On a recent Wednesday, sitting at the bar at the excellent new location of Village Whiskey at Revel, I found myself awash in a feeling I tend not to experience in Atlantic City all that often: relaxation. It was kind of weird.
I’m no Situation. I don’t hit the G.T.L. trifecta before going out to get my proverbial swerve on at the A.C. clubs. I don’t drink the fluorescent-green “Dude” flavor of vodka from Three Olives. (Yes, it’s an actual bottling, and it looks like either Gatorade or a urine sample.) But still, whenever I’m in Atlantic City, I tend to find a surge of electricity buzzing through my body; it’s like an energy-based contact high. And while it’s great for a while, it tends to wear thin after a night.
Which is all to say that my time at the bar at Village Whiskey was a most unexpected sort of enjoyable. Not that it’s a low-energy place—quite the opposite. All the new Jose Garces outposts at Revel, in fact, have found a remarkable balance between the comfortable, the honest and the exciting. In other words, they have kept their souls and retained the core of what’s made them so successful in Philly, even in translation.
This is no easy trick. Anyone who has dined at big-name chefs’ casino restaurants knows that it’s a hit-or-miss proposition. At their best, they offer guests a chance to experience a bit of the magic that garnered their namesake chefs such acclaim in the first place, albeit often in a significantly bigger format. At their worst, they are poorly veiled excuses for restaurateurs to capitalize on their hard-earned reputations without having to deliver nearly the same quality they did in their original locations. (For instance, the last time I ate in an Atlantic City celeb-chef showcase, I couldn’t shed myself of the feeling that I was being shaken down: The food was plenty enjoyable, but between the outrageous prices and the constantly darting eyes of the managers and servers, always on the lookout for a more important table, I felt less like a welcome guest than some sort of anthropomorphic ATM.)
I think a lot of the success of the three Jose Garces enterprises to find their way to Revel—Village Whiskey, Amada and Distrito, the latter with a Guapos Tacos truck adjacent to it, twinkling in its technicolor beer-cap suit—is thanks to the nature of the organization itself. Over the years, Garces has remained the same soft-spoken, approachable person he was in the beginning. Iron Chef is a title he wears as lightly as a linen suit. That sort of humility impacts everyone within the company, from management to floor staff to the kitchen itself. And in the process, it leads to employees who seem genuinely at ease.
When I asked Maureen behind the bar at Village Whiskey how business had been since Labor Day, she told me that it’s been quiet as expected, but that she was OK with that; it was a nice break from the craziness of the holiday weekend. But then, unbidden, she started to sing the praises of the organization, to say how much she enjoyed working there. That’s not the sort of Formica-like response you expect to encounter at the hot new A.C. casino. (Actually, I’ve found that Revel has more soul than you’d expect, and even with its architectural grandeur and visually stunning design, it manages to feel far more intimate than its sheer scale would imply.) Her candor, her deeply felt humanity, seems to me to be of a sort with what I know of Garces and his team, starting here in Philadelphia
And the food at Revel worked just as well as it does here in Philly; all the little details have made it across the bridge unaffected. Herb-lifted cherry tomatoes in their mason jar with sides of house-whipped ricotta and gently glistening crostini at Whiskey; lima and fava bean salad all bright and taut in its warm vinaigrette at Amada; ropa vieja tacos, tender and spicy-sweet at Distrito. All these dishes have retained exactly what makes this food so memorable here—balance, clear flavors and a sense of proportion.
Cynical as this shore-ambivalent critic tends to be, I’ve been won over by these new locations, and without reservation. What a great thing to discover.
500 Boardwalk, Atlantic City, N.J., 855.348.0500. revelresorts.com
Guapos Tacos is the latest entry into what has become an unexpectedly robust food-truck scene in our fair city, and, with its pedigree—Jose Garces does street food in a truck!—the popular hit everyone predicted.
Garces Trading Company's wine boutique is the first and only one of its kind in the state established by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, and a concept that’s stirred up a ton of resentment among Philadelphia restaurateurs this year.
Freshly minted as the Next Iron Chef, Jose Garces talks tattoos, garden parties and the most expensive mango he's ever eaten. "I have to admit that it just plain feels great!”
PW's Taste of Philly 2014