Our food critic ate her way through the Encore Boston casino so you don’t have to
EVERETT — It is the most beautiful day of the still-young summer, and I am standing in line with hundreds of other souls hoping to escape the sunshine and fresh air with a visit to the Encore Boston casino. This is opening day, and there are a dozen restaurants waiting inside, beyond the flower carousel and the grandly sweeping escalators and the giant, shiny Jeff Koons statue of Popeye, which casino mogul Steve Wynn purchased for $28 million. This doesn’t feel like Boston. It doesn’t even feel like America. It feels like Casinoland, somewhere between a luxury mall and the Mos Eisley cantina, only more overstimulating.
So, what are we eating?
Encore’s restaurants serve Italian food, shellfish towers, steak, sushi. But at casinos, I always make a beeline for the Chinese restaurants, which cater to high-end gamblers who like to eat pricy live geoduck during baccarat breaks. I’d like to eat pricy live geoduck during a baccarat break, but I’m not that much of a baller. At any rate, I head straight for Red 8 to see what’s what.
The name combines a lucky color and a lucky number, but that doesn’t help me, or the ladies with matching visors, or the recent grad dressed to the nines and wearing her mortarboard: There’s an hourlong wait. Against a backdrop of super-sized Ming-esque vases, women in black lace dresses take our names and numbers.
This means there is enough time for a visit to Oyster Bar, which is an oyster bar. (If only everything in life were so straightforward.) It’s a place you might find anywhere in the city, with oysters and lobsters chilling on ice behind a sleek, U-shaped marble bar. John Ross, formerly of the North End’s Neptune Oyster, is the chef here as well as at next-door spot Waterfront.
On the back wall is a sign with a helpful matrix classifying the oysters by size, salinity, and sweetness. All of the offerings are from New England. There are oyster platters with names like “Dealer’s Choice,” along with crab toast and celery Caesars. People are ordering plates of mini lobster rolls. A guy in a leopard shirt with spiked hair, a gold hoop earring, and sunglasses spoons up clam chowder. At one end of the bar, someone is teaching a heavily tattooed crew how to eat Alaskan king crab claws. “Stevie, how are ya? I’m gonna make some money here today,” someone says to an acquaintance. Everyone is talking to each other, making friends, ordering more oysters, another beer.
The service is attentive and kind, even if it takes quite a while to get my oysters. They come in an enamelware bowl filled with ice: Mookie Blues from Maine, Pearly Whites from Rhode Island, Saquish and Crowes Pasture oysters from Massachusetts. They’re lovely. The wine list is hip-for-a-casino. (Kudos to the rep for Kung Fu Girl Riesling, who is killing it elsewhere in the building.) I drink a glass of Txakolina and have a nice talk with my neighbor, an insomniac who likes to gamble and lives just a few minutes away from this casino that, like him, never sleeps. Pray for the betting folk of Everett, for they will be tested.
Back at Red 8, my table is ready, complete with scenic view: an expanse of slot machines and tables, a crimson carpet covered with bright flowers, elaborate red glass chandeliers. I eat dim sum and handmade noodles called hor fun as machines beep and ka-ching in the background. Pork and chive dumplings are greasy and come with a sweet, bright red dipping sauce. Shrimp balls look nifty paved in toasted almonds, but the nuts are too hard against the springy texture of the shrimp. The handmade hor fun deeply resembles non-handmade chow fun, and the dish needs seasoning; it’s overrun with sprouts. A Chinese woman gives my food the side-eye as she walks past. I’ll be back to try the Peking duck, but I don’t think Red 8 is quite ready to give Winsor Dim Sum a run for its money. Still, the service again goes above and beyond.
There are a few locally owned restaurants inside Encore, a nice gesture given that the casino has further taxed our already labor-strapped hospitality industry. (I have mixed feelings about this. I want the city’s independent restaurants to succeed. I also want workers to have good benefits and salaries, potentially easier to provide with Wynn power.) What Encore doesn’t have is one of the top-tier casino restaurants found in Vegas. How about a little Robuchon, a little Vetri, even a Sadelle’s for Sunday brunch with bagels and lox? What are we, chopped liver? Boston tends to have trouble attracting the big fish: We’re always the Fuku, never the Majordomo.
But we do have Fratelli, from North End restaurateurs Frank DePasquale (Bricco, Mare) and Nick Varano (Strega). This is the first time the two have partnered; the restaurant’s name means “brothers.” Fratelli is one of two Italian restaurants at Encore. There’s also Sinatra, which serves dishes like osso buco “My Way.”
I slide into a booth next to two Everett nonnas out for the evening: “You’ll never guess where I am!” one of them is saying into her phone. A woman eating fried calamari tells her man, “No steak tonight,” so he orders a burger, well done. I’m eating tagliatelle vongole, the pasta cooked perfectly al dente and chock-full of tiny Manila clams. The menu ranges from meatballs with ricotta and goat cheese-stuffed zucchini blossoms to carbonara and Mama’s Homemade Lasagna to chicken parm and short ribs with polenta.
It’s getting later, and the plastic surgery and cold-shoulder dresses are starting to appear. Everyone is wishing each other luck as they head back out to the slots. “Don’t forget me if you win big,” a server calls after some departing women. It wouldn’t take much money for him to open his own bar in Florence. He’ll save them a seat.
The Asian-inspired restaurant Mystique is run by Big Night Entertainment, another local concern, behind Empire, the Scorpion Bar, and more. The hospitality group is also responsible for several Foxwoods restaurants — Shrine, Red Lantern — so it comes to Encore with plenty of casino experience.
Mystique is filled with thumping music; there’s a lounge, and a bar area, and a dining room. In the middle of the action is an open kitchen, where about a dozen cooks are doing their thing. I’m at a freestanding bar surrounded by very pretty, very friendly people. It seems the possibility of losing our collective shirt really brings us together. Before I know it, I’m sharing wings and scallop ceviche with a group that is, alas, too small for us to order the Sir Inks A Lot, a citrus-y potion of vodka, cassis, and lemongrass that serves 10 or more. The wings arrive on a little clay table grill filled with smoldering Japanese charcoal, infusing them with smoky flavor and keeping them hot. The raw scallops are served with apple and shiso, cool and refreshing. Also on the menu: lobster tempura, wagyu beef gyoza, a host of other robata items and raw fish dishes, maki and nigiri sushi, larger plates like miso cod and Singapore street noodles, luxurious steaks, and shareable dishes including Japanese fried chicken and whole roast fish.
I’m sorry to say goodbye to my new friends, the sweet but scattered servers in black corsets, and the dance remix of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that at least Kurt Cobain never had to hear. But once more unto the breach. (It isn’t until hours later that I realize Mystique is named after the Mystic River. It’s sort of like pronouncing Target “tar-jay.”)
There are plenty of other places I might check out. Rare Steakhouse specializes in dry-aged Pat LaFrieda meat and Japanese wagyu. There’s a fancy cafe called Bru with plenty of empty tables, while the line for Dunkin’ snakes down the hall. There’s the nightclub Memoire, but the R3hab show is sold out.
But I think it’s not really a casino visit if you don’t hit the buffet. Encore’s is helpfully called The Buffet ($38.99), and there’s a 2½-hour wait to get in. People are not happy. A man is demanding of the hostess, “Why! There are so many empty tables!” (Two recent trends that haven’t really hit casinos yet: low-alcohol cocktails and white men checking their privilege.)
I put my name on the waitlist. I could go outside for a scenic walk along the Mystic, but I spot a “Game of Thrones” slot machine, so no.
Finally I get a text: “A bounty of scrumptious choices is seconds away. Please return to The Buffet queue to pay, your wait time is approximately 10 minutes.”
It’s not hard to find, a bright green space filled with pillars covered in multihued Dr. Seuss-y blossoms, gaudy floral offerings at an altar to all-you-can-eat. I get in the line, pay, get in another line, and at last I’m in.
The promised land offers many delights, but chief among them may be unlimited crab legs. People are eating them by the plateful. Many crabs died for this casino. A man grabs a huge handful of shrimp and dumps them on his plate. Then he grabs another handful. We are in the “Wharf” area of The Buffet, which also offers wood-fired mussels, grilled salmon, and oysters Rockefeller. There’s American Grill, Far East, Sweets, and more. You’ve got two hours to eat all the prime rib, New York strip, roast turkey, fried chicken, charcuterie, sushi, dumplings, pizza, cheesecake, crème caramel, and ice cream (a dozen flavors!) you want.
I hear a guy next to me describe something he’s eating as “innocuous.” Indeed. Everything here is fine, and there’s a whole lot of it. People will come to Encore to gamble, but I’m betting the place gets a steady clientele just for The Buffet.
As for me, it truly is all I can eat. I’ll come back to Encore for that Peking duck, and to check out Rare and Sinatra. But for now I’m done. Outside, cars keep pulling up to drop off new arrivals. It’s late, and things are just getting started.