Among Atlantic City chefs, no star shines brighter than Wolfgang Puck's, whose casual American menu comes to life with Jersey Shore produce.
Five cheese agnolotti with sage, butter, and truffles expresses the Italian-American influence in the form of pastas and pizzas in Puck's menus.
Long before Emeril Lagasse threw down a “Bam!,” before Gordon Ramsay made his studio kitchen a living “Hell,” there was America’s first celebrity restaurant chef: Wolfgang Puck. From the awe-inspiring success of Spago in Beverly Hills—since opening in 1982, originally in West Hollywood, the name has become synonymous with dining among the rich and famous—this dynamic, personality-filled chef has created an astounding empire of restaurants, a lauded catering division, and a worldwide franchise of consumer products and publishing divisions.
Which is why Wolfgang Puck American Grille, in the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, continues to command a reputation as one of the top dining destinations in Atlantic City. Since opening in 2006, this cross-coastal nexus—where seaboard sophistication meets a contemporary California setting—garners a loyal following of players and locals alike. “[It] is a restaurant for any occasion, whether it’s a special anniversary or if you just want to enjoy a pizza or a burger in the tavern with a glass of wine or a beer,” says Puck.
Puck’s first East Coast endeavor, the Grille has always benefited from its easy access to the Shore’s best seafood, and the fertile bounty from nearby farmlands has provided endless seasonal inspiration. Accordingly, the warmer months feature some of the Grille’s most creative plates.
“Spring into summer is my favorite season,” says Executive Chef Aram Mardigian, a company veteran who started 18 years ago at the original Spago. “It is always the birth of the new culinary year for me, so I like to have fun with it.” Artichokes, peas, fava beans, mushrooms, ramps, fiddlehead ferns—they all combine naturally with fish, fowl, and beef. Mardigian adheres to the idea of simplicity in lieu of a complex, overworked recipe. “Simple to me,” he adds, “means an approachable elegance, a nice balance.”
The warm-weather starter of lobster, shrimp, and crab cocktail with horseradish flan showcases the bounties of AC’s oceanfronts.
With Puck’s unforgiving schedule, it is Mardigian who is the constant presence here. Says Puck of his chef and protégé, “I love him because he’s a great culinary talent and an excellent manager. Very few chefs can combine those two elements.”
From his open kitchen, Mardigian asserts his own vision while honoring the Medi-Cal-Asian fusions Puck has made famous. One such dish is the Peking-style duck, which was the signature sample at Borgata’s annual Savor Borgata Presents Street Eats festival last November. Worthy of display in any of Beijing’s best duck houses, Mardigian’s version first gets bathed in a solution of Chinese red vinegar and sugary maltose syrup, which helps the skin crisp up during roasting. Used for brining the duck for up to three days before slow cooking in the oven, the solution also helps the bird achieve its maximum flavor and moist tenderness. “It’s quite a process,” Mardigian admits. “The lacquering allows the duck to take on a Peking-style quality and taste.”
Having first introduced the wood-fired gourmet pizza to well-heeled Beverly Hills diners some 33 years ago, Puck here serves up seasonal variations that are a must-try. A mere taste of the handworked artisanal dough, perfectly crisped inside the 720-degree pizza oven, is well worth a visit.
The sharing nature of the pies speaks to the convivial vibe. Large parties gather around the sleek, stylish front bar for happy hour or a late-night break from Borgata’s handful of nightspots. A gas fireplace further inward lends the 100-seat dining room a cozy feel. At the back of the room, a chef’s table with seating for 12 is a perfect vantage point for viewing the “controlled chaos” (as Mardigian calls it) of the kitchen just beyond. And on the radio? Good old American rock and blues.
Mardigian attributes the Grille’s success to the chemistry between his food and his customers. “The philosophy works to create the best experiences for the guest on every level. You can offer a fancy atmosphere, great food, and fun gaming almost anywhere. But our guests become more than customers—they’re soon a part of our family.” Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, One Borgata Way, Atlantic City, 609-317-1000
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHAEL PERSICO