Aug 8, 2021

Embracing Jaleo’s total tapas experience in Orlando, Fla.

I love to cook.  I love to eat even more.  It’s probably because of people like me that we have so many celebrity chefs in our culture.  One of my current favorites is Jose Andres, partly because my culinary tastes have been going through a phase where I can’t get enough of the tapas, or small plate, dining that is so synonymous with Andres’ cuisine and Spanish heritage.

With this in mind, when Punky wanted to spend a couple of nights in Orlando as part of this year’s spring road trip, she knew exactly how to get me to go along with it.  She booked us a dinner at the Disney Springs location of Andres’ signature restaurant, Jaleo.

When you think of a traditional tapas bar, you might envision a small hole in the wall on a cobblestone street with just a few booths and a bar inside for seating and a small kitchen in the back.  Jaleo, however, -- in keeping with the Disney tradition of more is more – is nothing like that.  It’s big, bold and spacious.  And it’s constantly humming with activity.    

The décor from the bottom to the top is vibrant and dazzling.  From the moment you walk in, you should realize that not only are you in for a great meal, you’re going to be entertained. 

And if you’re lucky enough to be seated close enough, you’ll get to see the orchestrated chaos of servers bustling by the paella station.  The constant flow of plates coming to tables is pretty impressive, as is the paella preparation.   

Knowing we were diving into somewhat unfamiliar waters, our server could not have been more cheerful and helping.  And between the food and drink menu, we had a lot to consider.  Fortunately, you can’t go wrong with sangria to whet the appetite – especially when there are four varieties on the menu.  We opted for a pitcher of Jaleo’s “standard” sangria – Sangria roja La Sueca – which was a wonderful blend of fruity, winy and refreshing flavors.      

We knew we’d likely be sharing whatever we ordered with the Kiddo, but we also knew she could be “selective” about what she eats in an unfamiliar environment.  With that in mind, she ordered a grilled cheese from the kid’s menu to supplement whatever she decided to sample.  That may seem like an overly simplistic selection, but considering the cheeses Jaleo serves, it proved to be anything but ordinary.  

And maybe it was the sangria that helped us make our final decision because we both ordered the Jaleo Experience – a several-course tasting of whatever tapas the waiter chose to bring us that he felt fully represented the best of the menu.  In hindsight, one “Experience” was probably enough to share among us all.  But two “Experiences?”  This turned out to be a happy miscalculation of epic proportions! 

And so, not long into our first glass of sangria, the tapas started to appear before us.  Our main server brought out one dish.  Another server followed right behind him.  Sometimes yet another server would drop off a dish.  And so on. 

The super flauta was the first dish to arrive.  And this is not your ordinary ham and cheese flatbread.  This is 36-month cured ham shoulder from Iberia sliced paper-thin and paired with a slightly sharp Manchego cheese, both layered over an equally crusty and chewy bread topped with tomato sauce and olive oil.  Things were just getting interesting.

Then the cones came. 

Like many great chefs, Jose Andres is not afraid to break the mold and get the diner out of one’s comfort zone.  That’s definitely what the tapas under the section of the menu titled “Jose’s Way” are about.  I had never previously had either salmon tartare or trout roe, and I certainly never expected them to be served in a mini-cone one would otherwise expect to be topped with ice cream.  The presentation was fun, the flavors were intense, and the cone provided a nice sweet contrast.   

But the waiters weren’t done challenging our notions of how certain food is meant to be served.  As soon as we had completed our cones, Punky and I were each presented with a small ladle filled with a briny, foamy broth.   It turned out to be the essence of a green olive in liquid form.  I often joke about how foodies on cooking shows use overblown words to describe certain dishes, but this was truly sublime – so much so that I forgot to take a picture. 

I barely had time to compose myself before the next round in the parade of small plates arrived, starting with a green apple and fennel salad topped with cubed Manchego cheese and walnuts.  A light sherry dressing completed the dish.  Once again, the mingling of ingredients and the diversity of flavors worked perfectly.  Even the Kiddo was rightfully impressed.

Our second salad of sorts tasted as good as it looked – endive stuffed with goat cheese, oranges and almonds.  This one was also savored slowly by all three of us.  

Then, the first of our hot plates arrived with the most “over the top” presentation of the evening – four croquetas de pollo, each resting on its own corner of a leather pillow.  I’m fairly certain that’s not dishwasher-safe.   

Apparently, this is Jaleo’s version of a chicken fritter, which most people rave about.  But frankly, to me this was the most disappointing (maybe ordinary is a better description?) tapas we tried.  It reminded me of breading stuffed with chicken pot pie filling.  I guess I expected a more intense flavor. 

The patatas bravas, on the other hand, were a fine example of a dish that seemed simple to prepare but, in all likelihood, almost impossible to replicate.  It’s just fried potatoes, but I challenge anyone to make them better, and the combination of tomato sauce and aioli Jaleo uses makes this dish an unforgettable favorite. 

You may also see in this photo that the Kiddo had been nibbling on her grilled cheese for some time by this point and was well into sharing the rest of our sharables.  The patatas bravas was one of her favorites, too.

Perhaps the dish most loved by all three of us was Jaleo’s version of carne asada.  First of all, the quality of the flat iron steak was obviously top-notch.  Then, it was grilled with a wonderful char on the outside and cooked just the right amount of time to make it impossibly tender and juicy on the inside.  Pairing it with grilled piquillo peppers made the steak shine even better.  The mix of juices from both is hard to describe, especially when you try a taste of both at the same time.  Any steak lover would be crazy to pass this up.  

The last item delivered to our table was another “classic” tapas dish, and another best-seller at Jaleo – the garlic sauteed shrimp.  It’s served sizzling, and the garlic flavor is powerful even before you bite into your first prawn.  It’s another dish that seems simple and doesn’t require a lot of ingredients, but the finished product is so good that it’s almost surreal.  You also get just enough bread for dipping when the sizzle settles down.  Punky is still learning to like shrimp, so allowed the Kiddo and me to devoured most of this dish while she finished off the steak.   

I’ve struggled to describe just how good everything we tried really was during our total tapas experience at Jaleo Disney Springs.  It’s not hyperbole, though, when I say this was probably one of the five best meals I’ve had in my lifetime.  It was certainly one of the most memorable, from the service to the atmosphere, presentation and deliciousness of every dish we tried. 

Fortunately for foodies everywhere, there are more Jaleo outposts popping up across the country beyond the original in Washington, D.C., and the one we visited in Orlando, Fla.  For instance, one just opened in Chicago, much closer to my stomping grounds.  This is destination dining of the type which every commoner deserves to be treated to once in a while.  Find the Jaleo restaurant near you, and enjoy.    

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