We had it made for Atlantic City’s Restaurant Week: dinner alone at Knife and Fork on Wednesday, and on Friday night, a room at the Borgata, anxiously awaited reservations at a cutting-edge restaurant, and grandparents who agreed to getting a room of their own in order to wrangle Julian and the still-nursing Baby Lizzie. The arrangement was perfect…but did I mention that on Wednesday night I returned to an inconsolable, screaming infant? Inconsolable, that is, until Mommy arrived back home. Well, by Friday night it was official- Lady Miss Elizabeth now refuses not only the binky, but the bottle as well. Luckily, John and I got in one precious hour of dinner alone before my weary and apologetic father appeared at our table to summon me back to our room. But what an hour it was…
Izakaya is billed by the Borgata as a “Japanese Pub” that offers “extraordinary sushi, sake and robotayaki served in a sensual, yet contemporary atmosphere”. The concept is, in fact, reflective of an upscale izakaya (or “pub”) in Japan, but that doesn’t sound too exciting, does it? Now, if I told you it was Michael Schulson’s (“Pantry Raid”, Buddakan, POD) newest Asian-fusion creation and is nominated for a James Beard Award for this year’s Best New Restaurant, you might be more intrigued, as we were. Upon entering, you are transported over a Zen-like bridge (with Plexiglas that reveals simple river stones underneath your feet) into a somewhat tranquil yet energetically stylized setting: sparse wooden walls and fixtures compete with giant portraits of Geisha recessed into the wall, framed by draperies in muted colors. Already, you are set up for the mix of tradition and avant-garde.
John started with a Green Tea Sake Martini (Vodka, Sake, Sherry, green tea and Lime Juice)while we looked over both the Restaurant Week and the regular menus; we’re not martini experts, but we can say this is not a sweet, “fru fru” drink. There was only a hint of sweetness from the sherry, balanced by a shot of subtle bitterness from the tea-a great summer drink for the patio. I wanted to save my one-drink-nursing-maximum to experiment with fine sake (I’ve only had lots of warmed, lousy ones in standard Japanese restaurants before). I learned from our server that their offerings progressed from dry to slightly sweeter and smoother (with the smoothest having the highest price tag). Since I like my wines on the drier side, I went with Yuri Masamune Diaginjo; it may not have been the top selection, but it was enjoyably smooth and aromatic to me. Our waiter introduced the menu as “small plates”, served similar in style to Spanish tapas-they are designed to be shared and offer a variety of different dishes in one sitting. It was still hard to decide, but in the end, we went with the special Restaurant Week Menu, and added a few items off the regular menu that we just couldn’t pass up.
The first out was the Spicy Tuna Cracker, with scallion, jalapeno, and nori (dried seaweed), a signature dish and artfully presented on the plate. At the first bite, John swallowed and then uncharacteristically gushed, “I love this place.” The components sound simple (two homemade sesame crackers with a layer of nori sandwiched between them, topped with the raw, spiced tuna, jalapeno and scallion), but together they are amazing: the crunchy texture collides with the soft tuna, finishing with the fruity bite of the jalapeno and scallion…I could have eaten it all night long. Then our starter courses off the special menu arrived. Mine was Miso Soup; it was excellent miso soup, with comforting soft tofu, light spinach dumplings, and scallions to give it a bite…but it was just miso soup, after all. John’s appetizer of Edamame Dumplings was much more satisfying: delicate little clouds with a starchy and rich, almost buttery, pureed edamame filling served in a sweet sake broth with shallots. Mmmmm. John remarked that the taste was somewhat familiar, and he was right…then it hit me. “Pirogi,” I laughed. God help me, they tasted like the world’s greatest pirogi!
Next up was the other item off the regular menu, Seared Pekin Duck. Served with Asian pear puree, smoked bacon, and a soy reduction, this was not “Peking Duck”; oh, no, this was much, much more. It arrived tender, juicy, cooked medium (how the kitchen suggested), and served sliced (resembling sashimi), topped beautifully with bits of bacon and roasted brussel sprouts. The combined effect of the slightly crispy exterior of the duck and its interior juiciness, the smokiness of the sprouts and bacon, and the savory richness and sweetness of the sauces sent us into orbit. Clearly the highlight of the meal, it was all we could do not to lick the plate and write a sloppy love letter to the kitchen. Returning to the special menu, the next dish was the Grilled Hangar Steak; it echoed the duck in its presentation, served rare and sashimi-style with jalapeno relish, pickled mushrooms, and a sauce that was somewhat creamy, yet au jus in flavor. No, it wasn’t the duck (could anything be?), but it was still spectacular. The last dish off the special menu, Kobe Sliders, was a bit of a letdown after everything before it; but then, I find myself often disappointed by Kobe beef -it just can’t live up to the hype for me. They were the cutest, most delicious little burgers you ever did see, served medium (I usually like mine bloody, but we weren’t asked our preference and I didn’t think to mention it)-but like the miso, they were just burgers. The seasoned fries were crispy and fresh out of the oil (as fries ought to be) and the bright red Yuzu Plum “Ketchup” was a unexpected touch.
For dessert, John selected the Creme Brulee and I originally chose the Banana Spring Roll with vanilla ice cream and orange syrup. We tried to finish our meal at the table-oh, how we tried- but by then my father had arrived to ask me to come upstairs to quiet the baby. Our patient waiter was kind enough to hold off on our dessert selections so I could go upstairs and nurse, then return to finish. Sadly, it didn’t happen that way; ten minutes after I came back to the table, it was obvious Lizzie had a different idea about the evening, so we had to pack up the only dessert that would travel to the room, the Creme Brulee. Later, after she finally fell asleep, we were able to sample the contents of the 3 little ramekins, each a different flavor. As we no longer had a server to guide us, we have to offer our best guesses on what they were. The most intriguing one was the light green brulee, which I could easily identify as green tea; the second was more yellow in color, but John swore it was coffee infused; the third seemed to be “regular” vanilla brulee. Unfortunately, dessert was like having a completely different meal at a different restaurant, as they were extremely disappointing. The “creme” was not creamy at all- the texture was eggy, proving that the custard had been overcooked, and the crisp, “burnt” sugar was a little too burned in several spots- it was black and bitter (I wondered if that may be why John guessed “coffee” for one of the flavors).
Our conclusion? Izakaya is a too-sexy place, with food that blows the mind. Our next visit might be a bit sexier if I am no longer a walking pacifier- but we’ll be sure to skip dessert.
Izakaya – Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa, One Borgata Way, Atlantic City. 1.866.MYBORGATA.