Atlantic City restaurants: New casinos, diverse independent spots create rising culinary energy

The tuna tartare from Dolce Mare inside the Ocean Resort Casino in Atlantic City.

ATLANTIC CITY – Amid the glitz of giant guitar chandeliers, the rattle of fresh poker chips, the hungry din of dumpling chaos at the noodle bar, and the expected flood of  humanity that surged through the opening weekend of not one, but two new casinos for this seaside resort, we sat beside the wood-fired grill at Council Oak Fish and saw an unexpectedly familiar face.

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The lobster pot at Council Oak Fish at  the Hard Rock Casino features shellfish in an aromatic broth.

“Hello,” said Darren O’Donnell, who approached our table in the Hard Rock Casino’s massive new grill room.  “I’ll be taking care of you this evening.”

The odds of his appearance seemed almost improbable, considering the 7,000 people who were recently hired to work at the new Hard Rock and Ocean Resort casinos. But O’Donnell was familiar because he had been our server the very last time we ate at an Atlantic City casino a year ago at Angeline, an Italian place in the Borgata that was the hot casino restaurant opening of the summer in 2017. He did a fine job then, and we were happy to see him. But the encounter was as much a “small-town” moment as it was a sobering reminder of the cycles that dominate the reality of casino culture, despite the shimmering veneer of yet another wave of fresh prosperity.

The ebbing tides of winter layoffs cut O’Donnell loose from Angeline. The rising tides of another summer brought him back to our table in this latest bauble of fine-dining promise, which, despite its sleek wood trim, boxy modern lights, live-fire open kitchen, and sunny boardwalk view, had the generic fanciness of a banquet room dressed in fresh linens.

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The dining room at Council Oak Fish at the Hard Rock Casino sits beside the Atlantic City Boardwalk.

Many have argued that this summer’s sunny glow in Atlantic City is stronger than in years past, especially with the magnetic force of nearly 40 new eating venues between the two casinos. But make no mistake: This is A.C.’s era of earnestly recycled casino restaurants rather than the total identity makeover of its bolder days when the Borgata debuted.

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Yes, the investments are real. The jobs are real. And I had several recommendable meals that rose on good ingredients and seaside vistas, from the tuna tartare crowned with plantain wings at Ocean Resort’s Dolce Mare, to the flavorful bone-in filet at Council Oak and even the spice-lit Sichuan dumplings at Hard Rock’s Youyu – when they finally arrived.

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The Sichuan pork dumplings at Youyu Noodle Bar at the Hard Rock Casino.

Beyond the Boardwalk

But these new casino restaurants felt more like pleasant amenities than innovative dining draws in their own right. So with that in mind, I took the opportunity to also explore the independent dining scene now simmering in Atlantic City beyond its casinos. And aside from the names I already knew and loved (Knife & Fork, Cafe 2825, Chef Vola’s, White House, Pancho’s and Dock’s), I found several other very good reasons to visit. And I detected a surprisingly unanimous sense of optimism from this diverse collection of both established players and ambitious newcomers, from a bean-to-bar chocolatier to a soul food master, an elegant Italian survivor, a Salvadoran pupusa heaven, and a whiskey-rich den of gastropub indulgence. All of them drew genuine enthusiasm from the energy of both the new casinos and the rising towers of Stockton University’s new Atlantic City campus.

“The Hard Rock is making them all step up their game with the new entertainment they’re bringing to town,” says chef Kelsey Jackson, a veteran of casino kitchens for 17 years before he launched a series of popular soul-food restaurants with wife and partner, Kim Jackson. “To me, it feels like our rough times are over.”

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Chef and co-owner Kelsey Jackson, left, talks with diners at Kelsey & Kim’s Southern Cafe in Atlantic City.

For Jackson to say this, despite losing five cooks and two servers to the new casinos, is telling. But there’s no confidence barometer more reliable than a full dining room – which is exactly what we found on a midweek evening when we arrived to a 30-minute wait at Kelsey and Kim’s Southern Cafe (201 Melrose Ave., 609-350-6800). This is the casual sibling to Kelsey’s, Jackson’s upscale live music supper club at South Kentucky and Pacific Avenues. But the friendly vibe of this pleasant cafe near Gardner’s Basin has an easy neighborhood restaurant allure, boosted by a menu of soul food classics that over the last 12 years has proven to merit the hype, not to mention frequent reruns of its appearance on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.

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The sweet, moist cornbread at Kelsey & Kim’s Southern Cafe in Atlantic City merits a course of its own.

A platter of warm, moist corn bread is practically a course of its own, and it gets griddled brown and toasty if you come for breakfast. The fried chicken, sealed beneath a shattering thin crust of seasoned flour, also has all-day appeal, moist beside dishes of the smoked turkey collards and toothsome black-eyed peas for dinner, or crowning a Belgian waffle with syrup for sweet and savory brunch. But if there’s one dish here not to miss, it would be the Cajun catfish, which gets marinated overnight in a zippy oregano-cayenne spice before it’s fried crisp inside a greaseless corn meal crust.

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The fried catfish at Kelsey & Kim’s Southern Cafe in Atlantic City.

This is yet another favorite that might call me back for a revisit at breakfast, when the restaurant serves it over creamy grits that Jackson turns fluffy with some hand-whisked magic: “The secret,” says Jackson, “is all in the wrist.”

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Co-owner Deb Pellegrino cups a handful of raw cacao beans from Ghana, which she will transform into memorable chocolate bars, cocktails and desserts at her new atelier, Made Atlantic City Chocolate Bar in Atlantic City.

A different level of faith is required to believe in the redevelopment of South Tennessee Avenue, a blighted stretch of beach block with a needle exchange on one end and a busy massage parlor next door to Made  Atlantic City Chocolate Bar (121 S. Tennessee Ave.). It’s an ambitious bean-to-bar chocolate atelier that is one of the first open pieces (along with a yoga studio) in what developer Mark Callazzo hopes will be an inspiring Fishtown-like revival. A coffee shop, Hayday, is poised to open soon next door, and a beer garden is very much under construction but still hopeful, maybe for August.

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A full bar is used to make creative drink pairings with a flight of the handmade chocolates at Made Chocolate Bar in Atlantic City.
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Co-owners Mark Pellegrino, left, and Deborah Pellegrino, left careers in casino kitchens to create the bean-to-bar cacao atelier of Made Atlantic City Chocolate Bar.

But where there is artisan chocolate, there is hope. And there may be few metaphors more apt for the work that lay ahead than the rough-skinned raw cacao beans that co-owner Deborah Pellegrino roasts, husks, grinds for days on a mill stone and then transforms into refined single-origin chocolate bars that, after a month of aging to mellow, develop some truly exceptional flavors. The Ecuadoran beans are citrusy. The Dominican beans are earthy, laced with notes of coffee and caramel. The beans from Ghana have a wine-like tang, while the chocolate from Madagascar tastes like cherry. The bars studded with coffee beans, dehydrated orange peels, and sea salt have yet another dimension.

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The adult chocolate milk at Made Atlantic City Chocolate Bar uses a liquor infused with fresh-roasted cacao beans for a vivid flavor.

“I’ll tell you I was one of the biggest naysayers,” said Pellegrino, who worked nearly two decades as a pastry chef for Caesars properties before going all in here with her husband, Mark Pellegrino, also a chef. “We’d been through the upswings here and also the downswings when it got really bad. But people are really coming here to support us.”

It helps that Made offers an unusual interactive experience, with a glassed-in production room to view the process, and a fully stocked bar to create drink pairings for flights of Deb’s chocolates, and cocktails that combine the two. The rich adult chocolate milk comes in a cute mini-milk jug with an intense chocolate savor and a boozy punch that’s earned it the nickname “Uber Ride.” Not a bad idea for a sweet post-gambling nightcap or, as Pellegrino says, cheekily acknowledging her neighbor, “a wholesome new meaning to ‘happy ending.'”

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The bar at the Iron Room in Atlantic City stocks more than 300 whiskies, one of the biggest collections in New Jersey.

Anyone doubting the long game here should be encouraged by Callazzo’s surprising success at the Iron Room (648 N. Albany Ave., 609-348-6400), a speakeasy with more than 350 whiskies tucked into a long, hardly marked storefront between a Salvation Army and 24-hour car wash across from the deserted baseball stadium on a forlorn stretch of Albany Avenue.

 >>READ MORE: The best sandwiches at the Shore | Craig LaBan

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The new dining room at the Iron Room in Atlantic City replaced a liquor store at the front of the speakeasy-style bar.

Despite its unlikely location, the Iron Room has evolved over the last five years into one of Atlantic City’s most fascinating dining destinations, with the addition of a posh new dining room this year replacing the liquor store that once occupied its front space.

This is obviously a drinker’s paradise, with its wall of spirits (half-price whiskey Tuesday!), high-quality wines, and excellent collection of craft beers. But chef Kevin Cronin’s creative gastropub-plus menu has also found its groove, with indulgence overdrive in such specialties as  pierogies stuffed with foie gras mashed potatoes, udon noodle mac-‘n-truffled cheese, a gamy house-made duck scrapple, and what is surely one of A.C.’s very best burgers, a Snake River kobe patty that you can top with your pick of some serious cheeses, such as Truffle Tremor or Point Reyes blue.

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The American kobe beef burger at the Iron Room comes with the option of serious cheese, such asTruffle Tremor, and some perfectly crisp fries.

Cronin has added some refined larger plates to class-up the dining room experience, such as the pretty scallops with blood oranges. But nothing quite embodies the Iron Room’s spirit as an in-the-know splurge oasis quite like the “Ron Swanson,” a carnivore’s ode to the Parks and Recreation character that brings a 20-ounce rib-eye with thick-cut bacon, deviled eggs, and a three-pour flight of Lagavullin for $110. It’s an off-menu “quiet special” intended for sharing, says Cronin. “But you’d be surprised. I’ve seen plenty of convention guys come and polish off the whole thing on their own.”

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Gold fabrics, sea blue wall, and the roaring fire of a Neapolitan pizza oven highlight the dining room at Girasole in Atlantic City.

While the Iron Room is truly off the beaten path, Gino Iovino has been hiding in plain sight and catering to a largely local crowd for 26 years at Girasole (3108 Pacific Ave.; 609-345-5554), an enduring sibling to the now-closed Philly branch, whose elegance inside the Ocean Club Condominium belies the seedy stretch of motels, liquor shops and strip clubs that surround it. Iovino’s love of fashion, as the longtime owner of the Eleganza Boutique, explains his restaurant’s lavish decor, with golden fabric waves rolling across the ceiling over a dining room done-up in deep Capri blue, polished marble tables, and the white brick dome of a Neapolitan pizza oven.

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An excellent Margherita is one of the first-course stars of the $15 bargain lunch menu at Girasole in Atlantic City.

That upscale aura always made me hesitate to detour from my usual mission of exploring new restaurants here for a visit. But Girasole happens to have a lunch deal — $15 for two courses — that is one of the best bargains anywhere. The spot-on Margherita pizza, so light and yet so flavorful (due to slow-fermenting and a touch of starter), is worth $15 on its own.

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The al dente snap of spaghetti from Gragnano and the crunch of rendered guanciale elevate the classic carbonara at Girasole in Atlantic City.

But then I followed it with a plate of housemade cervellata sausages tanged with provolone, then proceeded to steal bites from my companions’ plates. A delicate stack of thin-sliced zuccchini and eggplant Parmesan exuded a homestyle Neapolitan touch. A superbly tender veal cutlet. A gossamer fan of tuna carpaccio topped with house-dried tomatoes and capers. A perfect carbonara whose al dente spaghetti, cooked to order from Gragnano pasta and glazed in the richness of beaten eggs and cheese, crackled with crisped guanciale and a healthy grind of black pepper. All of these delighted me as examples of true Italian cooking but also made me wonder: How does Girasole make any money on this menu at all?

“We don’t,” admits Iovino. “It was created with smaller portions to give people a chance to try it and see what we do. So maybe they return for dinner.”

Mission accomplished, Gino. I’ll be back.

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Pupusas, bottom, are pictured with elote tamales and a glass of cashew juice at Sabor Salvadoreno.

The sky-blue corner space of Sabor Salvadoreño (3213 Atlantic Ave.; 609-345-0707) sits less than two blocks from Girasole. But this cheerful Central American pupuseria is culturally a world away. For one, it’s a good idea to brush up on your Spanish if you hope to communicate beyond menu-pointing with the very friendly staff. This year-and-a-half-old restaurant is understandably focused on serving Atlantic City’s thriving Latino population, which already has some excellent Mexican destinations (such as Pancho’s, my favorite, which happens to be owned by Colombians.)

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Sabor Salvadoreno specializes in pupusas.

Sabor has a full Mexican menu, too, but the Salvadoran specialties cooked by co-owner Ana Salazar, a native of Chalatenango in Northwest El Salvador, are the reason to come. Her steamy “elote” tamales are naturally sweet from fresh ground corn. And her pupusas are among the best I’ve tasted, with a wide variety of stuffings – shredded pork, cheese and beans; chicken; shrimp, or salty cheese laced with peppery chipilín greens – that come sandwiched between griddled rounds of handmade masa tortillas that were memorably delicate and earthy.

Wash them down with a cool sweet glass of marañón juice made from cashew fruit, and you’ll wish, like I did when I popped in for a late-afternoon snack, that I hadn’t already made another reservation for dinner that night at a casino.

New casinos calling

But, of course, A.C.’s shiny new gaming palaces had piqued my curiosity. Considering they opened just over a week ago, barely two days before my departure from the Shore, I held my expectations in check. It’s hard enough to get a single restaurant running smoothly, let alone the mayhem of two massive hotels with dozens of eateries. I typically wait of a couple months for review visits, if possible. But first impressions can also be valuable.

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Ocean Resort, which already exuded a low-energy chill by day two, appeared to be little more than a lightly feather-dusted version of Revel, which had closed in lightly used mint condition. I steered clear of Amada and the Distrito taco truck, given the turmoil still unfolding with the bankruptcy proceedings of Jose Garces’ empire (he’s still signed on to oversee execution of these concepts).

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The dining room at Dolce Mare inside the Ocean Resort casino overlooks the Atlantic City beach.

I was more intrigued by the new arrival of Dolce Mare, which replaced Azure, hoping that they simply wouldn’t mess up one of the prettiest dining rooms in all of A.C. I basically got my wish. The space seems hardly touched, with the same spectacular window onto the Atlantic wrapped in shimmering tiled floors and pearl-like chandeliers that frame the view.

The seafood-centric Italian menu from LDV Hospitality is essentially Scarpetta by the sea, though thankfully more satisfying than my meals at that company’s restaurant on Rittenhouse Square. Yes, the front-house staff had difficulties with some basics – such as properly setting a table, pacing and not mangling the pronunciation of every Italian word on the menu. But the opening kitchen stocked with company veterans did a fine job delivering familiar dishes simply upgraded with good ingredients.

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The summer truffle ravioli are served with a seaside view at Dolce Mare inside the Ocean Resort Casino.

The tuna tartare was bountiful and fresh, its creamy layer of avocado warmed by the spice of roasted Italian long hots. The fritto-misto brought a crispy medley of deftly fried calamari, shrimp and zucchini chips. The veal Parmesan was enormous, but memorably tender, with the bonus of house-extruded spaghetti tossed in bright marinara. The fresh linguine with local littlenecks was bland, its light broth lacking a clammy punch. But delicacy was the prize with the housemade spinach ravioli, whose thin-skinned dumplings were lifted to luxury by a vivid whiff of summer truffles. Is Dolce Mare the most exciting Italian kitchen in Atlantic City? No. But it’s good enough, considering none can match its views.

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The dandan noodles at Youyu Noodle Bar at the Hard Rock Casino balance Sichuan spice with fresh peanut richness.

The opening weekend chaos prize goes to the Youyu noodle bar inside the Hard Rock, where multiple system failures – a broken noodle boiler, a crashed ticket system, a mini-flood in the kitchen – had servers literally bouncing off each other, scrumming for each other’s dishes, and apologizing to irritated guests sipping Buddha-shaped beer bottles for what seemed like interminable waits.

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The Youyu noodle bar at Hard Rock Casino is a good bet for flavorful, authentic Chinese plates in a casual setting.

But I have a theory that the quick-serve and casual Asian noodle bar, now a happy fixture at gaming venues across the country, is the true window into a casino kitchen’s authentic soul. This is where the regulars and staff alike will eat for maximum flavor at minimal fuss.

And when our food finally did arrive, I was most pleasantly surprised. The handmade Sichuan dumplings were lit with fragrantly numbing peppercorn heat. The dandan noodles had a perfect balance of spice and crumbled pork that clung to toothy noodles in a sauce infused with fresh-roasted peanut richness. The Singapore noodles had an impressively punchy curry that exuded the exotic aroma of wok-toasted spice. Even the fried rice served in little clay hot pots was impressive. It make me wonder, perhaps for a future visit, what the off-menu special soup dumplings might taste like. Even better, I’d return here to sample the upscale Chinese cuisine at Song just across the corridor, which is also run by chef Eddie Fong, most recently at the Venetian in Macau.

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Executive chef Quincy Logan turns over a steak on the grill at Council Oak Fish inside the Hard Rock Casino.

Would I return to Council Oak Fish? Maybe. If someone else’s expense account was paying. I wouldn’t say no. Because there was really nothing wrong with my meal at this sprawling and sunny dining room beside the Boardwalk. The crabcake was moist and meaty. The tender octopus wore a coal-roasted char over tangy romesco sauce. The bone-in filet mignon actually had flavor, thanks to its bone and the wood-fired Argentine grill that anchors the open kitchen. The lobster steamer pot, served in a sea blue Le Creuset casserole, was brimming with lobster, clams and shrimp in a garlicky broth spiked with andouille and lemongrass.

But a lot of Atlantic City’s kitchens serve good steaks and seafood. Council Oak Fish is a safe concept executed with a little style for the casino’s VIP masses rather than a distinctive gamble aimed to draw a new culinary crowd.

And yet, as we got up to leave, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of hope for this restaurant and all the new ventures in this latest chapter of Atlantic City’s story.

“See you next time,” said our server Darren O’Donnell, shaking my hand as we got up to leave. “Hopefully, this will be my last stop for several years.”