One Sure Bet: Gourmet Meals


ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. / / Put three gourmet restaurants, all run by celebrity chefs, within a couple hundred feet of each other, and you might expect dueling flambes. But the master cooks who have opened upscale dining rooms in the new expansion at the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa are counting on the critical mass of fine food to contribute to their mutual success.

Chefs Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Flay and Michael Mina -- who are either familiar from TV appearances or highly regarded efforts in Las Vegas and elsewhere -- have all introduced new eating spots at the Borgata.

Already considered Atlantic City's market leader, the Borgata lifted the curtain last month on a $200 million expansion, which includes the three gourmet restaurants, dozens of additional table games, hundred of slots, the city's largest poker room, a food court and a nightclub.

Puck's contribution is typical of his familiar American bistro concept using farm-fresh, in-season ingredients. Bobby Flay's Steaks offers a southwestern turn on a surf-and-turf menu. And Mina's Seablue is a seafood restaurant.

"People asked, `Aren't you worried, all these restaurants [opening]?'" Puck recalled during the expansion opening. "I said, `No, people who come here for the weekend, they don't want to come three times to us.' ... It's really much, much better for the public and what we want is for people to go home and tell everybody they had a fabulous time."

Of the three restaurants, Puck's American Grille, with an autumnal motif, is the only one that offers a two-tiered menu with cafe items that are less expensive than the dinner entrees. More casual dining includes a variety of pizzas, such as one with smoked salmon and caviar, panini sandwiches and foccacia, as well as more substantial dishes such as flatiron steak frites with blue cheese butter.

Flay, whose steakhouse has a cocktail lounge entrance with walls and ceiling sheathed in red leather, agrees that having three top chefs in a concentrated area surrounding the new portion of the casino is a plus.

"The camaraderie is bigger than the competition. Yes, we have competitive personalities and competitive fire, absolutely, and hopefully, that's part of the success. ... But we're not worried about stealing each other's customers and who's doing what," Flay said. "We each do something separate in this expansion."

Flay's steaks take on personality, such as one menu item he calls a Philadelphia-style steak, with a provolone cheese sauce and roasted peppers and mushrooms.

Mina's dining room, Seablue, with items such as lobster corndogs and lobster potpie, is the Borgata's only seafood restaurant. It features an Adam Tihany design with plasma TVs serving as animated aquariums. Mina believes the ambience matches the cuisine.

"We wanted a very elegant [design] but yet edgy, sexy," Mina said.

"It's a very bold design," he added, "the colors are bold ... [and] I like bold cooking, I like flavorful food."

Beyond the games

Late next year, in the second stage of its expansion projected to cost another $325 million, the Borgata will add an 800-room hotel tower that likely will strengthen the resort's position as the city's casino-hotel revenue leader.

Since it opened three years ago, the Borgata has tried to represent in Atlantic City what the Bellagio stands for in Las Vegas - luxury and comfortable sophistication. Starting with the alliterative Italian names, the comparisons are unmistakable, including a Mediterranean feel with soft, neutral tones, arches and flowing, colorful Dale Chihuly glass sculptures.

But as Borgata president Larry Mullin conceded, what the East Coast property needed was, well, more. And that's something that could be said across the board for Atlantic City.

"We didn't have very much that accommodated the nongamer," Mullin said, referring to the Jersey Shore's gambling market in general. "Even the gamer wants some variety, something away from the tables."

Slowly, that shortcoming is being addressed with substantial visitor attractions, such as the Tropicana's 1 1/2 -year-old dining and entertainment complex, the Quarter, and the opening of the Pier shopping mall across from Caesars casino-hotel.

At the Borgata, part of the answer was to satisfy the tastes of customers ever-more accustomed to high-end experiences by bringing in the same celebrity chefs who have become fixtures in Las Vegas.

Puck was the pioneering celebrity chef in Vegas when he opened an outpost of Spago's at the Forum Shops mall attached to Caesars Palace in 1992. It was not an immediate hit, though.

"Nine tables we served that [first] night. [I thought] what are we going to do now? I couldn't go to sleep," Puck said. "Every night I'd go home with a bottle of cabernet, drink it and fall asleep on the couch watching TV."

In a few weeks, though, Spago's in Las Vegas was bustling and the migration of celebrity chefs to the desert was on. Now, it's slowly beginning to happen at the Jersey Shore.

Choice cuisine

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