Charles Barkley and...
Izakayaâ€™s grilled Kobe beef.
Geisha artwork adorns the walls at Izakaya.
Chef and restaurateur Michael Schulson.
Rock shrimp tempura.
The sleek entrance to Izakaya in the Borgata.
... Will Ferrell are fans of Izakayaâ€™s small plates and sake.
Izakayaâ€™s decor is like a polished bento box.
The Rice Crispy roll with marshmallow is a sweet treat.
Few restaurants in this region come close to achieving such palpable sensuality as Izakaya, the spectacular Japanese-style establishment situated deep within Atlantic City’s Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. Even fewer provide the culinary stimulation to match those seductive visuals, thanks to the extraordinary talents of Chef Michael Schulson and his visionary cooking techniques.
With his popular Sampan in Center City and his Main Line newcomer, The Saint James (which he co-owns with Rouge’s Rob Wasserman), Schulson has redefined the concept of the izakaya—known in Japan as a drinking tavern in which to enjoy simple foods—through his modern take on the island’s pub cuisine since 2008.
What’s more, in an industry where the five-year mark is time for a restaurant to reassess and revamp, there has been no need for reinvention of the wheel at Izakaya due to its impressive accomplishments during the past half decade.
“Our future stems from our past, in knowing that nobody else is doing this type of restaurant and in the gratifying, ongoing acceptance by our guests,” says Schulson. “In truth, any other casino property would have balked at this concept. The fact is, though, the Borgata shared in my vision, and our successes together have followed.”
Being situated across the casino floor from two of the greatest luminaries in the industry doesn’t hurt either. “Being asked to be in the Borgata with Bobby Flay Steak and Wolfgang Puck American Grille was a huge honor for me,” Shulson says.
Once employed by restaurateur Stephen Starr (at Buddakan in both Manhattan and Philly) and mentored by award-winning chef Susanna Foo, Schulson is reflective on his roots. These respective influences—the former’s flair for ultrasleek settings juxtaposed with the latter’s culinary sensibilities—are evident throughout this stunning eatery.
The menu at Izakaya, however, is striking yet whimsical, offering tempting tapas fare that encourages sharing.
It also features the unique cooking method called robatayaki—slow grilling and subtle aromatic infusions from hickory chips to produce a tantalizing array of Japanese comfort foods. Such hot preparations pair well with Izakaya’s colorful collection of sushi, specialty rolls, sake, beer, wine, and lush cocktails.
Guest menu favorites include Schulson’s satisfying edamame dumplings, his spicy tuna cracker, and tuna tataki made silken with avocado. On the robatayaki side of the menu, there are plump Kumamoto oysters tasting of sea and smoke, cubes of Kobe beef in all their skewered succulence, and grilled lobster with hints of char and lemony toothsomeness.
Like dining inside a luxuriously polished black bento box, where artwork of geishas flirt from the walls, it’s only natural for Izakaya to feature alluring cocktails to go along with this sexy vibe. The bar produces ambitious elixirs including a refreshing Sake Sidecar, Berry Punch, and an effervescent sake, blueberry vodka, and pomegranate-tinged standout called Sparkling Rose.
Schulson is eager to receive the incoming bounty of the late spring and early summer season as it begins to make its way into Atlantic City. He is already incorporating juicy tomatoes, fresh peas, and tender snow pea shoots into menu specials. As for drinks, “Expect us to unveil new cocktails ripe with cantaloupe, strawberries, and blueberries. Summertime in New Jersey is the season of fruit, and we take advantage of it.”
In its first five years, Izakaya has become a virtual transport into the exotica of Japan as seen through the discerning eyes of Schulson. His Zenlike cuisine, served within this jewel box of dusky sensuality, is—as he’ll readily tell you—utterly representative of today’s Borgata. Now, as he readies for the restaurant’s next five years while busily attending to his two other notable properties, Schulson is finding ongoing contentment in a concept well done in Atlantic City. Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, One Borgata Way, 609-317-1000
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANDREW KAHL (FOOD); JASON LAVERIS/FILM MAGIC (BARKLEY); LISA MAREE WILLIAMS (FERRELL)