There are plenty of celebrity chefs in Atlantic City. Heck, Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa’s roster alone is impressive. But of all of the Iron Chefs and TV personalities that people deservedly flock to, the gold standard is Wolfgang Puck.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has followed Puck’s amazing career — some say he’s the first celebrity chef; others say he revolutionized the cooking industry with his bold, innovative style — that Wolfgang Puck American Grille in Borgata remains one of the best restaurants in the city even though it opened six years ago.
While Puck’s names and recipes certainly make the restaurant what it is, a big reason for the American Grille’s success is Executive Chef Aram Mardigian, a Puck prodigy from upstate New York who worked with the great chef on the West Coast and other locations before settling at Borgata since its inception.
“When I first moved to California, I knew good food from local restaurants and my family, but I didn’t grasp the whole thing until I got out there and worked with Wolfgang and saw with my own two eyes how important it was to use ingredients at peak flavor in the right season,” says Mardigian, who says he’s “half Italian, half Armenian.” “That was the biggest impression on me. And I don’t think any other way now. When new seasons come, I can’t wait to throw away the old season. Equally important is just watching Wolfgang and how passionate he is. It’s really unbelievable. He never stops. When he’s here he is on the line cooking and sweating with us and then he’s talking to guests in the dining room. If that doesn’t rub off on you, something is wrong. It rubbed off on me, and it has been amazing. “
Puck and Mardigian are like a match made in heaven. Both cherish classic American cooking but love to add international influences to every dish, resulting in layers of flavor worth exploring.
“I think that I have been fortunate enough to learn so many different types of cuisine,” Mardigian says. “My family background was the start, and then working with Wolfgang really opened my eyes. I think the American Grille concept just works because I always say, ‘What’s more American than serving a Chinese dish or us doing European food?’ That is America. It’s everything. It’s such a cool concept because it lets me do anything really. We have no boundaries.”
The beauty of Wolfgang Puck American Grille, overseen by superb General Manager David Evers, is that it’s really two restaurants in one. The Tavern, located at the front of the restaurant, offers a casual experience with a bar, open pizza kitchen with wood-burning ovens, large flat-screen TVs and a more approachable menu. The Dining Room is a more upscale dining experience with a warm design scheme, hardwood floors, fireplace, glass wine cases and even some private booths that features glass with images of Puck burned into them.
The casual part of the restaurant is open for lunch and dinner and features a less expensive menu. Longtime favorites include homemade truffled potato chips topped with Maytag blue cheese and chives ($12); creamy clam chowder ($9) with smoked bacon and house-made crackers, which is one of the best in the city; pizzas, such as the smoked salmon ($24) with red onions, dill cream, chives and salmon caviar, or the spicy lamb chorizo pizza ($16) with tomatoes, goat cheese, white onion and cilantro, are worth the trip alone; ricotta gnocchi with spicy Italian sausage Bolognese ($22) also stand out as the best gnocchi you will find in the city; and the prime burger ($17) with onion marmalade, Vermont cheddar, mayo and house-made pickles rocks.
But there are items that didn’t appear on the menu since Day 1 worth trying: spicy tuna tartare ($22) cooled down by avocado, cucumbers and crisp wontons; lasagna Bolognese ($24) layered with spinach pasta, Bechemel sauce and three cheeses; and the grilled ribeye ($45), which features peppercorn sauce, blue cheese Hollandaise and french fries.
“I have so much fun on the casual side,” Mardigian says. “Right now I am making pastrami that I am brining and looking forward to it being done because the guests love it in the Tavern.”
The dining room features a gourmet menu that consistently changes with the season. Must-try starters include roasted veal-filled agnolotti pasta ($19) with a natural veal sauce, sage and parmesan Reggiano cheese; sautéed Maryland crab cakes ($34) with horseradish flan, avocado, baby greens, remoulade and tomato glaze; and roasted beet and goat cheese Napoleon ($16) with toasted hazelnuts, citrus vinaigrette and old balsamic vinegar.
Current entrees worth checking out include early autumn risotto ($38) with shrimp and Kabocha squash with scallions and ginger; pan-roasted organic chicken ($31) with seasonal veggies, Yukon Gold potato puree and rosemary garlic sauce; oven-roasted pork chop ($42) with caramelized pork belly, braised red cabbage, Calvados-glazed apple, goat cheese potato puree and apple compote; and their version of surf and turf, pan-roasted wild Atlantic swordfish with braised beef ($39), celery root puree, short rib, wild mushrooms, Brussel sprouts, pickled onions and mushroom foam.
“The dining room may be a little more of a fine dining experience, but it’s not pretentious,” Mardigian says. “It’s very comfortable, and we make fun, good, delicious food for both the Tavern and the Dining Room. That’s what makes it a great experience. You can come in and sit in front and have a bite and watch the game, or you can have a great gourmet meal in the back. I can make a casual dish in the Tavern and then turn around and create an intricate fish dish or lamb or pork chop with an upscale edge to it. I think I am fortunate to be able to do that every day.”
Desserts, such as banana crème brulee with caramelized bananas and double-chocolate biscotti, 15-layer carrot cake, apple strudel with rum raisins and 50 Bean vanilla ice cream and Valrhona chocolate soufflé with hazelnut ice cream are all delicious — and made in house.
Mardigian, like Puck, has a style that revolves around the seasons.
“We always have two soups and two pastas and they change with the seasons, like the other dishes,” Mardigian says. “Right now, we are doing a minestrone autumn soup with root vegetables and orzo and Reggiano cheese, as well as a pumpkin soup with Kabocha squash. Our pastas right now have wild mushrooms, but in the summer had tomatoes and zucchini. And we always have steak, chicken and pork chops, but in the fall we use the most amazing root vegetables such as celery root and baby turnips. It’s exciting to play around with all of that. We make everything from our own pasta to our sauces to our own desserts to our own marshmallows as a garnish.”
Mardigian may have made a name for himself in Atlantic City with his creative dishes and great personality, but he still knows who’s the boss.
“There is nothing better than when Wolfgang comes in and tells me he likes something,” Mardigian says. “But when he doesn’t like something, that’s OK, too, because it’s a learning experience. I love it here. I couldn’t be happier.”
Oktoberfest at Wolfgang Puck American Grille
While many local restaurants offer their own versions of Oktoberfest, Wolfgang Puck American Grille’s Oktoberfest is offered Sundays and Mondays through the football season. And a big reason for that is Executive Chef Aram Mardigian’s love — and expertise — of all things sausage.
“Sausage is my thing,” Mardigian says. “It is well known in the company that I am the sausage guy, and I just love making them. I made them at every restaurant I have ever been at. So here it was a no-brainer.”
Although Mardigian is always making sausage year-round at Borgata, for football season, guests can try five different choices every Sunday and Monday. Diners can choose two links for $19 that are served with house-made pretzel, braised cabbage and three mustards. Current choices are Polish-style kielbasa with garlic and marjoram; spicy Italian with fennel seeds and chili flakes; bratwurst with herbs and lemon zest; lamb chorizo with garlic and cilantro; and chicken sun-dried tomato with basil and parmesan cheese.
If sausages aren’t your thing, Wolfgang Puck currently offers a special Oktoberfest menu with German specialties.