Taste: You Want Chips With That?
Bobby Flay, Michael Mina and Wolfgang Puck are playing their hands in A.C. What are your odds of a winning meal?
What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas. Wolfgang Puck’s $24 club sandwich, Bobby Flay’s $95 surf-and-turf and Michael Mina’s $300 lobster potpie have landed in Atlantic City, ushering in a style of high-limit fine dining that didn’t seem possible a decade ago, when the White House Sub Shop was the city’s only dining haunt with a national profile.
What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas. Wolfgang Puck’s $24 club sandwich, Bobby Flay’s $95 surf-and-turf and Michael Mina’s $300 lobster potpie have landed in Atlantic City, ushering in a style of high-limit fine dining that didn’t seem possible a decade ago, when the White House Sub Shop was the city’s only dining haunt with a national profile. Encouraged by their good luck on the Strip, Puck, Flay and Mina have opened sumptuous new restaurants at the Borgata, part of a $525 million expansion that will ultimately add a second gleaming hotel tower to the property.
Even at this price point, fine dining casino-style has no dress code, which brings in some shockingly casual customers, and the poker tables and gaudy slots aren’t entirely hidden from view, as if to suggest that you should skip that second cup of coffee and get back to business. But these sleek dining rooms are already gobbling money as efficiently as any slot machine.
SAN FRANCISCO CHEF Michael Mina may not be well-known to East Coasters, but his Mediterranean-influenced Seablue is the best restaurant among the Borgata’s new glam trio. Mina is known for upscaling downscale classics, crafting delightful thumb-size corn dogs filled with lobster to dunk in spicy mustard, or rethinking fish and chips by whipping up an elegant malt vinegar beurre blanc for snapper encrusted with potato “scales.”
Adam Tihany’s design echoes Mina’s playful spirit. Schools of virtual fish glide across the screens of virtual aquariums built into the walls of the dining room, outfitted in hot coral and azure stripes. I had plenty of time to admire the blue-veined marble floor, lavender chairs and bubble-patterned metalwork in the lounge, because a distracted hostess went on a break and left us sitting there for 50 minutes past our reservation time. (Profuse apologies and complimentary glasses of champagne followed.)
Basics like manila clams steamed with white wine, steamed mussels with chorizo, and fat sea scallops grilled over oakwood are perfectly executed, as are most of the Mina specialties developed for his six other restaurants in Northern California and Las Vegas. Pillow-soft, miso-glazed Chilean sea bass in shiitake consommé is as light as an air kiss; the sturdier tapioca-crusted black bass, resting on basmati rice and frenched green beans, is smartly dressed with sesame-scented almond vinaigrette and fresh mango. Mina’s love for bold flavors occasionally goes overboard, as in the green garlic, spinach and lobster soup that left me tasting garlic long after dessert.
Lobster potpie is the signature dish. Every night, more than 40 of them parade from the kitchen, swaddled in copper pots tightly sealed with pastry. At the table, the crust is slit to reveal the tail and claw meat from a two-pound lobster, and a mother lode of in-season vegetables immersed in lobster bisque gilded with truffle butter. This $72 entree should have been the jackpot dish, but the lobster meat was taut and overcooked. I salvaged some pleasure from the excellent vegetables, and as I dunked sections of crust into the intensely flavored bisque, I had a fondue fit for a king.
A $300 version of the potpie made with an eight-pound lobster is sometimes offered as a special. The Borgata kitchen usually prepares three — and sells them all.
IT'S ONLY LOGICAL THAT the Food Network’s king of the grill would at some point open a steakhouse. Viewed from the casino floor, the David Rockwell-designed interior of Bobby Flay Steak glows like an ember, an inviting, sexy den of red leather and gently curving wooden ceiling beams behind a vault-like door. The lobster bar near the entry suggests that seafood gets prominent play here, too, and the menu confirms it: Lobster turns up in smoked tomato bisque, in salad with crispy squid, and in the audacious $95 surf-and-turf, with an American Wagyu strip steak. The terrific lobster-crab cake doubles the pleasure with two sauces: a tart one of roasted tomatillos, and a silky saffron aioli.
Flay spent a month on the premises to get things right, and it shows. Service was smoother here than at Seablue or Wolfgang Puck. The food, a familiar portfolio of tummy-warming spice rubs tempered with sweetness and citrus, joined by several shellfish cocktails from Flay’s Bar Americain brasserie in Manhattan, was consistently good from start to finish, though not as inventive as Mina’s.
Flay’s riff on the cheesesteak is a grilled 16-ounce New York strip coated with the ubiquitous ancho chili-based spice mix, set on a soft bed of caramelized onions, surrounded by a provolone-parmesan cheese sauce. It’s perfectly fine, but for the been-there, ate-that Philly customer, the Southwest rib eye is better, topped with roasted red and green chili peppers and garlic, conveying some of the spark that made Flay’s Mesa Grill a hit when it opened in 1991.
Dessert is a roundup of American classics, including a lovely crème fraîche cheesecake and a banana split. I advise you to go straight for the baked Alaska, a dessert rarely seen outside of cruise ships anymore. With a core of coffee ice cream, a hint of bitter chocolate and a many-peaked crown of meringue, it’s a nostalgic plateful of frivolous fun.
WOLFGANG PUCK IS THE father of casino fine dining in America. The effervescent, entrepreneurial Austrian brought Las Vegas its first taste of culinary star power when he opened Spago in the Forum Shops at Caesars in 1992, before any other chefs of his caliber would give the town a sniff.
But there is nothing cutting-edge about his Borgata restaurant, Wolfgang Puck American Grille, his first fine-dining venture on the East Coast. Spago’s smoked salmon and caviar pizza is here; so is the riotously colorful chicken salad from Chinois on Main, and the Wiener schnitzel that Puck keeps in his repertoire as a nod to his roots. The stacks of wood in the bar are fuel for the pizza oven, a rustic flourish that looks very odd in a casino setting. My wild mushroom, leek and goat cheese pizza had a thicker crust than I remember from my visits to the Spago flagship years ago, when toppings like spicy chicken or broccoli rabe were positively revolutionary.
There are two menus, one with more casual food and lower prices, although it’s possible to order from either in the bar. The lobster club sandwich with smoked bacon and arugula on grilled country bread is a treat, though a pricey one at $24. If you’re in the mood just to nosh and share a dish or two, the seafood and vegetable fritto misto will do nicely, as will the house-made potato chips, served nacho-style with a creamy melted blue-cheese sauce touched with truffle oil.
Of the three new restaurants, Puck’s sand-and-beige dining room is the calmest spot for a meal. The choicest seats are the booths partially enclosed with clear panels imprinted with Puck’s image. Towering crab and shrimp cocktails turn heads as they cross the room. We were content with the deeply flavorful lobster and mushroom ravioli with truffle butter/cognac sauce, and a steak tartare patty wrapped with parmesan strips, topped with a dainty quail egg. The potato/goat cheese gratin that accompanied the fist-size roast pork chop was better than the chop. Sole and shrimp piccata with pureed artichokes floated in so much lemon-caper sauce that it might have come from a restaurant in South Philly — tasty, but in this environment, a more stylish presentation seems warranted. My favorite among the comfort-chic desserts was the slender slice of flourless chocolate cake and mocha praline mousse — 15 layers in all, but who’s counting? That’s for the blackjack table.