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Chef Romeo DiBona takes Ocean Casino Resort's American Cut to the top

Chef Romeo DiBona takes Ocean Casino Resort's American Cut to the top

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If there is anyone who knows their way around a steakhouse, it’s Romeo DiBona.

The South Philly native has been working in Atlantic City casino restaurants – particularly steakhouses – since 1989, including Nero’s at Caesars Atlantic City, and Old Homestead Steak House at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, where he served as executive chef for more than 16 years before opening his own restaurant in Somers Point, which recently closed.

One of the reasons for the closing was DiBona got an offer he couldn’t refuse: To return to the casino world and helm the kitchen at the stunning American Cut at Ocean Casino Resort.

DiBona’s talent for running a steakhouse goes back to his Philly roots, where instead of emulating his grandmother’s pasta dishes like most Italian-Americans do, DiBona was influenced by his father, who would grill on their small lawn … even in 4 feet of snow.

“My father loved to grill,” DiBona says. “I think that’s what drew me to steakhouses … I like the fire and the flame and the sizzle.”

And the food and beverage team at Ocean Casino Resort likes DiBona’s passion for the sizzle, including new Senior Vice President of Food and Beverage Warren Richards.

“We thought bringing Romeo aboard would elevate the restaurant and take it where it should be,” Richards says. “Romeo will do wonders with the menu, and he has already started. I want to see this menu move with the seasons and the availability of great ingredients and for Romeo to use his existing relationships with purveyors and local farmers and anyone you can think of to bring American Cut to that next level.”

DiBona already adding new dishes

DiBona already started adding his culinary magic to the menu even though he has only been there for a few weeks.

“This is just comfortable for me,” DiBona says. “I feel at home here already.”

DiBona’s new dishes include bringing in giant, fist-sized U-4 shrimp that will soon be added to American Cut’s seafood tower; double smoked bacon ($16), perfectly rendered and served in a crispy block glazed with honey mustard and thyme served atop acorn squash puree that is one of the best pork belly dishes in recent memory; the baked clams ($18) are littlenecks stuffed with piquillo peppers, diced chorizo and a scrumptious poblano cream for about as good a clams casino offering you will find at the shore; the new house steak sauce returns to the more traditional tomato-based, horseradish style with some brown sugar for sweetness; and new sides ($12) include Brussels sprouts with bacon, pine nuts and balsamic drizzle, and roasted asparagus with garlic confit.

But DiBona is careful to make sure he sets new standards at American Cut instead of copying himself and his Old Homestead dishes. A good example is his giant, 10-ounce Wagyu meatball ($22). Yes, DiBona had a meatball – made from his grandmother’s recipe — that is completely different at American Cut than what he offered at Homestead. At Cut, the meatball has prosciutto and roasted mini peppers and is served with fontina cheese instead of mascarpone.

“We don’t want to reinvent the whole menu at once,” DiBona says. “We want to do it gradually. We will add some more sides because everything is green right now, so we are thinking maybe some whole-roasted cabbages and cauliflower. A tomato and mozzarella salad will come soon, and we will make our own mozzarella. And when tomatoes are out of season, we will use roasted peppers.”

Richards agrees: “With COVID restrictions, the menu was pared back slightly, so we are probably offering about 80 percent of the menu right now. That not only allows us to focus on the things we do really well and execute on those, but it will give Romeo that 20 percent of the menu to experiment with and to start putting things back that are his own. You will see the menu back to 100 percent in 60 days.”

Commitment to steaks

American Cut’s commitment to its steaks is evident by the fact it gives diners a choice between wet-aged and dry-aged options, something you don’t see very often. DiBona prefers the wet-aged style, which offers diners more mild flavors and juicy steaks including 8- and 12-ounce filets ($49, $58), a 14-ounce bone in filet ($62) with bone marrow butter, and a 14-ounce, Prime N.Y. strip ($52). For those looking for that funky, dry-aged style, American Cut’s signature 40-ounce Tomahawk Chop ($130) for two is the way to go, but the 40-ounce porterhouse ($120) and 20-ounce bone-in ribeye ($59) are awesome choices as they are all dry-aged at least 30 days.

For those looking for some real indulgence, check out the Japanese A5 Kagoshima Wagyu (5 ounces for $150), which DiBona says goes through a scientific, snow-aged process that blew the chef’s mind. The process is inspired by the 200-year-old technique that uses the snow in the “snow country” region of Niigata to preserve and store and age their produce. The Wagyu is aged for 30 days in a Yukimuro-style storage. The meat becomes tender and moist as the oxygen breaks down the fibers while the taste becomes more mellow and rich as the proteins are broken down, releasing more free amino acids that give rise to a more pronounced umami.

Other meats include a free-range chicken ($31) with garlic and lemon butter, rack of lamb ($54) with charcuterie sauce, and roasted pork chop ($34) from Sukura Farms, which specializes in Wagyu beef in Ohio.

“I think one of the things that I really want to expand on is our Japanese beef program,” Richards says. “The problem is Las Vegas and New York buys it all, and it’s difficult to compete with that. But I am hoping to use some relationships to make that happen. I am also going to challenge Romeo to come up with one or two cuts that no one else has in the city that differentiates us from the rest. I want them to have that great plate appeal but also taste damn good!”

Where to start

Aside from a robust raw bar that includes the obligatory seafood towers and tuna royale ($19) a flavorful dish featuring layers of sweet-chili-glazed tuna, avocado, sesame and cracker, there are just six appetizers, including DiBona’s previously noted, new creations plus Baked DJB Oysters ($22), a wonderfully inventive play on Oysters Rockefeller with champagne, black truffle and a fontina fondue that will have you slurping the oysters hoping for more of the cheesy goodness; Baltimore crab cake ($21) with smoked onion remoulade and Charleston slaw; and Maine lobster bisque ($18).

Salads include the signature OG 1924 Hotel Caesar ($14); burrata ($18) with buttermilk, tart cherry and frisee; a stellar steak knife wedge ($17) with bacon and cherry tomatoes and one of the best homemade blue cheese dressings on the planet; and a chopped ($15) with red wine vinaigrette.

Maintaining an Iron Chef’s vision

American Cut has been one of the city’s top steakhouses since Iron Chef Marc Forgione brought his concept to Revel. And although Forgione is no longer involved, American Cut has been able to maintain its fine reputation thanks to its commitment to quality food and, of course, stellar service.

A big part of that success is longtime General Manager Randy Richardson, his new Assistant Manager Mike Taati and a dedicated team of service staff. They include Michael Fagan of “Waiter Nation” fame, who along with a slew of industry veterans – many whom worked at Old Homestead at one point – give American Cut that old-school, “Cheers” feel where everybody knows your name.

At the same time, American Cut’s stylish décor with black leather and walls of wine, views of the boardwalk and ocean, gorgeous bar and adjacent raw bar, make this a true modern steakhouse.

American Cut’s future

“I was familiar with the American Cut brand before I came here,” Richards says. “And when I first saw it in person it kind of broke my heart because I thought, ‘Wow! What an incredible venue in terms of energy and interiors and vibe and we can only offer 25 percent capacity.’ I can’t wait to see it at 100 percent when people are coming in before or after a show at Ovation Hall and the energy of the bar is electric. So I have a huge amount of anticipation to what American Cut can be when we come out of COVID because I feel like it hasn’t nearly met its full potential. With Romeo here and Randy and his team constantly working to improve service and me concentrating on digging into the wine list and improving that and the whole cocktail experience, I can’t wait to see what the future of American Cut looks like.

“In the end, I want American Cut to be the most successful steakhouse in the city, not just in terms of following but how they feel when they leave here. It’s like when you go to Disney you know you won’t feel like that until you go back, and that’s what we are trying to do here and everywhere else in the building. When you leave American Cut, you won’t have that same feeling (or) that great experience until you come back here.”

As for DiBona, he’s glad to be back in the kitchen of a casino steakhouse.

“I feel great,” DiBona says. “I am here at a property that I know is just going to explode! People are going to look at us and say, ‘Wow, what just happened? With the great people that I have surrounding me and the ideas that are floating around, I know that I am somewhere special.”

The specialty cocktails are named after famous rock songs like the Hey Jealousy ($16) with Hendricks gin, fresh sour, mint, cucumber and a touch of black pepper; the Maria Maria ($17) boasts Patron Anejo, Averna, honey syrup, jalapeno and Fever Tree ginger beer; and the Smoke on the Water ($22), a smoked old-fashioned with Woodford Reserve and orange bitters is prepared by cart service (when COVID restrictions are lifted) where cedar is fired tableside to smoke the glass. Perfection.

American Cut is one of the few steakhouses in the city to boast its own pastry chef, and Satoko Kakinohana has a lot of fun with dessert ($10) such as the nostalgic cookies and milkshake featuring double-chunk chocolate chip cookies baked to order with a small vanilla shake to wash them down; homemade ice creams and sorbet that change regularly; S’more cake with toasted marshmallow; cheesecake with crème fraiche and passion pineapple sorbet; and key lime pie with toasted meringue, blackberry jam coconut sorbet and coconut graham cracker crust. But the Crackerjack sundae with caramel popcorn, peanut brittle and popcorn ice cream is reason to start your meal with dessert so you don’t run out of room.

American Cut’s Happy Hour, offered 5 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays, and 4 to 6 p.m. Fridays, is an absolute steal with appetizers ranging from $8 to $12 such as dirty fries with bacon, Mama Lil’s peppers and parmesan; chili clams with Sriracha butter emulsion and Texas toast; seared ahi tuna with cucumber and Gochujang aioli; crab, spinach and artichoke dip with grilled pita and beef brisket sliders with JD onions and creamy horseradish. Cocktails, wine and beer are also discounted.

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