Orlando's culinary landscape is growing like gangbusters. This year saw several local chefs as semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation Awards, several new food halls have been announced around the city, and celebrity chefs are still flocking to Disney Springs with big plans for events and expansion. For example, Wolfgang Puck recently reopened his restaurant at the shopping and entertainment venue and plans a pop-up version of his famous Spago in the next few months.
But food enthusiasts are abuzz about the newest Disney Springs opening, Jaleo, from Jose Andres, a Beard honoree and Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2018 for his humanitarian work on behalf of Puerto Rican hurricane relief. What sets this restaurant apart from the other recent headliner openings in Orlando is the $110, 15-course Jose's Way tasting menu, which I had the pleasure of experiencing on a recent visit.
Tasting menus exist in Orlando, but they're exclusive to the pricey hotel restaurants like Victoria & Albert's at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa and Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes. Jaleo's tasting menu option and its even more budget-friendly sister, the 12-course, $70 Jaleo Experience, are among the first to be offered during all dinner services. Both feature highlights from the main menu and are an excellent value for indecisive foodies who want a full survey of the kitchen's prowess without having to choose from among the dozens of tapas and entrees on offer.
On our visit to Jaleo, I asked our server if he thought Jose's Way was a good value. He pointed out that ordering just two of the menu dishes ala carte -- the $20 Gin and Tonic oysters for $20 and the $69 secreto skirt steak, for instance would run you as much as the tasting menu, which would get you a sample of those plus 13 other sample-size menu items, including desserts.
Croquetas de pollo served on a "princess cushion" at Jaleo at Disney Springs.
The whole experience took about two hours, and by the end of it, we were stuffed to the brim (with the tasting menu, all at the table must order it). Every dish was perfectly executed and truly exciting, featuring Andres' signature twists on Spanish classics. Here are some highlights:
We started with the aceitunas modernas y clasicas, which pairs the celebrated liquid olives -- the molecular gastronomy creation, perfected by Albert and Ferran Adria of Spain's El Bulli restaurant -- with traditional green olives stuffed with piquillo pepper and silvery anchovy. It was a perfect amuse-bouche along with hand-carved slices of savory Iberico ham topped with supreme caviar and served as Jose's Taco. Yes, it's totally fine to eat caviar with your fingers.
I fell in love with the ensalada rusa, essentially a creamy, satisfying potato and tuna salad covered in housemade mayonnaise and a generous heap of salmon roe. Neither my husband nor I are huge fans of onions, but we both devoured the cebolla asada, which are thick slices of white onion, roasted until caramelized, sweet and jammy and topped with Spanish blue cheese and pine nuts. Maybe we do like onions after all.
The secreto skirt steak is legendary in Spain. It's called "secret" because it was so flavorful that the butchers used to keep it for themselves. This secreto comes from black-footed Iberico pigs and was perfectly seasoned with a delicious seared crust and juicy interior. It was likely the best piece of pork I'd ever tasted.
Instead of being served an entire plate of paella, the paellas are cooked in a giant paella pit kitchen, and when it's ready, the chef clangs a cowbell and the servers all respond "Paella!" in unison. Then, the servers have to time it right to deliver plates of paella fresh to diners. Our paella was perfection, featuring tender chicken and head-on shrimp.
And then came the trio of full-size desserts. By this time, we were full to bursting, but we made plenty of room for a refreshing yogurt ice cream on top of grapefruit granita and grapefruit slices. I couldn't stop spooning up the goat cheesecake, which showcased the tang of the cheese without the overpowering sweetness.
Disney Springs' Jaleo is an enormous restaurant -- it's well over 250 seats -- but the service was flawless, quite impressive given that the place had been open just a little more than a month. Several other media guests who I chatted with at our dinner agreed that a visit to this restaurant is well worth the trip from where most of us live, in the greater Orlando metro area, to Lake Buena Vista. I, for one, can't wait to go back and taste the rest of the menu, especially now that I've put quite a dent in it, thanks to Jose's Way.