I don’t participate in many of the one-off Disney World events. The purpose of this website is largely to guide you, Dear Reader, towards more informed decisions concerning where to spend your time and money on a Walt Disney World vacation. And if there’s something out there that will exist only one time, whether it’s the best or worst thing in the world is of little consequence. But since I have a Tiffins update to get to anyway, I thought I would open this review with a little bit about my experience attending the Tiffins Talks series with Joe Rohde on the afternoon of Thursday, April 26th.
Tiffins Talks are/were 4-course meals hosted by one of six Disney conservationists at the Tiffins restaurant at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Speakers ranged from Dr. Joseph Soltis speaking about the relationship between honeybees and elephants in Kenya to Dr. Scott Terrell discussing the status of Sumatran tiger conservation in Asia. As of this writing, two Talks are still on the calendar. You can pull up Disney’s official word here along with booking information. The cost is $165/person, which includes tax and gratuity. Seating was reserved, so we checked in and were brought to our table, which was shared with another party. This postcard keepsake with the date, the signatures of the Tiffins team, and my purported last name greeted me at the table. A nice touch.
The meal took place in the Trek Gallery, which offered quite a bit of intimacy as there wasn’t any through traffic. In my mind, I had envisioned some sort of roundtable situation, sort of like Thanksgiving when mom tries to rearrange three tables all at different heights into one long table that can seat about a quarter of the family comfortably. Instead, guests sat at tables in the regular configuration. This seemed to work well enough as those that would ordinarily have their backs to the front of the room where Joe was speaking could reposition their chairs slightly while he was talking.
Mr. Rohde is a gracious and humble host who is fiercely passionate about his work. You can’t help but be interested in everything that he has to say.
While four courses were advertised, our meal began with a couple of hors d’oeuvres and a glass of sparkling wine. Joe came by, introduced himself, and welcomed each person shortly after they sat down. His excitement to talk to a bunch of random tourists in turn made us all the more excited to be there. I would also mention that Joe added this second Tiffins Talk after his first scheduled appearance immediately sold out. He left for the airport right after our lunch.
The menu for each of the Tiffins Talks is based around the subject of the discussion with no course ever served twice.
Chef de Cuisine David Njoroge, who came over from Sanaa, introduced each of the first three courses as they were served. The pastry chef came out and discussed dessert.
Our first course, “Verlasso King Salmon – Thai Chili, Seaweed Dust, Caviar, Kalamansi Emulsion.” This was fantastic – perfectly contrasting the spicy quality of the pepper with the sweet and acidic quality of the citrus-forward sauce. The burst of juice from the watermelon squares also played well against the saltiness of the salmon and caviar. Absolutely delicious.
It was interesting to hear about how Joe got his start as a designer for the Adventurers Club in what was then Downtown Disney. If I was going to describe my perception of Mr. Rohde, I’m probably not alone in thinking that he seems like a well-traveled crazy person.
But nobody starts out well-traveled and it was interesting to hear about his first visit to Africa, which he described as a “boondoggle” where hotel reservations were lost and they spent the majority of their time sleeping in hallways and wherever there was room. Animal Kingdom was in development for eight years as Rohde and a small team traveled around the world.
It was also interesting to hear him talk about the importance of sketching what they saw.
When you draw, you get a “feel” for how things are built, much more than you would from taking a picture or trying to remember what something looked like. You have to draw exactly how the roof is attached to the rest of the building, for example, in intricate detail.
He doesn’t use a lot of color because that’s the sort of thing that you can easily take away from a photo. Here’s an example of how a sketch became reality in the Asia section of the Park.
Immediately after he put this photo up, I think just about everyone in the room thought, “That’s the Kali River Rapids entrance!”
He spent some time explaining the differences between how Epcot World Showcase was created and how Animal Kingdom was conceived. At Epcot, you’re seeing replicas of famous buildings like the Temple of Heaven in China, the Doge’s Palace in Italy, or the Eiffel Tower in France. And you’re actively comparing those replicas to what you’ve seen in person or in media. Nobody looks up at the Eiffel Tower in Epcot and mistakes themselves for being in Paris. At Animal Kingdom, they didn’t want to theme the Lands around specific geopolitical places. The Africa section of the Park is not Nairobi, for example. Instead, Harambe is themed around the sorts of things that you would expect to see if you were in Africa alongside the elephants, hippos, gorillas, and other animals that call that section their home. You really “feel” like you’ve been transported to a new place where you actually could go on a 2-week African safari.
One of my favorite stories, the retelling of which I’m sure that I’ll butcher, was about a Balinese carver whose work had caught the group’s attention. They went to visit him to ask about commissioning some pieces, but the carver was already working on some cats for a woman in New Hampshire. They eventually convinced him to move their order to the top of his list, but the job was going to require specific wood, in addition to paying extra for the rush job and the hassle of switching his work schedule around. The carver quoted a total price of $70. Those carvings went on to become the inspiration for the Tree of Life.
Balinese artists have made considerable contributions to Animal Kingdom.
This roof in the Kali River Rapids queue is likely the largest example of Balinese folk art in the United States. If only the ride made seeing it worthwhile. Balinese artists also painted the ceiling above the Banshee Rookery in the Windtraders store in Pandora. And speaking of Pandora, a lot of the woven elements that you see all over the Land were handmade by artists in Java, another island in Indonesia.
The second course, “Vindaloo – Scallop, Prawn, Squid, Jasmine Rice, Mango, Curry Leaf.”
The meal was paced very nicely – Joe would talk for about 25 minutes and then we would be served one of the courses. While we were eating, Joe went from table to table spending five-or-so minutes with each group answering questions and telling stories. The kid at our table actually asked Rohde when the yeti was going to be fixed and Joe answered him like nobody had ever asked the question before. The answer is the same one that we’ve been told for years – technically, it’s going to be incredibly difficult and time consuming to fix. He said that the mountain itself “couldn’t hold up a lunchbox” in describing how the yeti is positioned 50 feet above the track.
Course three – “Gulai Kambing – Spice-crusted Lamb Chops, Masala Potatoes, Papaya Chutney, Black Garlic.”
I would mention that each course was also paired with wine. You can see how much of it is sitting on the next table there. This course arrived with a glass of Cheval des Andes Bordeaux Blend from Mendoza, Argentina. Retail on this is $80, which means the restaurant would offer the bottle for around $200. Not only that, but they came back around and filled my glass a second time. WHAT A LIFE. The 67% Malbec, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Petit Verdot blend paired beautifully.
There isn’t much use in describing this other than to say it was so good. So good.
Since we were at a restaurant enjoying lunch, Mr. Rohde spent some time discussing how food impacted their many research trips. One particularly amusing story unfolded around drinking Mustang Coffee, which is a mixture of whiskey, sugar, butter, and coffee late into the night in an effort to stay up and stay warm. The goal was to be able to sleep through the night given the temperature outside was going to drop to -20 degrees and you wanted to be asleep during that part. That must be why you’ll typically find me sipping Canadian Club on the couch well past midnight. Don’t want to risk waking to that chilly 85-degree RealFeel at 3am in Orlando in July. Joe also explained the group’s work ethic, saying that while food did play a major role in their experience, that they spent the daylight hours working. He actually had a picture of one of the turkey rollups that were a common part of his afternoons. Once the sun went down, they relaxed and enjoyed everything that the area that they were visiting offered.
Finally, we finished with “Coffee Cake – Cinnamon Chiffon, Indonesian Coffee Semifreddo, Batavia Arrack.” Unbelievably tasty. So refreshing. I wish that this, and everything else, whould find its way onto the regular menu.
Overall, the food was fantastic – one of the best meals that I’ve enjoyed on property with all sorts of flavors working in tandem. Service was fantastic. Mr. Rohde is so gracious and personable – a fantastic storyteller and one of the most interesting people that you could ever hope to meet. The whole experience clocked in at two-and-a-half hours, but felt like it flew by. At the conclusion, Joe took pictures, signed autographs, and chatted with everyone in attendance. It was an incredible event.
And as if that wasn’t enough, each person came home with this bag full of goodies. To the left is a copy of The Disney Conservation Fund: Carrying Forward a Conservation Legacy signed by Mr. Rohde. The book is apparently free on Kindle right now if you want to pick it up at this link. You can read it immediately on your computer, or send it to another device, even if you don’t have a Kindle. We also received the pin on the lower right, which is only available if you donate at least $100 to the Disney Conservation Fund at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. There’s also a trio of truffles in the upper left and the signed picture of the honey badger artwork, in addition to a printed copy of the menu.
So it ended up being a fantastic value. The food was worth at least $75. I wouldn’t ordinarily order a $200 bottle of wine, but two glasses of that along with four other glasses is easily worth another $50-$75. Add three hours with Joe Rohde and the parting gift, including a signed copy of the $40 print book, and it was quite the experience. I feel fortunate to have participated.
As far as the regular menu is concerned, you’ll find three new appetizers since our last visit for the Chef’s Tasting Menu earlier this year. I review that experience in this post. The Tasting Menu, typically offered during lunch, is a good opportunity to visit Tiffins, enjoy the atmosphere, the food, and the service for less than the cost of most entrees. That review also discusses the restaurant in more detail and offers a look at a lot of the dishes on the menu. Above, the Charred Octopus is a new presentation with new accompaniments, the Spiced Chickpea Falafel replaces the Black-Eyed Pea Fritters, and you’ll find the Asparagus-Leek Soup in place of the Butternut Squash Soup.
Unfortunately, the batteries in my flash died right after taking the first picture of the bread, so we’ll be flying blind.
Here’s the $16 “Charred Octopus – Romesco Sauce, Olive Tapenade, Chorizo, Squid Ink Aïoli.” Previously, it arrived with “Salsify, Saffron Aïoli, and Lemon-Caper Olive Oil.” We thought this was an upgrade – the octopus itself doesn’t carry much flavor, but it’s beautifully charred and incredibly tender. The Romesco Sauce offered a wonderful depth of flavor – garlic, paprika, almonds, and pepper that created a sauce that was far more than “just spicy.” The octopus combined with the sauce was delicious when paired together, but the Olive Tapenade added an acidic component along with the salt in the meaty chorizo that made the flavor profile all the more addicting. It’s not a ton of food for 16 bucks – you get about three ounces of the octopus – but I think it’s worth it.
I’m potentially less excited about the $13 “Asparagus-Leek Soup – Jumbo Lump Crab, Baby Spinach, Meyer Lemon Oil.” The soup itself is velvety with a mild asparagus flavor, but the crab meat didn’t seem to belong, doing little more than adding a couple of lumpy bites that largely tasted like saltwater. It was also served lukewarm. You might have better luck.
And the $11 “Spiced Chickpea Falafel – Mint-Pistachio Pesto, Coconut Chutney, Pickled Vegetables.” I’m not sure how well this is working either – it certainly doesn’t strike me as being attractively-plated and I thought the falafel itself was mushy. The previous incarnation was probably on the dry side more often than not, but the crunchy texture seems preferable and I liked the spiciness of the Peppadew Purée matched with the Zhough Yogurt more than the herbal flavors of the current iteration.
This is what we’re looking at as far as entrees are concerned:
The steak has seen some changes and the Vanilla-Poached South African Lobster Tail is a relatively recent addition.
Here is that steak in the $53 “Snake River Farms Wagyu Eye of Rib-Eye – Marble Potato Confit, Bacon-Sherry Vinaigrette, Cauliflower Variations, Amarula Crème.” It certainly looks the part, but the meat was incredibly tough – much more so than a sirloin you’d pick up at the grocery store for around $6/pound. I liked the Amarula sauce, which was creamy with a little bit of a sweet fruit flavor. But it was a disappointing cut, particularly when the server told us that the old version had been switched out because this would be so much more tender.
Here’s a particularly unappetizing picture of the $39 “Braised Berkshire Pork Belly Ramen – Mushroom-infused Broth, Pickled Daikon Radish, Candied Pearl Onion, Sriracha-Lime Sauce,” which was really good. The pork is incredibly tender and the broth adds a deliciously earthy, salty component along with the aromatic, slightly-sour radish and the spicy citrus sauce. There’s a ton going on, but it all works.
And finally, the $39 “Pan-seared Duck Breast – Leg Confit, Forest Mushrooms, Parsnip Purée, Truffle Reduction, Huckleberry Compote.” While the accompaniments have changed a little over the years, this has always been one of the smaller entrees, but I think I like this version the best. The Huckleberry Compote is a good example of when a little goes a long way with a really intense sweet and sour flavor that contrasts really nicely with the rich flavor of the fork-tender duck. But while the dish is big on flavor, it does come down to just about ten bites worth of food, which may be disappointing for those looking for a much larger entree. You can always add that $29 Lobster Tail, which seems a little out of place alongside anything other than the steak.
Overall, a couple of the new dishes didn’t wow us this time around, but Tiffins remains your best bet at Animal Kingdom with several outstanding dishes that have stayed on the menu since the restaurant opened. It’s also hard to beat Tiffins on service and atmosphere.
Hopefully, we’ll see some of the successful dishes from the Tiffins Talks move over to the regular menu this summer.