Everybody knows Rick Moonen is a stellar chef, a successful restaurateur, a champion advocate of sustainable seafood practices and an overall cool guy, as evidenced by his appearances on Top Chef and Top Chef Masters.
But not everybody knows Moonen's also a mad scientist, a super-geek-level enthusiast when it comes to the elements that make great food and drink so great. The recent decision to re-conceptualize the upstairs space at his RM Seafood restaurant at Mandalay Bay is Moonen's opportunity to indulge his geekiest food-science fantasies. What will this mean for us? Possibly the most interesting cocktail program in Las Vegas.
The former fine dining room is being transformed into Rx Boiler Room, a Bunsen burner and bubbling beaker-laden lounge and restaurant focused on applying modern, precise technique to classic cocktails and comfort food. Moonen is hoping to open it this summer in time for the arrival of the new Cirque du Soleil Michael JacksonONE show at Mandalay.
The concept has been in Moonen's mind for quite a while. “When it comes to cocktails in Vegas, for a while it was about the show, handsome guys throwing bottles around,” he says. “It was fun and it works, but if the bottle fell and broke, it wouldn't be the end of the world because it wasn't really about the cocktail. Little by little, that has changed. You've got the little Downtown bars approaching the craft in a serious way, and places like Herbs & Rye, and then Cosmo came along with a very serious approach with a little more fun. So Vegas is ready for this now.”
But don't expect another cool, sleek, craft cocktail bar at Rx Boiler Room. Moonen's “blowing it out.” The private dining rooms in the space are being knocked out to create a much larger bar area, “a center stage for all the fun stuff that's going on.” The lounge will have a steampunk-ish esthetic with mismatched furniture, a large communal table across from the bar and oversized couches you'll want to take your picture on. The cocktail program, the true centerpiece of this new place, is geared around elements that match those visuals. “Think batch cocktails aging in barrels and fog coming from liquid nitrogen cooling down a hot infusion that was just made in a press pot,” Moonen says. “We'll be using bubbles, carbonating our own drinks, and a serious ice program. It's about expecting the unexpected, paying homage to something classic by messing with it and making it your own.”
RM lead barman Nathan Greene, who created the stellar opening menu at Downtown's Vanguard Lounge before working some corporate gigs and winning a few contests, will be heading up the bar at Rx. “This is the best possible scenario for me because my philosophy has always been about blurring the line between the bar and the kitchen,” Greene says. “Now I have this amazing opportunity to do that with Chef's blessing in this larger format.” Those familiar with Green's skills won't be surprised to see all the custom goodies he's planning, from shrubs (vinegar infused with fruit) and tinctures to house-made sodas and bitters.
“This is fairly groundbreaking,” he says. “I've done the research and the only places in the country that are doing anything close are Minibar in DC and the Aviary in Chicago. For us to be able to do it in this market, where everyone comes to experience something like this, and to show locals some love, it's exciting.” Greene has invited the best bartenders in the city to moonlight or practice for competitions at Rx, opening up a serious collection of toys for everyone to play with.
And don't forget about the food. Moonen is planning a menu of re-imagined comfort foods, “stuff I just like to cook.” A recent teaser sampling included these small plates: chicken pot pie nuggets, with a gravy foam made from chicharrón-style chicken skin; Buffalo fried frog legs with fried chicken-style crispy skin tossed in hot sauce; kona kampachi tacos with avocado and grapefruit yuzu in a yucca shell; and bacon-wrapped bacon with bacon vinaigrette (“bacon cubed,” as Moonen calls it) with a quail egg on top.
“No way did I want to do something cookie-cutter,” Moonen says. “I'm really excited because of how different the Boiler Room will be. It adds a lot to [Mandalay Bay], where we've got all these great [dining] standards. Now it's time for something out of the ordinary.” And suddenly, summer can't come fast enough.