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click to enlarge Bao Pei at Illume, a restaurant that isn't too focused on food.

Rob Bartlett

Bao Pei at Illume, a restaurant that isn't too focused on food.

Marriott's new rooftop lounge Illume is a great place for drinks and fireworks 

Food, not so much

Illume, the new Japanese-fusion lounge at the JW Marriott Bonnet Creek, is a vibe. The moment you exit the elevator on the ninth floor, you might wonder if you took a wrong turn and ended up in the spa instead. Low lighting, soft music, staff speaking in hushed tones — are we here for a massage or a meal?

Open since May, almost a year after the hotel itself started welcoming guests, Illume's rooftop location is showstopping. We were shown to a spot on the airy balcony with a spectacular panoramic view of the Bonnet Creek area of Lake Buena Vista, just a stone's throw from Epcot's glowing golf ball. At one point, two separate firework displays lit up the sky: one at the neighboring Waldorf Astoria, and Epcot's new "Harmonious" display.

This isn't a restaurant, and the seating situation confirms it. Relaxation and libation are the two focuses here, with traditional dining as a distant third. We shuffled and arranged ourselves awkwardly around a low, round coffee table bordered by an oversized lounge chair — too large for one person but not quite large enough for two — and sofa. There are bistro tables with chairs, so if you're looking for a less casual dinner experience, request one when you make a reservation.

Illume's interior is stunning, with warm lighting and natural wood, cream-colored plush sofas and armchairs in muted colors. The 360-degree bar is front and center, where the bartenders shake and stir some of the most creative (and expensive) cocktails in Orlando, 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 from the tail.

click to enlarge ROB BARTLETT
  • Rob Bartlett

My companions opted for the Illumination ($19), with tequila and passionfruit, served in a striking black long-stemmed coupe glass, and the Japanese Manhattan ($21), made with Askashi White Oak whisky and plum, Japanese vermouth and yuzu, garnished with a gold origami crane in a vintage cut-glass vessel. Gorgeous. We also sampled the Tozai Blossom of Peace sake ($16), a sweet selection with notes of almond, plum and cherry. The rest of the beverage menu features a generous selection of Japanese whisky, beer, wine and sake both by the bottle and the glass.

Next time I visit, we'll stop there and go to another of Orlando's excellent Japanese restaurants nearby for dinner. Unfortunately, the menu at Illume is writing checks it can't cash.

All of the menu items at Illume are meant to be communal, from the eight-piece signature maki rolls to shareable plates with three to four individual portions. The descriptions, which sound flavorful and innovative, just don't translate onto the plate. I found myself wondering several times whether ingredients listed had simply been forgotten, or whether my palate was deceiving me.

We started with a bowl of edamame ($10) with piquant togarashi sea salt, and the watermelon & crab ($17) — four one-bite lollipops of compressed watermelon with a mound of lump crab, grapefruit and pickled daikon radish with honey-lime vinaigrette. This was the favorite dish of the night, but other than the watermelon and the sweet saline crab meat, no other flavors could be found. If the red pepper and capers advertised were included in the tiny sakana fritters ($16), each about the size of a gumball, we couldn't taste or see either of them.

click to enlarge Gyu No Kani - ROB BARTLETT
  • Rob Bartlett
  • Gyu No Kani

The house's showcase maki roll, the Gyu No Kani ($32), packed slices of seared beef tenderloin atop snow crab, avocado and cucumber with black garlic aioli, scallions, kabayaki sauce and truffle oil. Sounds exciting, right? The result was enjoyable, especially the combination of the seared tenderloin and smoky sauce, but nowhere near the kind of umami that list of ingredients promises. We also tried two yakitori skewers, both served with a side of rice and on top of sauteed sugar snap peas and julienned carrots. One featured jumbo shrimp cooked well and glazed with citrusy ponzu ($24), and the other was mushrooms, onion yellow squash and zucchini, brushed with miso and grilled. Both were tasty but forgettable.

Desserts, again, sounded incredible but didn't deliver. The matcha tiramisu ($14) might as well have been vanilla cake with vanilla frosting dusted with cocoa powder. We detected only a whisper of that signature matcha bitterness on the finish. The chocolate ginger cake ($14) was, well, chocolatey and that's about it. We finished neither.

With a final check well into the three digits, we'd hoped to feel more satisfied.

Service is understated and elegant without being standoffish, in congruence with the Japanese feel. We asked our server to take us through the menu and familiarize us with some new terms like "otsumami," the Japanese word for finger foods. She was more than happy to provide a tour and offer some suggestions for favorite items.

Visit Illume for the drinks and stay for the firework displays popping off all around. It's a beautiful spot for date night or a special start to a celebration (then head down to Sear & Sea for dinner if you want to stay on-property), but don't expect fireworks from the kitchen.

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