As food-obsessed as I am, whenever I hear the term “steakhouse”, my eyes glaze over and my mind screams “Boooooring!” Yet in the food-as-entertainment culture, celebrity chefs (especially the ones that own umpteen restaurants with their name on it) just love to open them. Why? Because, for the most part, it’s a no-brainer. Let’s face it, steak is steak. If it’s a good cut of meat, it will be good regardless if it’s prepared in a restaurant’s Salamander or on your own grill at home; the same goes if it’s a lousy cut of meat. I have even heard a horror story from a reliable source about a steakhouse (with the name of a not-to-be-disclosed celebrity chef on it)… a group of four people dropped nearly $400 on a dinner in which the steak was “inedible”.
Then, a few weeks ago, in Atlantic City (a town notoriously flooded with steakhouses), Showboat opens a steakhouse with Chef Chris Scarduzio’s name on it. If you’re not familiar with that name, you may recognize these: Brasserie Perrier (in Philadelphia, of Georges Perrier fame, ’nuff said), Mia (Caesar’s, Atlantic City, also connected with George Perrier), and Table 31 (in Philly’s Comcast Center). Scarduzio has been involved with all of them, the last of which is his flagship. It appears that Caesar’s properties are throwing their lot in with the local celebrity chefs-so when they invited John and I to a media dinner to check it out (disclosure: a gratis event), how could we refuse?
The first thing that hits you is that this restaurant is big. Big as in “cavernous”. Ideal if you are going to have a gaggle of friends together and be a bit boisterous-but if you’re planning an intimate date, this isn’t the place for you. Things kicked off in the bar/lounge area, where John enjoyed a Chimay Rouge Premiere and I decided to take a risk and order the Cucumber Green Tea Martini. No, the mixture of Tanqueray Ten, green tea, muddled cucumber, and fresh ginger is not for everyone. But before you dismiss this as a nasty, sweet, girly drink or simply go “eeewwwww!”, hear me out on this. In a bar that stocks a decent selection of wines, craft beers (Abita Turbodog Brown Ale or Flying Fish XPA anyone?), and quality sakes, it seemed safe to try some experimental cocktails on the dry side. I liked it-it was clean, potent, and refreshing.
Steak and sushi? Why not? Simple crowd-pleasers like tempura shrimp roll, California roll, and spicy tuna roll were set out for us to satisfy the surf-and-turf craving. Although all the rolls were fresh and tasty, I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to hang out exclusively by the separate, teeny-tiny sushi bar hiding in the back of the restaurant. Placed right next to the sushi was a plate with little forks impaling fresh figs and goat cheese, and drizzled with balsamic vinegar: simple and perfect. Then things really started rolling, as trays of more appetizers began to bombard us. Kobe sliders made an appearance-yes, they were good, but this concept has been done to death. After a few bites, I decided to save room (and calories) for something more interesting. I was glad to see the filet mignon-on-a-stick; this meant I could sample the steak and save room to see what else the kitchen could do for my main course. They were accompanied by a house-made steak sauce, but there was no reason to bother. The filet was a perfect medium-rare -a little salt and pepper and you’re all set. Up until now, things were good…now it was time for great. Grilled diver sea scallops arrived: huge, tender, and slightly underdone (translation: perfect); but it was the accompanying yellow tomato gazpacho that rocked our world. It was gorgeous- the combination of fresh Jersey tomatoes, basil, garlic, and good quality olive oil was diabolically simple, but left you wondering what addictive drug was added to make you crave more. Shortly after, Chef Scarduzio came out to chat with us, and I asked him point blank if he added crack to it. Unfazed, he replied, “I’m cooking for Jersey people. And you people know your tomatoes. If I don’t use the best Jersey tomatoes, you’re gonna know and you’re gonna let me know it!” Can I get an amen? Smart man. The last appetizer to arrive (I did mention that were were just on starters at this point, right?) was a dish that was “near and dear” to the chef’s heart- his mom’s recipe for homemade cavatelli with local tomato marinara. Chewy, rich cavatelli swam in a sharp, delicious tomato sauce-yum.
It was time to move to the dining area for the main event. I have to admit, because it was a steakhouse, my expectations were similar to eating at a wedding: fill up on the hors d’oeuvres, because the sit-down dinner is usually lackluster. It seemed that this might be the case when we ordered the charcuterie platter to nibble before the main course; the meats were good, but the selection was nothing that stood out. Things began to look up when our main selections arrived. I had the crispy branzino (a silver-skinned fish found in European sea and saltwater lakes) served with spicy shellfish risotto, broccoli rabe, vermouth butter, and topped with fresh fennel shavings. The fish was flaky and tender (yet crisp on the outside, as promised), and the richness of the broth and butter was nicely countered by the slightly bitter bite of the rabe and the refreshing crunch of the fennel. The biggest surprise for me, though, was the 16 Oz. Delmonico steak John ordered. I have seen “Delmonico” steaks before-usually served on a “sizzling platter” (which makes sure it’s overcooked by the time it gets to your table), and generally lackluster. THIS Delmonico was rich, flavorful… and though it was served only over a red pepper puree and topped with a pat of herb butter, it made me realize I had previously made a huge mistake in judgment. The “steak-on-a-stick” appetizer was the reason I had chosen fish for a main course; though I didn’t regret it, the appetizer was in no way indicative of the the level of steak artistry demonstrated here. I thought Scarduzio was just posturing when he was talking about justifying $45 steaks, in saying,”but it will be the best $45 steak you will ever have”, but I was very, very wrong (incidentally, the Delmonico comes in at $38-it makes me wonder what the $45 one is like…). We also enjoyed some sides, which were served family style and consisted of familiar comfort foods- most which could serve as dinner on their own. The Jersey corn fricassee was sweet,crisp, and wonderful; the cute little flower pots of baked cornbread were total buttery, gritty goodness; the broccoli rabe (yes, there was an extra plate of it on the table) was heaven; and the yukon gold whipped potatoes were creamy and simply ethereal.
It came as a surprise, then, that I have to recommend that you skip dessert. It wasn’t that they were bad; were just… well… so-so. Admittedly, they looked beautiful, and the chocolate cake beckoned… but it turned out to be weak in flavor, and I didn’t bother after the first few bites. The best of the bunch was the passion fruit panna cotta, but it still wasn’t anything I’d be aching to have again. I was really shocked, since the menu boasted Deb Pellegrino as the pastry chef. We’ve been admiring and enjoying her creations for a while (they both look and taste wonderful), and were pleased to see her win the Food Network Challenge back in July. Maybe she and her staff had the night off?…After having a generally great experience with the rest of the meal, “so-so” wasn’t going to cut it.
Although I didn’t find cutting-edge cuisine that night, I was made to re-examine many of my cynical notions about the typical celebrity chef steakhouse. When it comes to this genre of simplicity and comfort food, Chef Scarduzio seems to understand that quality is everything. Maybe that’s what’s good about having a local celebrity chef in charge of your casino restaurant: unlike the “national branded” chefs, they’re kind of like Hertz-they have to try harder.