ATLANTIC CITY - Last year's tan had long faded away, and the waves were brisk with a pre-season chill. But finally, after the cool intervening months since last summer, the Pier Shops at Caesars is heating up.
On its third-floor restaurant concourse, you can sit back in a wooden chaise-longue, grab a cocktail, and actually put your toes in the sand of the faux-beach that lines the windowed hall. Watching the waves crack below the Pier onto the beach from the comfort of this seaside mall was about the closest I've gotten to imagining a year-round summer.
But I doubt the actual summer will be quite the same now that this new mega-entertainment center is in gear for its first warm season, especially with its multimillion dollar lineup of new restaurants piling onto Atlantic City's growing stash of high-concept casino restaurants.
The third floor houses a range of impressively designed eateries. There's a family-style fish house chain from Baltimore, Phillip's Seafood; a branch of Boston's tony wine bar and New American bistro, Sonsie; and a kitschy but handsome faux-Dublin Irish pub called Trinity, where the hearty chicken pot pies are as big as platters and the burgers are indulgently deep-fried. That's right. Beer-battered to a sinful crunch with a curried dip.
The biggest Pier draws, though, will undoubtedly be the branches of two of Stephen Starr's Philly hits: Buddakan and The Continental.
The more casual Continental features one of the wildest restaurant designs I've seen, with a blue water moat wending around a retro fireplace hearth in the "outdoor" cafe, and funky back rooms set behind sliding glass doors and portholes that evoke the inside of a futuristic submarine.
The Buddakan space is only slightly more restrained, but beautifully rendered to evoke an Asian courtyard set beneath a starry-night painted "sky." It feels more intimate than the Chestnut Street original, but still draws heavily on its design signatures, with its own big glowing Buddha and a golden onyx community table. The menu also leans heavily on Philly's more familiar Asian fusion offerings, rather than the edgier, authentically inspired items from the Manhattan branch.
Still, our meal was as tasty - perhaps even tastier - than some of my recent visits to the Pappa-Budda in Old City. The chicken dumplings were plump and moist, with a ringing ginger spice. The ravioli were filled with a silky edamame-cheese stuffing that snapped against whole soy beans floating in a truffled Sauternes broth.
The char-grilled aged beef was a spectacular steak, exotically spiced, thinly sliced and fanned around a haystack of shoestring fries drizzled with Szechuan sauce. The superbly tender five-spiced duck breast was worth ordering simply for the pudding-like corn and scallion spoonbread.
With impressively polished and outgoing service from our suave waiter, Mamadou, it appears that Buddakan has managed to get its whole act together better than most of the other copycat restaurants in Atlantic City I've encountered so far.
So many of them seem half-baked. For example, the newly opened Finestra in the Trump Marina casino is the restaurant equivalent of a comb-over. The former Portofino has been redone with cool Mediterranean blues and greens, and there is a less obstructed view now across the picturesque marina to Atlantic City's colorful coast.
But the massively boxy space has all the warmth of an overcrowded airport lounge. And the updated Italian antipasto menu is shabbily rendered. The thin-crusted "flatbreads" coming from its high-end pizza oven were doughy and underbaked. The baked ziti was gloppy. And my $30 osso buco was so tepid (with gluey sauce and crunchy risotto) it needed to be sent back to the kitchen.
With no apologies issued, it was enough to remind us that this snazzy new generation of casino restaurants can still be a big crap shoot.
Thankfully, there are plenty of other intriguing restaurants beyond the casinos up and down the Shore that I'm looking forward to trying this summer.
Many of them, like the Pier, got a late start on last summer's crowd, so they will be new to me this year. Among the most ambitious is Sofia, an elegant Greek seafood palace featuring taverna classics and a wide selection of whole fish. The elaborate multi-level space, built with stone and white-washed stucco and wrought iron details, looks like a grand stone Mediterranean villa on the Margate bay.
Long Beach Island was home to two of last summer's biggest late-season openings - the totally revamped Victorian inn and fine-dining destination, The Gables, in Beach Haven, and Daddy O, in nearby Brant Beach.
A multimillion-dollar inn and restaurant with a cool beach look, Daddy O comes from Martin Grims, who also owns the Plantation (in Harvey Cedars) and the Moshulu (in Philly). It will be joined by another big project farther south this summer when Grims also opens The Inlet, a revamp of Somers Point's now-closed Sails.
Grims plans to transform the huge and upscale Sails marina into a slightly more casual venue, with an all-day New American menu sporting kobe burgers, lobster grilled cheese and short rib sliders, as well as some more classic Shore offerings.
The Inlet's 175-seat deck cocktail bar, with its marina slips and bayside view, is likely to be a major draw for revelers from bone-dry Ocean City. And Grims plans for it to stay open year-round.
That way, if you get the urge for a post-summer Shore fix once that tan is gone, you'll have other tasty options than the mall.
Below is Laban's short list of restaurants that might be worth checking out. For more information on dining at the Shore, contact:
The Pier Shops at Caesars, 1 Atlantic Ocean, Atlantic City:
Phillip's Seafood, 609-348-2273
Trinity Pub, 609-345-6900
The Continental, 609-674-8300
Finestra, Trump Marina Hotel Casino, Huron Ave. and Brigantine Blvd., 1-800-777-8477.
Sofia, 9314 Amherst Ave., 609-822-9111.
Long Beach Island:
The Gables, 212 Centre St., Beach Haven, 609-492-3553
Daddy O, 4401 Long Beach Boulevard, Brant Beach, 609-494-1300
The Inlet, 998 Bay Ave., 609-926-9611
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.
Thursday in Food, Craig LaBan will sing the praises of the region's best cheeseburgers. Literally.