Magical dining month logo

Visit Orlando is extending the dates for its annual restaurant promotion, Magical Dining Month, to October 12. The reason, of course, is the loss of momentum for the popular event that occurred as people prepared for the possible impact of the hurricane earlier in the month and the cleanup and loss of power and supplies that prevented an immediate return to business as normal.

Historically, Magical Dining Month has been confined to the calendar days of September, though in recent years it has started with a "preview week" beginning in 

The extension is voluntary for the participating restaurants, more than a hundred spread out over the Central Florida region. So far, more than half have indicated they will offer the special menus through Oct. 12.

Magical Dining Month restaurants offer a special menu of three courses for $35, often representing quite a savings over a restaurant's regular prices for the same meal. Restaurants pledge $1 from every MagDinMo meal sold to a charity chosen by Visit Orlando. This year's beneficiaries are Freedom Ride and BASE Camp Children’s Cancer Foundation.

It would be surprising for any restaurants to reject the extension -- Magical Dining Month is a boon to business during a historically slow time for restaurants. And with the hurricane -- possibly hurricanes -- causing a disruption, more business would be a good thing.

In case you missed it, here's a tutorial on how to get the most out of Magical Dining Month.

urbain40 fountain

I took the occasion of Visit Orlando's Magical Dining Month to revisit Urbain 40, which recently changed chefs. I needn't have waited because I ended up setting the MagDinMo menu aside and ordering from the regular menu anyway.

Urbain 40 opened in late 2015 at the Dellagio plaza on Restaurant Row. Despite some issues with service, I liked the restaurant very much, especially the decor and atmosphere, which is classic French brasserie on a par with Bofinger or Le Procope in Paris, and the food, which was under the direction of French native Jean-Stephane Poinard. Poinard's menu reflected his Central France and Lyon upbringing, classic French fare.

But Urbain 40 and Poinard parted ways.

Just a few months after Urbain 40 opened, Tim Keating and Flying Fish Cafe also parted ways when the Disney restaurant closed for the months-long renovations that would rename it Flying Fish.

Keating is now overseeing Urbain 40 and has instituted a menu that is less classically French and more reflective of an American brasserie (which he told me was always the direction the restaurant had meant to go).

harithumbHari Pulapaka, executive chef and co-owner of Cress restaurant in DeLand, has been selected as a candidate for the American Culinary Federation's certified master chef title.

Pulapaka and nine other candidates from across the country will participate in an eight-day exam that will test their skills in a variety of areas, including healthy cooking, buffet catering, classical cuisine, freestyle cooking, global cuisine, baking and pastry, continental and Northern European cuisines. It will conclude with a mystery basket of ingredients from which the candidates must prepare a five-course meal.

"I'm excited, I'm anxious but I'm not scared," Pulapaka said Monday. "It's been a long time coming." He said that he sent his first letter of intent to pursue the certification over two years ago.

The candidates will be judged by a panel of current CMCs on Kitchen skills, plate presentation and taste. There are currently only 65 chefs with the CMC designation. All candidates must have passed the certified executive chef or certified culinary educator level to be eligible to compete for the CMC. Pulapaka received his CEC in 2012. That process also included written and practical exams, though not as rigorous as the CMC test.

Although the ACF is based in St. Augustine, the exam will take place at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Mich. The exam runs from Saturday, Sept. 30 through Oct. 7. It is not a competition among the contestants, Pulapaka said, but any candidates that don't receive a score of between 75 and 100 points each day will be eliminated.

Besides Pulapaka, two other Florida chefs will compete: Gerald Ford, executive sous chef, The Everglades Club, Palm Beach; and Seth Shipley, The Gasparilla Inn & Club, Boca Grande. Of the other candidates, only one is a woman.
Of course, anyone can call himself or herself a chef. You might even get away with calling yourself a master chef. It's when you start claiming a title from a certifying agency like the ACF. (There are other culinary organizations that also offer certification).

It's similar to the term doctor. If you want to, you can start calling yourself Dr. So-and-so. But you'd better be able to back your claim up with a diploma if after your name you add the initials MD or even PhD.

And Pulapaka knows something about that, too. He's Dr. Pulapaka, PhD, to his students at his day job teaching math at Stetson University.

Best Tacos Foodster Award Presentation

Congratulations to Hunger Street Tacos, winner of the platinum Foodster Award for Independent Restaurant for Best Craft Tacos. I presented owner Joseph Creech with his placque, which will be displayed at the restaurant at 2103 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park. See what Creech had to say in the video beloew.

And don't forget to head over to the Foodsters page to vote for Best Fine Dining.

Tijuan Flats storm

Tijuana Flats and Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, owner of Ocean Prime, have announced plans to donate profits to Hurricane Irma relief efforts.

Tijuana Flats, the home-grown fast-casual chain, will donate 10 percent of all profits from each of its locations from Friday, Sept. 15 through Sunday, Sept. 17. The Maitland-based company is also working with Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association and Florida’s Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) to coordinate much food deliveries to various shelters and communities throughout the state.

Tijuana Flats' chief executive officer, Larry Ryback, said in a statement, "We are a Central Florida-based company, so we have seen first hand how areas across the state are suffering in the aftermath of Irma."

Tijuana Flats was started in Winter Park in 1995 and now has 125 locations in six states.

Cameron Mitchell Restaurants will donate all profits from sales on Monday, Sept. 18, to relief efforts for both recent hurricanes, Harvey and Irma. Locally, CMR operates Ocean Prime, a casually upscale steak and seafood house on Restaurant Row in Orlando.

“After seeing the devastation left behind in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, we knew we had to find a way to help,” said David Miller, president and chief operating officer, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants. “Partnering with the American Red Cross allows our restaurants and guests to provide a helping hand to the residents of Texas, Florida and other affected areas, as they recover from these tragic weather events.”

The restaurant will also encourage its customers to make additional donations. For every $100 donation made to the American Red Cross at the restaurant on Sept. 18, the company will offer a $25 Cameron Mitchell Restaurants’ promotional gift card valid toward any food purchases on a future visit.

For more information on either of the charity programs, visit Tijuana Flats or Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, which also includes a list of other CMR restaurants in other parts of the country that will be making donations. Note that although it was first started by Cameron Mitchell, Mitchell's Fish House in Winter Park is not owned by CMR.