It made perfect sense to tap acclaimed chef Alain Allegretti, a native of Nice with Italian blood, to bring the flavors of the French and Italian Rivieras to Revel. The new casino resort, which bills itself as the first to fully embrace its oceanfront location, opened Azure by Allegretti in April. The restaurant’s wall of soaring windows facing the ocean fulfills part of the seaside promise. The part fulfilled on the plate is still a work in progress—and may be tilting toward tameness.
After working at Michelin two- and three-star restaurants on the Cote d’Azur, in part under Alain Ducasse, Allegretti moved to New York’s Le Cirque 2000 and then Atelier at the Ritz-Carlton. Last September he opened La Promenade des Anglais in Chelsea, receiving two stars from the New York Times. Allegretti has characterized Azure as “vibrant, sexy and elegant,” and it is all that, with its wave-patterned carpet and silk drapes in liquidy shades of bright blue and cream. It’s also so warm and welcoming that parents feel comfortable bringing youngsters—like the 10-year-old I spotted wearing a sequined t-shirt.
On my first visit, the food dazzled. One particularly memorable entrée—among four winners—was scallops accented with the floral-citrus notes of verbena and bergamot, served with fennel in two appealing forms: soft confit and crunchy salad. The menu was so enticing, we had a heck of a time choosing between, for example, whole roasted branzino and local black sea bass, and then among six interesting sauces with which to pair it. In the end, we were wowed by superbly succulent branzino, which held its own against a pungent Palermo sauce of chopped green olives, capers and tomatoes that one happy tablemate termed “deconstructed puttanesca.”
Five weeks later, much had changed. The local black sea bass had exited (despite still being in season), replaced by broiled lobster. Two of the more interesting sauces—Sicilian citrus olive oil and salmoriglio (fresh and dried oregano, garlic and olive oil)—had been jettisoned, replaced by classic but far less coastal beurre blanc.
On visit one, tuna tartare was dressed with preserved lemon, pistachios and arugula oil. Authentic and marvelous. By visit two it had devolved into a sushi-house cliché with avocado and toasted sesame oil. Also banished were veal medallions with fondant potatoes, crispy shallots and Gorgonzola-rosemary jus. In its place: good ol’ American surf and turf.
Why? Allegretti, who spends most weekends at the restaurant, recently told AtlanticCityInsiders.com, “You have to create a restaurant for the people, not for yourself. That’s why I have surf and turf. I never thought I’d do that in my life. But why fight that?” His stance is understandable, to a degree—his first solo restaurant, the high-end Allegretti, debuted in New York in 2008 just as the economy tanked. It never took off.
Beef carpaccio and veal tonnato have disappeared from the appetizer choices. In their place? Jumbo lump crab cake. Unfortunately, the crab in this and also in an Alaskan crab cocktail lacked that crustacean’s signature sweetness. Lobster cocktail, a martini glass full of sweet meat, was better, although it came with standard-issue American cocktail sauce. Prices are on the steep side, but not out of line for casino dining. The lobster cocktail was $19; surf and turf, $65.
I was particularly impressed with Azure’s sommelier, Gordana Kostovski, a veteran of New York’s 21 Club. When I inquired about a red Sancerre, she gave fair warning that we might find it “gamey,” meaning too earthy. It wasn’t, and we enjoyed it, but I appreciated her candor.
Happily, one of the dishes that excelled on that first magical visit remained intact on the second: Provençale fish soup. Its aroma alone—testament to a rich, long-simmered fish and shellfish stock—had us swooning. That all its ingredients are puréed came as a surprise, yet the fish and shellfish that are whirred along with the stock allow for a pleasing texture that’s not too smooth. Seafood risotto, a tricky dish to get right, also soared. The rice, plump from absorbing flavorful tomato-and-fish stock, was studded with juicy shrimp (heads on), lobster, clams and scallops. Charred-octopus appetizer got big-time flavor from both the grill and smoked paprika, and textural contrast from an unusually refined farro salad. But it deserved better than the wan artichokes and fava beans that completed the dish. Flaky pan-seared halibut did get its due with a tasty mix of Israeli couscous, pearl onion and tomato beurre blanc.
Roast chicken was masterful. But filet mignon, while tender, was undermined by bland ratatouille (sacre bleu!) and room-temperature béarnaise on the verge of congealing. Paccheri pasta with veal ragù, wild mushrooms and rosemary was surprisingly insipid. Lamb chops from the rack were as flavorful as they were tender, but larger appetites may find the two small chops a bit stingy.
My favorites from a likeable if hardly groundbreaking dessert list include a free-form Napoleon with mixed berries, and warm, fresh-made doughnuts with cappuccino semifreddo.
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