Perhaps on his days off, Rick Moonen swaps his chef’s jacket and toque for a tailcoat and top hat. Is there any other explanation for the pseudo-Victorian flavor of his latest project? Rx Boiler Room, which opened in early July, just might be the first gastropub in America that capitalizes on the popularity of steampunk, a subculture inspired by 19th-century science fiction.
Familiarity with the theme is irrelevant. You only need to know that every trace of Moonen’s former restaurant, RM Seafood, is gone. The interior, once clean and contemporary, is accented with reclaimed wood and industrial tchotchkes. Flat-screen monitors display a slideshow of robot-themed illustrations. Over by the bar, a grandiose display of beakers evokes an old laboratory. Bartenders don precious old-timey vests, while servers strap mechanical angels wings on their backs and aviator goggles on their heads.
The concept may leave some guests scratching their heads. But at the core of the makeover is a universal theme in Strip dining, circa 2013. Following in the footsteps of Gordon Ramsay and Michael Mina, Moonen is the latest marquee chef to crossover from fine dining to casual fare. (It’s the economy, stupid.) The trend suggests that caviar tastings and $50 portions of fish do not, as they say in the industry, put butts in seats — at least not as quickly as a good burger.
And the burger here is a fine one. A patty of dry-aged beef is gussied up with “999 Island” dressing, balsamic caramelized onions, and house-made pickles. Just be warned that it comes without fries. And if you want cheese with that, be prepared to spend an extra four dollars per slice. (Apparently, Moonen isn’t entirely ready to abandon his predilections for high-priced food.) You could always supplement with a “flight” of onion rings. Stacked on an airplane-shaped wire display, they’re just the kind of gimmicky side dish that will have tourists and foodies talking. Unfortunately, our order was heavy on batter and oozed with oil.
Better to conserve carb intake for a beer or cocktail. Lead bartender Nathan Greene oversees a fantastic drink program that alone is worth a trip. How Many Licks, made with raisin-infused Hennessey and flavored with a plum-vanilla “shrub” (the fancy term for fruit vinegar), is a sweet and crisp first sip. Another favorite is the Campfire Peaches, an icy libation that mixes both smoky Mezcal and tequila for a double whammy to your liver.
Diners looking for more than a bite at the bar are advised to come without vegan companions. Many of the best appetizers utilize animal parts that even the average omnivore doesn’t often eat. Start with the oxtail croquettes. The tender, braised cut of meat is crumb-coated and fried until crisp. A mouth-puckering lemon aioli balances the richness. And a chicken liver pate, served in a miniature canning jar with a side of grilled toast, is the caveman’s version of smooth peanut butter. The only misstep is a thin film of port jelly, which is rubbery compared to the silky spread beneath it.
As far as entrées go, lamb osso buco with toasted orzo and zesty gremolata will be an ideal choice when the weather is cooler—it’s also half the price of the version served at RM Seafood. Otherwise, indulge in a generous basket of fried game hen. It’s perfectly crunchy while remaining moist on the inside.
Moonen earned his reputation as a sustainable seafood advocate, so it goes without saying that the items on the “Ocean” portion of the menu — or as he describes it, “Nourishment Chart” — are also worth trying. Expect familiar classics with a twist. In the case of his shrimp and grits, the addition of Andouille sausage, roasted poblano peppers and a nap of Cajun gravy made our server, a Louisiana native, rave ecstatically.
For dessert, a peach cobbler served in a coupe glass was sadly short on fruit and biscuit dough. And the cinnamon ice cream on top was of the Red Hot variety (pie spice cinnamon would have been preferred.) Guests can go with a safer bet, like fresh-baked cookies, or try the exotic Mahalo Matcha green tea panna cotta.
Hard to say that it’s a dish that fits with the steampunk theme, but do any of them? Not that a disconnect between food and décor should discourage a visit. One could only guess that if Thomas Edison were alive today, he would enjoy his meal under the glow of his own exposed-filament light bulbs.