Sometimes, you don’t have to trek halfway around the world to have a memorable, exciting experience. I am a firm believer in the fact that travel, at its essence, is experiencing something new- and it doesn’t matter whether you do that in Pensacola or Paris. But I digress.
I live in Orlando, Florida. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made fun of my city- and I’ll probably continue to do so. But there are those occasional moments where I feel happy I live here- like last night, for instance.
Every September (and the last few days in August), Orlando’s swankiest restaurants team up to celebrate Orlando Magical Dining Month (because you can’t say ‘Orlando’ without having some reference to Disney in the same phrase). This time of year is a slow month; everybody’s back at school and it’s not quite fall yet, and the restaurants have lost a lot of money every year because of this. So, 9 years ago, someone decided to have these restaurants offer prix fixe menus during the month of September for just $33 a person (appetizer, entree, and dessert, mind you). Regrettably, I learned about this incredible phenomenon just this year- so I’ve got a little catching up to do.
33 dollars sounds like a lot to pay for one person, and it is. But it’s a steal compared to what your meal would have cost on a normal day. At Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse or the Capital Grille, a single steak can run you upwards of $50, and you can get a slightly smaller cut plus an appetizer and dessert for 20 dollars less. It’s really a great way to sample that restaurant you always drive past and think, “I’ll eat there when I win the lottery.”
There are plenty of restaurants like that in Orlando, and it comes as a surprise not only to the tourists, but to the locals as well. Despite the kitschy gift shops and shady theme park ticket kiosks on the side of the highway, Orlando has a buzzing food scene. Granted, it’s not like New York or Chicago or Austin or even LA- much of our restaurants are franchises- but it gives people like me things to do on a labor day weekend, when I wouldn’t even think about braving I-4 all the way to the beach.
So, where was my first Magical Dining excursion? Dragonfly, a chic sushi and robata (think Japanese BBQ) grill in the upscale Dellagio complex, off of Sand Lake Road (an area affectionately known as Restaurant Row). The whole place exudes distinct Japanese elegance and simplicity, while achieving a laid-back vibe. I was in the mood for sushi, and no amount of skewered chicken would deter me from my desires, so I sprung for a Krispy Krunch roll (crab, tuna, cream cheese, and avocados, deep fried in panko bread crumbs), “The Bomb” (tuna, shrimp tempura, crab salad, and avocado drizzled in eel sauce, spicy mayo, and tempura flakes), and three pieces of salmon sashimi. And I can safely say that it’ll be a while before I have sushi as good as that (unless, of course, I return to Dragonfly).
The Krispy Krunch had a very unique texture, and proves the notion that everything tastes better fried. The crab was actually crab, and not “krab” as if the stingy Spongebob character were being rolled in rice and seaweed. This roll went wonderfully with those exquisite pieces of raw salmon, which were even better than the ones I had in the San Francisco airport. “The Bomb” stayed true to its name: such an explosion of flavor occurred in my mouth that I felt the need to consult the menu to remember just what was in the thing. “The Bomb” was the highlight of my sushi extravaganza; all the flavors went together splendidly.
Now of course, I never usually order dessert at restaurants (because, really, why bother when there’s now a perfectly perfect Twistee Treat near my neighborhood?). But this is Magical Dining! It’s included! I didn’t really expect much from the dessert menu- usually if a restaurant does sushi well, that’s about it- nevertheless my eyes scrolled down to one selection in particular: fried cheesecake.
Of course there was the initial gasp, “THIS EXISTS?” followed by an immediate order and then a few agonizing minutes spent daydreaming and wondering what such a dessert had in store for me. When the dish came, looking like two pieces of triangular chicken tenders centered around a ball of vanilla ice cream and drizzled in espresso caramel, I was still skeptical. I brought down my spoon, and as it met the crispy edge of the fried shape a type of liquified-yet-not-liquefied cheesecake spilled onto the plate. I scooped it, along with a piece of the crust and some ice cream, into my mouth. What resulted was a sensation that can only be described with the following image:
In conclusion, Dragonfly, I will be back. To sample your beautiful sushi and your beautiful fried desserts. And thank you to the glorious concept of Magical Dining, which has given me the power to truly ‘sample’ my city. Congratulations, Orlando, you’re not as lame as I had previously thought 😉