Restaurant Review

Mia

Stars of a new type are popping up on the billboards that line the Atlantic City Expressway as it curves toward New Jersey’s version of Sin City.

Joining the likes of Madonna and Tom Jones are Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Flay, and Georges Perrier. Yes, the invasion of the celebrity chefs has begun.

First to establish a beachhead was Perrier. If not a household name like Puck and Flay, the Lyon native is certainly an éminence grise. His Le Bec-Fin, which opened in 1970, put Philadelphia on the culinary map. With its $135 six-course menu, 700-bin cellar, and formidable dessert cart, Le Bec-Fin remains a temple of gastronomy. But at 62, Perrier has dialed back, delegating to others the daily operation of Le Bec-Fin as well as his two Brasserie Perrier restaurants in Philadelphia and the suburban Georges, in Wayne, Pennsylvania.

At Mia, his informal yet imposing bistro within the towering lobby of Caesars Atlantic City, Perrier naturally gets top billing. But the name listed right under his, in the same size type, is the key here: Chris Scarduzio. A Philly native and 1988 Culinary Institute of America grad, Scarduzio was the executive chef who turned the initially floundering Brasserie Perrier into a hit. Perrier made him a partner, and now he is the driving force at Mia, which is named after his daughter.

So Mia is like a movie with the executive producers’ names above the title. The director is young and little-known, but not inexperienced. Executive chef Jeremy Duclut, a native of Burgundy, previously worked at Le Bec-Fin and Brasserie Perrier before opening Loie in Philadelphia two years ago. Perrier and Scarduzio recruited him back into the fold.

“Chris is like my second dad, and Georges is the reason I’m in America,” Duclut says. “This is Chris’s baby, but Georges cares about everything. Working for him is very challenging and exciting.”

Mia’s towering Corinthian columns create a Pantheon-like enclosure within Caesars’ four-story atrium lobby. Despite the high ceiling, the single large dining room feels surprisingly intimate, thanks to the muted lighting, the sheer burgundy drapes between the columns, and the classic white tablecloths against a dark floor.

Many of Mia’s strongest offerings are found on the left side of the menu, home to appetizers and pastas. Two of the best pasta dishes are the black (squid-ink) capellini and the herbed goat cheese tortelloni. In the former, the perfectly cooked tangle of thin noodles swims in a bold convocation of minced roasted eggplant, spicy chorizo, mild and very tender braised calamari, and lemon butter. It’s the chef’s equivalent of a poker player going all in—and in this case the gamble pays off in a complex, robust, yet essentially comforting dish.

The tortelloni are lusciousness incarnate. Satiny, floppy, curvaceous things, they ooze a dreamy filling of ricotta, goat cheese, and creamy mascarpone flavored with lemon and orange zest, sage, parsley, and chives. Arrayed around these pillows in a citrus brown butter are glistening wedges of roasted beets, ranging in color from traditional red to peach. The tang of goat cheese and citrus is offset by the nutty sweetness of the beets, with the fresh herbs tantalizingly mediating between the two.

A fragrant and soothing lobster saffron risotto with rock shrimp and crabmeat makes another luxurious starter, as does an irresistible Bibb salad with warm bacon and creamy gorgonzola dressing. Tuna tartare “Sicilian Style” sets off pleasing little sparklers on the palate, with its subtle dressing accented with lemon and lime juice, Dijon mustard, and an emulsion of lobster and vegetable broths.

As so often happens, the entrée side of the menu is less reliable. Roasted Norwegian salmon with herbed tomato couscous and cucumber vinaigrette is excellent. But roasted black sea bass is firm and bland, though rescued by a delicious cauliflower purée surrounded by pools of piquant shallot-chianti reduction.

The $42 filet mignon is not especially tender and has a flavor faintly reminiscent of liver. Yet grilled chicken breast—the Rodney Dangerfield of entrées—is perfectly cooked and wonderfully flavorful, with a carnival of tasty accompaniments: white asparagus and torchetti pasta (which look a bit like white asparagus) tossed with fontina cheese and diced truffles, with truffle jus and crispy strips of sopressatta salami.

The Le Bec-Fin lineage shows in some of the desserts, like tiramisu served in a martini glass. Pastry chef Melanie Gaines-Stewart’s basil ice cream has just enough herbaceous edge to balance the lusciousness of the accompanying balsamic-vinegar-infused strawberries. A trio of sorbets—cherry, passion fruit and pear/watermelon—sparkle with naturalness and intensity, especially the pear/watermelon, a delicate and inspired combination.

 

Reviewed in: October 2006

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