No one on the planet was more sad to hear that Wolfgang Puck American Grille at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa was closing than I was.
As you might imagine, a food critic gets asked, “What is your favorite restaurant in Atlantic City,” quite often. And my response – without hesitating – was always, “Wolfgang Puck American Grille.”
But after hearing Puck’s longtime Executive Chef Aram Mardigian was remaining at the helm and then eating one of the most fabulous meals ever, my fears are gone: The new American Bar & Grille at Borgata is fabulous … and remains my favorite restaurant in Atlantic City.
Those expecting to be shocked at what they will find with Puck out of the picture will be delighted to see how little has changed. The restaurant received a nice facelift – beautiful new wood flooring, an expanded bar with additional seating and another flat-screen TV, paint, new wine walls replacing aging wine towers and other cosmetic changes – but the essence remains the same.
American Bar & Grille retains that cozy lounge feeling in the front, highlighted by its large bar and the action of the glorious wood-fired pizza oven – and the stacks of wood around the restaurant – along with its more upscale dining room accented by the beautiful, rectangular fireplace and intimate booth seating still enclosed by orange and yellow stained glass, some that has been removed that contained the Iron Chef’s image.
“People really enjoy sitting in the front part of the restaurant because it’s so alive and open to the casino and has this al fresco kind of feeling,” Mardigian says. “There is a great vibe when you sit there. And I think that’s what I love about the design of this place and its menu. It’s really up to the guest what experience they want to have. When you visit, you will receive this warm, welcoming feeling no matter where you sit, but you can have a casual experience or a more fine dining experience. It’s really up to you.”
American Bar & Grille is a stunning restaurant that is only outdone by its stellar service – now headed by veteran General Manager Dan Anderson of Sandi Pointe and Ram’s Head Inn fame – and Mardigian’s food.
Seasonal cooking at its finestIf one thing stands out, it’s that Mardigian remains inspired by Puck while breaking out on his own with some truly great dishes. The focus remains on using the freshest seasonal ingredients from the Garden State in some of the most creative and contemporary American cuisine you will ever taste while never feeling intimidated.
“It’s been a long wait and a long year, and I couldn’t be more excited to finally get our doors open,” Mardigian says. “It’s so exciting to launch and experiment like this, and they basically gave me the keys. They put their trust in me, and we came up with a menu that I think is really special. There is something for everyone, and it’s all based on seasonality, which is something we have always done here for years.”
That seasonal approach to cooking is all over the menu, whether it’s the summer peaches and fresh cucumbers in the bigeye tuna crudo ($17) appetizer with garlic-chili ponzu; the Jersey tomatoes in the summer heirloom tomato salad ($17) with buffalo mozzarella, local basil, red onion and aged balsamic; the roasted zucchini and summer squash ($12) with garlic, tomatoes, parsley, basil and mint – all grown locally – as a side dish; and especially the fish Mardigian offers on the menu, whether it’s the Atlantic salmon ($33) with confit summer Jersey tomatoes, the local New Jersey fluke ($36) with white wine, garlic and lemon sauce and any of the specials he offers, including the first special he prepared at the new restaurant: scallops.
“We found these beautifully big U-10 scallops and decided to simply grill them with an amazing asparagus gremolata that was super simple but just delicious,” says Mardigian, who loves to let the ingredients shine instead of complicating a dish with a convoluted recipe. “I really want to emphasize the grilling part of cooking here at the restaurant because we bought a beautiful new grill before we opened. It was just sitting there for six weeks before opening and I had to keep walking by it, and all I wanted was to just throw some fire in there and start cooking food. And now that we are up and running, I just love using it, especially for a dish like that scallops special.”
Perhaps Mardigian’s most glorious use of seasonal ingredients can be found in his soups ($12). His famous New England clam chowder with smoked bacon and baked cheddar pastry remains a staple on the menu, but the Jersey corn soup is not just the greatest corn soup I ever had the pleasure of eating, but it’s the best soup I ever had. Period. No better soup exists on the planet … and don’t argue with me.
The cream-based soup is good news for those who have dietary restrictions with corn, seeds and similar items because of Mardigian’s technique to strain the skins out of the soup.
“We constantly talk about seasonality and using ingredients in season when they are at their best flavor, and this soup is an example of that,” Mardigian says. “There really isn’t a whole lot going on in the recipe … it’s all about the corn. The Jersey corn is just so sweet, and we just cook it with some white onion and butter and add a little bit of cream and milk and let it simmer for a few hours. Then we puree it really fine and then press it through a china cap (strainer) really strongly to get all of the skins out there, and then you are left with a really nice, sweet puree of the corn. And we do a bit of jalapeno cream (that is not really spicy) on the top to highlight the flavors and give some balance.”
Mardigian is proud of his past, especially his time with Puck, who served as a mentor to him.
“Every chef has their past,” says Mardigian, whose resume includes working for Puck’s acclaimed Spago in Beverly Hills, Calif. “We all have a background, where we studied and traveled and so on. I spent a lot of time working on the West Coast, and I was just blown away by the way the seasonality went into their menus out there and how important that was, and I don’t see any other way of cooking for me, personally. And my staff loves it, too. We are always looking forward to that next season while we are still enjoying the season we are in.”
Stellar pizzaLike its former incarnation, the new American Bar & Grille has amazing pizza ($15 to $17) thanks to its wood-fired oven. And a new dough recipe by Mardigian has made the pizza better than ever.
“I certainly had a lot of time to practice, and I took advantage of that,” says Mardigian, who experimented for the entire menu during COVID shutdowns and reduced capacity while American Bar & Grille was being renovated and conceived. “I must have tried 25 different recipes and I finally came up with a really nice recipe that is a very simple, Neopolitan style with a sourdough starter. We make pizza dough three or four times a week, but most of the magic comes from that oven, which is about 15 years old now. It’s all wood-fired. No gas. And that’s a really special thing. But it’s a pain in the butt to regulate and temper the bottom of it so it doesn’t get too hot and burn the pizza. But it’s worth the effort. We like to have it be at least 575 to 600 degrees when we start service … and there is just no better flavor than what is coming from that wood fire.”
Styles include the traditional margherita with San Marzano tomato sauce, basil and mozzarella; a white veggie style with roasted garlic ricotta, oven-dried tomatoes, eggplant, olives, artichokes and basil; the Butcher’s Pizza with homemade Italian sausage, pepperoni, pulled pork made in house through a long cooking process, shishito peppers and San Marzano tomato sauce; and a Chef’s Pizza, which Mardigian changes weekly.
“We opened with a BBQ shrimp pizza with sweet corn and tomatoes, jalapeno and cilantro, which people loved,” Mardigian says. “But we will have fun with something different every week.”
Get this party startedWhile the pizza, soups and salad are superb ways to start your meal, American Bar & Grille features the kind of menu that has so many great options to start that you never really have to get to the entrée section if you don’t want to.
Other standout appetizers include a fun fried seafood combo of rock shrimp and Ipswich clams ($16) with pickled peppers, Meyer lemon aioli and rocket greens; the aforementioned tuna crudo and homemade sausages; tomato bruschetta ($14) with wood-fired bread, marinated tomatoes and basil aioli; and my favorite, Berkshire Farms pork ribs with house BBQ sauce and homemade cornbread served in a cast-iron pan that is a steal for $15.
“We brine those ribs for 24 hours,” the chef explains. “Then a rub goes on them, and we smoke them for about four or five hours until they are nice and tender. Then when they are ordered we heat them up, add some house-made BBQ sauce and it’s just a matter of technique to get them to the doneness so they come off the bone nicely. And the cornbread just brings it all together. I love the iron skillet, and then we brush it with honey and butter before it hits the table warm.”
Keep it casualThose $15 ribs are an indication of how the Borgata food and beverage staff wants its new creation to be perceived by the public, hoping American Bar & Grille becomes a place people enjoy regularly and not just for special occasions.
“Keeping the pricing approachable is very important to what we do here,” Mardigian says. “I would rather keep prices lower so people can try different things. It’s a chef’s dream for your guests to try as many dishes as they can. That’s the way I like to eat: Order a bunch of stuff, put it all in the middle of the table and share! That sure beats a couple going out and saying, ‘Let’s share an appetizer and an entrée,’ and that’s it because they are worried about spending too much money. Here, order a bunch of stuff and go to town.”
That approachability is everywhere on the American Bar & Grill menu, including its burger ($22), an 8-ounce, mesquite-grilled beauty made with prime meat, topped with aged white cheddar and served with house-cut fries.
If you like pasta, Mardigian has you covered with his rigatoni ($26) that includes the pasta made fresh in house daily topped with a pork and beef Bolognese and fresh ricotta cheese.
The finer sideMardigian’s menu can also show the finer side of his abilities. Both the 16-ounce ribeye steak ($52) with Argentinean chimichurri and the 8-ounce filet mignon with béarnaise sauce are certified Angus beef. The double-cut pork chop ($36) is massive and flavorful thanks to its grilled summer peaches and saba. And the roasted chicken breast ($29) is simple yet extraordinary thanks to its smoked goat cheese tucked under the crispy skin and its pan gravy, a stunning garlic-rosemary sauce.
Mardigian’s favorite entrée is the domestic lamb “Three Ways” ($52) that displays the executive chef’s creativity and mastery of technique: A double chop, which is basically a grilled rack of lamb; a petite ossobuco braised with madeira wine; and smoked sausage, all served with a madeira-olive sauce.
“There are three different cuts of lamb and three different cooking techniques on the plate at the same time,” Mardigian says. “We are showing off a little there with our cooking skills, but it’s interesting for the guest to get three different textures and three different flavors from each piece of lamb.”
Stack up the sides … and don’t forget dessertAmerican Bar & Grill’s seasonality is abundant on the sides menu ($9 to $12). Currently, Mardigian’s favorite is the summer green beans with garlic breadcrumbs and locatelli pecorino cheese, but we were thrilled with the caramelized Jersey corn with achiote aioli, cotija cheese, cilantro and lime; the Nora Mills creamy grits with plenty of sage butter and aged cheddar cheese; and every style of potato imaginable from truffle fries to mashed potatoes to fingerlings with garlic, butter and herbs.
But don’t stress too much on which one you pick: Just choose the trio of sides, where you can have any three for $26.
We are also known for skipping dessert ($12 to $14) because we never have room, but in this case, don’t! Executive Pastry Chef Thomas Vaccaro is one of the best in the city and really shines at American Bar & Grille, particularly the New England caramel cheesecake with rich caramel cream and strawberry caramel sauce; the signature Jersey blueberry tart with sweet crème fraiche, lemon sauce Anglaise and fresh-glazed blueberries; the key lime pie ($12) made with sweet Florida key limes, graham cracker crust, whipped cream and chunky pineapples; and the super sundae with housemade strawberry, vanilla and coffee ice cream, chocolate sauce, Reese’s crunch, whipped cream, amarone cherries and chocolate pearls.
Looking aheadMardigian is absolutely thrilled to have a restaurant he can finally call his own, and his goal is to really showcase American comfort food in an enlightening way.
“American cuisine is not the same as it was 50 years ago,” he says. “We have tuna crudo on the menu, different styles of pizza, and what’s more American than an Italian pasta? The sauces stretch the boundaries like the Argentinean chimichurri on the ribeye and the béarnaise with the filet mignon … globally influenced flavors coming from different parts of the world because that’s what America — and American cuisine — has become.”
And that melting pot is what will keep Mardigian motivated to impress everyone.
“I want this to be a vibrant, fun place people love to come to all of the time for a great meal and to have a great time,” Mardigian says. “And ask for me. I love to come out and meet anyone who wants to meet me. I love to get to know the customers. Ultimately, that makes me a better chef.”