Once upon a time, in a land called Atlantic City, there was a magical place called Borgata. Borgata came and changed everything: it offered the biggest and most famous chefs from TV, and promised a foodie paradise. And yet…
Last Monday, at sunrise, one of the biggest things to hit Atlantic City opened itself to a “premiere” quietly, yet confidently. Setting aside all the weeks of media hype, Revel needed no loud fanfare; it knows what it has to deliver, and decided to speak for itself. Earlier this week, John and I were invited as media to come check things out for the start of the 8-week premiere period, where select openings of eateries, gaming, etc. will be made available to the public until its official opening on May 25th, Memorial Day Weekend. Now I know I could go on and on about the various aspects of this new resort (and I will, before all is said and done), but I’d like to keep it simple and focus on the food.
There were many joys to be had that evening, to be sure. Enjoying Fellini’s version of Italy at Lugo Caffe with heavenly Contaldi Castaldi prosecco , melt-in-your-mouth Kobe meatballs over polenta, and veal ravioli with oxtail sauce (a gorgeous, light pasta with the essence of veal is bathed in a rich oxtail sugo) comes to mind. So do the Pescado tacos (mahi mahi, chipotle remoulade, lime-pickled red cabbage, and avocado) off the Garces bottlecap-studded “Guapos” truck.
But my heart belongs to Robert Wiedmaier, and the incredibly comfortable and inspiring Mussel Bar. I’ve followed his love for all things Belgian, including the beers, and have often toyed with the idea of getting away to Washington, D.C. and checking out the first Mussel Bar there. Now I don’t have to. Over 150 Belgian brews (yes, the Belgians brew that many), including Antigoon (the Pale Ale he has brewed for him in Belgium) grace the far wall, looking like a craft-brewer’s fantasy library. If that weren’t enough to make me swoon, Chef Robert’s kitchen started to place beautiful offerings on the rough-finished wooden table: gorgeous filet mignon in a reduced wine sauce (blood-red and tender as a mother’s love); ethereal crab cakes; a lobster, asparagus and lemon ‘tart” (pizza) fresh from a wood-burning oven; a decadent raspberry souffle; a waffle of the lightest, most heavenly texture, crisp and sweet.
It was a joy to discover that there’s plans to have some South Jersey brewers to be represented at the taps-some of which were sampled by the staff on the sly at the Beerfest last weekend. Unlike the traditional casino stance, these chefs want to be a part of the surrounding community, sourcing local foods, beers, and participating in community benefits. There’s a dirty little rumor in AC of a food “gag rule”: that in their contracts, performing celebrities and chefs cannot talk freely about other places to eat other than the casino they are in. It looks like Revel will be breaking with this tradition, finally realizing there is room for everyone. Chef Wiedmaier freely discussed with me his meals and conversations with Mike Hauke of Tony Baloney’s, the cheese steaks at Rod N Reel in Brigantine, and the beer and mussels at Monk’s in Philadelphia. He may not be from this area, but he makes an effort to get to know where he is. “A lot of times there’s a disconnect in eating at the casinos: you have a great atmosphere, but the food is just OK, or you could be eating anywhere. It’s like kissing you through a screen. I want you to know where you are.” And although Revel is courting the out-of-towner looking for a vacation, Wiedmaier acknowledges, ” Come January or February, though, who are my ‘bread and butter’? The locals.”
There’s also the assumption that the luxury and class that Revel exudes requires a down payment on your mortgage to dine there. The biggest surprise to me that evening was the flexibility and variety in the each of the restaurant’s experiences. Alain Allegretti”s Azure, Marc Forgione’s American Cut, and Central Michel Richard are top-notch dining experiences to be sure, and will be considered the high-end of Revel’s dining spectrum; but John and I found that a light dinner for two, including drinks, doesn’t have to run more than $70 at Lugo Caffe. Garces’s Guapos and Distrito Cantina easily fit those on a tight budget; and one can have an Iron Chef-worthy, truffled mushroom burger with duck fat fries for a little over $20. Even Garces’s flagship, Amada, appears it will have a bar service section. “We have it all. At Mussel Bar, if you want to drop $300, we have an extensive wine list with an expert sommelier and a 52 oz. porterhouse,” claims Chef Wiedmaier, “But if you just want to drop $40 on great mussels and beer, we’ve got that, too. You are not being held ‘food hostage.’ ”
It’s obvious from all the hype that this is a casino resort promising an elevated experience when it comes to food-but did you notice something? Aside from Iron Chef Jose Garces, none of these chefs are Food Network household names, “as-seen-on-TV”. Robert Wiedmaier, Michel Richard, Alain Allegretti, and Mark Forgione-all have made their names in nearby Northeastern cities, on the reputation of their food alone. Even “Jefe” Garces earned his chops in Philadelphia before being discovered by television producers. Yet there is one other, very important difference, something very distinct from the Borgata. These chefs are expected to invest something other than their name in these eateries, something that will keep them engaged in the quality and success of Revel’s dining options. “I put my own money into this place,” Chef Wiedmaier informed us, “I’m running a restaurant here.”