A Surprising Dinner at Michael Mina’s Seablue

When it comes to food, it is hard to surprise me. I have eaten many different types of food at many different establishments. I cook. I read about food. I live and breathe it. You may impress me, but you will very rarely totally shock me.

Dinner at Chef Michael Mina’s SeaBlue was one of those rare occasions.

The restaurant, located on the casino floor of the Borgata, is this celebrated West Coast chef’s only East Coast establishment. Known for his decadent lobster pot pie, this restaurant draws inspiration from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors, using the fresh fish and produce from the Garden State. The restaurant is large and casual, but upscale enough for a nice dinner with wine. Be prepared that the restaurant is rather loud, but the noise comes off as a fun atmosphere, not too raucous for a couple of people enjoying their food.

Poached Maine Lobster with Gelee, Avocado Mousse, and Piment d’Espelette Mascarpone with American Caviar

Delicately poached lobster, tender and buttery, sitting atop a lightly acidic gelee. The avocado mouse is creamy and slightly peppery, accentuating the lobster’s sweetness. Best of all, the Mascarpone is rich and surprisingly spicy. The piment d’espelette has a slow, bright burn that works well with the delightfully sticky caviar, bursting with brine and salt. These ingredients all seem too rich, too flavorful, and not congruent, but they work. The result is a dish that is complex but harmonious.

Octopus Tagine with Preserved Lemons, Chickpeas, and Spicy Fava Bean Falafael

When asked how difficult it was to make the octopus, Chef Mina said in an offhanded way “Oh it’s a cinch. Just boil it for 4 hours before you pop it in the tagine.” This matter of fact approach he takes to even the most arduous tasks results in intensely flavorful and well thought out food, like this octopus. Except for Periyali, I have never had such succulent, sweet octopus. The tagine renders it tender enough to cut with a fork. The chickpeas, onions, and other vegetables in the mix have the signature spicy-sweet warmth of Moroccan food from harissa, cinnamon, and a touch of smoke (perhaps cumin?). The chickpeas are hearty and al dente, and the preserved lemon are tart, adding brightness to the long cooked dish. The falafel is otherworldly wonderful. Grassy and fresh with fava beans ,they have a rather intense heat that builds as you swipe it through the harissa flecked aioli. Eventually, the burn prickles through to the front of your mouth, not too hot, but more than just a little spicy. This won over several ocotphobes at the table, and was a huge winner of the night.

Loup de Mer with Zucchini Pistou, Heirloom Tomatoes, and Zucchini Fritters

Similar to branzino, loup de mer can be dry and rather fishy if not cooked very gently and carefully. Luckily, this was cooked very gently. The flesh is extremely moist, flaking off easily with the fork. Unfortunately, the skin is not crispy, which means that one of the best textural contrasts on a piece of fish is missed here. However, the zucchini pistou is earthy and fresh, the fritters are crisp outside and moist within, and the heirloom tomatoes add sweetness and acidity. New Jersey vegetables are showcased ideally here, accented with herbs and spices but mostly left alone to shine in their natural states.

Wagyu Beef 2 Ways – Seared Tenderloin over Oxtail Ragout and Roasted Romaine and Braised Belly over Aligot with Chaneterrelles and Bone Marrow

Wagyu beef is some of the most tender, most marbled, most delicate and luxurious beef in the world. Here, it is served 2 ways to showcase its versatility. The seared loin is cooked to medium rare, with a salty charred crust and a dark rosy interior. Soft but not mushy, with a light minerally taste that is in between beef and veal. There is nothing robust or abrasive about this taste, it is all about the depth and complexity – earthy and at the same time almost bright in its beefiness. Served over jammy oxtail ragout and a side of bok choy-like romaine, it somehow manages to avoid being a total gut bomb.  The Wagyu belly makes short ribs look like chicken breast – thick cut and tender, interspersed with globes of opalescent fat.  The aligot it is served with is the world’s cheeseiest  mashed potato – stretchy and thick enough to eat with a fork. The marrow is the piece de resistance – buttery, beefy, soft, goodness. All it needs is a piece of bread to make it complete.

I used the term “surprising” several times in this review. That is because this meal was, more than delicious, more than excellently served, more than fairly priced, was surprising. I have never had octopus cooked in a tagine. Mascarpone flavored with Southern French chiles and topped with caviar. Wagyu beef belly. Where does Mina get these ideas? Who does he experiment with? Though I don’t know the answers to these questions, I do know the not-to-miss restaurant in Atlantic City. Without a doubt, it is SeaBlue. The restaurant is a treasure chest of culinary surprises. 

*Disclaimer: The restaurants PR firm piad for my meal and stay. I was not required to write a review, and my thoughts and opinions are my own.*

Seablue on Urbanspoon

Fornelletto – Elegant Italian in The Borgata Casino Resort

When I was given the chance to dine at Forneletto, the Italian restaurant in Atlantic City’s Borgata Casino and Resort, I expected some pretty good Italian food. After all, Chef Stephen Kalt has helmed restaurants from New York all the way to Las Vegas. He even deigned to be at this press meal, so if he didn’t deliver, he could expect some pretty harsh criticism right to his face.

No wonder he was so brave to eat with us. He had nothing to worry about.

Fornelletto is a dark, bustling restaurant with many rooms. It is upscale but relaxed, the sort of place that is perfect for a rehearsal dinner or a large birthday celebration.

Fritto Misto with Prosecco Battered Sardines, Calamari, and Artichokes

Fritto Misto is easy to get wrong, with greasy or leaden batter or sub par fish. This escaped all those pitfalls. The sardines are flaky and moist, with a briny, fresh taste. The batter is crisp and very dry, contrasting with the flaky fish. The fish can be eaten whole, the bones so soft and small that they disappear upon contact with your tongue. The calamari is tender and the artichokes are meaty, crunchy without and almost fluffy within. The lemon aioli served alongside brightens up the batter, smooth and creamy.

Endive, Fennel, and Red Onion Salad with Anchovy Dressing

The ideal follow-up to a fried appetizer, because it is crisp and acidic, reawakening the palate. Thinly shaved fennel, bitter endive, and sharp red onion in a pungent, garlicky dressing that is akin to a very bright Caesar vinaigrette. The fennel adds just the right tough of sweetness to keep this from being a salt or umami overload. This is refreshing and clean – the perfect gateway from here to fattier, heartier dishes.

Heirloom Tomatoes, Burrata, and Basil

You know how much I love burrata, right? Well…I still love it. Here, it is just cut, served with sweet and earthy New Jersey Tomatoes (the best in the world), and topped with salt, some diced shallots, and basil. A drizzle of olive oil to enhance the burrata’s creamy, rich texture and taste and the dish is complete. The tomatoes’ acidity cuts through the fat of the dish and the basil adds an almost peppery note. Nothing new here, but when the ingredients are this perfect, why would you mess with it?

As a quick note, this is one of Kalt’s strongest attributes as a chef. He chooses the best ingredients possible then does very little to them, to ensure that they shine on their own. His success lies in his excellent palate and his restraint as a chef – he never gilds the lily.

Brooklyn Pizza with Meatballs, San Marzano Tomato Sauce and Mozzarella

Crust is usually what makes a pizza. Here it is the meatball. The meatball of my dreams. Intensely meaty, with robust beefy flavor and the unmistakable sweet backnote of pork. The meatball is so powerful that it easily takes center stage, with the mild tomato sauce, rather undercharred crust, and delightfully greasy mozzarella taking the backseat. This pizza is the ideal balance between low brown indulgence and high-end artisan product.

Trio of Pasta with Ravioli Del Plin, Potato Gnocchi, and Paccheri with Tripe

The coup of the night. The pastas are excellent. The ravioli, filled with artichokes, peas, and Montasio cheese are bright within their creaminess, grassy from the peas. The gnocchi are rich but fluffy, not heavy. The parmesan cream is sharp and nutty at the same time, rich but not unctuous or greasy. This is almost the alfredo of the gnocchi world. The surprise of the night was the tripe. I have never had it before, and this is the ideal way to introduce a tripe virgin to the food. Cooked until tender and falling apart, it was unrecognizable from the delightfully chewy tubes of paccheri noodles. The tripe has a mild, slightly minerally taste that is akin to the deep taste of chicken liver, with a texture more akin to shortribs. Comforting and hearty in a vibrant, bright pomodoro sauce with salty proscuitto, this is a winner. All the pastas are sensational – clearly Kalt’s forte and not to be missed.

Including an incredibly corn gelato, which is the essence of sweet, sunny corn with the most buttery, sweet butterscotch sauce, this was a wonderful meal. The prices here are not cheap, but they are far more reasonable than they would be in Las Vegas or NYC. The care taken with choosing the ingredients is obvious, as is the excellent technique of the cooking itself. Kalt laid himself open to criticism and received none.

Except for the fact that I only go tone meatball on my pizza. Still not over that disappointment.

 *Disclaimer: The PR team paid for my meal and stay. I was not required to write about these experiences and my opinions are my own and unbiased.*

Fornaletto on Urbanspoon