Mother’s Day at The Reserve in Atlantic City

M is for the many times you munched with me….O is for the Other times you fed me….T is for the Tuna Casserole you made me eat….

OK, I’m just not that good at remembering the lyrics to mushy Mother’s Day songs. I’m also not a big fan of brunch. Now that I’m a mom, the last thing I want to do is to get out of bed early on a weekend and rush to get everyone ready for  typical mimosas and eggs benedict. Take me to a really great dinner at 4 p.m, instead, please. Better yet, since I’ve been home with the kids all week, why don’t you all  stay home and I’ll just go for the rare girl’s night out! Ummm, that doesn’t sound right for Mother’s Day, does it? But there is one brunch I know of that is worth getting out of the house early for. How about something different? How about an elegant brunch with floor-to-ceiling views of the bay and ocean, with a Pacific-Rim Fusion flair?

Joseph Muldoon is a Jersey-bred chef that, up until now, has been Atlantic City’s best-kept secret. His arrival at The Reserve at Bally’s a year and a half ago  has transformed the menu of this elegant space, making it more than just the run-of-the-mill “Steaks, Chops, and Seafood” casino offering. And he is bringing his broad cooking experience (from Roy’s Kahana in Maui to Di Bruno Brothers in Philadelphia) to shake things up, from offering new riffs on seafood that promote healthy aquaculture and sustainability, to a brunch that is anything but ordinary.

The first thing we noticed was, although a good portion of the brunch is buffet-style, the service was the stuff of white-glove expertise. Anticipating our every need for water, drinks, and a knowledgeable “pre-game pep talk” about the dizzying array of offerings at the buffet, it’s obvious this staff is hand-picked with extreme care. To start, our servers announced the signature Bloody Mary menu. OK, so maybe your mom isn’t that adventurous, but maybe you or your dad are. Our table decided to try all five to pass around. The first “Mary” I sampled was a Manhattan Clam. Weeelll, it tasted like clam all right. I have never been a big fan of Clamato, but those with us who were raved about it. The Bermuda Shrimp Cocktail was like drinking a shrimp cocktail; intruguing, but not to everyone’s taste. The Five Peppercorn was tasty,too. But the standouts for me were the Habanero (which wasn’t really all that hot, but so sweetly peppery) and Wasabi Soy (which had a sweet, then hot bite at the end). If that’s not Mom’s speed, there are certainly ordinary mimosas-but why bother? Order her a poinsettia  instead (cranberry and champagne) and you’ll definitely be her favorite kid from that moment on.

Next, it was time to scope out the buffet. turns out I didn’t have to do much reconnaissance, since Chef Muldoon was on hand to take me on a detailed grand tour. There is waaaay too much to cover in its totality, so I’ll give you the highlights. The first thing that put a lascivious grin on my face, as it often will, was a screamingly fresh raw bar. Gorgeous smoked fish, oyster and clams on the half-shell, sushi rolls and nigiri sushi standards, crab claws-you name it. The crowning glory, however, was the shrimp cocktail; it was placed inside a beautifully carved bell tower ice sculpture, serving as a dispenser. Other cold offerings that stood out were the artisan cheeses, sausages, and cold cuts from Di Bruno Brothers. There were also plenty of hot dishes offered, including the standard French toast, sausage, bacon and eggs, and an omelet station. But the must-haves, in my opinion, are the shrimp fried rice, cheese blintzes, and Brussel sprouts with bacon and caramelized onion. Skip the ancho chili salmon, however. Though it sounds intriguing, it just doesn’t work. Other stations include the pasta station (I had a lovely and simple garlic and olive oil with spinach pasta to test the station chef’s mettle. he passed with flying colors.). I am normally not a big fan of carving stations, though. Too many experiences at wedding mills with lackluster slabs of meat under heat lamps has soured the idea for me. But the leg of lamb I had was unctuous perfection: tender, rare, and juicy. I asked Chef Muldoon if it was roasted with crack. He swore it was merely dressed with  garlic, olive oil, and rosemary, to show off the quality of the meat. Good man.

It’s not all ice sculpture, omelets, smoke and mirrors here, though. In the interest of being pummeled with more food, our table decided to order an array of a la carte tapas to try. Every single one of them was delicious: shrimp and grits (with smoked tomato and chorizo ragu and cheddar), smoked salmon and roasted potatoes (dill-cured lox, potatoes, and sauteed fennel), Marinated Crab Claws (with champagne vinaigrette and diced cucumber sunomono, a Japanese-style vinegar dressing) , and misoyake glazed smoked sable ( a delicate smoked fish with baby bok choy, shredded carrot slaw, and cilantro blooms).  The really memorable winners, though, were the riffs on typical brunch fare: Crabcakes Benedict (lump crabmeat topped with a poached egg, honey mustard vinaigrette, and diced tomato) and a Chocolate Belgian Waffle (with fresh whipped cream and  fresh Amarena cherry compote). Fabulous. But you can’t forget dessert for mom. A whole table of cakes, pastry and cookies made by Food Network Challenge  champ Chef Deborah Pellegrino’s team? Yes, please.

So although brunch on Mother’s Day can sometimes go the way of disappointing cliche, like a tie for Father’s Day, you’re safe here. But this is a nice place, so, remember to dress up a bit and make sure you wash behind your ears. And mind your manners, for goodness sake! What, were you raised in a barn? Don’t you roll those eyes at me!…

 The Reserve at Bally’s – 1900 Pacific Avenue, Atlantic City. For reservations: (609) 340-2350. Brunch 10:00 am-2:00 pm. $39.99 per person.

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