Thursday, May 19, 2005

KITCHEN KINK

Posted on Thu, May 19, 2005 at 4:00 AM

In the world of the Hard Rock corporation, waitresses are encouraged to lead lives tantamount to those of rock stars. I should know; I used to work there. The company was so insistent on their cozy star status that they psyched employees into believing that working there equaled partying with stars every night. That was 10 years ago. Today, Hard Rock is all grown up and offers a place not to party with celebrities, but to eat like them.

The Kitchen is tucked away on the bottom floor, near the pool, of the chic Hard Rock Hotel. Walking in, the first thing one sees is a sleek modern kitchen offset by a bar, which is really a chef's table. That one sliver of the expansive dining room alone feels like the cooking quarters in a dream home - which is exactly the Hard Rock's intent.

"The hotel is designed to look like a rock star's mansion," the PR rep tells me. "The kitchen is where he'd go to whip up a late-night snack."

Just like its famous sister restaurant, Hard Rock Café, The Kitchen is decked out with kitschy memorabilia, but here rock & roll meets culinary utensils. Who wouldn't at least glance at the oddity of a spatula signed by Mike Love from the Beach Boys? Or a black chef's jacket with leopard-print trim made exclusively for Joan Jett? When a cheese grater was presented to us at the beginning of the meal, it took a minute to figure out that it was actually a menu for the specials. Even the tables are made of stainless steel countertops like those found at stove-side workstations.

By all means, bring the kids along. One of the best things about The Kitchen is that there's something for everyone. The food is largely of the comfort variety, and there are family favorites with trendy twists. Macaroni and cheese ($10.25) is made with Spanish manchego; fried calamari ($9.95) is served fusion-style with Asian slaw and Thai dipping sauce; filet mignon ($24) is drenched in delicious Argentinean chimichurri sauce. But there's no need to waste all this good food on the chicken-tender specialists. The Kitchen has a buffet just for the younger generation that is stockpiled with pizza and other kid-friendly delights. Not only that, but there's a rec room dedicated to their needs, as well. While you're civilly nibbling Asian vegetable rolls ($7.95) and conversing about the world at large, the kids can crowd around colorful games and toys, devouring fries from special TV trays.

At times, not enough care is taken with some components of this otherwise tasty menu. The bacon on the iceberg wedge ($7.95) was so overcooked and salty that I felt as though I was chewing on jerky. Two pieces of tuna on the plate of charred ahi seemed to come from different fish, one a princess of the sea and the other her evil stepsister. I was not impressed with dessert: We tried s'mores and bread pudding, both too big and way over the top.

Among the tasty adult selections, I tried the crab cakes ($9.95), two fresh discs of sweet crabmeat tenderly fried and served alongside golden corn bread and clever Old Bay rémoulade. Peanut-crusted chicken wings ($8.95) were served in a pail with the longest celery sticks I've ever seen. The presentation was cute, but unfortunately the pasty layer of Buffalo barbecue sauce was cloying. The seafood chowder ($15.95) was excellent, bursting with grouper, shrimp and scallops; the rich, creamy sauce still allowed the taste of delicate leeks and corn to shine through. Likewise, a plate of charred ahi tuna ($23) allowed both rich and light flavors to work in harmony. A sesame rice cake was not overpowered by wasabi cream and pickled ginger, but enhanced by the tangy sharpness.

At The Kitchen, you may not brush elbows with rock stars, but you are certainly eating in surroundings that make you feel like one yourself.

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