española, spend the $6 you’ll save on this dish on the gas required to drive north of town. Jaleo’s tortilla wasn’t as bad as many of the plastic-wrapped store-bought versions I became all too familiar with in supermercados in Spain, but it’s in the neighborhood.
Buñuelos de bacalao (cod fritters, $13) are one of my favorite Spanish nibbles. There’s a hidden courtyard cafe in Barca’s El Born where they reach near perfection; served with a gently crisped exterior, a light as a feather interior plumped with cod, and drizzled with an aromatic honey that makes my heart weep. Jaleo’s version had none of this. Flaccid, dense and doughy with little in the way of flavor and accompanied by a so-so honey mayo. Tasted a little heat-lampy. A waste of carbs and calories.
Judging by the manner in which they’re served, the Croquetas de Pollo (chicken fritters, $12) at Jaleo are held in fairly high regard. Methinks too much so. There’s a scripted story which is delivered along with the croquetas which I won’t get into but the punchline is that they’re served on a faux-tufted pillow. If you go, you’ll get the spiel – it’s actually a playful bit of irony. The croquetas themselves are OK. Cooked well. The fancy window dressing doesn’t do much to elevate them beyond boringly good, however.
Patatas Bravas ($10) are the seaside caviar of many a sunburnt Brit. They gorge on them before drunkenly vomiting them up on to the wee-hour streets of the Costa del Sol. They can also be very good. Fried potatoes with mayo (aioli) and a spicy tomato sauce? What’s not to like? Jaleo’s version it appears. There was little in the way of crisp (a recurring theme) and they were a bit dense with oil. Again, boring. Again, Bulla in Orlando’s Winter Park does a version that is far superior.
One of the dishes I frequently make at home is Gambas al Ajillo. Basically, shrimp poached in a bath of chili and garlic infused olive oil. I enjoy cooking it in a traditional cazuela and when they turn out right, life becomes rainbows and bubblegum. It’s also one of the best friends a piece of crusty bread could ever have. Jaleo’s version ($18) was adequate-good. No, I won’t tell you that Bulla in Winter Park does a better job. We’ve yet to find a resto in Orlando that’s perfected Gambas al Ajillo. It’s a fairly simple Spanish classic and an example of how difficult simple is to do (hint: quality ingredients are step one). If you’re into shrimp, Jaleo’s are worth trying.
Pulpo a la Gallega ($20) is an octopus dish I’ve had more times than I can count. Although based on fairly fixed ingredients (potato, pimentón, olive oil) and technique (boiled) it’s always a complete crapshoot. Jaleo’s version is borderline awful – a boiled bit of sliminess and our worst bite of the meal. Deeply disappointing. Skip it.
All of the above? A tired tasting parade of texturally suspect disappointment. Phase 2 was saved from being a complete disaster by a single bite; Andrés’ signature tribute to Ferran Adrià – Aceitunas Modernas y Clásicas ($12) – liquefied olives served in individual spoons. They pop in the mouth with a delicious, briney intensity and are served alongside very good (unliquefied) gordal olives stuffed with piquillo pepper and anchovy. Not simple but simple. Lovely.
Phase 3 promised bigger plates and better tastes. We toasted to hope.
We’d arrived genuinely excited about ordering Secreto Ibérico bellota – a thin shoulder cut of pork from the renowned black-footed Ibérico pigs of Spain. Think a more tender flank steak with a wonderfully nutty fattiness. We quickly learned the dish had been nixed, which was a shame. A quick and confident proclamation: One of my absolute favorite dishes on Planet Earth is Presa Ibérica at London’s Pizarro. It’s a thick shoulder steak of the above pork but from Cinco Jotas (100% pure Ibérico and simply the best of the best). It’s grilled medium rare and served with salted padrones and roasted potatoes. Kee-reist is it good. Presa Ibérica also features on the menu at Jaleo’s DC location (not on Disney’s). Although I find the nixed secreto cut a step down I was still looking forward to it. Didn’t happen. No biggie. We were steered to a lesser cut served with mojo verde and aioli that the table enjoyed, but it didn’t slake my thirst for piggie perfection.
We also attempted to order a paella of lobster and squid but it too had been nixed. Nix, nix. A recommendation was made to replace it with Rossejat and a damn fine recommendation it was. Described as a “traditional ‘paella’ of toasted pasta with shrimp and squid sofrito with alioli,” rossejat de fideus is a Catalan dish; a quicker, easier version of classic Valencian fideuà. Paella adjacent? Very much so, and a mighty fine bite. Deeply, deeply rich with seafood stock and what we’re guessing was a bit of squid ink. In any case, it was a winning bit of textural heaven (especially the crunchy bits scraped from the pan). A big hit.
For good measure, we also ordered a small plate of Paella Valenciana, which is about as traditional as paella gets; chicken, rabbit, green beans, lima beans. This was OK. The overall texture was slightly gluey but the meaty bits? Tasty enough.
That’s it for food. We did attempt to order dessert but the grapefruit granita with olive oil ice cream? You guessed it. Nixed. Nixed, nixed, nixed. *shaking my fists at the heavens*
So… on to the other stuff. Service at Jaleo is spectacular. No exaggeration. We had a very large, very boisterous table and our server (and his compadres) did an absolute bang up job of keeping things light, pro and flowing. Speaking of flowing. We drank a little bit.
First things first – lubing brains and mouths with gin and tonic. As mentioned in previous reviews, Spain is home to some of the better G&T’s I’ve ever had (with sincere apologies to England, my second homeland). A thyme-scented “Mediterranean” G&T was suggested and we obliged. Although charming, we felt it was far too muted with vermouth; best suited for those who want a G&T but don’t want a G&T. We like the taste of gin and after several rounds of haranguing our server (adolescent assholery), he simply brought us a glass filled with good gin with a bottle of Fever Tree riding shotgun. Sorry, fella (and thank you).
Spanish wine options at Jaleo are extremely impressive. We enjoyed a fantastic Mencia; a 2016 Raul Perez Ultreia St. Jacques. This is very good juice. Fleshy and rich. There was also a polarizing white – the 2015 Jose Luis Mateo Garcia Candea; a blend of indigenous Galician grapes. Hey, I enjoy sucking on stones. Not all our Orlando Eaters are down with the same level of minerality. To each his own. Regardless, I’m not used to seeing these types of real deal Spanish wines on Orlando lists. Kudos to Jaleo.
I’d be ignoring the 22,000 square foot elephant that is the room if I didn’t mention the space itself. It is large and inviting and has been carefully segmented so as to not make diners feel as if they’re eating in an auditorium. Although there’s what feels like an almost forced brashness on display here and there, I found it tasteful on the whole, with a very workable flow and thoughtful table spacing.
Final reflections. I’ve spent far too much time in tapas bars; crawling from barstool to barstool in San Sebastian, toothpicking caracoles from their shell in Sevillian dives, noshing on the finest croquetas de chipirones I’ve ever had in seaside Cadaques. The best seem to share a commonality. Their scale. Their intimacy. Quality tapas don’t take to industrial sized output. The tastiest require TLC. Mass production sucks the life from things – especially food – and Jaleo’s Disney outpost seems to suffer from attempting it. I was genuinely hoping to avoid coming to this conclusion, but much of the cooked food feels theme-parked. This isn’t a blanket knock on theme park dining – I’ve had many excellent meals at both Universal and Disney – it’s a knock on big food. It inevitably arrives with a vaguely appealing cosmetic varnish but lacks the soulfulness – the depth of flavor, the mouthfeel, the magical connect between heart and brain and nose and mouth – born of detail.
Advice? If you manage to find yourself in Disney Springs, have a bit of mad money and order correctly, Jaleo can be a good time. A convivial room, some good ham, pan con tomate, a great bottle of wine, perhaps a shared paella? It’s not the end of the world. However, if you’re serious about food, you’re likely to be disappointed. Don’t go out of your way to get there. With Jaleo’s location and elevated price point we’re unlikely to return. We’re far more likely to log on to something like Tienda.com where we can buy most of the stuff we enjoyed.
A final word of warning; As is the case here in Mouse Town, the Dizzy’s are out in full force. If you were to believe the virtual army of zombie shills and mercenary theme park bloggers that attempt to occupy every centimeter of online real estate, Jaleo is slinging manna from heaven. The truth is that it’s a big pricey piece of OK with enough high quality curated bits to keep you distracted from the shortcomings of its kitchen.