What’s so great and frustrating about food blogging is that the more I venture out and try new restaurants and cuisine styles, the more restaurants I put on my “to-do list” to review. As they stack up, it’s hard to sort out which ones to go to first and which ones to put on the waiting list. After all, I am on a budget and can’t eat out each and every meal. Sanaa is one such restaurant that’s been patiently waiting on my list for a while now. Earning rave reviews from fellow gluten free bloggers and foodies alike, my expectations grew as time went by and when I finally found a window of opportunity to eat there (my aunt coming to visit), I jumped at the chance to try it out. Just a fair warning going into it: this post is photo heavy because I got carried away by the beautiful (and delicious) culinary creations served up!
I did not make a reservation, but figured the restaurant wouldn’t be too busy on a weekday for lunch. My guess was spot on because my aunt and I were immediately escorted back to a table next to one of the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the savannah that surrounds the resort. Even before seeing a menu or sampling cuisine, my breath was already taken by the beauty of the giraffes, zebras, and other majestic animals meandering around. How cool is it that you can dine overlooking a savanna right here in Central Florida?
When I informed my waitress that I was gluten and dairy free, she asked me if my intolerances were an allergy or lifestyle choice. I confirmed my special diet was due to an allergy and she said she would alert a chef to come out and talk to me as well as brought out allergen specific menus (see those here) per Disney’s protocols. This scenario was a classic example of Disney’s stellar attention to detail when it comes to special diets. While talking to a chef is an amazing experience, I was glad to have the dedicated menus to get an idea of what I wanted to order instead of having to keep up with a verbal list of everything that was, or could me made, safe. Chef Michelle came out a few minutes later to gather our orders. From other reviews, I knew I wanted to start off with the bread service appetizer which features (for gluten/dairy free diners) lentil pappadums in place of naan bread and an choice of three accompaniments. For a little bit more, you can try all eight (only one contains dairy of the nine accompaniments on the menu), but three was enough for us. I immediately fell in love with the delicious chickpea-based flatbreads that were light and airy with air bubbles adding to their texture. Since my aunt is gluten-eating, we received one naan for her and two servings of the pappadum totaling four circles altogether.
The first of the three sauces we ordered was my choice: the red chili sambal. As I ordered it Chef Michelle said it was going to be spicy, which was welcome in my book as I tend to enjoy spicy foods. The sambal did in fact have a kick to it, which was heightened even more by the spice in the pappadum. I loved the smooth texture which also was a great match with the air-popped pappadums.
The second of the three accompaniments was the garlic pickle. This one was suggested by our server and the Chef as their favorite side. Picturing a relish-like concoction, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the pickle part of the condiment’s name came from pickled garlic cloves instead of pickled cucumbers. As a garlic lover, I really enjoyed the complex savory flavors dancing around and the bite of eating a whole clove at a time. Fun fact: these cloves are pickled for three days so there’s plenty of time for the flavors to meld and develop. It was a good contrast to the spicy sambal and evened out the heat.
The last accompaniment we ordered was a mango chutney. This one was requested by my aunt. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of mango so the sauce was my least favorite as the sweetness collided with the spiciness of the pappadum.
Now for the entrees. When talking with the chef, I was torn between the slow-cooked in gravy meat entrees and the vegetarian sampler. I asked if I could “mix-and-match” the offerings and was excited to learn that I could have the best of both worlds. The way these dishes work is that you pick two items from the vegetarian sampler menu or two items from the slow-cooked in gravy menu and the trio is rounded out with basmati rice to balance the flavor of the two. Balancing one meat dish and one vegetarian dish provided a perfect balance for a lunch that was not too meat heavy.
From the slow-cooked menu, I chose the chicken vindaloo, which came highly recommended by the chef and server. Usually vindaloo is a super spicy curry-based dish, but Chef Michelle said that Sanaa’s is a bit toned down to bring out the complexity of the spices featured. I can affirm that the dish is not spicy hot like the sambal, but has a spicy flavor thanks to the many spices used in the thick, velvety sauce coating the chicken. I could definitely tell it was slow cooked because the chicken could be cut with a fork and the meat itself took on the flavoring instead of just being coated in it. While it had a low to mid-level spice, there was a sweetness to it that was wonderful.
From the vegetarian sampler menu, I went with the lentil dahl which featured lentil cooked in a mild, savory sauce. The dish was very soup-like, but not a soup because once stirred up, it thickened out. The green lentils were cooked, but on the harder side, which was weird to get used to since I’m familiar with soft-cooked lentils. The more I ate, the more it grew on me. Curry powder is definitely used in the dish, but I tried to identify the other flavors I was tasting, but couldn’t come up with compatible tastes. Just as the pickled garlic’s savory taste paired well with the sambal’s spice, the lentil dahl’s savory taste perfectly complimented the sweet and spicy chicken.
Last, but not least comes the humble basmati rice. Cooked to a perfect texture, this simple side was fragrant and was a perfect base for the vindaloo and the dahl.
At this point, having eaten so much food, I was absolutely full (and would be for a while). Granted, I was not stuffed, bloated, or regretting one bite I had during lunch. Sanaa’s fare is well-portioned and relatively light which makes for a positive meal as it doesn’t make you feel worse afterwards. When our waitress came to float the idea of dessert, I nixed the idea immediately, but after her review of the (limited) gluten and dairy free desserts and a gentle prodding from my aunt, I couldn’t say no to the tapioca pudding with chai spiced berries. Getting it “to-go,” I eagerly anticipated trying the pudding having never had a tapioca pudding before. By dinnertime that evening, my appetite was still blocked out by the remnants of lunch, but wanting something light and sweet, I polished off the dessert. The berries (blueberry, blackberry, raspberry) were plump and fresh and had a chai overtone which made for a delicious paring. The pudding was very vanilla-y and tasted almost like heavy whipping cream before it becomes whipped cream. I’m so glad that I said yes because I really enjoyed the pudding and it was a perfect way to finish a pretty perfect day. Sanaa delivered a perfectly proportioned dessert that was neither too small nor too large and left me completely satisfied.
As you probably can tell, Sanaa hit it out of the park in my opinion and was a real treat. The service, atmosphere, and cuisine was unlike anything I’ve seen before and made a little lunch outing feel intimate and special and transformed it into a day I will never forget. It’s definitely a splurge from the norm because the price tag is higher than most of the restaurants I’ve reviewed so far, but all things considered, it’s worth it for special occasions and celebrations.
Website: Disney’s website for Sanaa
Cuisine: African, Indian
Ideal For: Lunch, Dinner
Price: Lunch offerings average $15-30 per person
Accessibility: The restaurant was wheelchair accessible.
Special Features: Make reservations in advance here. Check their website for special dining events and other opportunities such as dining with Disney’s animal specialists.
Disclaimer: This review is based upon the information I have at the time of the review and does not reflect changes in ingredients or availability of items. Please contact the restaurant directly for up-to-date information and feel free to to contact me with any questions or comments. I was not compensated for this review and it is a reflection of my personal opinion.