When it comes to Atlantic City casino dining, you can guarantee you will find a steakhouse and an Italian joint in every one of them. After that, it remains pretty traditional, too: Cafes, breakfast and sandwich shops, seafood houses and Asian restaurants and noodle bars.
But once in a great while, casino culinary teams can surprise you. And that’s exactly what the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City does with its latest venture: Sandpiper Coastal Bar & Grill, a true tapas-style restaurant that breaks boundaries and defies traditional casino culinary conventions to offer something truly unique and, most importantly, delicious.
Located in the former Robert’s Steakhouse location, Sandpiper is one of only two true tapas experiences in Atlantic City, the other being Iron Chef Jose Garces’ Amada at Ocean Casino Resort. But unlike Amada, which focuses on traditional Spanish tapas, Sandpiper runs the gamut from flatbreads to sliders to seafood to offer a sharing experience for all palates in a variety of cuisines with an American focus.
Sandpiper was born after Vice President of Food and Beverage Grace Chow and Hard Rock Atlantic City President Joe Lupo and their teams faced a conundrum. When the Hard Rock opened, it opened Council Oak Fish, a departure from Hard Rock’s brand Council Oak Steaks & Seafood forced by the fact that the casino had a contract with Robert’s as the premier steakhouse at the resort.
When Robert’s and Hard Rock came to an agreement to part ways, the Hard Rock was quick to re-brand its signature restaurant to Council Oaks Steaks & Seafood, which not only left a vacant restaurant at Hard Rock but an opportunity to do something fun and exciting.
“We have three fine dining restaurants (Council Oak, Kuro, Il Mulino) and several casual restaurants (Hard Rock Café, Sugar Factory, Fresh Harvest Buffet, YouYou Noodle Bar) along with all of our offerings in our food court area, but we were missing something in the middle,” Chow says. “We wanted something where you can have a nice menu and socialize and take your time, but something that was more affordable and approachable and where you can pop in more frequently.”
Chow, who had experience with small plate restaurants in the past, was quick to suggest a tapas-style eatery.
“I just love that dining style where you share everything and explore all of the different flavors as a group,” she says. “And Joe, who also had experience with small plates before, was all for it. And as we all got together, we decided we wanted a lighter and more refreshing menu with coastal items like ceviche and poke and tacos … lighthearted items that are fun. We didn’t want this place to be too serious.”
So Sandpiper Coastal Bar & Grill was born, offering diners inventive, fun dishes with amazing, fresh ingredients and gorgeous plating in an atmosphere that is bright and inviting. It’s a perfect place to take a date, have a bite before and after a concert, or bring a group of people and explore the whole menu.
If you ever dined at Robert’s, you know that the former steakhouse was quite a gorgeous restaurant. Hard Rock knew the restaurant had good bones, and instead of doing a massive renovation, Sandpiper retains Robert’s already stunning layout and replaced the once modern, dark steakhouse feel with a brighter, shore theme.
The front of the restaurant features a massive bar and lounge area, while the back invites diners in with its plush banquettes – all reupholstered – new hightop tables, cool artwork and a new faux wood tree surrounded by circular seating that serves as the centerpiece of the entire restaurant.
“The restaurant already had great functionality and beauty,” Chow says. “Even the kitchen was amazing, so we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel here. It was about finding a new color scheme and making some improvements to match the menu and freshen things up. The colors have a very aquatic, oceanic feel. When you walk in, there is a beautiful mermaid mural, and I think that sets the tone for the whole place, while the new hightops bring it all together to make it feel like a more communal restaurant.”
In the future, Chow says Sandpiper will take advantage of the existing private dining room surrounded by stunning wine walls.
“We wanted to get Sandpiper open and operating efficiently before we start using that beautiful room and even expanding on the wine offerings that we can store in the wine wall. We certainly plan to take advantage of that area.”
Sandpiper’s menu came together quite interestingly as Chow and the entire food and beverage department had their hands in its creation.
“The original menu was a collaboration between a lot of the chefs on property, including Executive Chef David Spero and all of our chefs from Kuro and Council Oak and, of course, (Executive Pastry Chef) Thaddeus DuBois,” Chow says. “Everyone from all of their kitchens created dishes. It really was a team effort. They enjoyed the playful challenge of it. Our culinary team is very collaborative, and Sandpiper is probably the biggest example of that.”
Sandpiper’s menu will be very fluid with constant changes that will come sporadically and not like most restaurants that have giant, seasonal menu changes. And overseeing the restaurant and those constant changes is Sandpiper Executive Chef John Zaitoun (see sidebar), an amazing culinarian who has been handed the reins of Sandpiper to keep it fresh and exciting.
Sandpiper’s menu is broken down to six separate sections – Light & Refreshing, Coastal Bites, Noshes, Flatbreads, Vegetable Lovers and Savory – plus Desserts. And while the names are a clue of what you can expect, you can also expect to be wowed by the creativity and presentations. Each tapas dish comes out looking like a work of art. And with more than 30 dishes coming out of the kitchen, Zaitoun and his team have quite a challenge.
Start with the shrimp ceviche ($16) with onion, cilantro, citrus and sweet potato chips for some crunch and the ahi tuna poke ($18) with sesame, ponzu, pickled Japanese vegetables and wonton chips from the Light & Refreshing portion of the menu before exploring Coastal Bites like the stellar spicy mussels ($17) – perhaps the best mussels in Atlantic City - with a Thai chili broth that is certainly not overly spicy thanks to the sweetness of the broth’s coconut milk; and the shrimp and grits ($18), a taste of the South with creamy cheddar grits, Andouille sausage and creole sauce that are as good as anywhere in town.
On the Nosh side of the menu, all of the dishes are inviting, but we were really impressed with the bacon-wrapped dates ($12) stuffed with gorgonzola cheese, wrapped in Applewood bacon and then smothered in a maple-whiskey glaze; and the Polish kielbasa platter ($16) featuring fresh Polish sausage and homemade cheddar pierogi – who else makes homemade pierogi in South Jersey? – with caramelized onions and sour cream.
“People are really digging the pierogi,” Chow says. “It’s one of those dishes you are scared to put on the menu because everyone likes to compare their mother’s pierogi to yours. But they have been really well received. They are a lot of work because they are made from scratch, but it reminds me of being a kid, and people are just loving it.”
Flatbreads are always hit and miss, but thanks to a collaboration on the dough between DuBois and Spero, Sandpiper’s flatbreads are downright perfect, particularly the grilled flatbread ($16) with super tender beef filet, caramelized onions, mushrooms and fontina cheese with a garlic sauce spread for a tasty, creamy base.
Vegetarians have something to celebrate at Sandpiper, too, with about a half dozen veggie dishes. On the top of the list is the herb ricotta ravioli ($18) served with an arugula pesto and heirloom tomatoes with guanciale, an Italian cured meat that can be left off for those who want to keep the dish meatless. Other popular veggie dishes include the spicy carrots ($16) with morel mushrooms, mascarpone and pecorino; and the tater tots ($10) with truffle pecorino, crème fraiche, chives and sour cream.
The heartier dishes can be found under the Savory category, and good luck not ordering all seven dishes here. But if you need some guidance, you have to get the tenderloin sliders ($16), a mix of beef tenderloin and chuck butchered in house and served with caramelized onions, smoked gouda and garlic aioli on a beautifully soft brioche slider roll; the pork carnitas ($19) with tomatillo sauce, guajillo-honey drizzle, cotija cheese and soft tortillas are as good if not better than any carnitas we had in any Mexican restaurant; the roasted Mojo chicken ($24) comes together nicely thanks to its black bean puree with cilantro crema; and the fried flounder ($26) with lump crab, spinach and scampi sauce.
Do not leave without Dubois’ desserts ($11). We flipped for the warm, glazed pull-apart monkey bread with vanilla bean ice cream; and the cheesecake with lemon crema, summer raspberry and mint salsa, and we can’t wait to go back to check out the Coral Reef Chocolate Brownie Torte with sea salt caramel and the classic flan with citrus salad and sweet grilled brioche.
The monkey bread shows DuBois’ artistic side in a big way as the dish is plated featuring a painted empty egg shell to represent the sandpiper leaving its egg to go to its nest, which is the monkey bread.
Why go to Sandpiper
If you are looking for a truly different culinary experience, Sandipiper is a no-brainer.
“Hopefully we are doing a dish here or there that is different from what you would find elsewhere,” Chow says. “Some things are super safe, and there are a couple of things there that might challenge you and that you want to give a shot. But that’s what’s great about tapas: You order things you know you will love, and then you try something else to mix things up.”