Reviews: Not Just Another Casino Restaurant

Extraordinary ingredients and a high-rolling location make Georges Perrier's new Atlantic City outpost a sure bet.

Atlantic City’s glamour quotient has shifted dramatically since the palazzo-like Borgata opened three years ago, giving this raffish casino town a real shot at rebranding itself as Vegas-by-the-Sea, instead of Slots-’n’-Buffets R Us. The sleek tower of temptation in the marina district was unlike anything that had come before it, with a luxe look and a cache of chic restaurants that included Susanna Foo’s Suilan. The competition responded by upgrading amenities and recruiting marquee restaurants of their own, which is how Philadelphia’s best-known chef-brand, Georges Perrier, and his Brasserie Perrier chef-partner, Chris Scarduzio, came to open Mia at Caesars, an Italian/Mediterranean restaurant named for Scarduzio’s two-year-old daughter. It didn’t take much to convince them to follow the money: Bettors wagered $5 billion in Atlantic City’s 12 casinos last year, a number that doesn’t even count what was spent on food and drink, shopping and hotels.

No one comes to Atlantic City to be frugal, and I can’t resist a long, lingering study of the last page of Mia’s wine list, a tout sheet for high rollers. Do I want the 1982 Château Pétrus, a $5,000 splurge, or could I make do with the 1982 Château Latour, a thrifty trifle at $1,850? To a non-roller like myself, the prices are as unreal as the faux Coliseum decor in the hotel lobby, and the pillared pretend-Pantheon build-out that frames the dining room, constructed for the previous tenant, the Temple Bar. Our waiter remains poker-faced when we order a glass of the pleasantly tart Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc from New Zealand ($12) and a glass of Alsatian riesling ($8), followed by a bottle of 2001 Castello di Bossi chianti classico ($48). Later, on the telephone, Perrier tells me he has already sold one bottle of each of my dream wines.

Mia is expensive but not fancy, a white-tablecloth restaurant that’s closer in spirit to Brasserie Perrier than to Le Bec-Fin or Le Bar Lyonnais. The attentive servers are too chummy—one took the liberty of swirling the wine in my glass to aerate it, and ended up splashing both of us. The list of recited specials is dizzying; I’d prefer to see those descriptions, and prices, in print. A TV behind the bar plays cooking videos of Perrier and Scarduzio. The crowd is a mix of dressed-up Asian tourists and more casually attired Americans from New York and Philly. Most eat quickly.

Location is what persuaded Perrier to place a bet on the Boardwalk. Mia sits directly across from the hotel check-in desk at Caesars, positioned so shoppers headed for the soon-to-open Pier, Caesar’s restaurant and shopping addition, must pass by. Café tables that extend into the lobby area are already popular with after-show crowds, who come to nibble $12 pizzas and panini from the late-night menu.

If I were going to write that Mia is a good restaurant for a casino operation, this is where that qualifier would appear. But there is no qualifier. Mia is a fine restaurant in any context, observing the same high standards that Perrier and Scarduzio set for its affiliates in Center City. Under Scarduzio’s direction, restaurant chef Jeremy Duclut, a Frenchman who previously worked at Le Bec-Fin, Brasserie Perrier and Loie, deserves the credit for seeing the vision through.

Extraordinary raw ingredients make the difference, such as the lusciously briny raw Fanny Bay oysters from Canada, and the smaller, creamier Gigamoto oysters from California, served in the French style with shallot-vinegar mignonette, though cocktail sauce is available if you insist. The chilled seafood salad is a lovely composition of octopus and scallops, a mini lobster tail, a head-to-tail sardine, intensely flavored roasted red peppers, and a petite arugula salad with fennel. Steamed mahogany clams and roasted langoustines are served with finely diced pancetta and a buttery broth ­tailor-made for bread-dipping.

Seared duck foie gras, served with pomegranate sauce and fresh black truffle shavings when I had it, is the top-of-the-line product from Hudson Valley, the New York purveyor. Italy’s best prosciutto di Parma is shaved ultra-thin and topped with sautéed shiitake mushrooms splashed with sherry and balsamic vinegars, caramelized red onions and shaved pecorino, a nicely balanced celebration of sweet, sharp, salty and earthy flavors. The Caesar salad made tableside is a seamless intersection of anchovy, lemon, cheese, garlic and egg, unless you request emphasis on a particular ingredient.

The main course to swoon over is Scarduzio’s cheeky take on surf and turf, meaty halibut fillets seared on an ultra-hot plancha griddle, paired with exquisitely succulent braised veal cheeks, accompanied by silky pureed celery root. Scarduzio says the pork-and-clam dishes he likes to order at Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants inspired the combination of a hefty pan-roasted veal porterhouse, steamed mahogany clams and finely chopped sweetbreads. A handful of capers is the finishing touch, striking exactly the right note to cut through the richness. Rack of lamb, an occasional special, is carved into four rosy chops and served with seasonal vegetables and a complex sauce based on long-­simmered lamb shanks.

I’m less enthusiastic about the shellfish risotto, a fairly one-dimensional dish dominated by crabmeat and the flavor of saffron, and the fettuccine with wild mushrooms and duck confit, which is fine as a $15 appetizer, but preposterous as a $30 entrée.

Pastry chef Melanie Gaines-Stewart worked directly with Perrier in Le Bec-Fin’s kitchen to master the flagship’s incomparable fruit and berry sorbets. She learned her lessons well, and a selection of them is the best way to end a meal at Mia—unless someone comps you a bottle of Château d’Yquem ($1,000) and a hunk of gorgonzola from the cheese cart.

Well, I can dream, can’t I?