Last year, the makers of Monopoly sent the iron, one of the game’s original playing pieces, to the scrap heap and replaced it with a cat. But in Atlantic City, whose street names fill the squares of the iconic board game, Paul Tonacci and Mark Callazzo refused to decommission the lowly iron. Instead, they named their restaurant after it.
The Iron Room, now a year old, is not visible from the street. It stands behind the other part of Tonacci and Callazzo’s atmospheric enterprise, a tiny wine and liquor store called the Atlantic City Bottle Company.
“It’s definitely a twice-around-the-block kind of place,” Tonacci said with a laugh when we spoke by phone after my visits. “There is so much uncertainty with casinos that small businesses have opportunities here.”
The Iron Room can be entered from the liquor store, or directly by walking down the driveway that separates the building from a car wash. Long and narrow, the Iron Room has burgundy walls and black-and-white tile floors, with a white quartz bar facing a row of white tables. Bar stools and armchairs at the tables are upholstered in black leather. A roots music band, usually Jug Paradise, plays on Tuesday nights.
Iron Room customers can order from a brown-liquor library unmatched in the region. Tonacci, a longtime wine wholesaler from Monmouth County, and Callazzo, a former Lakehurst pub owner, have assembled a list of around 260 labels, including small-batch gems such as Suntori Yamazaki 18-year-old single malt whisky, High West, Angel’s Envy rye, Noah’s Mill, Pappy Van Winkle 13-year-old rye and Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project, a bourbon aged in a barrel built from the wood of one tree. I sipped some Single Oak in a smooth Manhattan. Whiskey purists would consider that sacrilege, but if the friendly, knowledgeable staff thought it a faux pas, they didn’t let on.
The Iron Room tables seat 40. The bottle shop has one chef’s table that seats up to 12. You can reserve as few as four seats on weeknights, six on weekends. It’s like having your own dining room, one that’s better lit and less noisy than the Iron Room itself. And you can browse the racks of bottles and shelves of whiskeys between courses. Any bottle of wine can be ordered with dinner for a reasonable $15 corkage fee. On Wine Wednesdays, the corkage fee is waived and wines by the glass are half price.
Chef Kevin Cronin, a veteran of the Tuckahoe Inn, has worked in Philly, New York and Costa Rica. Over two meals, I sampled most of his small, frequently changing menu of mainly appetizer-sized plates meant for grazing. Depending what you order, dinner here could be delightful or dreary.
Skip anything that sounds like it came from the freezer section of a Sam’s Club: gluey cheese-and-potato croquettes, chokingly dry Frito’s-crusted chicken strips, greasy fried wontons filled with braised pulled chicken. Focus on the artisan cheeses and the house-made cured meats and condiments—including the duck liver paté, spiced peach jam and assorted pickles. I savored the steamed Absecon clams in a butter broth spiced with crumbled merguez sausage. A Caesar salad replaced romaine with seared hearts of palm and endive for a smoky flavor that held its own under the just-garlicky-enough dressing.
Near the bottom of the menu lurk a few larger items, like a lovely pork tenderloin rubbed in Dijon mustard, roasted and glazed with a sweet-and-sour sauce of figs and balsamic vinegar. Pistachios scattered on top add a tasty crunch.
Seared Jersey snapper—paired with a cool, juicy strawberry-and-tomato salad and a dollop of vanilla crème fraîche—didn’t sound like it would work, but did. The hot fish slowly melted the crème fraîche into a tangy cream sauce with subtle floral tones tied to the salad. Cronin’s ham-and-cheese sandwich just might be the ultimate: smoked Pennsylvania ham, Jersey tomatoes, double-crème brie and Dijon mustard on toasted walnut-cranberry multigrain bread from Hudson Bread in North Bergen.
The chuck-and-brisket burger is worthy, too, with lettuce, tomato, house-made ketchup and thick Neuske’s bacon on a Hudson brioche bun. It came with thick, fresh-cut fries, crisp and well seasoned. They were piled so high they tumbled off the small plate. I ate every last one, right off the table.
Korean barbecued hanger steak, medium rare, was tender and tasty. Cronin paired it with what he called “the new cool hipster thing”—Brussels sprouts studded with bacon. Wasn’t that 2005’s cool new hipster thing? “It’s probably a cliché at this point,” Cronin admitted. In any case, they were nicely caramelized outside and tender inside.
Other clichés clutter the small menu: foie gras on French toast; fried chicken and waffles; mac ’n’ cheese with truffle oil. Properly executed, the lack of originality wouldn’t have mattered. But give Cronin this. When one of my dinner guests told the server about her several allergies, Cronin himself came out and went over the menu with her. (He had no idea a reviewer was at the table.)
I’ll remember the helpful service at the Iron Room much longer than the food, even a better-than-boardwalk funnel cake and the divine banana bread pudding sparked with bourbon. In service, drinks and atmosphere, the Iron Room is like a poker hand with three aces. If it could turn the food into even a pair of tens, it would have a full house in every sense of the term.Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:American
- Price Range:Moderate
- The Iron Room648 N. Albany Ave.
Atlantic City, NJ 08401
- Hours:Mon: Closed;
Tue: Store 11:00AM- 9:00PM/ Iron Room 3:00PM-10:00PM;
Wed: Store 11:00AM- 9:00PM/ Iron Room 3:00PM-10:00PM;
Thu: Store 11:00AM- 9:00PM/ Iron Room 3:00PM-1-:00PM;
Fri: Store 11:00AM- 10:00PM/ Iron Room 3:00PM-11:00PM;
Sat: Store 11:00AM- 10:00PM/ Iron Room 3:00PM-11:00PM;