Restaurant Review

Chelsea Prime

Stephen Starr strolls down the Boardwalk from Buddakan to imbue Curtis Bashaw's new Chelsea Hotel with retro Atlantic City glamour—and mighty fine steaks.

When developer Curtis Bashaw decided to channel Atlantic City’s glory days for his new Chelsea Hotel, he read up on the 500 Club, where gangsters, politicians, and movie stars rubbed padded shoulders in the ’40s and ’50s. In his research he came across a trove of black-and-white pictures by celebrity photographer Al Gold (“the Patrick McMullan of his day,” Bashaw calls him). The photos, which now hang in the restaurant, run the gamut from Muhammad Ali to Miles Davis, the Beatles, and JFK.

The $111 million renovation transformed the former Howard Johnson and Holiday Inn hotels into the first non-gaming hotel of the casino era. For Bashaw, who restored the Victorian luster of Cape May’s landmark Virginia and Congress Hall hotels, there was only one restaurateur for the Chelsea—Stephen Starr, who had successfully brought the theatricality and culinary fireworks of his Philadelphia and New York Buddakans to the Atlantic City Boardwalk.

“Starr was just the right fit,” Bashaw says. “That pedigree of coming from Philly and South Jersey and working your way up to New York but still being loyal to the home team—that was something we appreciated. He just gets Atlantic City.”

For the street-level space on Chelsea Avenue, Starr conceived Teplitzky’s, a high-style diner named for Hyman and Esther Teplitzky, who probably never dreamed of such a place arising from what was originally their kosher hotel. On Chelsea’s fifth floor, facing lounges, libraries, and velvet-walled rooms for billiards, board games, and cards, Starr created a luxe steakhouse.

The restaurant is meant to evoke a 1940s supper club, which explains the white baby-grand piano and the white vinyl that covers the stools at the piano-shaped bar. White crescent-shaped booths face a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows offering stunning views of the Atlantic. Adding to the 500 Club vibe is a mostly glittering crowd. On a recent night, one table was occupied by a meticulously coiffed gentleman who weighed about as much as both of his dates combined and was content to lean back in his chair while the two women fed him steak. Chelsea Prime is a scene, but thankfully the food never feels like a sideshow.

The menu is overseen by chef Jason Hanin, whom Starr recruited from Dune in Margate, where he was executive chef. To prepare for his new gig, Hanin logged time at Starr’s Philly steakhouse, Barclay Prime. At Dune, Hanin won acclaim for what he calls “composed food”—artfully arranged medleys of seasonal ingredients.

“But you’re not coming here for that,” he concedes. “You’re coming here for steak on a plate.”
Porterhouse is the supreme test of any steakhouse, and Chelsea Prime’s is a marvel. It gets salt and pepper, a turn under the 1,700-degree broiler, and a brush of butter emulsion before it’s delivered on a brilliant white plate. Our porterhouse had a deliciously crisp sear, a luscious pink center, and a rich, dry-aged minerality. All the cuts I tried met that standard, including the 28-day dry-aged bone-in filet that offered the silky texture typical of the cut, with an added punch of flavor from the bone and untrimmed fat.

Most of the classic steakhouse appetizers came off without a hitch, including flawlessly seasoned lobster bisque with crème fraîche, a dusting of tobiko for texture, and ample chunks of fresh claw meat. The iceberg-wedge salad featured a refreshing hit of house-made Russian dressing with crumbled Maytag blue cheese and crisp lardons. Bacon-wrapped scallops on fried green-tomato slices enticingly mixed smoky and salty, with the tomatoes delivering a kiss of sweetness. One that didn’t work was steak tartare—served, oddly, with an orange segment that lacked the bite of traditional lemon and clashed with the accompanying dab of parsley purée.

If that stark white plate looks lonely, fine sides include silky whipped potatoes with truffle oil, rich creamed spinach, and a delicious medley of sautéed chanterelle, button, and oyster mushrooms.

Your server will ask if you’d like your steak topped with 3 ounces of Alaskan Red King crabmeat tossed in warm butter. (I consented.) The earthy tang and crisp shell of my 16-ounce New York strip contrasted deliciously with the succulent crab—well worth the $15 surcharge.

Yet at $61, the steak with crab was not the most expensive entrée. That dubious honor went to a 3-pound Maine lobster (steamed, butter-poached, or broiled). The poached version arrived shelled, with the ample claws artfully folded over the tail meat to form a luscious pile that needed only the faintest spritz of lemon. The tab? A stick-in-your-craw $81.

Servers were friendly and well versed in the nuances of every cut of meat. Yet they can be comically overcorrect—colliding in their haste to clear a plate or taking pains to offer a black napkin to patrons wearing dark colors, a faux-chic flourish best left in Atlantic City’s past.

To their credit, the servers eagerly walk you through the unusual structure of the wine list, on which all bottles are organized separately by price, region, taste profile, and varietal. Deciding which criterion to use can be frustrating; your best bet is just to ask. After reviewing our order, the manager steered us to an off-list Zinfandel blend from Ridge that had enough backbone for the steaks and enough subtle fruit for the lamb chops, all for a modest markup.

Cheesecake was appropriately dense, though fresh rather than dried pineapple would have added needed moisture to the topping. Baked Alaska is perhaps Chelsea Prime’s best dessert. The perfectly browned meringue contains a splice of delicious chocolate and banana ice creams. It makes a stylish salute to an era that just may be slouching toward Boardwalk to be reborn.

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