It is easy to imagine him crinkling under the self-inflicted blowtorch of promotion, expansion, and administration, his psyche as brittle as the crust of a crème brûlée.
But Puck is not about to crack. He’s a people person, unlikely to wind up like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, staring into the fireplace—or in his case the wood-burning pizza grill he made famous—whispering “Spago” in a vast, empty room. Many of Puck’s top chefs and managers have been with him a long time. I can’t vouch for every outlet and iteration, but on the fine-dining side there seems to be an esprit de corps that starts at the top and filters down to everyone on the staff.
“It’s one family,” says thirteen-year Puck veteran Marc Djozlija, chef of the American Grille at the Borgata. “There’s always somebody to help you out if you get in a bind. Wolfgang makes it easy, because he’s a great guy to work for.”
As befits the upscale casino setting, the food projects a certain lavishness. Not ostentation, but a bigness of flavor, a lot happening on the plate. “We aren’t reinventing the wheel,” Djozlija admits. “We take good products and use good techniques to bring out in-depth flavors. When you read the menu, you think you’ve had this before, but when you eat it, we like to think you haven’t.”
A good example is the sautéed calf’s liver with smoked bacon, leeks, soft polenta, and whole-grain mustard sauce. Yes, the dreaded ‘L’-meat is bolstered by so many luscious luxuries (including an irresistible tangle of frizzled onions) that you can’t help but succumb. But the liver isn’t hiding. Enticingly seared, almost creamy inside, it’s rich and delicious, the dish’s anchor and star.
The liver is on the casual menu, available in the Tavern—a terrace set a step or two above the gaming floor. The other Borgata restaurants remove you from the carnival, but Puck’s porch gives you a front-row seat on the passing parade.
If you prefer privacy, simply ask for the Dining Room—a captivating, imaginative space that combines industrial chic—glass panels bolted into shiny structural steel frames—with touches of Alice-in-Wonderland whimsy like giant rosy-plush lampshades. A long narrow chef’s table, for special tasting menus, faces the classic Puck open kitchen.
It’s a big place, but it feels intimate, and the nice thing is you can order from either menu wherever you sit. The Tavern menu features Puck’s signature wood-fired pizzas. They’re thin, crisp and, at this late date in pizza evolution, essentially mainstream (prosciutto, goat cheese, and sautéed rapini, for example, or Puck’s de rigueur smoked salmon, dill crème fraîche and caviar, the most expensive at $24).
Several salads appealingly incorporate meat. Two interesting meatless choices are the chopped vegetable salad with feta and toasted pine nuts, and the roasted beet and goat cheese Napoleon with toasted hazelnut vinaigrette.
The menus include a few nostalgic nods to Puck’s Austrian boyhood. Wiener schnitzel, for example, is as light, tender, and crunchy a sautéed veal cutlet as you’ll find anywhere, and its warm potato salad and arugula with pumpkin seed oil will give you a sense of Gemütlichkeit you don’t associate with casinos. Also good is beef goulash with marjoram crème fraîche and crisp spaetzle (and you haven’t known noodle heaven until you’ve had really good spaetzle).
The Dining Room menu is a little more expensive for entrées, but about the same for appetizers as the Tavern. A mound of tuna and hamachi sashimi with tart yuzu-ponzu sauce sparkles with freshness and flavor; four mini crab cakes with basil aioli and balsamic-tomato relish are ethereal as a pianissimo trill.
Seafood risotto successfully flouts the rule that there should be no more sauce than the rice can absorb. This aria of justifiable excess is loaded with shrimp, scallops and lobster practically doing the backstroke in a pleasure pool of caramelized tomato-garlic sauce flavored with deep-orange lobster butter.
A sense of humor is essential in dessert, and the ones we tasted left us smiling. The fifteen-layer flourless mocha cake with mocha praline mousse and dulce de leche ice cream is sliced thin and laid flat like a long thin flag. Salute, then eat. Yummm. Long may it wave.
The warm pear chestnut-honey crêpe is lavishness incarnate. A delicate crêpe stuffed with spiced poached pears and white-wine cream is topped with pistachio-chestnut-honey ice cream. When I cut into the crêpe, golden creaminess oozed out, and darn if my dormant inner child didn’t come prancing out with it. The dessert tasted so good I had a vision of Gene Kelly turning his umbrella upside down and laughing in the rain.
The Borgata Hotel, Casino and Spa, One Borgata Way, Atlantic City (866-MY-BORGATA). Tavern: Wednesday through Saturday, 5 to 11 pm; Sunday, 5 to 10 pm. Dining Room: Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, 5 to 10 pm; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 pm. All major credit cards are accepted. Wheelchair access easy.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Modern