The days when cheap buffets and stale hotel food ruled this gambling town are long gone. Even amid a tough economy that's slowed its progress, Atlantic City can deliver some of the most exciting food at the Shore. From high-styled fusion to glitzy outposts for big-name chefs, surprisingly authentic Asian fare and even a pair of American classics just beyond the casinos' orbit, here are half a dozen good reasons to visit A.C. hungry.
BUDDAKAN ATLANTIC CITY
The Pier Shops at Caesars,
One Atlantic Ocean; 609-674-0100, www.buddakanac.com.
Compared with its mega-sized siblings in Old City and New York, there is something of an intimacy to the Buddakan at Caesars' seaside shopping mall, where the space feels like a starlit Asian courtyard worthy of a scene in a kung-fu film. The service can sometimes be distracted, but the menu is satisfyingly consistent with the Buddakan franchise - high-quality cooking that usually reflects Asian fusion for the masses at its best. Our recent highlights included crispy pastry-cylinder "rolls" filled with spicy raw tuna, steamed packages of leaf-wrapped Chilean sea bass splashed in gingery soy, delicious crab fried rice, spicy kung pao of monkfish, and "Zen-ful" doughnut pillows filled with oozing cream.
The vaulted-ceiling subterranean enoteca below the Borgata remains one of Atlantic City's most evocative dining spaces, despite a change in both name and operating chef, as Stephen Kalt has taken over the former Ombra run by Luke Palladino. Overall, the cooking has slipped a shade, but the trattoria menu has more than enough highlights, alternating between authentic inspirations (chestnut-stuffed porchetta, arancini, plin dumplings stuffed with pistachio and peas) and Italian American flavors (veal parm) to please a wide variety of tastes.
KNIFE & FORK
3600 Atlantic Ave.; 609-344-1133, www.knifeandforkinn.com.
Classic American fine dining won't get a much better update than what the Dougherty family has given this venerable institution, whose distinctive stair-step Flemish facade has anchored Atlantic Avenue for nearly a century. With a beautifully rehabbed interior that evokes a Prohibition speakeasy on the second floor, there are also some of the city's best steaks, airy souffle potatoes, a knockout rendition of decadent lobster Thermidor (perfect for sharing!), and what has grown into one of the best wine cellars in the region, noted for its quality, service, and fair pricing. If you want a taste of A.C.B.C (Atlantic City Before Casinos), this is it.
Caesars Atlantic City, 2100 Pacific Ave.; 609-348-4411, www.caesarsac.com.
Can't pull yourself away from the pai gau table for too long? No problem. The advent of the A.C. noodle bar has been one of the best developments to come to casino dining over the last decade, thanks to the push to cater to an Asian clientele. Virtually every casino now has one near its baccarat and "Asia poker" tables, but Kwi (pronounced "K-why") at Caesars most impressed me, not only with its handsome gold-leaf ceiling and landscape mural made from 150,000 pairs of chopsticks, but with an open wok kitchen capable of producing a pan-Asian menu with crispness and quality ingredients. There's something for everyone, from a quickie congee to decadent (and expensive) lobster-ginger stir-fries. First-timers, though, should try the Heavenly Basket, made from hand-shredded taro that brims with a pristine Cantonese seafood stir-fry; a plate of sweet and spicy grilled Korean short ribs; or simply the deep-fried, bacon-wrapped shrimp balls known as "Rocket Rolls," which are so bad-for-you tasty, they must be good luck.
The vaguely hotel-ish room is not necessarily my favorite space among the Borgata's array of lavish eateries, but super-chef Michael Mina's seafood-centric restaurant still presents one of the most sophisticated menus in A.C., from tuna tartare that snaps with pine nuts, Asian pear, and chile oil to intricately complex scallop ceviche, miso-glazed Chilean sea bass over brothy udon noodles, and a copper-clad lobster pot pie that is the height of high-roller decadence. The service can be frustratingly rushed and robotic during crowded special events (such as Restaurant Week), but with the pristine flavors and an outstanding wine list, SeaBlue remains destination-worthy.
2301 Arctic Ave.; 609-345-1564.
Whether you win or lose at the poker table, no visit to Atlantic City is truly complete until you venture north of the casino strip for a pilgrimage to this classic American sub shop (please, they don't speak "hoagie" here, folks!). The lines are invariably long, and the old-school luncheonette service is as crusty as the fantastic split-top rolls (delivered warm several times a day from the Formica bakery across the street). But there's a reason every Miss New Jersey, cabaret star, and onetime slugger has a picture on the wall of celebrity fame. These beguilingly simple Italian subs, stuffed with a distinctive "S" wave of cold cuts, lettuce, provolone, and pepper relish, somehow manage to capture something elusive: a jackpot of satisfaction on a roll. I