People ask all of the time, "What is your favorite restaurant in Atlantic City?" One of my common answers: "Izakaya." Then they ask, "Who has the best sushi?" My answer: "Izakaya."
That's because Izakaya is versatile. So consistent. So creative. It's anything and everything a diner would want it to be. But it's always a culinary adventure, whether pleasing diners who are a little hesitant to try new things or tempting palates with creations you probably never experienced before.
That's because Michael Schulson remains one of the most creative and ambitious chefs in Atlantic City and Philadelphia. As creator, partner and chef of Izakaya: A Modern Japanese Pub, Schulson reinvents Asian cuisine through modern techniques for the American palate without losing reference for the style all of his food is based upon.
And five years after opening at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, it's not only one of the best restaurants in Atlantic City, it's better than it has ever been.
"We are clicking and humming," says Schulson, who owns two other restaurants outside of Atlantic City (see sidebar below). "When we first opened, small plates in Atlantic City was kind of new and I remember trying to convince people that it's OK if all the plates don't come at once and you share and you have a good time eating. Plus, no one knew what Izakaya was. They thought it was only Japanese and raw fish. But now, they realize they can come in here and have fried chicken or steak and potatoes or tempura or a great salad. It's an adventure."
Schulson, a stellar chef who once served as executive chef of Stephen Starr's Buddakan, knew he was on to something when he conceptualized Izakaya. The modern restaurant features a DJ spinning an eclectic playlist of music in a dining room that features a dark color scheme and open kitchens where people can see meats and seafood grilled Robatayaki-style and chefs making sushi to order. With a bar in the center of the action, oversized leather furniture throughout the dining room and just an overall cool vibe, Izakaya has an energy unlike any other restaurant in Atlantic City. It's a truly unique experience you won't find in most cities around the nation.
"It used to be where people went to a movie and dinner," Schulson says. "Now people are just going to dinner and want that to be their adventure. When you go to most restaurants, you get one appetizer and an entree. That's not fun. The great thing about Izakaya is that a table for two can have eight dishes that are totally different in flavor, that are fun and unique. You might not love all eight, but you'll love seven and like the eighth. When you go to other restaurants and you order two things, what happens when you don't like one? It's a bad experience. That doesn't happen here."
Since opening, Izakaya has established signature dishes that are hard not to order, including edamame dumplings ($10) with sweet sake, shallots and truffle; crispy rock shrimp ($13) with chili, pickled radish and endive; the spicy tuna cracker ($14) with scallion, jalapeno and nori; Robatayaki-grilled items such as Kobe beef ($14) with apricot mustard and cilantro and lamb chops ($14) with citrus panko and yakatori; and entrees such as Peking duck breast ($27) with hoisin caramel, scallion and pickled cucumber; broiled Chilean sea bass ($28) with clams, miso broth and udon noodles; and a wide array of fresh sashimi and sushi ranging from Baby Dragon ($16) with spicy tuna, salmon, cucumber and avocado to Kobe tataki ($23) with avocado, sun-dried tomato and asparagus to soft shell shrimp ($16) with avocado, cucumber, scallion and spicy shallot.
"Whether it's rock shrimp or Kobe beef satay, you're making it 10 times or 10,000 times; by the time you hit the 10,000th time, you should know how to make it," Schulson says. "And that's why I think we're humming right now. Most of our back of the house has been there since Day 1. I think people like fun and whimsical food, and the tuna cracker is a perfect example. People like the crispness of the rice cracker and the creamy tuna which has that consistency because it's been chopped and chopped for a half an hour and then has spicy aioli folded into it. At this point, there are some things I will not dare take off the menu. But I think that's great. You want them craving your edamame dumpling or whatever to lure them back in to try other things."
But there also have been more recent additions that have people raving. The cheesesteak dumplings ($12) have become a phenomenon. Equally scrumptious are the pork buns ($13), pork belly coated and fried and placed in a Chinese bun with lettuce, spicy sauce and pickled cucumber. Octopus ($8) with miso, tomato jam and arugula, as well as the beef short ribs ($12) with BBQ sauce and kimchee have been added on the Robatayaki menu. And entrees such as the Kobe beef steak ($42) with caramelized onions, provolone and crisp potato and the seared diver scallops from Barnegat Light ($29) with lobster risotto and edamame have become staples.
"We don't take shortcuts," Schulson says. "The beef short ribs, for example, are sliced paper thin on a slicer then make like a Korean barbecue with our own barbecue sauce and our own kimchee. The cheesesteak dumplings have beef short ribs that are cured then braised for six hours. We shred them by hand and caramelize the onions and add the beef back in there with some sherry vinegar and the provolone and let it all melt together. We put some liquid back in and put them in the dumpling and fry them. It's a lot of work, but worth it."
Even the desserts are water-cooler talk worthy, including the S'more tart ($9) with Oreo crust, marshmallow and peanut crunch; and the latest creation, Cripsy Rice Sushi Roll ($9) which is homemade vanilla ice cream wrapped inside a sushi wrap made of Rice Krispies, peanut butter and chocolate chips with a caramel and chocolate crust.
"(Executive Chef ) Brian (Perry), who is awesome, loves making desserts and he came up with this one, which is just amazing," Schulson says.
Unlike some chef-branded restaurants where the chefs are not present often, Schulson says his presence at Izakaya is crucial to its success.
"We make it all happen together," Schulson says. "I am there all of the time. If I am there on a Monday, I might even pop back on Tuesday. It's my home. It's 50 minutes away from Philadelphia, where I live, and it's the same clientele. At the end of the day, it's my brand and I want to make sure it's right. I have to be ultimately responsible even though I know I have a great staff. When I am walking down the street in Atlantic City or Philadelphia, they say, "Hey it's Michael Schulson from Izakaya." It's an association. Hopefully, its not guilty by association and is more than success by association."
Other Michael Schulson Concepts
Located at 124 S. 13th St., in Philadelphia, Sampan is similar to Izakaya in concept with some unique dishes and minus the sushi. Popular dishes include a BBQ pork bun with spicy shallots and pickled cucumber and its wok dishes, including beef short rib with lo mein. It is open daily for dinner. "Sampan is on fire," Schulson says. "I think we're in a good spot because we're three years old and it's hitting its stride." Call 215-732-3501.
St. James Place
Schulson expanded to the Main Line last year to open St. James Place in the renovated Suburban Square shopping center on St. James Street in Ardmore. It's Schulson's first non-Asian concept and offers an American bistro and grill with everything from French onion soup to the signature chicken pot pie to spaghetti and meatballs. "It's pretty traditional by my standards, Schulson says. "The idea is to offer good, affordable food that is similar to the food I grew up with." A pot pie will cost 16 bucks because I want people to come in two or three times a week. It's more of a family spot early in the evening and then turns into an adult spot later. Call 610-649-6200.