Nestled near the pool on the first floor of the Hard Rock Hotel is one of the hidden gems of dining at Universal Orlando Resort. The Kitchen, which recently reopened after renovations, is one of my personal favorite places to grab a bite, especially with their new barbecue-inspired menu items.
I was excited to get the chance to sit down with Executive Chef Jeffrey Hileman to talk about the new menu items and give them a try for myself.
Many of the new menu items at The Kitchen were born out of the temporary barbecue pop-up restaurant that was open while The Kitchen was under renovation. “Guests loved the freshly smoked menu items that were available during that time and so me and my team worked to incorporate the smoker into the new menu,” says Chef Jeffrey.
One such appetizer is the Smoked Chicken Wings with peach BBQ sauce. These wings combine everything I want in a wing in one delicious dish. They are juicy and smoky, and the sauce has a slight sweetness to it, but in a delightful, rather than distracting way. It took everything I had to not polish off the plate myself.
Another new item that utilizes The Kitchen’s smoker is one of my favorite entrees, the Smoked Turkey Reuben. If you’re a fan of the sort of gooey, saucy, acidic flavors of a standard Reuben, this sandwich is going to blow you away. The addition of the smoked turkey brings even more complexity to a meal that already has so many great flavors going on. “This is a dish that I used to make all of the time for family gatherings … and so it holds a special place in my heart,” Chef Jeffrey said. I’m glad he decided to share it with guests, too! (P.S. get the onion rings as your side — they are crispy and crunchy and HUGE!)
If you’re looking for other dishes that bring the smoky flavors (literally) to the table, The Kitchen also features a Smoked Pulled Pork Sandwich and Crispy Fried Chicken Sandwich, both created using The Kitchen’s smoker.
My other favorite entrée, though, is one that I wouldn’t have expected — the Fish and Chips. You might be thinking, “But, tons of restaurants have fish and chips! What makes these so special?” I’m here to tell you that The Kitchen might have the best fried fish I’ve ever had. Chef Jeffrey explained what makes it so unique: “What we do is take phyllo dough and dry it out overnight and crunch it up very fine by hand with gloves on,” he says. “I find that it creates a lighter, crispier crunch.”
And, if you’re looking for a less-heavy option before you hit the pool, The Kitchen has some salads that are hearty enough to fill you up, and are refreshing and full of flavor.
The Avocado Wedge Salad looks simple but the combination of the pureed avocado, smoked bleu cheese, savory bacon and crisp lettuce provide an incredible flavor palette.
I’m generally not the type of person to order a salad at a restaurant, but I was blown away by the Korean Chopped Steak Salad. While I was busy inhaling it, Chef Jeffrey explained how the salad was conceptualized. “Anytime I’m putting together a salad, I’m thinking about textures and flavors and even temperatures, as is the case with this one,” he says. “I just like those different contrasts when we’re creating menu items.”
“So, you get the nice, cool, crunchy salad that has the sweetness and acidity, some umami with the vinaigrette and then of course the nice, warm tender steak that we put on top,” he said. Those contrasts are exactly what makes the salad a must-try.
Of course, The Kitchen still features guest favorites, like the Crispy Brussels Sprouts and Hand-Breaded Calamari, both of which are deserving of the fans they have garnered.
And, if you’re visiting for dinner and want a unique experience, the 48oz Bone-In Tomahawk for Two is Chef Jeffrey’s recommendation. “The steak comes with duck-fat fingerling potatoes and broccolini, which is grilled with a little bit of olive oil and lemon zest,” he says.
This steak is a true show-stopper, served on a platter with carrot emulsion and a variety of salts — roasted black garlic salt, smoked bacon sea salt, sriracha salt and merlot salt — allowing guests to try different combinations to find their favorite.
“We slice the steak and fan it out and let the guests experiment with the different salts. People go nuts for it,” Chef Jeffrey says.
I don’t know about you, but I’m full just thinking about all those delicious options, but the desserts at The Kitchen are not to be missed.
The Flourless Chocolate Crunch Cake (pictured above) might be one of the prettiest desserts I’ve had in a long time — and it tastes as good as it looks! It has a very rich chocolate flavor without feeling too heavy and the pistachio ganache and sweet whipped cream are perfect complements.
Another popular item is the S’more Brownie Sundae, which is another dish that started as part of the barbecue pop-up but stuck around because of how beloved it has been. This is exactly what a brownie sundae should be: gooey, warm and comforting. Grab your friends and some spoons because this is the perfect dessert to share.
My personal favorite, though, is the Oreo Cheesecake. I love cheesecake but I’m extremely picky about it. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this might be the best I’ve ever had. You can see the way they stacked entire Oreo cookies in the dessert, which blend perfectly with the rich, creamy filling. I would visit The Kitchen just to get this dessert — it is genuinely that good.
There’s one more thing to check out on our whirlwind tour of The Kitchen, and that’s the gorgeous and spacious bar. You certainly could get comfy here for some date-night drinks and there are several signature cocktails, each inspired by the personalities of The Kitchen staff and their passion for music.
My personal favorite is Touch of Grey, which is a beautiful combination of bourbon, orange bitter, and Earl Grey syrup. It tastes like an Old Fashioned that got a glam-up and has a strong bourbon flavor without as much of a bite.
Another great option, especially on a warm Florida day, is the Summer Cabernade. It is made from Cabernet Sauvignon, lemon, strawberry, and simple syrup. It is tart and refreshing and would go well with nearly any dish at The Kitchen.
I’m admittedly not much of a gin drinker, but if you’re looking for an unusual drink full of complex flavors, the Jimmy Germain is your drink. In addition to gin, this drink includes elderflower liqueur, lemon, cucumber and blackberry.
Have you been to The Kitchen? Share your favorite drink or dish with us in the comments or on social media!