For restaurateurs, opening a new place in a casino isn’t much of a gamble.
“You have a captive audience,” said José Andrés, who has several restaurants in Las Vegas. MGM National Harbor “is full of energy in the air.”
It’s true: Visitors could spend days in the brand-new MGM and never have to step outside. In between their dizzying spells on the sensory-overload casino floor, they can be well clothed in the casino’s stores, well rested in its hotel and well fed in its numerous restaurants, which serve a wide variety of tastes, including sushi burritos, French pastries and exotic seafood. But the three flagship restaurants — Marcus Samuelsson’s Marcus, the eponymous Voltaggio Brothers Steak House and Fish by José Andrés — are tipped toward the decadent. After all, a casino is not a place you come to tell yourself no.
The same goes for the restaurateurs: It’s high stakes and high limits.
“I don’t think the word no was said to us one time for the entire creative process,” said Michael Voltaggio, Maryland’s prodigal son. He returned to his home state from Los Angeles to open the restaurant with his brother, Bryan, whose restaurants include Volt in Frederick and Range in the District. “We dreamed about having a hearth just to make charcoal to feed our grill. And so that whole back wall of ovens is only there to create charcoal out of wood, to shovel into the grill, so we can cook the meat on it.”
Like tens of thousands of other people, we visited the casino Friday, its first full day of operation. And just like a trip across the casino floor, some meals we tried at five sit-down restaurants and the National Market food hall were full of bright lights and excitement, while others were bound to end in disappointment. But if we’re going to find ourselves $100 poorer at the end of the night, we’d rather feed ourselves than feed the slots.
When José Andrés first came to the United States, more than two decades ago, he thought American seafood was far inferior to the crabs and fish he enjoyed in Spain.
“My first impression was always that seafood was always so overcooked,” he said. “And then I realized, when I began cooking it the way I like it, that the seafood was unbelievable.”
Fish is the first American-style seafood-focused place from the prolific restaurateur behind Washington’s Jaleo, Minibar and more. And he’s wholeheartedly embracing his adopted homeland’s traditions — even the ones he took a while to appreciate. Like the way we eat crabs here.
In Spain, “We didn’t put any spice [on crabs], because we were trying to showcase the sweet flavor of the meat,” he said. “So that, in the beginning, shocked me. Over time, I kind of am liking the Old Bay.”
Start your meal with Andrés’s take on an oyster shooter: Oysters from British Columbia are topped with a mound of gin-and-tonic foam. There’s an extensive raw bar, stocked with seafood that lives in tanks behind the chef, including sea urchin, scallops and even geoduck, a type of enormous clam with an appearance that may make you blush. Hush puppies come with squash in the middle and an optional topping of trout roe, which turns them into tiny sweet-and-salty flavor bombs.
The menu is also a chance for Andrés to showcase the commonalities between Spanish and American seafood. The kitchen turns out a lobster jambalaya with a beautiful tableside presentation. “In Spain, we like these soupy rices,” he said. It made him realize “how similar we are.”
His other nods to the South include shrimp and grits with blue corn grits, giving the dish a purple hue. But the menu includes dishes from across the country, from the Memphis barbecue chicken to the New England clam chowder. Andrés pledges to source seafood from as close as possible — he has partnered with Rappahannock for some of his oysters — and to be as sustainable as he can. That’s why you’ll see a whole fried porgy on the menu, “probably one of the most underappreciated fish of the area,” he said. For dessert, Atlantic Beach Pie is one of those dishes that actually looks like what it’s named after: Yogurt-lemon cream spread thin on the plate resembles sand, and the Chantilly cream and the Ritz cracker crumble scooped on top almost look like shells.
Perhaps more than any other restaurant in the complex, this is the place that stands to make you forget you’re in a casino. Naturally, it has a nautical theme, but Fish manages to make rope and netting look sophisticated. Fish sculptures hang from the ceiling, and an undulating, wave-shaped open kitchen with countertop seating lets guests watch the action. Even the servers dress the part, in adorable uniforms with a Mediterranean-meets-Nantucket vibe. (But pity the poor workers who were still breaking in their Sperry boat shoes on opening night; one server complained that the shoes hurt, and another was visibly limping.)
At the riverside entrance to the complex, the 268-seat restaurant also has some of the nicest views of the MGM fountain and the surrounding scenery, In warmer months, it will benefit from its expansive outdoor seating, where Andrés plans to serve local blue crabs once they’re in season. He’ll do them with Old Bay, but he’ll also do them his way, simply boiled in seawater for only three or four minutes.
“I believe nothing beats a boiled crab,” he said. “We’ll have both, and let the best one win.”
301-971-6050. Open Sunday-Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m. Entrees, $14-$48.
Isolated in a lonelier stretch of the casino known as the District, the Voltaggio Brothers Steak House is, in a sense, perfectly situated.
The restaurant is 60 miles or so from the greater Frederick area where Bryan and Michael Voltaggio first raised hell — and first considered a career in the kitchen. The sibling celebrity chefs — Bryan on the East Coast, Michael on the West Coast, the separation mirroring their once-warring ways — have come together for their debut restaurant as collaborators. It’s a steakhouse with a rich, sumptuous family setting, so at odds with what the brothers experienced as latchkey kids in rural Maryland.
You can argue about the wisdom of developing a family-themed restaurant in a casino, where nest eggs and inheritances are frittered away on a regular basis, but the Voltaggio Brothers Steak House is a gorgeous homage to the American nuclear family. The 178-seat space is carved into different home environments: a plush living room with draperies and curvy sky-blue banquettes that look like couches; a spare, artsy dining room outfitted with dish cabinets that look as if they were pulled from Andy Warhol’s house; a playful family room with tufted walls (as if you could bounce off them); a dark and manly library that doubles as the bar; and a country-style kitchen with a giant, custom-made grill from the Washington-based Grillworks.
Even the menus resemble family scrapbooks, complete with black-and-white photos of the chefs as towheaded boys, pictures that were curated by their mother. The overall effect, as Bryan Voltaggio notes, encourages diners to see the old D.C. steakhouse concept through a new lens: Steakhouse = Steak / House.
The chefs, of course, have put their own modernist spins on classic steakhouse dishes. The standard wedge salad — a pyramid of iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing, bacon and chopped tomatoes — has been re-engineered into a horizontal presentation with ranch dressing, pickled onions, Gorgonzola “snow” and tomato jam. It looks like it was left outside during a blizzard; its visual appeal is matched by its flavors, the sweet-tart tomato jam cutting through the buttermilk richness.
The bigeye tuna is only “pretending to be Steak Tartar [sic],” the menu announces. Big, meaty pieces of sushi-grade tuna are dressed with capers, cornichons, shallots, chives and olive oil, then placed under a wavy crisp that’s topped with little dollops of emulsified egg. The flavor-packed preparation threatens to overwhelm the more refined pleasures of the fish, but you’ll probably need to devour the entire dish to be sure.
The Voltaggios source their beef from Pat LaFrieda, the respected New Jersey-based meat wholesaler. Steaks are available under three headings: 45-day dry-aged USDA prime, American Wagyu and plain ol’ USDA prime (!). Prices reflect the provenance of the meat (and the surroundings in which they’re served).
The $56 bone-in rib-eye, cooked a beautifully bruised shade of medium-rare, lacked the extra char we requested, but it packed all the dense, mineral-forward flavors you expect from dry-aged beef. The $50 prime filet mignon was lightly seasoned, almost under-seasoned, until you began to understand the logic of chef de cuisine Cole Dickinson’s approach: The cut had such delicate flavor that he didn’t want to overwhelm it with salt. Both steaks were paired with a dehydrated, flash-fried piece of tendon, rich and airy, the pork rind of the beef universe.
This is a steakhouse whose pleasures are not limited to beef. The Maine lobster is no steamed specimen with drawn butter but a Thai-style crustacean topped with blue crab and paired with a tom kha emulsion, whose fragrant notes of galangal and lemon grass work splendidly with the sweet lobster. The cacio e pepe offers a comforting blanket of pecorino cheese before setting it ablaze with its many twists of freshly cracked black pepper. Even the sides venture beyond the standard fare, including the “umami cereal,” a toothsome gruel of shiitake mushrooms, steel-cut oats and mushroom dashi. It’s 50 shades of flavor.
Three sommeliers roamed the floor Friday night, and ours selected a bottle of pinot from Bergstrom Wines in Oregon, a spicy, black-cherry-forward juice that proved surprisingly versatile. The classics cocktail list covers a lot of ground, too, from a light and citrusy Milk Punch to a dark, brown and brooding Madison. The dessert list, designed by the Voltaggios and Dickinson, still feels like a work in progress, high on technique but low on a sweet, satisfying finish.
301-971-6060. Open Sunday-Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m. Entrees, $28-$120.
Need any reminder of who the big-name celebrity chef is at MGM National Harbor’s only 24/7 restaurant?
Just look up at the sign out front: Marcus.
It’s the Washington-area debut restaurant from the New-York-by-way-of-Sweden-by-way-of-Ethiopia chef Marcus Samuelsson, who made a name for himself as executive chef at Aquavit in Manhattan and then through his own Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster.
His signature is all over the menu, which blends favorites from his other eateries, including the fried yardbird and Helga’s meatballs and pasta (the latter named for his Swedish grandmother), and new dishes that incorporate Maryland ingredients and culinary traditions.
The bottom line: “For me, comfort has to be the star,” Samuelsson said.
Homey appeal prompted us to order the deviled eggs as a starter. But the trio seemed to lack the spice of its promised Hot Terp Sauce (not the only item named in an apparent bid for local cred; see: Wild Go Go wings, Uniontown soup, etc.). The chips of duck salami added a bit of smoky flavor, but mostly we tasted mustard.
Some of the best dishes tip a respectful nod to Ethiopia, where Samuelsson was born. “Maya’s warm beef tartare” featured coarsely chopped meat laced with berbere, zesty yet not overpoweringly spicy. The dish will make you a believer in injera chips, served with regular crostini for scooping. Samuelsson injects his “muffin top pot pie” — no actual muffin, but rather a puff pastry crust — with a similar African accent. The stewy, fragrant filling of chicken, liver, egg, carrots and potatoes is just right for a cold winter’s day.
In Sweden, Samuelsson didn’t grow up with fried chicken, but you wouldn’t know it judging from the trademark yardbird. The skin is textbook crisp — chicken brittle, if you will — and the meat benefits from a buttermilk brine that includes more Ethiopian spices. The accompanying mashed potatoes are ethereally fluffy and rich, a much better accessory than the sweet, congealed mace gravy that also shares the plate.
As to the a la carte sides, the collards, waffling between sweet and bitter, were gritty — more thorough rinsing, please! The Jamaican cowpeas came out underdone and chalky, though the zippy tomato sauce was on the right track.
Vegetarians will appreciate the red cabbage “steak,” a slab of charred brassica that works best when swiped through the red wine beet “jus” and combined with a mouthful of chewy farro and lightly pickled mushrooms.
The Dunbar chocolate cake (that naming again) doesn’t suffer for the fact that it looks nothing like a fluffy layer cake. Instead, it’s a thin, crispy plank redolent with hazelnuts and topped with boozy cherries and clouds of salted caramel mousse. Seconds, anyone?
Marcus is an attractive space that seats about 200 diners in a variety of zones, which include a patio overlooking the resort’s atrium, a bar and seating near the open kitchen. The decor is just as biographical as the food, with African textiles taking up one wall above the French-brasserie-style dining room and a display of the chef’s on-point wardrobe.
“It’s a very personal endeavor,” Samuelsson said of the project. And it shows.
301-971-6010. Open 24 hours daily. Entrees, $21-$85.
I had just ordered our first dish — a Sichuan dan dan noodle soup — when the waitress at Ginger stopped me. She smiled sheepishly and informed the table that she wasn’t familiar with the menu yet. The rest of our order would need to involve menu pages and an index finger for pointing.
“We’ll work through it together,” she promised, percolating with equal amounts of enthusiasm and hope. Our interactions quickly turned into a kind of improv skit, right in the middle of this sleek, minimalist 181-seat dining room located just off the large atrium known as the Conservatory.
The waitress wasn’t the only one who seemed to be learning the menu on the fly. The kitchen forgot components for two of the four dishes we ordered during a midafternoon meal at the pan-Asian restaurant developed by a team of chefs from MGM Resorts’ properties in Las Vegas. Yes, the missing ingredients are probably symptomatic of opening-day jitters, but still: When you’re paying $25 for Panang curry and $22 for bibimbap, you’d like to get the entire dish, right?
Our Cantonese roast duck ($28 for a half-duck) was supposed to arrive with plum sauce, cashews and Chinese pickles. What we got was an oval plate of lacquered, skin-on bird parts — and nothing else. Perhaps the kitchen was so focused on roasting the perfect duck that it lost sight of the other elements. The bird was decently rendered, leaving a semi-crispy skin clinging to the moist flesh, but it was also salty enough to incite a water-chugging contest at the table.
The dolsot bibimbap — Ginger’s attempt at Korean cooking — was served in the requisite sizzling pot, designed to crisp up the rice at the bottom of the bowl. The crunchy rice was nonexistent, as were the kimchi and the gochujang, the last a fermented soybean-and-chili paste that ties the entire dish together. Without the spicy condiment, the bibimbap was little more than a random assembly of ingredients, dry and lifeless. When we were several bites in, the waitress brought us a small tray of Sriracha and chili sauce, the restaurant’s substitute for gochujang.
“We’re basically a Chinese restaurant,” she said as explanation for the missing Korean condiment.
That may be an honest assessment of the kitchen’s focus, but the menu promises a far deeper dive into Asian cookery. Thai, Vietnamese and Korean dishes are available to every poor soul who approaches Ginger’s host stand, unaware that the restaurant’s pan-Asian facade conceals a Chinese soul. Our chicken Panang curry seemed to confirm the idea that they don’t understand Thai cuisine: Its red curry paste was sweetened with lychees, and the dish came without rice.
We were told rice would cost extra.
301-971-6030. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Entrees, $16-$268.
Restaurants driven by celebrity chefs may provide buzz for the casino, but one look at the floor plan will show you where MGM expects most customers to fuel up between rounds of blackjack or video poker: The Tap Sports Bar has a capacity of 422, which is more than the number of people who can fit into Marcus Samuelsson’s Marcus and the Voltaggio Brothers Steak House combined. And although Tap accepts reservations, it was the only restaurant welcoming walk-in customers on opening night.
If you’ve been to an upscale sports bar, you already have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Tap: 95 TVs, ranging from “large” to “wall-sized,” are hung at every angle so fans don’t have to miss a minute of any game, no matter where they’re seated. The large central bar has a solid list of 48 predominantly craft beers on draft, with Flying Dog, DC Brau and other local brewers alongside Stone and Dogfish Head IPAs. (Most pints are $8-$9; all beers can be “upgraded” to a 20-ounce mug for an extra $3.) It’s not just all for hopheads: Two taps are given over to cocktails, including a lemonade spiked with Cruzan rum. The look is vaguely industrial: warehouse-style windows, Edison bulbs, pressed-tin panels. Still, it’s hard to forget you’re at MGM, thanks to the large windows looking out on a rows of video slots.
Tap clearly has aspirations beyond sports bar fare: The signature “grind” burger is a mix of chuck, brisket and short rib, topped with bacon and Gorgonzola and served on a pretzel roll; the nachos, smothered in smoked cheddar, jack cheese, pico de gallo and avocado, fine on their own, can be ordered with smoked-brisket chili or garlic achiote chicken. (The menu also includes some items that are available elsewhere in the resort, including Pappas crab balls and crab cakes.) Then again, when the bartender was asked for advice navigating the appetizers, he recommended the chicken wings made with mumbo sauce, the sweet-and-sticky condiment that’s a fixture at D.C. carryouts. Tangy and gently smoky, the sauce redeemed the slightly dry wings — which came out of the kitchen suspiciously fast — and was more than a match for crispy fries dusted with salty crab spice.
Whether basketball games or video poker machines, though, you can stare at screens for only so long. The rear of Tap, decorated with framed Nationals and Johns Hopkins jerseys and other sports memorabilia, holds foosball tables, a pair of shuffleboard tables and, presumably to prevent injuries, magnetic darts more suitable for a children’s party.
One of Tap’s most promising assets is its patio, which overlooks the Potomac Plaza fountain and has views of National Harbor and Alexandria beyond. The outdoor bar and all-weather couches and chairs look like a nice place to hang out when spring returns, though the real draw will probably be the bocce court, corn hole sets and beer pong table. By Memorial Day, getting a seat at the outdoor bar might even be harder than scoring a prime reservation at Marcus.
301-971-6040. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Entrees, $14-$72.
Bellagio Patisserie occupies prime real estate in the resort’s conservatory, and you’d be well served to be drawn in by its attractive display case. The croissants — try the pain au chocolat ($4.50)— somehow manage to be flaky and not at all doughy despite their size-of-your-head proportions. Come late morning, additional pastries make their way into the shop. The raspberry Chambord cake ($6.50) is a pleasantly mouth-puckering mousse-and-sponge concoction that tastes as good as its red-glazed looks. A thin wall of chocolate around the dessert completes the perfect picture.
In the National Market food hall:
● Honey’s is the only stand at the National Market food hall that’s open for breakfast. If you’re looking for something with a bit of protein, go for the Farmer Boy sandwich ($7), a relatively well-rounded combination of runny-yolk eggs, bacon and white American cheese on a squishy roll. A honey-mustard mayo contributes an appreciated bit of zing. You’ll feel at least marginally better about eating this sandwich rather than a doughnut; a cinnamon cake round was soggy and not much to write home about.
● Bento is MGM’s play for the one of the year’s biggest trends: Here’s where you’ll find your Instagrammable sushi burritos. We opted instead for a sushi bowl with tuna, salmon and yellowtail atop a bowl of nicely seasoned rice ($24). One word of caution to the food stall: With long waits at the counters, some vendors gave out buzzers when a person’s order was up, but Bento writes a description of the diner on their ticket. I was wearing red lipstick, so my receipt said “red lips” — which didn’t bother me, but come on, restaurants get in trouble for this all the time! Bento should opt for the buzzers.
● District Deli, with subway tile and chalkboard menus, is an unfussy place to get a beer and a pastrami or turkey sandwich. We particularly liked the smoked-beef sandwich ($12.50), whose fattiness is offset by a spicy giardiniera and sharp provolone on a soft sesame roll.
●Baltimore’s Pappas Crab Cakes received national attention last year after Oprah Winfrey named them one of her “favorite things,” which may explain why dozens of people were willing to wait almost 20 minutes just to order a sandwich or platter. But if Oprah is truly a crab cake aficionado, she’d think twice about recommending the flabby offerings at the Pappas outpost here. The sandwich ($19) arrived with a heavy smear of tartar sauce, and the jumbo lumps tasted as if they’d spent more time in a freezer than in the Chesapeake Bay.