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The new hot spot: TAO restaurant at Mohegan Sun has hip design, delectable food, tough-to-get reservations

Walking into the new TAO Asian Bistro & Lounge in Mohegan Sun is like entering a different, very cool realm.

You leave the bright lights and hustle-bustle of the Sun behind as you step from the Sky Tower hotel lobby into TAO. If you have dinner reservations, you are greeted at the reception desk and then led through a bar/lounge, where stylish lights hang above low-slung couches. As you step up and over a little bridge, you are surrounded by walls with water running down them. You see, straight ahead of you, the 16-foot-tall statue of Quan Yin, the Buddhist goddess revered by the Chinese, with her multitudinous arms extending around her. Right by the statue is a live koi pond.

You stroll into the dining room, where light is dramatically low, and the music is an upbeat mix of older R&B and funk. You walk through tables filled with customers nibbling on artfully arranged food — sushi or noodles, satay or wontons.

This is TAO, which opened in late March at Mohegan Sun, becoming the sixth site of this patron (and celebrity) magnet.

One word that comes up when most people discuss TAO is “experience” — as in, it’s not just a place to eat, it’s an experience.

Jeff Hamilton, president and general manager of Mohegan Sun, says, “You go in there and you’re immersed. It’s almost like a show within the restaurant, where there’s music and you just kind of lose yourself. You find yourself enjoying the food and the atmosphere, and it’s a situation where you go home and you tell your friends and family and you want to get back … For us, that’s what really drove us (to want it at the Sun). The food is great, the restaurant is beautiful, but it’s so experiential that it becomes a destination. It’s a reason for people to come to Mohegan Sun, outside of all the other great amenities and things we provide.”

For Mohegan Sun to have a TAO is a big deal. TAO is known for being a hip venue and for attracting plenty of celebrities; as just an example, stars ranging from Mariah Carey to Jamie Foxx to Kim Kardashian have been seen at the TAO Asian Bistro in Las Vegas. And TAO usually operates in major cities — Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago.

The one at Mohegan Sun is among the smallest, at about 10,000 square feet and with seating for 300.

“Most of the other TAO properties are very, very large, and they’re awesome; they are jaw-dropping when you walk in because they’re very elaborate and they’re very similar to ours — but ours is a little bit more intimate,” Hamilton says. “So you get that same TAO experience but in a more intimate setting.”

Dishes to die for

The menu at the Sun features TAO’s “greatest hits,” Paul Goldstein, managing partner of TAO Group, says, mentioning the Satay of Chilean Sea Bass, Peking Duck, and homemade dumplings.

“We wanted to give the Mohegan Sun and the Connecticut market a taste of what we do and what has gotten us here, but we also wanted to put a little twist and (have) a couple of unique items,” he says.

In fact, chef Ralph Scamardella, who is also a TAO Group Hospitality partner, created a dish just for Mohegan Sun, a Surf & Turf that boasts a two-pound lobster and a 32-ounce Tomahawk steak that costs $175.

“It’s a big hit. It’s the type of (high-end item) that people buy in casinos,” Goldstein says.

Goldstein’s personal favorite dish is the Peking Duck, which, he notes, is authentic Peking duck, with the crispy skin, pancakes and hoisin sauce.

“Everyone talks about this word fusion — Asian fusion. We like to say we’re authentic. We’re not fusion. Fusion is you’re trying a little French with Chinese, let’s say,” he says. “We are authentic Hong Kong, Chinese, Japanese and Thai, so we span Asia.”

Considering design

Discussing the design of this dining venue, Hamilton notes that what TAO, along with architecture and design firm Rockwell Group, does is make every aspect of the restaurant have a purpose. Everything has a unique element that goes along with the dining experience.

“What happens is you’re waiting for your food and you find yourself looking at the digital map Quan Yin,” he says, referencing the ever-changing digital projections on the large statue, making the figure, for instance, seem to open its eyes and move.

There are also, he adds, “small things like, on the bottom of the chopstick holders, it says, ‘Stolen from TAO,’ for people that throw them in their pocketbook … You get it home, and you say, ‘Oh, my God, look what it says on the bottom!’ Those are just two small examples; it’s kind of entertainment within a dining experience.”

Setting the mood with lighting and music

In terms of the atmosphere, if you sense the lighting or music shifting over the course of a night at TAO, you’re probably right.

“As the night gets later, the lighting gets darker,” Goldstein says. “If people start dancing, the music will get a little bit louder, and the lights will get a little bit dimmer. We want to create that energy. Somebody gets up on a chair, a lot of places, (a person) would run over, ‘Oh, you’re going to hurt yourself, get down.’ We make the music louder — we want everyone getting up on the tables.”

The music might be slower earlier in the evening and then get a bit louder and more like a lounge when it gets later and young customers make up more of the crowd, Hamilton says.

“You can go Saturday at 5, and it feels one way, and then go Saturday at, say, 10:30 at night and it feels totally different within the same restaurant,” he says.

A bar outside bathrooms?

There is a space right outside of the bathrooms that looks like an exotic sitting room.

Goldstein says the TAO Group opened a nightclub in Sydney, Australia, a half-dozen years ago, and they designed it with a bar outside the restrooms. People ended up gravitating toward that bar, and it created a fun atmosphere.

So the TAO Group brought that concept to a New York site — but made it a champagne room, where customers got free champagne while they were waiting in the line for the bathrooms. At the Sun, there wasn’t enough space for a bar outside the restrooms but there was for a sitting room.

Discussing the impetus for that outside-the-restroom-space, Goldstein says, “It’s also: what we like to do is create talking points, so throughout your experience at TAO, when you’re not sitting at the table, we want to give you stuff to bring back to the table and talk about.”

Make reservations … if you can

Reservations have been in great demand at TAO at Mohegan Sun, but, on May 19, the COVID-dictated restaurant capacity restrictions will be lifted. The goal is to get TAO to 100 percent capacity, which means about 70 more seats available than currently are. Hamilton says, though, that the issue they are running into is staffing, so it’s uncertain whether they’ll get to 100 percent capacity right away. TAO also might extend its hours, going beyond the current closing time. They might open earlier, too, once the Sun starts hosting meetings and arena shows again.

The TAO at Mohegan Sun hasn’t had a grand opening party yet — what they call a splash — but Goldstein expects that will happen later this year.

An experience you can’t get anywhere close

Hamilton says, “For us, we’re trying to create a destination in every aspect of our business. One of my strategic initiatives has been to create destination dining, dining that isn’t just about the great food and a great restaurant but about a great experience and an experience you probably can’t get anywhere else or anywhere close.”

He adds, “I think it’s driving people that are familiar with the TAO brand to the (Mohegan Sun) property who wouldn’t be coming here for any other reason. But I also think … (it attracts people who) maybe don’t come to Mohegan Sun often, but they want to check out this new dining experience.”

 

If you go

What: TAO Asian Bistro & Lounge

Where: Mohegan Sun

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 5-midnight Fri.-Sat. (could expand after May 19)

Reservations: You'll need them; go to opentable.com

Phone: (860) 862-0888

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