Universal's hotels, operated by hospitality giant Loews, are upping their gastronomy game, luring locals and tourists alike to new restaurant offerings and amped-up, curated tasting events. I was invited to experience the two most recent additions, a rum pairing dinner at Sapphire Falls Resort, and the new Acoustic Brunch offering at the Hard Rock Hotel.
Rum-Pairing Dinners: Sapphire Falls Resort
Sapphire Falls features a Caribbean theme, so considering the excellent rums produced in the islands, the tie-in makes sense. Taking place at the Amatista Cookhouse on the hotel's lower level, the rum-pairing dinners begin with an outdoor reception featuring live music, an aperitif punch spiked with one of the evening's rums and passed hors d'oeuvres like sorghum-glazed pork belly sliders.
Following the reception, guests are ushered into the restaurant's private dining space through enormous sliding glass doors, which offer diners a view of the hotel's lush garden area and waterfall during dinner. Each course is paired with the lineup of rums from a particular brand; on the night I attended, the featured rum was Facundo, Bacardi's upscale brand.
The executive chef at Amatista Cookhouse came out to introduce each course, and the hotel's master mixologist introduced the rum cocktail paired with each of the five courses. If the idea of five-plus rum cocktails leaves you feeling a little woozy, fear not: The pours are about half of a full-size drink, so you'll leave the dinner feeling happy, but likely not drunk.
It's an elegant affair. The live music continues through dinner, servers "sweep" the table to serve diners (placing all the plates for the table down simultaneously), and at the end of the evening, guests go home with a gift bag with a rocks glass, a mini bottle of rum and some other swag.
The next Rum Dinner is set for Saturday, Sept. 21 and will feature Plantation Rum. Tickets are $85 (plus sales tax and gratuity) and include reception, five-course dinner with rum pairings, afterglow event and parking. You can purchase tickets and learn more at https://sapphirefalls.tix.com/Event.aspx?EventCode=1141005.
Acoustic Brunch: Hard Rock Hotel
The over-the-top weekend hotel brunch buffet has seen a decline in Orlando, but Hard Rock Hotel is staging a revival. The Acoustic Brunch, which takes place every Sunday from 10:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., is one of the best deals in hotel dining, with an acoustic performance of past and present pop and alt rock hits and pretty much any brunch dish you can think of on the all-you-can-eat menu.
The brunch costs $39 per person for adults, $17 for children ages 10 to 14 and $13 for kids 3 to 9. For this, guests can visit the griddle stations, salad bar, omelet station, carving stations and smoked salmon station and enjoy unlimited beverages, including bloody marys, mimosas and sangria.
I loved the Elvis French toast from the griddle. Two pieces of egg-soaked, sliced baguette, slathered with peanut butter, topped with sliced bananas and drizzled with warm maple syrup. I also sampled the chicken-and-waffles station, with crispy fried tenders and creamy mac and cheese. The pastries on the bakery station are beyond tempting, including doughnuts, muffins, croissants and Danishes. They're impossible to pass up.
It's a relaxed atmosphere, but not inappropriate for a special occasion. On the day I visited, there was a mix of families getting ready to take on the theme parks as well as a few groups dressed to the nines for a birthday party.
The brunch buffet is open to the public, and valet parking is discounted to $5 with validation at the host's stand at the front of the restaurant. Reservations are recommended.