'Oh, isn't it beautiful?!" cooed a woman near me on the escalator, gliding down into the shimmering casino heart of the new Revel resort.
No doubt, the "SkyGarden" off the hotel's fourth-floor lobby was stunning, a vast terrace landscape wrapped in native shrubs and fire pits with a breezy view of the ocean 114-feet below. But downstairs on the casino floor, the blinking machines, rattling roulette wheels and trancelike gamblers punching slots looked pretty much like every other gaming pit I've seen. Yes, the gleaming glass Revel tower is supposed to be a step-up as Atlantic City's new multibillion dollar splash, and there are acres of polished marble, dangling lights that chime like Tinker Bell when you pass beneath them, and an intriguing roster of star chef restaurants from Philly, New York and D.C. But are these celebrity outposts any more genuine than the eateries that brought name brand dining allure — if not always consistent name brand quality — to the nearby Borgata nine years ago?
Expect the famous chef cameos to be rare, which is typical for the genre. And so is the surreal sensation of finding a favorite place recreated for the altered reality of Casino World. Exhibit A: the odd Guapo's taco "truck" here ringed by picnic tables, which is, in fact, a stationary taco box with wheels for show, like a wild animal stuffed for display at a museum. Except this specimen serves steaming hot chicken and lengua tacos that were the spitting image of those Team Jose Garces serves on the Philly streets.
And after visiting half-a-dozen of Revel's other, more ambitions new restaurants, several of them did, indeed, deliver on their shiny promise, adding stellar flavors, unparalleled views and unique concepts to the A.C. dining scene. But there were also a few expensive meals I wish I could have back. Then again, seasoned casino diners know that the odds for dinner in this world, like a roll at the craps table, don't always fall in your favor.
"I always wanted a little beachfront restaurant," says Jose Garces. And as one of the first chefs to commit to Revel, he recently got three. But the most notable isn't exactly "little." His Amada by the sea is the biggest of his 15 restaurants yet — a jumbo-sized rendition of his Old City tapas hit, with 280 seats at rustic wood tables and circular leather banquettes set beside a giant picture window overlooking the Atlantic.
With Moorish tile and a flamenco stage setting the mood, the views are inspiring (despite the strange giant birdcages fixed atop those banquettes.) But, after sensing a recent lack of focus in some of Garces' Philly kitchens during his mega-expansion, I was impressed by this Amada. Not because it represents a new iteration, but because it is not Amada Lite. Former Tinto chef de cuisine Anthony Scuderi and his crew faithfully nailed the Andalusian flavors of the mother ship. Tender coins of grilled octopus came glazed with arbequina olive oil and smoked paprika. Golden tomato gazpacho rang with the sherry vinegar, chorizo-crisped croutons and a sweet dollop of crab salad. There were snappy shrimp atop pizza-like coca flatbreads. Irresistible little lamb albondigas scented with cumin came in a sherried cream lavished with foie gras and truffles. A more delicate seafood veloute graced fideo noodles tangled with briny littlenecks, squid "noodles," a sweet scallop and crunchy fried onions. And the paella, made to order in pans of Calasparra rice brimming with smokey, saffron-braised chicken and chorizo (or, for bigger spenders, tinted black with squid ink and decked with seafood), was worth the 40 minute wait.
Then again, I think I'd have been happy here just sitting at the bar with a good glass of Palacios or Numanthia in one hand, and a platter of crispy patatas bravas in spicy aioli to munch on in the other, all the while gazing out at the waves, and wondering what that little Garces beach shack might look like after all.
Azure by Allegretti
A.C.'s boardwalk may not be the East Coast's most refined reply to Nice's glamorous La Promenade des Anglais. But a dinner orchestrated by chef Alain Allegretti, who owns a New York restaurant named after that famous seaside walk, may be our best chance to come close. He's got a pedigree to catch any gastronome's attention, the son of an Italian father and a Vietnamese mom, raised in Palermo, and a longtime lieutenant to French greats (Ducasse, Chapel, Maximin) before heading the kitchen at Le Cirque.
At Azure by Allegretti, one taste of his classic soupe de poisson — a bold rust-colored puree brewed for hours from scorpion fish, crab and turbot bones, splashed with Pernod — carried me on a rouille-dabbed crouton straight back to the South of France. But then so did the pure sunshine of the ratatouille that came beneath one of the best whole branzinos I've eaten, its downy flesh moist, its skin perfectly roasted for tableside finale.
Though Azure sits alongside a broad window one floor directly beneath Amada, the mood could not be more different. Crisp and serene, with bright modern colors that evoke ocean blues, there is a glass enclosed cellar stocked with well-chosen Euro wines (let former Twenty21 sommelier Gordana Kostovski guide you.) And the contemporary tone suits the menu — pristine luxe seafood executed behind show kitchen glass with a focused precision and flavors.
Even without Allegretti in the house, it was — save for two clunky desserts — one of my summer's most elegant meals, from the gorgeous lobster salad with generous morsels of sweet crustacean fanned over a pedestal of fingerling potatoes and asparagus salad, to some ideal scallops crusted with citrus-infused bread crumbs over Meyer lemon sauce. And though the Azure is high-end dining, its integrity shows even in less-expensive pastas — a toothy handmade spaghetti tossed with simple but resoundingy vibrant tomato sauce; and or some delicate ricotta cavatelli vividly greened with chervil-basil pesto and a hail of early summer produce — favas, peas, zucchinis and haricot verts — that tasted like a just-picked garden on a plate. Jersey fresh, no doubt, but inspired by the Riviera.
Atlantic City really doesn't need another steak house. But a casino without prime beef is like poker without chips. It just isn't done, and it wouldn't be much fun, either — especially for high-rollers who expect big slabs of flesh in exchange for lavish gambles. Plus, one Iron Chef just wasn't enough. So Revel splurged on New Yorker Marc Forgione to keep Garces company, not to mention give some TV star competition to Bobby Flay's eponymous meat house in the Borgata.
And what a splurge American Cut is, all leathered-up with tufted round banquettes, herringbone wood floors and the requisite wine wall in the dining room, and sleek white marble in the bar, where one can nibble house-cured pork belly with an ocean vista and a banana-infused Jamison "rock-tail." The rock motif suits the Mohawk-topped chef, who pumps Guns N' Roses over the stereo as diners indulge in an astronomically-priced giant chops. The son of culinary pioneer Larry Forgione, whose An American Place inspired this steakhouse's name, young Forgione has gastro-cred, with a Michelin star for his self-named Manhattan restaurant. And there are dishes here I'd like to try some day that you just don't find on most steak house menus, like the hiramasa tartare with the numbing buds known as sechuan buttons, or bone marrow with snails. The baked BBQ oysters topped with a tangy dark glaze and pancetta powder were fantastic.
But the former corporate chef for the BLT steak chain knows tackling the chop house canon with signature style is his mission, and so we had to put him to the test with arguably the biggest splurge in Atlantic City — a $175 platter bearing nearly five pounds of surf-and-turf sublimity. The meat, a 44-ounce "tomahawk chop" of prime Creekstone Farms rib steak, dry-aged for 28 days before roasting in an oak-burning oven, was one of the best pieces of beef I've savored. The "chili lobster," meanwhile, inspired by the spicy crabs Forgione ate in Singapore, brings shell-on chunks of chopped and stir-fried crustacean so tender and full of gingery lime juice saucy spice, that my only complaint was, there was far too little.
What was billed as a whole two-pound lobster was in fact a meager one-and-a-half pounder, a portion, Forgione said, reserved for the less-expensive appetizer version. Adding insult to injury, it was missing a claw.
"It's still a whole lobster," our suave waiter riffed with a well-polished quip, "it's just a whole lobster with one arm."
Nothing can ruin a gourmand buzz more than a kitchen that skimps on its blue-ribbon extravagance. And after a very good steak house meal, I was suddenly peeved. The slot machines, it seems, aren't this casino's only one arm bandits.
Central Michel Richard
Spaces matter — especially when it's supposedly a prime showcase in a new market for a chef as renown as Michel Richard, the ebullient Frenchman behind Washington D.C's Citronelle. What was he thinking when he agreed to place a version of his Central Michel Richard — all blond wood tables, mirrored walls and shiny open kitchen — into this open mezzanine space? Set between the gambling floor and lobby this location, in its natural casino state, is more suited to a coffee shop, salad bar or, even better, an Asian noodle counter (a casino must-have that Revel lacks, which I believe is more necessary than a steak house.)
Granted, Central is a casual concept featuring American comforts reimagined with French techniques, from meat loaf moistened with steamed eggplant, to a section of alt-burgers (lobster, tuna, chicken) that crunch with a tuile that may be the world's most labor-intensive potato chip. But it simply feels weird to watch intense chefs using gleaming surgical tweezers to plate $23 dishes of fried chicken while a few feet away, just beyond the bistro's low glass partition, crowds punch their cards into the parking kiosks. Add the surprising depth of 10 page wine list crammed with big ticket American labels (Paul Hobbs, Flowers, Ridge, Duckhorn, Turley) and the dissonance is only heightened.
Of course, those gripes could be erased with a great meal. But the finesse to make these comfort food riffs feel like worthy upgrades, not just culinary fuss, was missing on our plates. The boneless fried chicken, slathered in chicken mousse before it's crusted with crumbs, was stunningly bland. The crab cake with scallop mousse was rubbery. The "faux gras" chicken liver mousse was runny. The meat loaf was fine, but not inspired enough for $24.
There were a few highlights. We devoured the airy cheesepuffs. And the giant lamb shank, cooked sous-vide for 30 hours, was soulfully tender over creamy polenta. The lamb burger was also a solid plus, its meat shaded with cumin and curried mayo spice.
Then again, just across the corridor sits Village Whiskey, a double-sized sibling of Jose Garces' Sansom Street saloon. The somewhat generic and airless backroom bar is another of Revel's underwhelming spaces. But that hasn't stopped the crowds clamoring for its goblets of golden duck fat fries and, of course, the famous burger. In the spirit of quality control, I ordered one for take-out. One "whoa!" bite later ¬ — meat gushing, butter lettuce snapping, toasty brioche bun just barely holding the juice — I knew: Revel's numerous other high-end burgers really don't stand a chance.
Great beer has suddenly come, albeit belatedly, to the Jersey Shore. And it's arrived at Revel, too, packed into the glass fridge cases that form the walls of Mussel Bar by Robert Wiedmaeir, the D.C. chef-owner of Marcel's and Brasserie Beck, as well as the original Mussel Bar in Bethesda, Md.
The Mussel Bar is this casino's most lively restaurant space, a fun mash-up of Belgian roadhouse wood accented by Wiedmaier's gleaming motorcycle (suspended over the bar), blues videos on the big screen and chandeliers made from spent beer bottles. Thirsty Belgo-centric Philadelphians will certainly be able to get their Tripel fix, as the bar has 24 great beers on draft (16 of them Belgian) with another 120 in bottles. Try the house exclusive double-blond from Antigoon, a Flanders red from Rodenbach, a hoppy Houblon Chouffe or even a "dubbel" from California' Lost Abbey.
Those brews, though, are by far the best reason to come. Aside from the adequate variations of plump mussels (I enjoyed mine with merguez and goat cheese), the wide-ranging menu is shockingly pricey for such a casual venue (ranging into the $30s and $40s for entrées), and left us underwhelmed to say the last. The inauthentic "Belgian tarts" (basically thin-crust pizzas) brought a flimsy flat bread topped with skimpy bits of lobster, cream and bitter lemon (for $20!) The short rib carbonnade could have braised another two hours before it resembled something tender. The scallops with watery cauliflower puree weren't hot. A sirloin meat loaf special was so dry, Central's rendition was suddenly looking golden. Even the frites here were previously frozen, something no self-respecting Belgian bar (in Philly or Brussels) would dare to sell for $9 a side.
Of course, in the altered reality of casino dining, one typically expects to pay more for less. But so much else at Atlantic City's glitzy new palace had delivered on its promise: this experience was one of the few genuine blemishes on Revel's otherwise sleekly polished veneer.
Restaurants at Revel
500 Boardwalk, Atlantic City, 855-348-0500; (Reservations for all the restaurants are made through this central number) revelresorts.com Self-parking costs $5, free for Revel card holders. Below are the restaurants visited by Craig LaBan.
Lunch and dinner daily
Jose Garces' signature Spanish tapas restaurant is translated faithfully to a vast dining room with live flamenco and a stunning ocean view.
AC's crowded steakhouse field gets a swanky, leather-clad entry from New York Iron Chef Marc Forgione, with stylish updates to the classics with top-notch ingredients – and big ticket prices and some inconsistencies to match.
Azure By Allegretti
You can almost taste the Riviera in the simple but elegant seafood of Alain Allegretti, a Ducasse-alum and owner Manhattan's La Promenade des Anglais, with help from a bright modern room and a picture window vista of the Atlantic.
Central Michel Richard
American bistro classics, from fried chicken to meatloaf, get a crisp French touch from D.C. master Michel Richard, but the uninspired open-to-casino space and bland execution are detractions.
Lunch and dinner daily
Come for the big Belgian beer list, pans of plump mussels and fun rock n' roll decor, but much of the rest of this wide-ranging menu from D.C.'s Robert Wiedmaier was poorly cooked and overpriced.
Entire menu daily. Open until 2 a.m.