Shrine ★★★ (Superior)
How many in your party? Two, four, five, nine? The more the merrier if you're headed for Shrine in the MGM Grand tower at Foxwoods Casino. Shrine is Party Central by design and in modus operandi. Fun with fun food, Pan-Asia at play. The decor, somewhere between Angkor Wat and Hong Kong skyscraper, is opulent and showy. Shadowy alcoves beckon and faux idols smile enigmatically, but meditation is not on the menu. The latest gotta-hear music is. Recorded live, and in-your-ear, Buddha rocks.
Now hear this: Above the din and beyond the stage setting, Shrine's food shines. I came expecting exotic ingredients and over-the-top presentations (this is a nightclub, after all, and it costs). What I didn't expect was classically grounded innovation, artistry and finesse, not to mention a Chinese laundry list of options. The sushi menu alone lists 49 items plus sushi samplers and pu-pu platters for two, four or six people.
From the first category listed, Nigiri sushi and sashimi, we chose Atlantic salmon, which was fine, and fluke, which was brilliant. Thin strips of almost translucent raw fish on a white china plate looked alluring and tasted as clean and fresh as Arctic air.
With 22 rolls on offer and the whole meal ahead, decision making threatened to take all night. Only Darcy knew exactly what she wanted, so we went with her choice: an appealing version of a California roll called Red Head that justified its name by arriving topped with what looked like a mop of curly red hair. Our waitress assured us that the curly reddish strands were the Korean-chili-spiced crab salad mentioned on the menu. New to me, these crispy, crunchy threads tasted exactly like what they were, shredded fried crab. Addictive as potato chips, they were a perfect foil for the moist, mildly spiced rice roll underneath.
From the "Creative Sashimi" list, I chose for the table: something safe and something more challenging. Predictably, sliced yellowtail was a hit, revved up as it was with more than a splash of sriracha, that fiery Thai sauce you find at so many Asian restaurants.
Sea urchin was another story. It's said to be an acquired taste but the taste, mildly sea-scented and less aggressive than most oysters, is not the problem. What can be off-putting is the texture, which aficionados call creamy and others call oogly. For the curious neophyte, less is more, so I ordered a round of Shrine's "marinated uni spoons." A snippet of sea urchin along with bits of scallion, green apple and grated raw ginger on a tiny china spoon is designed to be consumed in one bite. A quick swish of pleasure for me. My companions were not so sure.
Skewers of white shrimp marinated in coconut milk, chili and Kaffir lime, butterflied and grilled, pleased us all-except Darcy. "Isn't this a little off?" she asked, passing her skewer to me. She was right, sorry to say. Shrine was sorry, too, and the offending crustacean was swiftly replaced with a shrimp as sweetly delicious as ours.
The serving staff is earnest, upbeat, eager to be helpful and well-informed-attractive young women flitting everywhere like a flock of birds. Our bird knew the menu inside out and if queried was prepared to give a tutorial on every ingredient. At Shrine, she explained, dishes may be listed as starters, main courses or sides, but all are suitable for sharing and can be served in any order. Take your pick, say when, use chopsticks or a fork.
We did, ordering at intervals, departing from the sushi menu and returning to it, ordering miso soup in the middle of our meal, romping through starters and mains wherever our fancy led, encountering surprises along the way. Lobster rangoons looked like ordinary fried wontons but when I bit into one, hot, creamy sauce gushed out, filling my mouth with flavor nuances more subtle than the menu (which mentions soy molasses and scallions) led me to expect.
Shrine is pricey but sharing often mitigates the expense. For example, the most expensive item on the menu, Wagyu beef rib-eye at $49, dared us to go for it. Tender, juicy, flavorful, garnished with watercress, onions and shiitake mushrooms, it more than satisfied our urge to splurge. Shared four ways (and there was plenty), it cost $12.50 per person. A taste of the high life without losing your shirt.
Cilantro-crusted salmon with curry pleased us less. The curry sauce was too bland and, for my taste, inordinately sweet. The cilantro distracted from, rather than enhanced, the dish, and the salmon was dry.
East Coast cod proved to be a better choice. Roasted with a glaze of miso, it fell apart in silky flakes and was nicely complemented with a ragout of winter squashes. Tamarind-lacquered spare ribs, spice-rubbed with just a hint of smokiness, were a welcome change from barbecue-joint ribs smothered in gloopy sauce.
Somewhere along the way, we enjoyed a side of wok-fried rice and an avocado salad deconstructed to spotlight two kinds of crab and a dollop of tobiko (flying fish roe).
We didn't need dessert but after a meal of delightful little bites, why not a few more? I may be alone in this, but I look upon dessert as a little gift I give to myself. I loved Shrine's because they were gift-wrapped surprise packages. Even a humble choice like bread pudding arrived dolled up with orange-ginger mousse, marshmallow fluff and a plump ravioli filled and sauced with purple plums. Shrine's banana split consisted of a tempura-fried banana resplendent on a narrow rectangular plate, accompanied by almond and vanilla ice cream and garnished with sweet soy and honey brittle. Dark chocolate cake surprised us with a molten center of milk chocolate, and the green tea crème brûlée hid in its satiny-smooth heart a red bean cake-which I surprised myself by liking very much. Enough to order it again.
When to visit Shrine? When you're looking for a cool way to celebrate a special occasion, when you need a break from reality, when you want to dance the night away. At Shrine, the bar and dance floor are on the first floor. You can eat there but from a limited menu. Full-scale dining is on the second floor, which has a balcony overlooking the action. But upstairs or downstairs, Shrine presents Pan-Asian cuisine with glamour and glitz.
MGM Grand\Foxwoods Casino, Ledyard (860/303-2009)
Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Limited menu served in the bar until closing. Major credit cards. Wheelchair access. Price range: appetizers $5 to $17, entrées $23 to $49 (Wagyu rib-eye), desserts $8 to $10.Shrine, Ledyard