Jumping in the car to beat rush-hour traffic on Friday afternoons and hitting Atlantic City just in time for happy hour is as routine as ordering Wawa coffee. Once over the bridge, the work week is a thing of the past. And we're betting this holiday weekend won't be any different.
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Still, even the most serious weekend warrior can’t help but miss the comforts of home. It’s one of the main reasons that some of Philadelphia’s top restaurants, places like Buddakan, Amada and Continental, continue to sprout up like sand castles down the shore.
“You can come to Buddakan Atlantic City and experience the great food and service that you’re used to in Philadelphia,” says chef Nery Hernandez, who worked at Continental on 18th and Chestnut before taking over as head chef at Buddakan Atlantic City (both Stephan Starr spots) about a year and a half ago. “We want to give customers the same experience — at the same time, we want to step out of the box a little bit, try something you might not be accustomed to.”
Buddakan has stayed true to its branding and layout — a dimly lit dining room that feels like a tuxedo-wearing Indiana Jones might sneak around the corner at any moment — but the food has a few curveballs.
“Thirty percent of the menu is completely different,” Hernandez says, citing his sesame poached tuna entrée with yuzu aioli.
Chef Jose Garces agrees that familiarity is important. The menus are almost identical at Amada here at home and the Amada in hotel-casino Revel, aside from the “A la Planxa” section, which features the Fermin Iberico Pluma, a rare cut of pork from the black-footed Iberian pig that is flown in fresh twice a week from Spain. Garces wants customers to feel like they are being pampered when they sit down inside the Revel. He calls it destination dining.
“Amada in Philadelphia is a neighborhood restaurant,” Garces says. “Being in a tourist town, Amada in Atlantic City is a destination. “We made sure that if we were going to do it, we were going to do it right and really give people a taste of the Amada that they know and love.”
Apparently, the familiarity hasn’t been lost on patrons. Hernandez says April was his best month since Superstorm Sandy slowed business, and things are continuing to look up.
“The addition of restaurants has definitely helped the city,” he says. “Atlantic City is becoming more of a destination, it’s not just about gambling. The shopping, the entertainment, the food … we see it, it’s working. We can feel it.”
Amada taste test
We were recently invited to a VIP tasting at Amada in Revel and, wow, it lived up to all the hype. From impeccable service to breath-taking views — yes, even the dining room has oceanfront views — it was what we’ve come to expect from Garces. We recommend a wine pairing for the table. If you can only afford one item on the menu, make it the Costillas de Ternera. The dish features beef short ribs intertwined with horseradish and bacon and stacked high with freshly shaved parmesan. It’s both sweet and spicy, and melts in your mouth.
Another Philly chef
Michael Schulson of Sampan, the Asian fusion restaurant in Midtown Village, and Graffiti Bar, the summer hotspot tucked right behind it, also has an Atlantic City presence. He’s the owner and executive chef at the Borgata’s upscale Japanese restaurant, Izakaya. And since everything is connected in Philly: Schulson was chef de cuisine at the first Buddakan.
We were treated to an experimental tasting menu when we showed up to check out his ocean-side offerings at Izakaya, and happily filled up on large chunks of perfectly textured octopus in the Octopus Sashimi Salad, followed by the inventive Inside Out Uni Deviled Egg, featuring a mouthwatering smear of uni (sea urchin). We somehow managed to save room for dessert, a tasting plate of chocolate, peanut butter, marshmallow, heath crunch and pretzel heaven.