In dining and much else, the monumental new Revel resort and casino is a revelation, but can it lift Atlantic City to a new level?
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I’m told that on a clear day Revel Resort’s glass-clad hotel tower on the Atlantic City Boardwalk is visible from as far away as Wildwood, a distance of about 30 miles. I can’t confirm that, but I can tell you this: As I drive into town on Route 30 and see the casino towers arrayed along the oceanfront, Revel’s sleek curves and tower dominate the skyline, making the neighboring hotels look stunted and stodgy.
The last time a newcomer threw down such a gauntlet, promising services and amenities to match its gleaming presence, was in 2003, when the Borgata opened in the marina district, west of the beach. Like Borgata, Revel doesn’t bill itself simply or mainly as a casino. (Its corporate mantra is, “We are a resort first and a casino second.”) Revel has bet a staggering $2.4 billion that it can bring what it calls new “lifestyle segments” to its 6.3 million-square-foot beachfront complex. “There are approximately 47 million adults living in the mid-Atlantic region who are currently not visiting Atlantic City,” says Maureen Siman, Revel’s executive director of public relations. “That’s a big market for us to target. [They include] foodies, chick cliques, men with toys, and music fans.”
Only time will tell if Revel can supplant Borgata as Atlantic City’s most stylish destination. Even if Revel succeeds, can it overcome all the new casino competition in the region and lift Atlantic City as a whole—in a way the Borgata alone has not? For now, Revel stands as something singular—breathtaking in scale and ambition, imaginatively designed, lavishly outfitted, smoke-free throughout and, yes, a lot of fun, even just to walk around and take in.
I’ve come during the eight-week preview period to sample the 4 restaurants (out of an eventual 14) that have opened before we go to press. Before I even reach the restaurants I am struck by Revel’s multistory embrace of the Boardwalk, the beach and the ocean. No other casino/hotel comes close. If you choose valet parking or arrive by cab, the wide, circular driveway brings you right up to the edge of the newly renovated Boardwalk. Revel’s curving glass walls rise from the Boardwalk, flooding the multistory atrium, the broad perimeter hallways and some of the restaurants with daylight and affording panoramic views of seaside splendor to everyone from the casual visitor to the occupant of an ocean-view suite.
In its restaurants, Revel is clearly taking aim at Borgata, which introduced full-on Vegas-style dining glamour to Atlantic City. Borgata was the first here to boast a murderer’s row of celebrity chefs. Now Revel is unveiling its own all-star lineup.
Philadelphia-based Jose Garces, an Iron Chef as well as a James Beard Award winner, has three restaurants. Village Whiskey, a throwback saloon with a white tile floor and a burger-based menu, was not yet open. The other two, Distrito Cantina and Amada, both steeped in Garces’s Latin roots, were terrific.
Casual and affordable, Distrito Cantina has two parts side by side indoors—a margarita bar and an actual food truck surrounded by picnic tables. The main event is authentic soft tortilla Mexican tacos. The restaurant’s manager, Marc Grika, told me that Distrito’s tacos recently won the overall grand prize at the Arizona Taco Festival in Scottsdale, to the chagrin of local entrants.
As good as the tacos were—especially the crispy fish taco with chipotle remoulade, pickled red cabbage and avocado—the treasures for me were the entradas, or starters. There was super-fresh, lightly spicy guacamole; a totally involving big-bowl salad called the chilango chop, made with romaine, baby arugula, watercress, green apples, cranberries, spiced pecans and honey-lime vinaigrette; a strikingly good pozole, a rich soup of pork stock, clams, hominy, chorizo and salsa verde; and a wondrous ceviche called vuelva la vida, made with shrimp, baby octopus, scallops, lump crab, spicy tomato and avocado. Most ceviches are acidic; this one was subtly sweet.
Amada, with floor-to-ceiling ocean views, is Garces’s signature space. Like the original Amada in Philadelphia, it is devoted to the cuisine of Andalusia, the southernmost part of Spain, where Garces, a native Chicagoan of Ecuadorian ancestry, worked fresh out of culinary school. The wide-ranging, tapas-centered menu is designed for sharing, as are the pitchers of first-rate sangria fortified with herbs, orange liqueur and Spanish brandy.
The pleasure of tapas lies in the evening-long accumulation of a variety of simple, sparklingly fresh gustatory sensations. The presentations, too, are simple—and visually pleasing. Mischeviously resembling each other, delicious little discs of confited potato and sliced, poached-then-seared octopus, glistening with smoked paprika oil, are arrayed on a wooden board that is round, like the discs, only bigger. In a curved white bowl, three slender, mild green peppers, flash fried until crinkly, come with their tips dipped in a soothing sauce made with ground almonds and tomatoes. Squint at patatas bravas, four little browned cylinders of potato, standing on end and capped with a swirl of paprika aioli, and they look like high-rise housing for Lilliputians—but their taste is Brobdingnagian. Also irresistible are albóndigas—three tender lamb meatballs, perched on an outrageous sauce of foie gras puréed with sherry and olive oil, and feted with a blizzard of shaved manchego.
Equally rewarding and more like entrées in size are lobster a la planxa—half a lobster, seared on a griddle and dressed with a garlic, lemon and parsley purée—and pernil asado, one of the most indulgent roast-pork dishes you will ever encounter. The pork is sliced, giving each slice three distinct layers: dark, cracklingly crisp skin; moist, flavorful meat; and a stripe of sinfully good, meltingly rich fat in between. It is served with white beans and orange segments, which offset the fat and lessen the guilt.
Chef Garces himself happened to be at Amada that night, and I asked him about the pernil asado. “It’s a classic example of my cooking,” he said. “It took me six months to perfect, and I’ve been doing it for 10 years. It’s my ideal look at balance in a dish.”
The high standard set by Distrito Cantina and Amada was matched by the other two upscale restaurants open when I visited: Mussel Bar, a handsome Belgian pub from Washington chef Robert Wiedmaier; and Lugo Cucina e Vino, an Italian concept from corporate chef Stefano Chiaruga of the New York-based LDV Hospitality Group.
At Lugo, pancetta-wrapped prawns provided the single most scintillating bite of my tour. Served on a bed of rosemary lentils, two giant prawns, glistening with chili oil, arrived head and tail on. I grabbed one with both hands and bit into the middle. Breaking the crisp, bacony wrapper released a juicy surge of teasingly spicy shrimp flavor. Wow.
I also tried two of the fresh, house-made pastas, both so luscious I almost swooned—ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach in a butter and sage sauce, and veal agnolotti in braised oxtail sauce. You can almost picture those dishes just by running your imagination down the list of ingredients, though the lushness of the oxtail sauce you have to taste to believe.
On the other hand, how to do justice to what Lugo’s menu calls Tuscan 30 Vegetable Soup? I didn’t try to verify the count, but I did note that none of the little cubes were mushy. Meanwhile, the liquid was so rich and flavorful, so far beyond broth, that I ducked into the kitchen to ask chef Chiaruga how he did it. In a charming Italian accent as thick as the soup, he told me the secret was its base: a purée of Tuscan borlotti beans and Tuscan black cabbage. As for the cubes, they are al dente because they are cooked in stages, not all at once.
A fan of Belgian frites, I looked forward to my meal at Mussel Bar. The frites were perfect—hot, firm and lightly crisp. Bigger than the food menu by far is the beer menu, something else you expect of a Belgian pub. Mussel Bar has almost 200 different beers from around the world, including 30 on tap. I tried Antigoon, made in Belgium especially for Wiedmaier. The menu says it contains “hints of Wonder Bread and honeysuckle.” I didn’t get Wonder Bread, fortunately, but I did get complexity—a little spice, a little fruit—in a delightful, light-bodied beer.
Antigoon goes well with just about anything on the menu, including the centerpiece—six different mussel preparations, each so tempting it’s hard to choose among them. There’s white wine (with roasted garlic, parsley and cream); cave-aged Gruyère (with potatoes, pancetta, gremolata, and garlic and leek broth); wild mushrooms (with applewood-smoked bacon and truffle cream); spicy Thai green curry (with peanuts, cilantro and basil); and Mediterranean (with Merguez sausage, lumps of melted goat cheese, harissa aioli and smoky tomato broth). I tried the last two—they come in big, black, cast-iron pans—and loved them both. Also worth a shout-out is the beef brisket carbonnade—the brisket bits braised with cippolini onions, Chimay beer and bay leaf until tender and served on a sumptuous root-vegetable purée. I would have polished this off in its entirety if I wasn’t trying to graze rather than gorge.
To get to the restaurants you have to navigate the casino floor, with its nearly 3,000 slot machines. Unlike the Borgata casino, with its low, classical ceiling right out of the Louvre, Revel’s casino brings to mind Cirque de Soleil. High overhead are suspended all kinds of fanciful, even artful creations. There’s a neighborhood of gigantic Oriental lanterns of varied shape; another featuring a curtain of metal beads; another with video projections of waves crashing on the shore; and others with colorful concentric constructions. The people reflexively feeding the slots don’t seem to notice this overhead show, but for those passing through, it enlivens what might otherwise be a dispiriting trudge.
By the time you read this, a dozen Revel eateries will be open, with two more slated for later this summer. They will range from the quick and inexpensive to two signature destinations with ocean views—American Cut, an attitudinous steakhouse from Marc Forgione, winner of the 2010 Next Iron Chef competition; and Azure by Allegretti, featuring suave Mediterranean cuisine by French chef Alain Allegretti. From chef Michel Richard, a winner of two James Beard Awards for his French-California fusions, will come Central Michel Richard, O Bistro and Wine Bar, and the Breakfast Room.
If the restaurants can consistently maintain the level of excellence I experienced, you could spend a gratifying weekend just investigating one after another. And when you just can’t take another bite, all you need do is tumble out the front door and you’re on the beach.
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