When Chef Joe Muldoon took over The Reserve at Bally’s Atlantic City three years ago, he transformed a tired restaurant concept into a destination steakhouse and restaurant that may have not been as well known as the celebrity-branded and franchise steakhouses in Atlantic City but was as good, if not better.
Now, the talented culinarian is on his own with his first concept, Roberta’s by Joe Muldoon. Named after his mother, the contemporary fusion restaurant with heavy American influences shows the 28-year-old chef at his finest yet as he can finally unleash his creativity in the kitchen at all times instead of pleasing finicky high-rollers.
“The Bally’s crowd was very particular,” Muldoon says. “They wanted the salad bar and the supper club they were used to. But we made a lot of progress there and I think I eventually won them over. I loved it there, and I would have stayed for another two years if I wasn’t approached by Mr. Siganos.”
Mr. Siganos is George Siganos, the entrepreneur and restaurateur who owns concepts up and down the East Coast, including four new eateries at the Tropicana Casino and Resort, as well as the Center Point Plaza in Northfield, where Roberta’s is located. In fact, Siganos first hired Muldoon’s fiancée, Jennifer Galligan, who is the restaurant chef at Siganos’ Casa Taco & Tequila Bar at the Trop.
“It really all comes down to Mr. Siganos’ corporate executive chef Kevin Giunta,” Muldoon explains. “He hooked me up with my job as chef at Di Bruno Brothers in Philadelphia and then introduced me to his brother (Senior Vice President of Nongaming Hotel Operations for Bally’s, Caesars Atlantic City and Showboat Casino-Hotel) Joe at Bally’s. And I think I have made him proud. I owe it all to Kevin.”
Located in the former Gianna’s Café, Roberta’s received a complete makeover with new paint, new artwork depicting classic Atlantic City scenes, new tile around the front counter and oven, plus other new aesthetic features to create a casual, cozy comfortable atmosphere that also includes patio seating for the warmer months.
“It’s not intimidating,” Muldoon says. “It’s very important for people to feel comfortable so they make it their regular restaurant.”
The beauty of Muldoon’s menus is very similar as they feature food that is easily recognizable and comfortable, yet offers enough culinary twists to make dining with him extremely unique and memorable.
Roberta’s is Muldoon’s first lunch venture (see sidebar), but that didn’t change the way he approached cooking.
“I spend just as much time on lunch as I do for dinner,” he says. “We make everything. We roast our own top round for our roast beef, we fry our own chips, cut our own fries and make our own dressings. We don’t skip any steps. And I think people taste the time we put into everything and the ingredients we use. I hand-picked a team of former executive chefs who worked in Atlantic City and jumped on board with me because we are able to really reinvest our interest in actually cooking because of everything we take the time to that. Here, it’s about the cooking.”
Dining at Roberta’s will be similar for fans of Muldoon and a rewarding experience for any newbies.
“I think it’s what people expect from me minus the high-priced steaks and lobster tails,” Muldoon says. “And this is really what a chef wants to do. There’s not much creativity when it comes to steak and lobster.”
That doesn’t mean Muldoon doesn’t have steak. In fact, his current 14-ounce boneless ribeye ($32) served fire-grilled with basted brown butter, roasted wild mushrooms, truffle potato string and parsnip puree shows the work Roberta’s kitchen puts into each dish.
“We are hand-cutting the steaks, then marinating them in herbs and good olive oil,” Muldoon explains. “Then the parsnip puree is halfway made and we work in some fresh mashed potatoes to order. Then we blanch and fry the potato strings to order, the butter needs to be browned and so on. We are not doing 300 dinners, but more like 50 or 60 at a time. Why take half measures? We have the opportunity to do everything right. So why not do it?”
Popular appetizers include homemade ricotta cheese gnocchi ($12) that are light as a pillow. Currently, they are sauteed with summer veggies and brown butter. But the new fall menu will see the gnocchi prepared with toasted pumpkin seeds, pumpkin oil, brown butter, sage, Pecorino Toscano cheese and roasted squash.
“It’s fun to change the menu with the season,” Muldoon says. “The fall is the best time because you still have the summer harvest and all the great Jersey-grown products, but at the same time you’re getting the autumn vegetables.”
Other items on the current menu will change, as well, including the Ahi Tuna Poke ($12) with cucumber, scallions, avocado citrus ponzu and truffle and crispy wonton chips, as well as some of the summer salads and fish dishes.
But items that will probably remain forever include the short rib eggrolls ($10) with braised short ribs and aged cheddar cheese with Pommery mustard dipping sauce; the Ichimi-dusted scallops ($12) pan-fried with brown rice, vanilla crème and Kabayaki drizzle; Roberta’s Crabcakes ($29) with Dijon butter, fennel, orange and arugula salad and white truffle honey; the kobe beef and veal meatloaf ($20) with pork baked with bacon, parmesan cheese and herbs with corn-dusted fried long-stem artichokes, smoked tomato demiglace and whipped potatoes; and Muldoon’s signature sweet and sour calamari ($9) that is finger cut and flash-fried with Mochiko sweet and sour sauce and served with wasabi aioli.
“It’s our No. 1 seller,” Muldoon says. “If there’s one thing they have to come here and try, it’s that. It doesn’t compare to any other calamari they have ever had because it’s finger cut and so extremely tender.”
Other must-try menu items include green tea and wasabi-brined duck breast ($26) with baby bok choy, organic brown rice risotto, candied grapefruit and orange; cilantro-grilled swordfish ($26) with chipotle molasses BBQ sauce, Gran Marnier polenta, and strawberry jalapeno and orange salad; and the roasted beet carpaccio ($9) with red beets, fresh lemon and olive oil, grilled long-stem artichokes, baby arugula and pecorino cheese.
Muldoon is currently rolling out a catering menu that he says is needed in the area, and he will also offer family to-go dinners so people can enjoy his cuisine in the comfort of their home for one low price.
“The catering menu is going to be similar to the Di Bruno menu when I was there,” Muldoon says. “I think it’s something really needed in this area. I want people to know that whether you eat here or take it home or have me cater an event, I put as much time into their food as I do one entrée at a time if they ate here. It’s all about doing it right.”
Despite being only open for a few months, Roberta’s clientele is rapidly growing, which makes Muldoon one happy chef.
“We hit our landmark number of 100 dinners in one night last week,” Muldoon says. “it took a while, but we are building strictly on word of mouth, and it was nice to see familiar faces be part of that landmark number. I think we are building something special here. I think it’s just a perfect situation because Mr. Siganos was happy that he came across someone that shows the same passion as he does for excellence. He has separated himself from the rest, and that’s what I try to do, as well.”
Lunch at Roberta’s by Joe Muldoon
Roberta’s best-kept secret so far might be its spectacular lunch. With everything made from scratch and great attention to detail, it’s one of the freshest, healthiest and best lunch menus on the mainland.
Salads rule with nearly a dozen offerings, including the salmon Oscar ($12) with olive oil, poached salmon brochettes, grilled asparagus, hard-cooked egg, jumbo lump crab, baby spinach and roasted lemon vinaigrette and the goat cheese and toasted almond ($9) with dried cranberries, goat cheese crumbles.
“Salads are our best seller,” says Executive Chef Joe Muldoon. “I just got done making the Thousand Island dressing that is also on our turkey reuben special, and we are also making all of our salad dressings.”
Hot and cold sandwiches include the Southwestern turkey burger ($10) with ground white and dark meat, smoked paprika ketchup, avocado, fresh tomato salsa and fried onions on a Torta Kaiser roll and the black bean burger ($9) with mashed black beans, steamed rice, sautéed peppers and onions, sliced avocado, fresh tomato salsa, smoked paprika ketchup.
“Many of our items are gluten-free, and there are just things that people love like our open-faced tuna melt ($9) with fresh ahi tuna cooked with aged vinegars with capers, tomato and garlic melted Swiss on marble rye,” Muldoon says. “We get the best bread from North Jersey, which is a little more pricey but worth it. And I try to integrate as much high-quality products as possible. The crab we use for the crabcake sandwich ($13) is sweet claw and jumbo lump meat. It’s about quality.”