Izakaya brings the Japanese pub to A.C.

Michael Schulson is a celebrity chef and star of Style Network’s hit show “Pantry Raid. ” The show takes people who are too busy or clueless to fare well in the kitchen and teaches them to make a decent meal. The cooking-challenged become gourmet chefs and change the way they think about preparing food. I may have to entreat Schulson to pay me a home visit: As much as I love to consume, I don’t have much patience in the kitchen. Nah, I’ll just continue my favorite sport of dining out.

To that end, I decided to check out his new restaurant, Izakaya, in the Borgata in Atlantic City.

Schulson got his start at The Culinary Institute of America and interned at the Park Avenue Cafe under culinary legend David Burke. Schulson’s credentials include working with a number of premier chefs including Laurent Manrique of Philadelphia’s Le Bec-Fin.

In 2006, after extensive experience working with top chefs, Schulson realized he was ready for the challenge of his lifetime and opened the highly anticipated Asian-fusion restaurant Buddakan NYC as the executive chef.

To expand his knowledge, Schulson did a stint at the Four Seasons Hotel in Tokyo, as well as at Spago. While in Asia, he attended the renowned Chang Mai cooking school in Thailand. “When I was in Japan, I used to go out to eat with the chefs from the Four Seasons and the izakayas — the local pubs — were the only places the chefs would go. They were cooler, hipper, trendier places with really, really good food.”

Back in the U.S., Schulson worked with Susanna Foo at her eponymous Philadelphia flagship before accepting the executive-chef position at Pod (Hi, Eric!), where he designed and executed the restaurant’s wildly popular pan-Asian menu. Most recently, he served as the debut executive chef for Buddakan in New York City’s Chelsea Market.

Izakaya showcases Schulson’s own “really, really good food” and his extraordinary culinary knowledge in a space he hopes will be “fun, not stuffy or uptight.”

The trip to Izakaya starts with a walk over a glass bridge — no water underneath, but sleek black pebbles. It is cool and dark and definitely transports you out of the casino environment. The front room, where I dined, is chic and sleek and, with its black walls and towering ceilings, reminded me a little of Jetsons-meets-Memoirs-of-a-Geisha in a large underground cavern. (I like all three, so I was happy.) Brannen L. Brock, of Alvarez-Brock Design, created the decor. “We took very common Asian elements and interpreted them in a modern way,” said Brock. “Things like the traditional Japanese teahouse, the geisha, the Japanese pagoda, the screens.” The back room, which is a little more subdued, features a 20-foot screen adorned with gold-leaf patterns based on Japanese designs and a carved-wood sushi bar, all created exclusively for Izakaya.

We started our meal with the edamame dumplings ($10) from the hot section of the menu. The menu is split up into simple sections: Hot, Cold, Meat, Fish, Sides and Specialty Rolls. The only one that might require a definition is the robatayaki sections, but more about that later. The dumplings were served in a flat glass bowl/plate that looked like a flying saucer, which reinforced the Jetsons theme for me. Made with edamame and shallots in sweet sake, the dumplings were delightfully light and appetizing. My dinner companion remarked that she normally didn’t care for dumplings as they were usually too heavy for her taste, but said she would order these again. In fact, they were one of her favorites of the night.

The next thing on the menu for us, also from the hot section, was the red miso-glazed eggplant ($8). This was my favorite, and I found myself defending the plate with my chopsticks throughout the night. Beautifully seared squares of red eggplant were cooked perfectly, in delicate contrast with crispy tofu topped with Thai basil.

We also had the crab fritters ($12), a specialty of the day, with jumbo lump crabmeat tempura with garlic aioli. These were a little on the hush-puppy side with the batter, so I wasn’t as crazy about this dish. However, the garlic sauce was delicious.

In the rolls section, we had the king crab California roll ($16) and the rainbow roll ($21). Though the dishes at Izakaya are supposed to be served family-style, they failed to mention they’re huge portions! The California roll was a jumbo affair that required a forklift rather than chopsticks. I’ve been accused of having a big mouth, but even I couldn’t handle this in one bite. The rainbow roll was more manageable, with a combination of crab, tuna, yellowtail, salmon, shrimp and whitefish.

I had a small carafe of Yuri Masamune Diaginjo sake ($14) to help me with the rolls and it did the trick. Izakaya has an extensive wine menu and over 20 types of sake at the all-glass sake bar. Particularly appetizing were the green-tea sake martini and the sake sangria, but as I had a long drive back to the city, I put it off for another time.

Instead, we indulged in some of the items from the robatayaki section of the menu. Robatayaki is the practice of grilling skewered foods over charcoal. Supposedly, robatayaki originated hundreds of years ago among Japanese fishermen, who would grill their catch on the boat and then share the food with neighboring fishermen, passing it around on wooden oars. In Japanese, “ro” means fireplace and “bata” means around, or surrounding. We started with the lobster ($15), succulent skewers served with crispy shallots. Instead of a lemon wedge, the lobster was served with lemon vinaigrette. We also sampled the Kobe beef skewers ($14). My dining companion favored the lobster while I enjoyed the beef, which was dressed with an apricot mustard and topped with micro cilantro.

Since these were smaller portions, we forged ahead and ordered the crispy whole snapper ($32). I’ve mentioned before that I’m not crazy about my food looking back at me, no matter how good it is, so I was a little nervous about how whole the whole snapper would be. However, it was delicately presented with the front half neatly shorn and the back of the fish still attached, but nice enough for me to handle. The snapper was light and fresh in a ponzu sauce with cilantro on top of spinach and topped with a ginger and leek salad. A good choice to share.

We wrapped up the evening with the desserts. I had the flourless chocolate cake ($12), crunchy on the outside and gooey inside. It was beautifully presented, topped with a tofu crisp and a side of sake ice cream balanced on shortbread crumbles and a ribbon of green-tea foam.

My dining companion ordered the tempura banana split ($10), four fingers of banana baked in tempura batter, drizzled with caramel and served with a trio of ice cream atop crushed cashews. The trio consisted of green tea, vanilla ginger and pineapple ice cream, and I have to confess to eating most of the pineapple.

My dining companion works in the industry and wanted me to make sure I mentioned the lovely linens on the table. I’m not that girly, but they were nice.