Restaurants riding wave of change in Atlantic City

Dazzling places, talented chefs are transforming resort

Sunday Gourmet

March 28, 2004|By Patricia Mack | Patricia Mack,Knight Ridder / Tribune

If you have a hunger for something new, join the growing caravan heading to an old city by the sea.

Atlantic City, home of the lobster dinner, cheese fries on the Boardwalk, and saltwater taffy, is fast becoming a gourmet paradise.

This sea change was brought on, in part, by the opening last year of the $1.1 billion Borgata, the first new casino to come to the city in 13 years. As notable as its gaming tables are the restaurant tables of several talented and well-known chefs.

In its reincarnation as a gambling mecca, the once-faded Atlantic City has never lacked for glitz, but has rarely been known for high-quality food. Now, under Borgata's shimmering golden roof are 10 restaurants, some clearly designed to dazzle.

There is the spectacular Specchio, entered through soaring curved glass doors that impress as much as the multi-course antipasti service. Or Ombra, its cozy basement counterpart, where more than 50 different cheeses ranging from Italian Raschera, shaved in thin ribbons, to France's Le Berger de Rocastin, molten and creamy, are served with flights of sophisticated wine.

Susanna Foo, a Philadelphia chef and James Beard Foundation award winner, commands the kitchens of Suilan, a French-Chinese fusion restaurant. The handsomely appointed Old Homestead restaurant, spun off from the 135-year-old New York City original founded in the meatpacking district, serves American-raised Kobe beef entrees at $95 a pop.

And then there's Mixx, a snazzy, jazzy restaurant that morphs into a nightclub after 10 p.m.

Borgata menu

Underscoring the positive buzz coming off these restaurants was the recent James Beard Centennial Celebration dinner, which was held at Borgata devised by the hotel and its chefs. The Beard Foundation is probably the best-known gourmet organization in America.

"What I see here is amazing," said Len Pickell, president of the foundation, speaking at the dinner.

"The Borgata should be proud of what it has set out to do -- unyielding quality in food service. It's clear the people here, the chefs here, are committed to the idea of preserving the ideals this centennial celebration is all about."

Borgata chefs collaborated on the menu, which reflected the sophistication of the casino kitchens. Among the courses: whole roasted foie gras with blackberry gastrique, fallen truffle souffle with Parmigiano-Reggiano creme and shower of alba truffles, and sea-smoked squab with apple dumplings.

The Borgata restaurants' success has upped the ante in Atlantic City in attracting the well-heeled gambler who wants more than the $5 buffet favored by players at the quarter slots. Other gambling venues are following suit. The Bally's, Caesars and Hilton casinos are investing in enhancements that include a shopping, entertainment and dining district named the Walk, which spans the area between the Atlantic City Convention Center and the Boardwalk.

The Tropicana Casino and Resort will soon open the Quarter, with a Cuban motif, which will include a branch of the Palm steakhouse and themed eateries such as Murray Bros., Caddyshack, the Sound of Philadelphia Restaurant, and the highly rated Cuba Libre, also from Philadelphia. From New York, there will be a spinoff of Carmine's, the theater district favorite.

Lessons of Las Vegas

What's happening here has happened before -- in Las Vegas, to be exact. That city turned its dwindling fortunes around by offering more than gaming to its many visitors, including many high-toned casino restaurants.

Only 50 percent of Las Vegas' revenues come from gambling. Currently, in Atlantic City, gambling accounts for 80 percent of the profits, and that's not good in the current climate. Casino revenues declined 3.5 percent last year, and Atlantic City is facing increased competition from adjoining states that want to institute or increase their own gambling ventures.

Borgata, owned and operated by the company that owns and operates Bellagio and MGM Grand in Las Vegas, thus seems to be the template for the future.

"The reason I wanted to come here is to be part of the change," said Luke Palladino, the young chef who worked at the illustrious Ristorante al Cavo in Venice, Franco U Piscaturi in Sicily, and Onda Ristorante at the Mirage in Las Vegas. "The commitment here is to real food, simple and innovative, nothing pretentious. Atlantic City is where it's happening, and where I want to be."

Good bets for finer dining

New and notable eating places in and around Atlantic City:

Borgata at Renaissance Pointe, 1 Borgata Way, 609-317-1000 for:

* The Old Homestead Steakhouse, a branch of the New York City's stalwart featuring $95 Kobe beef, chops, and seafood.

* Ombra, an informal but lush basement trattoria that features informal Italian fare, fine wine, and gourmet cheeses.

* Specchio, chef Luke Palladino's formal and elegant restaurant that serves "composed" Italian dishes.

* Suilan, where Susanna Foo's French-Chinese cuisine is served in a serene and beautiful environment.

* Mixx, a dazzling, jazzy modern restaurant featuring eclectic cuisine.

Opa, Boardwalk and Indiana Avenue; 609-345-5554.

This lively Mediterranean bistro and bar on the boardwalk serves sandwiches, salads, steaks, chops, and fish.

Mojo, 223 N. Washington Ave., Margate; 609-487-0300. Bold colors and unusual artwork decorate this lovely restaurant where live jazz and international cuisine is featured.

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