Paragon at Foxwoods, Foxwoods Casino, Mashantucket, CT

I’ve noticed that I have some peculiar eating habits. For instance, not many things please me more than a cold drink and a plate of tacos with nary more than protein and sauce, or a grilled hot dog, or a thin griddled burger in a squishy bun. Roadside food. Stand food. My other favorite thing happens to be high-end, experimental, ballsy restaurants with wine lists that casually pair the latest overpriced Kenwood bastardization with bottles of 1998 Haut Brion Pessac-Léognan for the low, low price of $1,745, and with menu items that pop out on the page with crazy combinations and chemistry. I’ve noticed that not a whole lot in between catches my eye. But I don’t see myself as an elitist in any respect, for at the two ends of the tier, both seem to have the most consistency in style, quality, and presentation despite their distinct differences in price.
With this philosophy in mind, we decided to make reservations at Paragon, Foxwood’s elite dining experience for concert-goers like us or players who happen to have a lucky night. Paragon boasted a clever menu with local highlights, an extensive wine list, and a killer Facebook page with drool-worthy photos of their ever-changing ingredients in a few “behind the scenes” peeks. The unfortunate reality of casino fare is that there doesn’t seem to be a good medium in between the omnipresent collegiate buffet and the priciest of fancy restaurants. To give you a realistic idea of our options for our night at Foxwoods, it was either Paragon or California Pizza Kitchen. This doesn’t give enough options to the patrons who want something a little nicer than family-style pizza yet who aren’t too enthused to drop a ton of money on fine dining.
However, Paragon seemed to be the only fine restaurant in Foxwoods that really toes the line with its cuisine. While its atmosphere is distinctly similar to a Nordstrom Cafe Bistro with light jazz wafting over salad and a staid, simple decor, its menu is full of unique twists on New England classics, such as a lobster bisque with a bourbon vanilla float, and a double-wrapped lobster roll with a Thai dip. While we did notice a huge discrepancy in the pricing, like $50 for a prawn dish and a lobster dish but $25 for one steak dish and roasted duck, we reasoned that if we ordered carefully, we’d be able to experience the full spectrum of dishes and keep the price under $200 for two with a bottle of wine.
The dinner menu wasn’t the only thing with significant pricing outliers. The wine list was grossly overpriced. Of course, in a casino, one expects to see a few big hitters just like one goes to a film with the expectation of seeing a few big movie stars. Both are also hideously expensive. It is a fact that simply comes with the territory and one that I was fine with. But since I hadn’t counted cards or hit it big on the tables that evening, I wasn’t about to spring for something over $100 and didn’t expect there to be such a huge block of wines toward the $300+ range. In this respect, the wine list at Paragon faltered in my opinion. I am neither inclined nor experienced enough to pick out a reliable Californian wine for a reasonable price without gambling a bit, which limited me to the Old World reds, red being because I saw the groan-worthy 2006 Schmitt-Söhne “Relax” Riesling in its chlorinated blue bottle for $36 and never looked back. The European reds varied from $36-55 and $95-$5,500 with little in between for neither cheaping out nor splurging. Since I wasn’t ready to give up my next semester of college for a few bottles of $5,500 2006 DRC Romanée-Conti, I went for a comparable Burgundy, a 2007 Bouchard Père et Fils Reserve Bourgogne. A delicious, if unobtrusive and somewhat mid-tier selection that paired well with our meal, but didn’t really wow me.
We started off our meal with a selection of breads and a complimentary amuse-bouche of tempura chicken in a lemon sauce. This was tasty, with my experience marred only due to my recent revulsion to all things yellow and liquified with our recent acquisition of a kitten, but was a crunchy, well-prepared piece of meat in a zesty sauce. A one-noted flavor, but sadly better than most of the Chinese foods in the Western Massachusetts area. It was impossible to tell whether or not the bread was baked in house or if it was simply a standard of all the restaurants at Foxwoods, but it was plain on its own and improved by the lemon sauce and provided butter. Even David Burke Prime has its own special house bread.
Wait service ranges from friendly to lacking. When we arrived at five, the time of our reservations, the restaurant still seemed to be in the throes of opening up. Nobody attended to us for about seven minutes, by which point a line of about six or so people had formed behind us. We also encountered a distinct lack in etiquette while being served. For instance, when we were ordering our appetizers, I chose to try the Tastes of Paragon sampler and my companion, the oyster selection. None of the specials piqued our interest until we overheard another server at the table next to us reciting the specials, including one that ours had neglected to mention. When we inquired about this particular dish to our server, she merely shrugged and said she forgot about it and walked away without an apology. Throughout the duration of the meal, she was flustered and quiet after her mistake, rather than letting it be and continuing in a friendly manner. This was a serious point of contention with us, as the restaurant had conveyed an attitude of prestige, politesse, and precision. The appetizers arrived quickly, served in white bisque porcelain dishes of various shapes and sizes. The special, a soft shell crab with a black bean and bacon vinaigrette was especially delicious, with a crispy tempura battered shell and a wonderful sauce accompanying it. The sauce, which was acidic and smoky, did not impart a whole lot of black bean into its flavor, but did complement the fried crab with its texture and flavor. The bacon was cut in thick and chewy meat treats throughout the dish, and highlighted the light batter and the tender crab meat. This was a generous and innovative appetizer.
The appetizer tasting definitely seemed like a hit or miss operation. On Paragon’s Facebook page, they posted a photograph from early in July of one of their Tastes of Paragon selections, consisting of “crunchy cumin crusted veal meatball “grinder” with buffalo mozzarella, sriracha brown butter béarnaise, and lettuce, pan-fried goat cheese with black truffle vinaigrette, mangalista ham and grilled cheese, and ahi poki with Wagyu beef Singapore noodles.” Perhaps because we were in the early bird time frame, with 5 o’clock reservations, the chef mistakenly thought we would not be open to rich and exciting tastes, as I was brought out a shrimp scampi in a garlic butter sauce, a Kobe short rib in a lemongrass glaze topped with scallions, and a piece of crispy salmon in a saffron aioli with wakame salad. All were served in a shallow dish with depressions for each appetizer. It resembled a high-end dog bowl. Each of these appetizers were lacking in one way or another. The shrimp was cooked perfectly with a butter sauce, but seemed more like “Tastes of Mediocre Italian” than Tastes of Paragon and was banal, despite being well-prepared. This was our favorite bite of the three. The Kobe short rib was tender and moist, but stringy in some parts, particularly the middle, and the sauce was glutenous and bland. The salmon was the only bite that I did not have the inclination to finish. It was not crispy, but rather, overcooked and tough. Each bite crumbled and seized unpleasantly. There was nothing flaky about the texture. The wakame dominated the bite with a salty, pickled flavor and the aioli, though golden-hued, tasted like nothing more than a heavy-handed application of mustard and mayonnaise. I could not detect the earthiness of saffron in the slightest. None of the sauces were tasty enough to smear on the leftover bread.
After our appetizers, we were promptly served our entrees. I was in the mood for steak before Steely Dan that evening and went slightly against the grain of my preferences, ordering an imperial Wagyu ribeye, in the Australian carpetbag style with a Tasso ham, oyster, and mushroom sauté over a sriracha brown butter béarnaise. When this arrived, I was under the assumption that there had been a typo in the menu and that the topping really consisted of Tasso ham and oyster mushrooms, as there did not seem to be any oysters in the dish. They were not, as the carpetbag preparation entails, stuffed into the steak. After some poking around the topping, I found two oysters, one small and one medium-sized, mixed in with the sauté. They were tender but scarce.
The preparation of the steak was partially my fault. I was caught off guard when ordering, thinking about the wine that would later arrive, and mistakenly stuttered that I wanted a medium er, rare steak. I received medium, though not at the fault of the kitchen. The steak was seared well with a lovely, thick crust and was tender and evenly cooked. The sriracha brown butter béarnaise was the tastiest part of the dish. It had a mélange of elements, all well-balanced and complimentary with each component of the dish. I particularly liked the harmony in between the sweet nuttiness of the brown butter and the slight kick of heat at the end from the sriracha. The topping fell a little short of my expectations, as the Tasso ham seemed to be replaced with more of the thick cut bacon from the tempura crab dish. In the interest of full disclosure, regular readers will know that I did not eat the mushrooms, though tolerated them on my plate.
My companion ordered the cumin crusted duck breast with a kumquat relish, spelt, and rashers. The presentation was colorful and varied in flavor, but there were some aspects of the dish that were too glaringly flawed to ignore. We both agreed that duck prepared in a fine dining setting ought to be erring toward the rare side. This was tough, dry, and overcooked. Serving it in unwieldy and large slices did not help. The flavor of the duck was tempered by the kumquat relish, a spicy-sweet medley of fruits and spices. It was moist and crisp with a wonderful blend of Asian flavors. The spelt underneath was firm and yielding but was, again, studded with the thick pieces of bacon that we’d come to know and, at this stage in the meal, avoid. This was the third dish to feature yet another incarnation of bacon. Though one would assume that bacon by any other name- many, many other names; Tasso ham, wooly pig bacon, rashers, would taste just as sweet, it implied to us that the chef had simply gotten a very good deal on bacon that week.
After the hit or miss savory selections, we weren’t too keen on ordering dessert. My gluttonous side relented when I saw the peanut butter cheesecake with peanut praline shortbread, banana, and bacon gelato, despite being baconed out by the end of the meal. My lovely companion opted to finish her evening with a gin and tonic and in retrospect, I wish I had done the same. The one dish where we really counted on and desired the influence of bacon in the flavors did not have any bacon in it at all. The gelato was a blandly pedestrian vanilla and the cheesecake, largely consumed by the neat military rows of banana slices flanking from all sides. The “crust” was two small squares of flavorless shortbread kitty-cornered and topped with raspberries. Without the salinity of the meat, this was a dessert that ached with sweetness. The combination of rich, sugary cheesecake with bananas reminded me of the peanut butter, banana and cream cheese sandwiches my dad used to make me as a child, of course, forgoing the $12 premium. A huge disappointment.
You’ll notice that these photos aren’t up to the quality of my regular ones. When we arrived at the restaurant, I realized that I had forgotten the memory card to the camera at home. I was initially upset because I thought that my photos would come out badly due to not having the camera. But after the meal, I realized that adding the price of the $40 memory card for the sole purpose of documenting this meal would have been an insult in itself. The truth is, Paragon was probably one of the better dining options at Foxwoods. This is probably largely in part due to the positive reviews it has received. Had I seen a critical assessment like my own, I would not have come at all. And for its price, which came out to around $200 as we predicted, we appreciated the innovation of the menu and atmosphere of the restaurant. But when a restaurant believes that it can slack simply because it knows that people will come regardless of service on the presumption that it’s better than Fuddrucker’s, it presents a noticeable decline in quality from the standard of fine dining that eaters and guests like us are used to. It pales in comparison to far more modest restaurants and for its hype, does not deliver.

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