Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater Vegas sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
Rick Moonen shuttered his fine dining RM Seafood Upstairs at Mandalay Place last year and decided instead to take the plunge into a more casual concept. He came up with Rx Boiler Room, with the Rx in the name a play on Rick's. Here he takes a more comfort food approach to food and alchemist's eye to cocktails. All comes wrapped in steampunk decor from the flasks behind the bar to the velvet fabrics and waitstaff uniforms. Here, Moonen talks about the first year of Rx Boiler Room, how he came up with the concept, what you should order and what's new at the ode to Jules Verne.
How did Rx Boiler Room come together?
Well, it's great. As you may or may not know, upstairs, there needed to be a change. Fine dining needed to change in 2012. It started to taper off. Fine dining needed to be redefined.
I asked Chuck Bowling, the executive vice president of Mandalay Bay, "What do you have in mind? You know all the moving parts."
"We really think you need to think about things differently. The demographic has changed. RM Seafood is doing terrific. You have to do something out of the box."
A gastropub was one of the trends.
I had this crazy inventory of wine. It used to be a small alleyway just full of wine. I'm in the business of paying food and wine and creating this experience with guests. With wine, I want to have a menu to pair with wine. With 800 selections stored, I have to hope I have the proper wine. With cocktails you could make whatever you want. That's what I came up with originally.
Science and math attracted me to get in the kitchen. When I was a kid, science and math would keep me occupied instead of disassembling the TV.
That childhood love affair with cooking, it was all kind of geeky lab creation love affair. The evolution of bartenders is that they're making their way into the cuisine portion of the business.
What have you learned in the past year?
I found that Las Vegas really embraces the innovative and new concepts and new cuisine. It's been receptive to new ideas and new cuisines. People are constantly taking pictures. It's been an enlightenment for me to see that it's a huge hit for the transient and local.
Rx Boiler Room [Photo: Roni Fields-Moonen]
What were you thinking about in terms of design of the restaurant?
Well, everyone agreed that we needed to open up the front of the restaurant to look inside. It was a small door and people had to make a commitment to walk down a hallway. We downsized the wine and consolidated it in another location.
While talking about the front, we saw that Charlie Palmer had his wine tower. There's a wall near Shanghai Lilly with butts and breasts. It's probably one of the most photographed parts of Mandalay Bay. We wanted to have an iconic entrance so people would meet by the place that has the metal structure out front.
I had this local artist I worked with. I thought of a Mousetrap game in perpetual motion, a lab experience with my geeky love of the lab. He conjured up this very weird, cool thing with beakers and flasks and bartenders dressed in lab coats.
When I sat down with the designer, they mentioned that it seemed kind of steampunkish. OK, what do you mean? I was pretty much describing that era. The gears and flasks and seeing it being made.
It's fun because we constantly get to reinvent ourselves. We're defined by comfort food and cocktails in a fun year.
What was the menu testing process like?
On my day off I would make food at home. I would ask, "What are your childhood memories? I don't mean a tub of Häagen-Dazs."
I would take some of those things that were heavy and fatty like the chicken pot pie nuggets and freeze them into little balls. Eating these round circular nuggets, that's fun.
We were talking about SpaghettiOs, that can of pasta noodles in the horrible sauce. I remember the commercial. How can I integrate it? Let's do it with pasta. My wife is gluten-intolerant. That's why I came up with Squid-e-oos with squid ink to color the tomato sauce black.
We just had fun with the initial menu.
Has Vegas embraced the restaurant?
Oh my God, yes. We've had many takeovers where bartenders come in from Southern Wine who are icons in the industry and usually do it as a charitable donation. All the geeks come in. The steampunk groups I didn't expect. They get dressed up. If someone comes in dressed up, we give a 15 percent discount.
We can customize anything. You can buy out the restaurant and take it over for the evening. That's something I didn't anticipate. It's very good for business. A lot of restaurants have opened like Rose.Rabbit.Lie. and Commonwealth that have that fun look, theater and mismatched features. It's a treat to your eyes. The 1923 Bourbon & Burlesque is very reminiscent of Rx Boiler Room. Isn't imitation the best form of flattery?
Six months in, what changed?
The vibe of the restaurant. It finally got to a point where it was going in a definitive direction. That's when it really started to take its defined direction.
We added live entertainment. There may be big acts like the hypnotist and comedian, who's a friend of mine. We have live entertainment in the dining room. A jazz trio or live acoustics in the front of the restaurant during happy hour on a more regular basis.
One of the meetings I was having this morning was about just that. We'll continue reinventing the food and cocktails, the outfits and the cool cocktail waitresses.
Live entertainment is probably the most dramatic change coming in the future. By the time August comes around we'll have a more understood schedule.
What's the must order dish of the moment?
The Buffalo oysters are something I would send out. On the small bites menu, the bacon-wrapped bacon. The kampachi tacos. The taro root shells are gluten free.
The Buffalo oysters are one of my favorites. I know where to find oysters. I serve them on a shell with a disc of bleu cheese and a celery leaf.
For entrees, the lamb osso buco Greek style is comfort food beyond comfort food. I love the shellfish shepherd's pie. The a great comfort food.
Rick's sustainable catch. I use cobia, a great fish right now. I describe it as a take on swordfish and hamachi.
What's on tap for the future?
More seafood. I want to compete with my seafood restaurant downstairs.
Staying on trend with food and cocktails. Continuing to evolve and make it current and exciting for our guests.
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Top photo: Rick Moonen [Photo: Chelsea McManus]