Orlando Dining Districts go Magical in September


roasted beets surround the Duck Confit Salad. photo by Karen Kuzsel

  Some people eat to live. I live to eat. OK, so maybe I should qualify that a tad. I vigorously exercise on a fairly consistent basis so that I can eat what I want, (and almost) when I want. When travelling, I studiously ponder restaurant menus, ogling descriptions of mouth-watering dishes combined in an inventive manner that utilize that region’s flavors and locally-produced ingredients. Food fascinates me. I want to taste, touch, smell, and ingest ethnic flavors and chef-crafted creations.
            You only have to watch the Food Network for a day, or peruse the limitless selections of cookbooks pandering to diverse diets to know food has become so much more than a simple meal prepared quickly. A hamburger doesn’t raise eyebrows unless it’s been stuffed with artisan cheeses, farm-fresh bacon, shredded glazed meats, exotic mushrooms, caramelized onions, or sauces. Even with a suffering economy, a fine dining experience (and whatever that means to your personal palette) is still a beacon that draws one through a restaurant’s doors.
            I am not alone in wanting to awe my taste buds. Convention & Visitor Bureaus and city governments have discovered that defining dining districts attracts arts, entertainment and shopping businesses, which then creates a community persona that’s easy to market.   
            Fort Worth has the West 7th Street Corridor, formerly a light industrial space converted into hip eateries and bars that becomes a raucous block party for private groups. Uptown Charlotte (NC) is actually their downtown, but the impression is a totally Uptown Attitude. Their claim to fame is that roughly 80% of the district’s restaurants use organic or food from farms within 100 miles of the city.
            Visit Orlando may have come to the party a tad later than some other cities, but their newly-announced “After Five” marketing campaign  is a direct response to recent research regarding misconceptions about Orlando’s dining and entertainment scene among planners, business leaders and other key meeting influencers.
            “Our research made it clear the primary reason Orlando wasn’t selected for their convention or meeting event was a perceived lack of after-hours offerings,” said Danielle Courtenay, chief marketing officer for Visit Orlando. “We who live and work here and our millions of annual visitors know that’s simply not the case. Orlando has phenomenal dining and entertainment options, which we are highlighting in this campaign.”
The After Five program delineates six dining districts, which were announced just as Visit Florida-organized Magical Dining Month (MDM) began. MDM runs annually from Sept. 1-30. A smart antidote to slower corporate business bookings that occur in September, this year 73 higher-end restaurants offer three-course prix fixée meals at $30 to attract more local diners. Menus (and consumer comments) are posted online at www.magicaldiningmonth.com.
The six districts are: convention area, Disney/Lake Buena Vista, Restaurant Row, Universal/City Walk, Downtown, and Winter Park. Fine dining in Orlando became a bigger drawing card for corporate groups when internationally renowned chefs such as Todd English (Blue Zoo at the Dolphin Hotel), Paul Bocuse (Chefs de France at EPCOT), Emeril Lagasse (Emeril’s Orlando and Emeril’s Tchoup Chop at Universal Orlando Resort), Kat Cora (Kouzzina on Disney World’s Boardwalk) and Roy Yamaguchi (Roy’s on Restaurant Row) established restaurants in the area. More recently, the field of haute cuisine deepened with the home-grown talents of John Rivers (4Rivers Smokehouse), Kevin Fonzo (K restaurant), and James and Julie Petrakis (Ravenous Pig).

pickled fennel and sunflower sprout salad grace the Wild Salmon. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Many of those restaurants and chefs will be featured on Emeril’s just announced Florida-based TV show that will focus on travel and what else… cooking. The show debuts in January on the Cooking Network, which airs on channel 180 of Bright House Networks. Lagasse says he wants Orlando to be recognized for more than theme parks and attractions and that Miami isn’t the only Florida location with superb dining experiences. Visit Florida is one of the show’s major sponsors. MDM’s options are full-service, full-portioned meals at restaurants you may have thought of for “special occasions” only. In past MDM’s, my husband and I have eaten at Capital Grille (Convention area) and Big Fin (Restaurant Row) on more than one occasion. Our goal this month is to sup at new-to-us restaurants mixed in with some favorites. We don’t usually dine out so often, but it’s our anniversary month. What better way to prolong the celebration?
            Our first evening out was Nine18, an elegant, sophisticated restaurant inside the clubhouse of the Villas of Grand Cypress. Tables are spread out so table conversations don’t require shouting to be heard. Wall-length glass windows peer out over the championship golf course and languid lake. Service is attentive and meticulous but not overdone. From the three appetizers, four entrèes and two desserts offered, my meat-loving husband chose the Nine18 Chop Chop Salad (a scrumptious mixture of tastes and textures), the 16-oz fire grilled T-bone, and the Valrhona chocolate gooey cake. I selected the creamy lobster and local-sourced tomato bisque tinged with tarragon, pesto-crusted, cedar roasted salmon, and the apple tart glazed with caramel sauce and dulce de leche ice cream served in a scalloped caramel basket. We complemented our meal with a luscious Chateau St Michelle Canoe Ridge wine.
            Last night we dined at contemporary American styled K Restaurant in College Park for another exquisite meal. Oven-hot crunchy bread was brought. The food was plated so lovely I hated to disturb the stacked beauty of my Duck Confit Salad, rife with roasted beets, whipped goat cheese and cherry vinaigrette. Russ had the Sweet Corn soup, a creamy confection that slide down the throat all too easily, especially as the bowl was quite large.     
       Between sips of our Gundlach-Bundschu merlot, we feasted on our entrèes. He had the Roasted Pork Tenderloin layered over a parmesan polenta with a mushroom-balsamic sauce. Not a drop was left was on his dish. I devoured Wild Salmon, served with smashed fingerling potatoes, sauce Gribiche, pickled fennel and locally-grown sunflower sprout salad. The flavors melded so well into one another that I couldn’t tell what I’d scoop up on each forkful. Though quite satisfied by then, dessert arrived as the third course. We again chose one of each dessert offered. Not sure which we preferred: Michelle’s Dark Chocolate Brownie with sea salt caramel ice cream or the Lemon Cheesecake, tinged with a blueberry sauce.
            Our plan for next weekend, our actual Anniversary, is to dine at the Venetian (at Caribe Royale in the Disney/Lake Buena Vista area), heralded as one of Orlando’s most romantic restaurants. We’ve not eaten there before and are already anticipating a divine repast. We are also looking for another meal at Big Fin and if we can squeeze in another MDM experience, we’ve got our eyes (and stomachs) on a few possibilities.
             If you want more information on MDM, go to www.magicaldiningmonth.com. If you’d like to know more about the newly-designated dining districts, go to www.Orlandodistricts.com. The web site has video vignettes, chef profiles, blog and more.
Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI, for which she is on the Membership Advisory Council and the Industry Advisory Council. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com

0 replies
    • karen kuzsel
      karen kuzsel says:

      Hi. Haven’t eaten there. We tried to make reservations on three different dates to celebrate our anniversary this weekend. I was asked if it was for Magical Dining and was then told Venetian was booked out on each of the three nights I asked about. We have made reservations instead at The Bohemian.


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