Casinos are designed to keep people occupied in realms removed from any sense of time and place. In Atlantic City, where the casinos face a lively boardwalk and majestic ocean, the isolation is especially unfortunate. During the 10 minutes it took me to walk from the parking garage of the Tropicana through its lobby, entertainment zone (the Quarter) and jangling casino, I could have been anywhere at any time of day or night.
But when I reached the entrance to Olón, the new South American restaurant from Iron Chef Jose Garces, everything changed. Through floor-to-ceiling windows running the length of the restaurant, I beheld the glimmering Atlantic and the vast sky above it. I literally gasped with pleasure.
Olón’s pricey predecessor, the seafood restaurant Fin, offered similar, if not quite as dramatic views. The redesigned space—blue and white, with wide-plank wood floors, patterned tiles, potted palms, hurricane lamps and illustrated ceviche posters—provides the perfect setting to appreciate Atlantic City’s chronically undervalued natural asset as well as Garces’s seafood-based menu.
Garces, who won the 2009 James Beard Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic award for Amada, his tapas restaurant in his home base of Philadelphia, oversees an empire of 18 restaurants. That includes the neo-Mexican cantina, Distrito, in Moorestown, and the two latest: Olón and its adjacent eatery in the Tropicana, the sushi-focused Okatsche.
The two represent Garces’s first return to Atlantic City since the 2014 demise of Revel, where he had four restaurants. “Our places were doing extremely well,” he says. “It was really sad that we had to let go about 300 people. This coming back to the market, being able to employ some folks who worked for us there, has been really rewarding.”
The inspiration for Olón came, he says, “when I first sat down in the space and looked out the windows. The color of the sand, the vast ocean really reminded me of Ecuador.” That is where his parents came from. Garces was born and raised in Chicago, but he visited Ecuador as a child. Olón is named for a low-key beach town there.
“Cabanas line the sand, with all beach shacks behind you,” he relates. “Ceviche carts roll by selling everything from oysters to octopus to shrimp—whatever they’re pulling from the Pacific.”
Pan-South American flavors anchor the menu at Olón in Atlantic City, executed by longtime Garces veteran Maria Schmidt. Many of my favorite dishes here come from two sections of the menu: ceviches and tiraditos. The latter, reflecting the influence of Japanese immigrants on Peruvian cookery, might be thought of as flamboyantly accessorized sashimis.
Snapper slices, for example, were thrilling in a halo of tangerine-tamarind vinaigrette balanced by the heat of togarashi, the Japanese sesame-chili seasoning, the sum soothed by sesame mayo.
Hamachi strips, dotted with fruity-hot aji amarillo purée, were arranged like numbers on a clock face of sweet white soy and citrus—as delicious as it was artful. Magenta cubes of raw tuna in coconut-ginger sauce were elevated above beach-cocktail simplicity by additions of serrano chili, black sesame seeds and Indonesia’s viscous, sweet soy sauce, kecap manis.
Ceviches, the fish “cooked” by marinating in citrus juices, also have star power. Corvina, a warm-water Pacific fish, is served in a traditional Peruvian lime-juice ceviche with sweet potato, hominy and rocoto-pepper aioli. The shrimp ceviche, meanwhile, strikes a more northern note, with hunks of avocado and the kind of peppy jalapeño-tomato-lime marinade you find all over Mexico.
With one exception (an entrée of wood-grilled Spanish prawns with the texture of overripe bananas), I was extremely pleased with seafood here. The fish-fry appetizer brought a generous and perfectly cooked mound of scallops, calamari, shrimp and mahi-mahi. Each piece had been marinated in buttermilk and yogurt for a penetrating tang, dredged in adobo-seasoned flour and fried to a pale crisp.
Wood-grilled Maine lobster, buttery and tender, was the better half of an $85 surf and turf (its mate, a Wagyu sirloin, was unevenly cooked). A whole fried snapper revealed, under a sheath of crunchy skin, moist, white flesh accented with herbaceous peanut-and-huacatay (Peruvian black mint) sauce, tomatoes, and what looked like an entire bunch of fresh parsley.
The parsley’s thick stems—and the sheer amount of them, placed on the fish like a bouquet on a gravesite—were distracting, and their Mediterranean flavor felt out of sync.
When Olón misses the mark, it’s usually that way—by one ingredient marring an otherwise good dish. Mussels steamed in a heady aji amarillo-bacon broth overpowered any evidence of the floral lemongrass also listed as an ingredient. The lovely collage of hearts of palm, sliced coconut gelee and sliced dates has the potential to be a refreshing, interesting salad I would gladly eat every day; but for that to happen, its ginger-lime vinaigrette simply needs more horsepower.
Fortunately, most dishes require no tweaking. I eagerly devoured the chicken thighs. Deboned, marinated in soy, ginger and yuzu and deep fried, they lifted the debased concept of chicken nuggets to Olympian heights. Empanadas, whether filled with wilted chard, Argentine provolone and béchamel (for a surprisingly meaty flavor), or with smoky, red-wine-braised Wagyu beef scented with merken, an Argentine chili spice, were flaky, tender and well seasoned.
I loved the juicy Iberico Spanish pork steak brushed with aji amarillo butter and grilled, even at $45 for an 8-ounce portion.
All the à la carte sides are worth ordering, especially the crunchy yucca fries; lemony asparagus under a cloud of Parmesan foam; and the homey quinoa stew with pumpkin, corn, tomato and egg.
Service deserves praise, too. Things were a tad dicey one night when my server had trouble using a corkscrew, but she finally got it. Olón’s is overall one of the friendliest, most on-the-ball staffs I’ve seen in an Atlantic City casino. Plates and silverware were changed often and water glasses promptly refilled. The staff’s menu knowledge is strong.
Consulting pastry chef Michael Laiskonis (former Le Bernardin pastry chef and now creative director at the Institute of Culinary Education) creates the desserts for all Garces’s restaurants. At Olón, they include fluffy, chocolate-filled buñuelos (doughnuts) served warm and dusted in cinnamon sugar, and a softly wobbling caramel flan that’s traditional and very delicious. A tangy lime custard tart with fresh, bittersweet grapefruit and cilantro leaves is topped with peaked hats of meringue.
By the time you settle in to enjoy these treats, the sun may have sunk behind the casino, and the ocean and sky may be dark. Still, you’ll know where you are—in Atlantic City, at one of the town’s best new restaurants.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:South American
Price Details:Small plates, $8-$16; raw bar, $18-$155; entrées, $24-$85; desserts, $8-$10.
Ambience:Busy and energized, with a beachy vibe and majestic ocean views.
Service:Friendly and capable.
Wine list:Robust beer, cocktail and wine lists.