The Rainforest Cafe Takes a Stumble in the Jungle
Disney World's outpost of the popular theme restaurant chain offers interesting recipes, but poor ingredients and an atmosphere that is showing its age.
Written by Robert Niles
Early last year TPI correspondent Joe Lane reviewed the Rainforest Cafe at Downtown Disney in Walt Disney World. Joe gave the Rainforest Cafe a glowing review, which earned a raspberry from me. I called it a disappointing theme restaurant with mediocre food and suggested the likes of Universal Orlando's Mythos and Emeril's Orlando as superior theme park dining alternatives.Tweet
Joe countered that he'd been disappointed with Mythos when he ate there. So after a little back-'n-forth, we decided to give each restaurant another go.
Last summer, Joe returned to Mythos and declared that the three-time TPI Award winner really was a “must-east restaurant.” And I -- well, I never made it back to the Rainforest Cafe.
It's not like I hadn't tried. I just couldn't get in. Last time I tried to eat at the Rainforest Cafe in Anaheim's Downtown Disney, Natalie and I found a two-hour and 45-minute wait. (We opted for Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen instead, which had no wait, plenty of empty tables and absolutely delightful food.)
Last week in Orlando, Laurie, the kids and I tried again, this time at 2 p.m. (Still jet-lagged on L.A. time, it seemed like an early lunch to us.) To our delight, we found a mere 10-minute wait. Finally, I'd get to give the Rainforest Cafe another chance.
Well, I still don't think much of it.
A restaurant can be no better than the quality of the ingredients it presents. Typically, busy restaurants such as the RFC don't have problems with freshness, as they run through ingredients so quickly nothing lasts long enough to get old. But RFC's wildly varied menu works against itself here. With dozens of items from a wide range of cuisines, the kitchen's stockroom must be immense – so large that even the restaurant's high volume can't keep some things from sitting around too long.
Such as the lettuce in my wife's Cobb salad. Or my paella.
No self-respecting chef would let a salad of brown iceberg lettuce out of the kitchen. Or even an over-cooled kids' grilled cheese. When both made it to our table, I was left to wonder if there was a chef back in the kitchen here, or instead just a bunch of indifferent line cooks, merely going through the motions of the Rainforest Cafe corporate SOP.
The recipes are not the problem here. It's the execution. Paella should be a symphony of flavor, with rich saffron binding savory meats and briny seafood. Here, the notes of flavor are all right, but their intensity is wrong. The dish tasted like a warmed leftover, as if it had been sitting a vat under a heat lamp, waiting to be dished out one order at a time.
Serving the mussels on the half-shell are a delightful convenience for the diner, but not if the shellfish have been sitting open long enough to absorb the liquid of its companions in the dish. A mussel should wake the tongue with a distinct, briny splash of the sea. It shouldn't stumble across your taste buds, lugging along hints of chicken and onion.
The atmosphere struck wrong notes for me, too. Neither sufficiently lifelike to create a compelling illusion, nor fantastic enough to create a sense of cartoonish whimsy, the Rainforest Cafe's animatronics live in an entertainment no man's land. Either make a commitment to a realistic theme and create a Steve Wynn-like garden of exotic flora, or go the Disney route and make this child's fantasy of the Rainforest come to anthropomorphic life. The middle road comes off too cheesy, like a late '80s attempt at realism that simply hasn't kept up with advances in entertainment technology. Which, well, this is.
The kids get silly with dessert.
At least the Rainforest Cafe ended the meal on an up note. As gimmicky desserts go, the Volcano actually works. The chocolate in this oversized brownie sundae is dark enough to restrain what could have been a cloyingly sweet dish. And the presentation is just silly, over-the-top fun. Just don't split one among any fewer than four people.
So why is this restaurant so popular that one can't get in without a hefty wait during normal dining times? Search me. I guess if your normal dining options include McDonald's, Applebee's and the occasional stop in the Outback, the Rainforest Cafe looks like an appealing step up. Which, to be honest, it is. But adventurous diners can do much, much better. Even in Orlando.
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