It's nice to be reminded on occasion that A.C., where visitors are so often captive to the magnetic glitz in its hermetically sealed gaming world, is still a seaside resort.
Of course, there's been plenty of fresh restaurant action to draw us back into those casinos, with new projects from familiar names that deserve our hungry gaze: Luke Palladino at Harrah's; Harry's Oyster Bar at Bally's from the Dougherty family; a new White House Sub Shop in Trump's Taj Mahal.
But unlike other years, there have also been a handful of non-casino openings since last summer that are worth paying attention to, including two in Gardner's Basin, the surprisingly charming marina enclave that juts into Absecon Inlet across from Brigantine.
I say "surprising" only because the ride over to this northeastern edge of A.C. is anything but charming for families who might want to, say, visit the aquarium, also at the basin. ("Daddy, what does 'Live Nude Girls' mean?" is one question a parent might want to be prepared for on the jaunt down seedy Atlantic Avenue.)
But a morning stop at Gilchrist's is a tasty way to shake it off with more savory thoughts. While this location happens to be new, opened in May with a canary-yellow-striped awning reaching out across the deck from the tidy luncheonette, it marks the return of a local icon. Denise Stamat's grandmother, Marie Gilchrist, opened the original on Maryland Avenue in 1946, but it was torn down a few years ago. Stamat and her son, Mike Barham, have since operated successfully in a mainland branch in Cologne (it remains open), but a return to the city was inevitable: "This is where my heart is," she said.
And the menu here reflects that, with the simple but well-made specialties inspired by her grandmother that make Gilchrist's special and a reliable day-starter for working folks and tourists alike. The pancakes are among the best I've had, thinner than typical hotcakes but with a light sweetness to the batter that makes those berries pop. The dying art of the fluffy pan-fried omelet (as opposed to paper-thin griddled wraps) is well-tended here, with plump half-moons that hold fillings ranging from the Greek feta, spinach, and tomatoes (a.k.a. "the healthy choice") to the Italian sausage, peppers, and provolone (a.k.a. "what I really want"). Either way, I can't do without a side of the addictive creamed chipped beef - a splurge I reserve solely for summertime Shore consumption.
With a view like this, and a bayside deck from which to smell the sea, that splurge might as well be here.
In a summer of big names expanding their domains (and with Chris Scarduzio's new steak house in the Showboat yet to open) the Billboard Award for most roadside bling goes to Italian whiz Luke Palladino. Harrah's, where Palladino recently opened a sleek and expansive 230-seat dining room, has been kind enough to promise a billboard soon to promote the chef's eponymous BYOB in Northfield, the 30-seat nook he still owns and operates on the mainland, where I gave him a glowing three-bell review earlier this year.
That's nice, because that gem has an intimate personality I hope he doesn't let falter. There's little, if any, of that cozy atelier feeling in the Harrah's digs, which, with stark black-and-white decor, rambling corners, and mod plastic chairs, feels a bit like a banquet room gone Milano.
But Palladino, who originally came to notice as the opening Italian chef at the Borgata, is perfectly at home turning out casino volume meals. And the food here, with its authentic roots and seasonal inspirations, has not suffered one bit.
Gorgeous squash blossoms fried into delicate tempura balloons are plumped with creamy centers of ricotta and anchovy-tanged corn. Hearty chickpea soup tingles with a backbone of spicy red pepper paste, and delivers a rustic savor from pancetta and diced pig's feet that give it body and richness. Even the opening dip - roasted onions pureed with garlic, rosemary, and chiles - is impossible to resist.
There are plenty of Palladino classics here to satisfy the regulars: the truffle-butter-smeared grissini breadsticks wrapped in prosciutto; the zesty brick-pressed chicken over summery panzanella salad; the country-cut lamb rib chops glazed black in a balsamic marinade resonant with fennel pollen and citrus that demand some hands-on nibbling. The fresh pastas are spot-on, whether it's hollow bucatini strands in guanciale-spiked amatriciana sauce, or square sheets of fazzoletti tossed with fava beans and emerald Jersey basil pesto.
My favorite dish, though, was the modernist update to fish in parchment, this one a see-through pouch of high-tech cellophane gift-wrapped around a thick chunk of tilefish, cherry tomatoes, olives, and saffron poached potatoes. Our server snipped it open, the steam billowed up like saffron-tinged Mediterranean ambrosia, and it was clear: Palladino's magic has survived its transition back to casino grandeur, at least on the plate.
Add a nice glass of falanghina from the well-chosen Italian wine list to complete the meal, and it's easy to see how this could become one of the city's better restaurants. Only time will tell, though, if the man can run this big dining room and still maintain the artisan soul of the little Northfield BYO that kept him steady between fickle casino suitors. I'm betting one of those crispy, homemade cannoli that he can.
Harry's Oyster Bar
Few names are as synonymous with classic Atlantic City restaurants as the Doughertys' - the family owns both the century-old Dock's Oyster House and the Knife & Fork. So when the opportunity came to establish a restaurant in the 99-year-old Dennis Hotel (now part of Bally's), Frank Dougherty and his wife, Maureen Shay, jumped at the chance to open what he calls "an old-time seafood house like my great-grandfather, Harry, opened in 1897."
Set back in an atrium and courtyard patio just off the Boardwalk's honky-tonk, Harry's is far more casual than the Doughertys' other restaurants, with most entrees under $20. The feel of the place is more like a sunny sports bar with a straight-ahead seafood menu than something truly "old-time." But from the moment I dug into Harry's big central ice bank of oysters, where nearly a dozen varieties are shucked each day (I loved the Wiannos and Malpeques), it was clear the quality was what I've come to expect.
There will always be a place for a restaurant that still makes chowders as fresh as Harry's, where the crab version comes with fresh sweet corn and the pique of jalapeño cream, and the rich New England clam bowl is hearty with new potatoes and lots of cherrystone meat.
At an early visit (the place was just a week old), the oysters Rockefeller still needed work (too much bacon, not enough Pernod, the spinach way too chunky). But chef Brian McDade hit a home run with a $32 clambake worth sharing, a big cast-iron crock brimming with half a lobster, shrimp, scallops, mussels, and clams in a tomato-fennel broth edged with chorizo. The chef's slow-roasted pulled pork sandwich was also surprisingly good, the meat tender in tangy dark barbecue glaze.
But seafood, obviously, is the reason to come. And a section featuring simply prepared fish - we tried the big grilled shrimp and blackened snapper - gave us the chance to keep a satisfying spotlight on those good ingredients. The simple lobster roll was pricey at $17.50. But this, too, did the lobster simple justice, a proper top-split toasted bun stuffed with a quarter-pound of sweet crustacean kissed with lemony mayo and mustard.
With one of the Shore's more extensive craft beer lists (Duvel, Brooklyn Local 2, La Fin du Monde in bottles; La Chouffe and Harpoon UFO on draft), I can imagine grabbing one of those lobster rolls with a brew (OK, plus a dozen oysters) and sinking into a patio chair for what might be this summer's best afternoon Boardwalk indulgence.
White House Sub Shop
If it's late, though, I might well be craving something else - a good White House sub. If there is a better Italian sandwich at the Shore than the subs at this legendary 65-year-old Arctic Avenue joint, I haven't tasted it. The crusty rolls are delivered hot and fresh several times a day from the Formica bakery across the street. The original location closes at a relatively early 10 p.m.
But late noshers have a new option to get their White House fix at a location that debuted in May in Trump's Taj Mahal - open Fridays and Saturdays until 4 a.m. Considering that the White House waited 65 years to open its first branch, traditionalists are right to be skeptical. Street foods like this - seemingly so simple to re-create - rarely translate well to spanking-new locations, as if secret seasonings are retained in the vintage quilted steel walls and nostalgia gallery of Miss America photos posted in the old space.
The sterile, food-court aspect of the new location, a narrow galley with too few seats near a Starbucks and a Sbarro in the Taj's "Spice Road," isn't exactly reassuring. But the new mall look is, thankfully, deceiving. With a genuine White House crew working snappily behind the counter, meticulously tucking their fresh Italian lunch meats into a perfect "S," our sub was the image (maybe even better) of the one I ate last year at the counter of the original. The cheesesteak was carefully cooked and nicely balanced, understated on the provolone, but with the good lingering savor of quality beef. A sub with tender meatballs and slow-stewed gravy was so good it made me wonder why I don't order it more often. We took a half home, and it was even better the next day.
Joining forces with a corporate casino can iron out a classic's quirks, but it can also have advantages. One especially useful for those out late who've emptied their billfolds at the casino table: The new White House takes credit cards.
As a lover of great soul food and a collector of kitchen characters, it's hard not to root for the ever-smiling Carl Redding. There aren't many African American chefs sinking serious cash into revamping dingy old pizzerias off the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, as he did last year with cheery panache in his self-named soul-foodery at the corner of Pacific and South Kentucky Avenues. He's got the pedigree to become A.C.'s apostle of chicken and waffles, having owned a place for nearly a decade in his native Harlem, Amy Ruth's, after working for the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Plus, any place with a sign in its front door warning that it would refuse service to anyone with "sagging of trousers" needs to be heeded. I hiked up my shorts and went in.
The large and sunny dining room was half-empty this midafternoon, but Redding was gliding from table to table posing for photos with all his guests like the convivial master host he is. Unfortunately, his kitchen has a long way to go before it can hold up to the charisma of his 1,000-watt smile.
The fried chicken was greasy and surprisingly bland despite a two-day marinade. The waffles were doughy and pale on the bottom. The turkey chop was chewy (best to stay with pork here), but rich gravy and baked macaroni casserole had promise. The best flavors on our table were the slow-stewed peppery mixed greens, flavorful black-eyed peas, and a reasonably tender plate of spare ribs, which had a perfect balance of spicy, sweet, and tang.
But the menu's new cult star of late - and perhaps the summer's new double-dare adventure dish - is Redding's "chitlin cheesesteak." A steaming heap of pig intestine soul-on-a-roll smothered in Cheez Whiz and chiles, it's a new champ in the category of acquired tastes.
"I can't even stand to bring one to the table," confessed our waiter, who'd tried to dissuade me earlier with bulging eyes and a subtle head shake.
It was in vain. I needed to taste. And though I'll confess I've yet to acquire a real craving for chitlins' barnyard funk, a pungency that drew glances from across the room, this was, in fact, one of the more tender helpings of stewed entrails I've sampled. It had real personality and serious soul cred - the kind that just might bring Redding's its own faithful clientele.
Scales Grill and Deck Bar
"I want to apologize in advance," bellows a dude in cargo shorts fresh off his boat, ready to take his seat on the deck at Scales. "We're gonna be a rowdy bunch!"
Hardly anyone blinked. The surging crowd flanking the expansive alfresco patio around Scales - many of whom had also arrived by boat at Gardner's Basin's free dock - were way too deep into their happy-hour pints of Landshark and frozen daiquiris to care.
I doubt many of the 300 or so diners that night minded much, either, that the food at this new venture in the former Flying Cloud was so darn mediocre. The seafood grill concept is very like Harry's Oyster Bar, but not executed with the kind of care that fish requires. The promising New Orleans-style grilled oysters were disappointingly bland and overcooked. The chowder was like shiny glue, the clam fritters like dough balls, the mahimahi grilled to an indelicate chew.
And yet, as I dug into Scales' finest dish - ironically, a plate of ribs glazed with sweet and sticky mango sauce - I took my own sweet time to lick my fingers. Because I'd never seen Atlantic City like this before.
It was 8:25 p.m. in Gardner's Basin, and the sun was finally setting. Pleasure yachts glided past our deck, delivering more patrons to the party, the smell of ocean in their wake. And as the sky began to glow in luminescent streaks of purple and pink against the rippling cloud swirls, the casino towers flashed to life, their beckoning pulse alight and vibrant as ever.
The Atlantic City restaurants
Gardner’s Basin, 804 N. Rhode Island Ave., 609-345-8278
Breakfast and lunch daily, 6 a.m.-2 p.m.
Visa and MasterCard. Free parking lot and complimentary boat docking. No reservations.
Harry’s Oyster Bar
Bally’s Casino, Park Place and Boardwalk, 609-431-0092; www.harrysoysterbar.com
Entire menu daily, 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m.
Valet parking discounted with Harry’s receipt to “gold card” rates, usually $5.
Harrah’s Casino, 777 Harrah’s Blvd., 609-441-5576; www.harrahsresort.com
Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m.
Bar menu available Friday and Saturday until 1 a.m. Valet parking costs $5.
1545 Pacific Ave. (at Kentucky Avenue), 609-348-3270; www.reddingsrestaurant.com
Entire menu Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 24 hours; Sunday, closes at 10 p.m.
Free parking lot behind restaurant, accessed from South Kentucky Avenue.
Scales Grill and Deck Bar
Gardiner’s Basin, 800 New Hampshire Ave., 609-345-8222; www.scalesgrill.com
Entire menu Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m. Free parking lot and complimentary boat docking.
White House Sub Shop
Trump Taj Mahal Casino, 1000 Boardwalk, 609-345-7827; www.trumptaj.com
Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 4 a.m.
All major credit cards accepted.
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @CraigLaBan on Twitter.