Illume, the new Japanese fusion lounge at JW Marriott Bonnet Creek, is an ambiance. By the time you step out of the elevator on the ninth floor, you might be wondering if you’ve gone in the wrong direction and ended up at the spa instead. Dim lighting, soft music, staff speaking in low voices, are we there for a massage or a meal?
Open since May, nearly a year after the hotel itself began welcoming guests, Illume’s rooftop location is exceptional. We were shown a spot on the spacious balcony with a spectacular panoramic view of the Bonnet Creek area of Lake Buena Vista, just steps from Epcot’s glowing golf ball. At one point, two separate fireworks lit the sky: one at the nearby Waldorf Astoria and Epcot’s new “Harmonious” show.
This is not a restaurant, and the seating situation confirms this. Relaxation and libation are the two priorities here, with traditional cuisine in third place. We moved around and awkwardly arranged ourselves around a round, low coffee table bordered by an oversized lounge chair – too big for one person but not big enough for two – and a sofa. There are bistro tables with chairs, so if you’re looking for a less casual dining experience, ask for one when making your reservation.
The interior of Illume is beautiful, with warm lighting and natural wood, plush cream-colored sofas and armchairs in soft colors. The 360-degree bar is in the foreground, where bartenders shake and mix some of Orlando’s most creative (and expensive) cocktails, ranging from $ 18 to $ 29. I ordered the Fire Bird ($ 20), a concoction of Suntory vodka, sake, cantaloupe, green tea syrup, and ginger jam, served in a stunning bird-shaped glass with a straw sticking out of tail.
My companions opted for the Enlightenment ($ 19), with tequila and passion fruit, served in a stunning black long stemmed cut glass, and the Japanese Manhattan ($ 21), made with Askashi White whiskey. Oak and plum, Japanese vermouth and yuzu, garnished with a gold origami crane in a vintage cut glass container. Gorgeous. We also sampled Tozai Blossom of Peace Sake ($ 16), a sweet selection with notes of almond, plum and cherry. The rest of the drink menu features a generous selection of Japanese whiskey, beer, wine, and sake both bottled and by the glass.
Next time I visit we will stop there and go to another great Orlando Japanese restaurant nearby for dinner. Unfortunately, Illume’s menu writes checks that he cannot cash.
All of the menu items at Illume are meant to be common, from signature eight-piece maki rolls to shareable plates with three to four individual servings. The descriptions, which seem tasty and innovative, just don’t translate to the plate. I wondered several times if the listed ingredients had just been forgotten or if my palate was cheating on me.
We started with a bowl of edamame ($ 10) with tangy togarashi sea salt, and watermelon and crab ($ 17) – four lollipops from a bite of watermelon compressed with a mound of chunked crab, grapefruit and marinated daikon radish with honey-lime dressing. It was the night’s favorite dish, but other than the watermelon and the sweet salty crabmeat, no other flavor could be found. If the red pepper and capers announced were included in the tiny sakana fritters ($ 16), each the size of a gumball, we couldn’t taste or see either.
The house’s showcase maki roll, Gyu No Kani ($ 32), wrapped in slices of seared beef tenderloin on snow crab, avocado and cucumber with black garlic aioli, green onions, kabayaki sauce and truffle oil. Sounds exciting, right? The result was nice, especially the combination of the seared tenderloin and the smoked sauce, but far from the kind of umami the ingredients list promises. We also tried two yakitori skewers, both served with rice and over sautéed sweet peas and julienned carrots. One included well-cooked and glazed jumbo shrimp with citrus ponzu ($ 24), and the other was mushrooms, yellow squash with onion and zucchini, brushed with miso and grilled. Both were tasty but forgettable.
Desserts, again, looked amazing but didn’t deliver. The tiramisu matcha ($ 14) could just as easily have been a vanilla cake with vanilla frosting dusted with cocoa powder. We only detected a whisper of that characteristic bitterness of matcha on the finish. The Chocolate Ginger Cake ($ 14) was, well, chocolaty and that’s about it. We haven’t finished either.
With a final check well in the triple digits, we were hoping to feel more satisfied.
The service is sober and elegant without being distant, in keeping with the Japanese atmosphere. We asked our waiter to introduce us to the menu and familiarize us with new terms such as “otsumami”, the Japanese word for appetizers. She was more than happy to offer a tour and offer suggestions for favorite items.
Visit Illume for drinks and stay for the fireworks flaring all around. It’s a beautiful place for a date or a special start to a celebration (so go to Sear & Sea for dinner if you want to stay put), but don’t expect fireworks in the kitchen.
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