MGM National Harbor: Monumental Indeed

We’ve watched the transformation of the landscape along the Maryland side of the Potomac to include a truly unparalleled presence in the history of our great capital region, the long-awaited MGM National Harbor. A world-class resort designed with an attention to detail and admirable sensitivity to its environs, here you will find a mecca of fine dining, first-class gaming and entertainment, high-end retail, and luxurious accommodations to impress even the most seasoned traveler.  Situated a short distance from Washington, DC and Old Town Alexandria, we now can find that escape we all have been looking for right in our own backyard.

MGM Resorts International, already acclaimed for their exceptional destinations such as the Bellagio and ARIA resorts in Las Vegas and the MGM Macau, can be proud of the exquisitely appointed jewel that is MGM National Harbor.  The feeling is sleek and modern, from the gorgeous exteriors of etched glass to the spacious, well-appointed guest rooms, light-filled and sumptuous.  The open spaces flow invitingly, seamlessly integrating multicultural colors, shapes, and art pieces, uniting the local history with its very international flavor, yet retaining a respect for classical elements and timeless beauty.

You may not expect to find the burgeoning display of internationally and locally sourced artworks called the Heritage Collection, reflecting the diversity of our area and often garnering inspiration from nearby waters and history.  An amazing abstract map of the region dominating the wall over the reception desk was crafted by local sculptor and ceramicist, Margaret Boozer, out of 10,000 pounds of soil and artifacts from the resort’s construction site.  Internationally renowned D.C. artist, John Safer, created “Unity,” the three 60 foot tall stainless steel figures that seem to defy gravity as they rotate 270 degrees from their base, identical yet different from each other. Prominent New York sculptor, Alice Aycock’s, “Whirlpools,” graces the VIP porte cochere, with its magnificent embodiment of the wild and turbulent wind-tossed waters of the Potomac.  These and works by Bob Dylan, Sam Gilliam, Ronald Beverly, whose photography of the landmark Cherry Blossoms is woven throughout the tapestry of the resort, Liao Yibai, Charles Dwyer, and many others reflect MGM’s commitment to the rich culture of our Nation’s Capital and its role as a destination resort for those near and far.  Wander the resort and revel in the surprises and enchantments that await you.

    

You can’t help but be impressed by the central conservatory and glass atrium visible from many vistas throughout the property. Lit by sunlight during the day and aglow with moonlight at night, locally sourced flowers and stunning seasonal displays conceived by brilliant event designer Ed Libby from New York keep guests enthralled with both their clever themes and delightful execution.

But, all this would be simply a pleasing backdrop if not for the plethora of culinary delicacies, exciting gaming opportunities, spa amenities, theatre spectacles, and hundreds of gracious staff determined to deliver an experience beyond your expectations. Whether you come for a day or an extended stay, you will find an abundance to please the palate of any discerning foodie, spa aficionado, devoted gamer, theater enthusiast, or master of relaxation.

Enter the oasis that is the resort’s Spa & Salon, and be ready to be pampered in the soothing cream, turquoise and natural tones of their guest lounges and inner sanctums, again mirroring the water and nature theme.  Couples can spend the entire experience together, with their own serene spaces, dual massages and body treatments.  Or, women can retreat to time apart, leaving the men to enjoy their “lion’s den,” lounges with comfy leather couches, bold colors and plenty of sports on view. Natalie, the Spa Director, and her attentive and gifted staff, effortlessly guide you through a mind and body journey designed to both stimulate and relax the senses.  Even the rhythmic music captures that unique blend of energy and release, enhancing every moment.  An extensive menu of services designed by Clarins will not disappoint.

Depending on the time of day (or night), the variety of restaurants and dining spots deserve your complete attention. Marcus offers up an array of selections appropriate around the clock.  For breakfast, don’t miss the chance to savor their version of Baked Virginia Eggs, served piping hot in an iron skillet, and bursting with the flavors of spicy tomato, grits, chorizo and Thai basil.  Suggested by none other than the charming Director of Food & Beverage for MGM National Harbor, Stephane Hainaut, this was the beginning of a two-day gastronomic tour de force not to be missed!  Located adjacent to the soaring atrium, and decorated with a majestic Ethiopian tapestry and international flare, Marcus Samuelsson’s first restaurant in our area is sure to be a success.

If you are in a hurry to get your day underway or just ready for a break in the action, stroll across the Conservatory to the Bellagio Patisserie with Executive Pastry Chef Sylvain Bortolini at the helm.  Sylvain’s passion for creating the most delicious and visually appealing confections is apparent, from the simply mouth-watering classic buttery croissant or hazelnut praline brioche to the delicate miniature layered finger cookies and sweets.  An array of fruits and nuts find their place into Key Lime crisps or Dark Chocolate bark.  Pair these anytime with steaming hot chocolate, caffe lattes, or macchiato/cappuccinos. In the afternoon or evening, stop by for a savory Croque-Monsieur or Quiche Lorraine.  Though convenient, there’s nothing fast-food about this fare.

Are you ready to play?  Enter the central 125,000 square foot casino through “Portal,” a sculpted iron archway designed by classic folk artist Bob Dylan.  Even though you might be anxious to begin your fun, take a moment to find the sea creatures amongst the tools and captain’s wheel and appreciate the beauty found in everyday objects. Then let the excitement take hold as you choose your games of chance and skill.  You’ll find all your favorites and a lot more, too.  Blackjack, craps, poker, slots and specialty variations appeal to the adventurer and spectator alike.  This is gaming raised to an art.  Serious about your play, you’ll find the high-end stakes you’re looking for and plenty of able competitors.  Not so inclined, stroll the vast selection and let your whimsy find its match.

Unlike casinos found almost anywhere else, MGM made the excellent choice to make it self-contained.  You do not ever have to pass through the casino to get to your room, restaurant, shopping or other activities.  Except for the generously sized Starbucks that services both the retail corridor and the casino, patrons are insulated from the bright lights and sounds of the action.  So once inside, you’ve chosen to be amongst the rhythms and motion around you.  And, you’ll love it!

The service is impeccable and the staff well trained and eager to engage you. Unfamiliar with the way to play; you’ll receive helpful guidance.  You’ll find Vegas odds, an extra boost to that winning strategy.  The bars and selection are impressive, and the circulating servers attentive.  The casino as well as the rest of the resort is smoke-free, and the separate gaming areas are nestled between gleaming structures and decor in keeping with the elegance of the resort as a whole.  Cultural elements such as the red-hung gaming area reflect the Asian belief in good fortune.

    

As the day lengthens, two lively cocktail lounges, Blossom and Felt, keep the luck flowing. Las Vegas nightlife legend, Andy Masi, founder of Clique Hospitality, along with his Managing Partner, James Reyes, have created a pair of uniquely community influenced clubs that set the stage for sharing and daring.  Watch Lucas or Dontaine raise mixology to new heights at Felt as they expertly prepare concoctions such as “Underneath the Sheets,” a blend of strawberry infused Kappa Pisco, Botran Blanco Reserva Rum, Lime, Cointreau, Orgeat, & Cruzan 151 Rum topped with a strawberry, or “Old Smoke,” Russell’s Reserve 10 yr. Bourbon, Pedro Ximenez Sherry, Benedictine, Chocolate Bitters, and Clove Smoked garnishing.  Opt for the intimacy and musical vibes of Felt or the cherry pink vibrancy of Blossom alive with sophisticated 24-hour gaming action. No doubt these will become favorites.  As the weather warms, don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy Felt’s terrace and views, and remember this spot when planning special celebrations!

You’ll want to arrange your day and make reservations at one of the fine dining options that showcase master chefs drawn to the shores of the Potomac.  A pearl in this oyster is Fish, one of the first two unique seafood-focused concept restaurants opened by famed culinary innovator, José Andrés.  Using regionally sourced ingredients and coastal bounty, the menu features recipes inclusive of the techniques and flavors of Spain, Japan, South America and more.  Fresh shucked or fried oysters, live shrimp prepared to perfection before your eyes, succulent whole grilled fish, tuna tartar served with doughy Parker House rolls, Louisiana Shrimp ‘n’ Grits, Jambalayas and tempting sides will take you on a journey through the flavors of the sea. The décor is a clever display of netting used as light fixtures along with metal fish with sparkling scales and feathery tails, tile floors reminiscent of the hues of the ocean, seaman’s implements and curved motion-filled waves shaping the raw bar and ceiling designs.  The boardwalk patio awaits the arrival of Spring.

In a town known for its affection for Steakhouses, Voltaggio Brothers redefines the standard.  Cleverly designed with a faux brick glass frontage with double doors, enter into the childhood home of Bryan and Michael Voltaggio on what must be a larger scale.  Born and raised in Maryland and best known for their Emmy-winning season on Bravo’s Top Chef, each room captures the heart of their home and the people that lived there, right down to the books in the library.  But, enough said about the surroundings, let’s talk food!  Begin with your choice of American Timeframe Cocktails representing eras past and present; I couldn’t resist the Mint Julep.  An 8 ounce filet mignon ordered medium rare was cooked to perfection, tender and bursting with flavor.  The three sauces that accompanied it were superfluous, but delicious, particularly the “beernaise.” Accompanied by gratin potatoes with creamy gruyere or their unmatched Macaroni & Cheese, broccolini, and followed by the decadence of the Upside Down Lemon Tart, a light and tangy mixture of aerated lemon curd, lavender, fennel pollen, brown butter, whipped maple and served with homemade lavender ice cream, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything more satisfying. Wine enthusiasts have 25 pages of the perfect pairings to explore.

    

To round out its fine dining epicurean delights, Ginger is an authentic Pan-Asian restaurant offering the best of Japan, China, Thailand, Korea and Vietnam.  Executive Chef Andy Lau has chosen both familiar favorites and new twists to tempt you down new paths.  A true test of this cuisine is the classic Peking Duck, served with slivered vegetables, seasoned with hoisin sauce, and pillowed into light as air buns.  The duck was crispy on the outside, moist and delicate on the inside just as it should be.  Try the Drunken Seafood Noodles with spicy flat noodles, shrimp, scallops, squid, kachai, peppers, chili and basil. Coconut sticky rice with fresh mango or ginger ice cream makes for a nice ending.  As with all the culinary destinations, the emphasis is on fresh and locally sourced ingredients transformed into a worldly experience befitting a destination resort of this caliber.

If you’ve dreamed of seeing some of the best in class shows and acts in an intimate state-of-the-art theatre, welcome to the MGM’s hip new entertainment locale.  With totally customizable seating for 3,000, or General Admission open floor events for 4,000, the Theatre at National Harbor has lined up impressive talent including Duran Duran, Bruno Mars, Kings of Leon, Cher, Lionel Richie, comedic talents and even boxing events.  With ticketing through its exclusive booking partner, Live Nation, keep a close eye on both scheduled and pop-up events.  The venue itself is edgy with its purple and silver walls and furniture, rich parquet floors and bar areas, and sleek accessories.

No resort destination would be complete without conference and event facilities.  The ballrooms, terraces, and fully supportive catering staff are poised to provide extraordinary spaces for your special occasions.  Can you imagine the on-trend possibilities of a destination wedding here?  Don’t worry, because they can.  From pre-wedding spa packages, to intimate rehearsal dinners, weddings of every size and character, indoor and outdoor spaces, post-wedding after-parties, and the joy of preparing all the food, drinks, and remembrances your heart desires, all you want can be found here.

If you possibly can, plan to stay for a night or two, if not more, and experience one of the 308 blissfully lush and welcoming rooms available for your pleasure.  Showers that feel like generous rainfalls, plump bedding, luxurious towels, robes and slippers, room service at your fingertips from your TV menu, rich lathering botanicals and lotions, and all the pampering you can desire are there for you to discover.  You’ll never notice the environmentally responsible energy conservation features that are part of MGM’s commitment to this hospitable paradise.  Make your own schedule, and it will be accommodated whenever possible.

With extra time, you’ll be able to take advantage of the other entertainment, retail shopping, and casual dining options. In addition to the fabulous Sports Bar, Tap, there is Sarah Jessica Parker’s first boutique, Accents for Home and Garden, MGM Men’s, Specs for high-end eyewear, and coming soon Stitched and Ella Rue.  In between along the long corridor, Jason Johnston, MGM’s Executive Chef in charge of National Market, as well as menu consultant for the resort as a whole, has masterfully assembled 10 distinct taste and visual adventures for us to explore.

  Amo Los Tacos serves up scrumptious Mexican fare that is fresh and packed with flavor.  Pappas faithfully prepares the famous crabcakes born in Baltimore using the original recipe.  Shake Shack is just the quintessential roadside burger stand upgraded to all-natural ingredients and with an assortment of addictive shakes. Banh Mi Vietnamese Kitchen and Bento, a traditional sushi bar, provide the Asian selections in demand.  If you love New York Reuben sandwiches, then District Deli is for you.  I made mine pastrami, and it was excellent!  Cold-pressed organic juices and other healthy choices can be found here as well.  GWBW George Washington Beer & Wine is where craft beer lovers can feel at home. Visit Honey’s Fried Chicken & Donuts anytime between 7 a.m. and 1 a.m. to satisfy those cravings for savories and sweets.  Barbecue wings are a favorite.  ZiZi’s Pizza is Chef Johnston’s homage to his grandmother’s Italian cooking….you have to try some.  And to complete the journey, indulge in S’Cream, your place for homemade ice creams and sorbets that are worth every bite.

When I asked Chef Jason about the challenges he’s faced bringing his vision to fruition, his eyes lit up with joy as he spoke of the satisfaction he’s found in the process.  “I think National Harbor is a great representation of what an MGM property resort is, and it has been amazing to be a part of introducing it to the market.”  Jason epitomizes the pride and commitment shown by every member of the MGM team. Brandon Singletary, my primary guide and host during my stay, eloquently expressed the sense of hope engendered by MGM’s presence: “That something of this caliber, providing growth opportunities for individuals and the community as a whole through its commitment to our culture, our history, and the less fortunate in our society, has arrived in Prince George’s is a lot to be thankful for.”

The creative process of finding out what is important to our locality and incorporating that into the MGM experience on all levels is evident throughout the resort.  Design, entertainment, flavors, personnel and character are perfectly matched to create a local destination worthy of your time…over and over again.

Sincerest Appreciation To:  Ashley Farkas, Executive Director of Public Relations, MGM Resorts International, Nicole Wozniak, Brandon Singletary, Kara Rutkin, Katherine Sherrer, Stephane Hainaut, Jason Johnston, Sylvain Bortolini, Andy Lau, Bryan and Michael Voltaggio, José Andrés, Marcus Samuelsson

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