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Orlando Magical Dining a tasty alternative to Disney World, Universal

With the close of the Tampa Bay area's restaurant week, dining deal hunters can turn their attention to Orlando, where more than 60 restaurants are participating in the Orlando Magical Dining month. The restaurants offer special three-course prix fixe menus for $30 until Sept. 30. There are some heavy hitters on the list — Emeril's, Bluezoo by Todd English, Ravenous Pig, Norman's — but here are three that have opened in the past year, and each appropriate to a different kind of trip east. • For a full list of restaurants and menu options, go to orlandomagicaldining.com.

La Luce by Donna Scala

14100 Bonnet Creek Resort Lane; (407) 597-3600. laluceorlando.com

Where it is: Tucked into a back corner of the Disney property, just past Downtown Disney and around the corner from Pop Century resorts, there is a new enclave of high-end chain resorts, a Wyndham, a Hilton and a Waldorf-Astoria. La Luce — pronouced la loo-chay, "the light" in Italian — is in the Hilton, which shares a parking garage with the Waldorf.

What it is: It is contemporary Italian in a high-end setting. Donna Scala is a Napa Valley chef with a string of acclaimed restaurants there and in San Francisco. She is hands-on in the Orlando operation, though, making regular visits.

What we tried: The red and yellow heirloom tomatoes in the Caprese salad were fantastically fresh and flavorful. In the beet and haricot verts salad (pictured), roasted golden and candy stripe beets came with beans, fennel and avocado, balancing crunchy and soft, sweet and savory. Ours, from the regular menu, was dressed with a bleu cheese vinaigrette, adding a punch, but the promo menu lists goat cheese and a riesling vinaigrette. The entree choices are mostly pasta. We had the ravioli, which is simply filled with ricotta from Bellwether Farms in Sonoma, Calif., and topped with either a lemon cream sauce or tomato sauce. The tomato was pretty standard-issue, but the slight tang of the lemon went well with the ricotta. For dessert, there are other options beside the butterscotch pudding. They may even be good. Ignore them. The butterscotch is made with real scotch — 12-year-old Macallan — and topped with toffee. It's a mix of sweet, creamy and burn that will not remind you of anything from your childhood.

Make it a weekend: Despite the fact that it is technically on the Disney campus, the resort feels like the kind of place that you might go to recover from the rat race. All the theme parks are a free bus ride away, but the huge grotto pool is an attraction itself. Bring a book.

Crave

4158 Conroy Road; (407) 345-8788. craveamerica.com

Where it is: It's in the parking lot of the Mall at Millenia, just off Interstate 4 between Disney and downtown.

What it is: The Orlando location is one of five for the burgeoning chain, the others in Minnesota and Nebraska. It is big and slick inside. It looks like the kind of place that will be in every town before long.

What we tried: All of the appetizers on the promotional menu are from the regular menu. The ceviche is full of scallops, shrimp and tomato with plenty of lemon and cilantro. It needed salt. The tortillas helped, but still a little underseasoned. The tuna tataki was simple seared fish with a citrusy soy reduction. The lemon garlic wings were huge and the namesake flavorings were front and center. They were good on their own, but came with a bleu cheese dressing. Classic with wings, of course, but not with lemon, so don't dip. The dressing is good with the cucumber sticks, though.

Make it a weekend: There is plenty of retail therapy in a small radius from here. In addition to the upscale Mall at Millenia, International Drive and its sea of outlet malls are just one exit west.

Wa

5911 Turkey Lake Road, Suite 102; (407) 226-0234. warestaurant.com

Where is it? That's an excellent question. The short answer is that it is in the shadow of Universal Studios. So close, in fact, that you can imagine hats and sunglasses in the parking lot probably flew off riders of the roller coasters which practically invade its airspace. Yet it was almost impossible to find, in a seemingly deserted office building just past the park's employee entrance.

What it is: Japanese fusion and sushi.

What we tried: The only thing from the promotional menu available when we went was a sushi roll called the fisherman's roll, a mix of tuna, salmon and yellow tail. A good combination, fresh and well made. We ordered some other sushi and a bowl of udon that are not part of the prix fixe, and all of it was done well. Made me want to come back to try the hoisin baby back ribs on the Magical Dining menu.

Make it a weekend: You can't get any closer to the Dueling Dragons roller coaster without a ticket, but somehow this place feels a million miles away. That's partly because of all the driving required as you double back looking for the turn to get into the parking lot.

Orlando Magical Dining a tasty alternative to Disney World, Universal 09/08/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 8, 2010 5:30am]

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