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Under the Tuscan . . . er . . . Mohegan Sun

Let’s start with dinner. First came focaccia, warm and rich with the aroma of herbs, along with a green-olive-and-white-bean-purée tapinade for dipping, a drizzle of extra- virgin olive oil enhancing its hearty flavor. I studied the menu and took in the large, high-ceilinged dining room, handsome wooden tables arranged in a semicircle with an open kitchen visible from many vantage points. My view was of an imposing, several-stories-high rock formation; I had not chosen the “waterfall seating” in front of the restaurant where, on the other side of this stony edifice, I could have watched water trickling down the rocks into decorative pools behind the outside bar. I instead chose to eat inside at the wine bar, where I was assisted by a very able and gracious server who nodded approvingly when I ordered the Boston bibb salad—tasty lettuce accompanied by red onions, Maytag blue cheese and a walnut vinaigrette—and who steered me toward one of the specials, a sesame-encrusted, soy-infused tuna served over ginger risotto with sautéed greens, onions and peppers, all of which was, in a word, succulent.

And my wife? She had the . . . um . . . room service.

When I first mentioned to her that one of the restaurants in the vast hotel/shopping mall/gambling complex known as Mohegan Sun was Todd English’s Tuscany, she agreed that it might be worth getting a babysitter and enjoying a rare dinner out alone together. Roughly a decade ago, before we had any children, we became fans of Olives, English’s signature restaurant in Boston, but have not tried one of his establishments since (Olives having made him a national celebrity, he now has a number of fine-dining joints around the country). But our date never happened, and I dined alone, only slightly guilty that I got to experience Tuscany while she and the kids ate in our room. Sans company, I enjoyed the excellent food and reflected on the subtle ways in which the purportedly “family-friendly” Mohegan Sun had conspired against some of my ideas of how my family and I would spend the weekend.

In case you haven’t seen the flashy ads on TV, Mohegan Sun is a shiny new (well, new in 1996) gaming complex and hotel situated on a Native American reservation in the woods of Southeastern Connecticut overlooking the Thames River. We were there not to gamble (we generally don’t) but because it was the site of my wife’s professional association’s spring meeting. For me, attending these things is like a mini-vacation with the kids; previous trips to Toronto and even Rochester have yielded delightful days visiting museums, zoos and parks with my young sons. Mohegan Sun is within a half-hour’s drive of several nice beaches on the Connecticut and Rhode Island coast, and even closer to Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium. Other nearby attractions abound: a naval museum, a children’s museum, a steam train, a nature preserve. Finding stuff to do outside the complex would be no problem.

But we arrived rather late in the afternoon on Thursday, and I decided after unpacking our bags, we’d stay on the property and see what we could find to amuse ourselves. It was a beautiful day, and I was envisioning a pleasant hour or two playing ball on a patch of green outside the hotel, or strolling on walking paths, perhaps finishing up at the outdoor pool. Had I been paying closer attention, the drive onto the property would have betrayed how mistaken was my perception of what this “resort” would be. You enter on Mohegan Sun Boulevard, at first a big swath of divided highway until it becomes a coldly efficient ring road with only a few exit choices (two hotel entrances and a parking garage, and if you miss ‘em the first time through, you’re back on the boulevard heading out). The view coming in was an odd mix of sights: some woods, the lovely-looking Thames (God knows what sorts of nuclear waste lies within), the sparking glass-and-concrete high-rise hotel jutting out of the more shapeless complex below, the acres of roadways and parking garages and creepy-looking drumlike structures I couldn’t identify.

I realized, finally, that there are no green spaces or walking paths or outdoor pools (the fourth-floor pool does open to an outside concrete deck with chaise lounges, but that’s it). And as I slowly began to grasp the ethos of Mohegan Sun, another realization crept up on me: Once inside, you are not supposed to leave.

If you’ve never been to one of these newfangled gambling malls, the experience can be surreal: One minute you’re strolling past the Ben & Jerry’s, then suddenly you’re facing a sea of blinking slot machines lined up like aisles of video games in a vast arcade. You can duck into Kids Quest—half day-care center, half Jeepers—and then reemerge into the vaguely stale mall/casino air, always reeking with the faint odor of cigarette smoke. Again, the place claims to be family-friendly, but you can smoke almost anywhere, and you can never really escape it, unless you head outside to the . . . valet parking pickup/drop-off area. That Thursday, without any place to go outside the hotel, we strolled around the mall that connects the hotel to the casinos, convention center and entertainment venues. It’s lined with shops, restaurants, bars . . . and security guards who stride over to give you a stern lecture if your children so much as wander 10 yards away from you. (Yes, this happened to us twice within our first half-hour.)

At the concierge desk, I inquired about babysitting. Since we’ve had children, most hotels I’ve stayed at either offer it directly or connect you with an outside service, but not here. Ah, but Mohegan Sun has something better: Kids Quest. Just make a reservation four hours in advance, and you can drop them off for as long as you like. You have to remain within the complex, of course, where you are, presumably, eating, drinking and/or gambling. While my older two boys liked Kids Quest (I let them spend two hours there one day, to the tune of $28), in the same way they like Jeepers, we also have a young toddler who would have been much better off in a now-familiar hotel room with his brothers and one sitter than in a strange room with a horde of total strangers. Oh, and here’s family-friendly: On weekends, you can leave your children at Kids Quest until 2 AM. You can’t let them wander too close to the slot machines, but you can let them play video games till the bars close while you fritter away the mortgage money on blackjack.

I had already soured on leaving them here during our dinner at Tuscany, and then I found out, fully two days before our planned date, that we wouldn’t be able to get a table until 10 PM that Saturday. My wee one at Kids Quest past midnight? I didn’t think so.

Trips to the beach and Mystic Seaport went very well, and we had a good time. On Saturday, I learned that Tuscany does take some walk-up business, and still later I learned that there were usually available seats at the wine bar. My wife and I took turns urging the other to go, but I knew full well she’d (I’d) win; anyway, she was already nestled with the boys for an in-room movie. So I headed down the elevator and toward the waterfall, soon to be nibbling on the focaccia. Oh, and did I mention the lovely Tuscan “super-red,” a velvety sangiovese blend . . .

—Stephen Leon

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