Casino File: Small plates the big draw at Hard Rock AC’s Sandpiper Coastal; New Ocean eatery, Makai, debuts
Sandpiper Coastal Bar & Grill has brightened up the Hard Rock space formerly Robert's Steakhouse.Hard Rock Hotel Casino Atlantic City

Casino File: Small plates the big draw at Hard Rock AC’s Sandpiper Coastal; New Ocean eatery, Makai, debuts

Sandpiper Coastal replaces a formal dining room with a casual, upbeat space that serves up a different twist on the tapas concept. Makai brings in a taste of Hawaii.

By definition, “tapas” is the manner by which Spanish cuisine is prepared in small portions to be shared among diners. But that doesn’t mean every tapas outlet is required to hew to that dictate. Case in point: Sandpiper Coastal Bar & Grill, which recently opened its doors at Hard Rock Hotel Casino Atlantic City.

“It’s small plates, but I would say our food is more contemporary American,” offered John Zaitoun who, as Sandpiper Coastal’s executive chef, oversees the eatery’s kitchen.

That distinction is primarily what sets it apart from celibri-chef Jose GarcesAmada, the Spanish-focused, high-end dining room at Ocean Casino Resort that is the first—and only other--Atlantic City gaming-hall tapas outpost.

Sandpiper Coastal—named for the migratory shorebirds that are part-time Jersey Shore residents—replaced Robert’s, which was part of the ultra-luxe—and ultra-pricey-- Manhattan-based steakhouse chain that, since Hard Rock’s 2018 opening, had been the only survivor of the property’s transition from Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort. The deletion of Robert’s from the Rock’s restaurant inventory allowed what had been Council Oak Fish to assume the casino’s steakhouse mantle as Council Oak Steaks & Seafood—which is the brand of the signature eateries at the Hard Rock casinos in Tampa and Hollywood, Fla. That left a gastronomical hole to fill, and thus was born Sandpiper Coastal and its unique-to-AyCee menu.

The bill-of-fare is divided into five categories comprising more than two dozen dishes (not counting dessert; we heartily recommend the sinful monkey bread accompanied by vanilla ice cream): “Light and Refreshing” (e.g. shrimp ceviche, ahi tuna poke); “Noshes” (meat-and-cheese board, kielbasa); “Vegetable Lovers” (grilled asparagus, roasted cauliflower); “Coastal Bites” (clams casino with a sweet underpinning, shrimp and grits) and “Savory” (grilled beef tenderloins, fried flounder). Two types of flatbreads—one featuring grilled beef, the other a vegetarian option—are also available.

Price points range from $11 (guacamole appetizer) to $29 for the grilled beef tenderloin; most items come in between $15 and $20.

There is also a wide variety of adult beverages including specialty cocktails, by-the-glass wines and a selection of mass-marketed and craft beers.

According to Zaitoun, his goal is to have local sourcing and seasonality as Sandpiper’s twin calling cards.

“We just [recently] changed our menu,” he said. “We put up about eight or nine different menu items that kind of brought the fall together. We changed our garden bread to a flatbed with more of those fall ingredients. We have a sweet potato puree instead of your classic marinara sauce. And, we brought in Brussels sprouts with a warm bacon jam and pickled apples.

“We're bringing those fall flavors, and then come springtime, we're going to have another menu come out. So we want to keep changing it by the season for sure, and kind of keep it local and with the flavors of the seasons”

While the room’s layout is essentially the same as Robert’s, there are several significant differences: One major change was the removal of the half-wall that separated the bar/reception area from the dining room, which gives the space a more welcoming vibe. Another is the bit of design hocus-pocus that turned what was a pillar in the main room into a multi-limbed “tree.”

And the plush, design and somewhat formal and subdued atmosphere of the steakhouse has been replaced by a livelier layout accented with colors that suggest a nautical locale. This in turn, provides Sandpiper Coastal an upbeat energy that Robert’s didn’t have.

Ocean debuts Makai

While we’re on a culinary jag, be advised that Ocean has opened the doors to Makai, a casual-dining spot offering breakfast, lunch and dinner with a Pacific Island bent.

Located on the casino level between Topgolf Swing Suites and Amada, Makai—which is Hawaiian for “by the sea” or “toward the sea”--features such lunch and dinner dishes as the Hula Burger (grilled pineapple, teriyaki glaze and bacon on a King’s Hawaiian roll); Makai Seafood Red Curry with mahi mahi, shrimp, scallops, mussels, and sticky rice; Smoked Guava BBQ Pork Ribs with island slaw and Huli Huli Half Chicken with roasted sweet potatoes and grilled pineapple.

The breakfast menu includes traditional fare as well as more exotic items, among them Maitake Mushroom Toast with poached eggs and truffle hollandaise.

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