More Cowbell

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What is a world renowned chef to do when the dining out public seems to be turning its collective back on the type of food experience he has spent his life perfecting?

He may ask himself: How do I work this?

And then he may tell himself: This is not my beautiful wife: this is not my beautiful house; how did I get here?

But get here, Rick Moonen did.

The “here” in this case being the land of hand-crafted, $17 cocktails:

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…and shared plates of re-configured, gussied-up and tricked out comfort food:

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From Ramsay to Ogden to Mina to Moonen, all of them (meaning them and the money men behind them) have decided that upscale restaurants are kaput, and the shell-shocked American public will only respond to price points well under thirty bucks, even if the final tariff leaves them almost as sticker shocked as they used to be.

Vegas hasn’t exactly led the way in this downward mobility, but we’ve closely followed the trend as it has swept from New York to California. And with our phalanx of celebrity chefs — who, it must be stressed, now exist solely to expand their brands — it is logical that wherever  trends go, they quickly follow. (In its defense, we must also applaud Las Vegas for continuing to be – along with New York City – one of the last bastions of fine dining in America.)

But boy, is this current trend ever boring.

Think about it: ten years ago, the Bellagio was going great guns, Mandalay Bay and the Venetian were on the ascendency, and tourists were confronted with both Kellers (Hubert and Thomas), Mina, Puck, Ogden, Charlie Palmer, Lagasse et al, all at the top of their games. So successful were these full scale, full service, white tablecloth restaurants that Ducasse, Robuchon and Savoy and Gagnaire took notice, bringing a formal French revolution to our humble burg that would have been unthinkable in the 90s.

Now we get fucking gastropubs. All doing the exact same food in different disguises.

Watching Moonen, Mina and the rest doing upscale, homey bar food is like watching a thoroughbred pull a milk wagon.

The same milk wagon.

And hoping somebody notices.

Which is why they need more cowbell.

The cowbell in this case being supplied by the re-imagining of the old RM space upstairs at the Mandalay Bay Shoppes into a steampunk-y-themed bar-restaurant, designed to appeal to the sensibilities of those under 40.

And by that we mean it (the steampunk motif) is a testament to style over substance, and the Gen X, Y and Millennials are nothing if not concerned with style over substance — with alot of “handcrafted” this and “artisanal” that thrown in to make sure their ethics comport with their style.

This is not to say that people of a certain age can’t enjoy themselves here. It’s just that boomer seafood fans of Moonen (the ones that made him famous) will be mighty surprised to find that the only thing seafood-y thing about the  “boiler room” is the video loop of Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea playing on one of the monitors.

Instead, what you get is….wait for it…lots of familiar-sounding food that’s tricked out just enough to please the Yelpers,  foodie-wannabes and the credulous Las Vegas food press — which will be more than happy to toss accolades Moonen’s way for his “bold interpretation” of classic dishes.

Want some examples: the smoked salmon is served under a glass dome filled with smoke; the grilled cheese sandwich is an inside-out version of French onion soup — the stewed onions being stuffed within the deep fried pockets; and the chicken pot pie nuggets do indeed taste like chicken pot pie, but the creamed chicken morsels come inside crunchy, deep fried little balls.

Oh, and the fish tacos (no self-respecting-yet-slumming-name -chef can resist putting his spin on a fucking fish tac0) are served in taco shells made of taro root.

None of these gimmicky eats made anywhere near the impression the chefs and waitrons wanted them to — in fact, it seems like the harder the kitchen was trying to impress, the less impressive the result (the smoked salmon presentation is just downright stupid). The two best things we had were the most traditional: a mighty fine shrimp and grits (the shrimp you get will probably be smaller than the ones ELV was served), and a rich, dense, soul-enriching braised  lamb shank “osso buco .”

As much as we loathe the (now ubiquitous) computer-tablet cocktail and wine lists (when you think about it, they are a perfect example of false progress – an ultra-modern invention that actually makes it harder to perform the task at hand, i.e., the simple act of ordering a drink.), the libations listed on this one were extraordinary — vivid with the flavors of the main ingredients and in perfect balance. They may be pricey (pretty much a double sawbuck once tax and tip are figured in) but they are a serious imbiber’s dream come true.

Also a dream come true is the…er….uh….female talent on display at this place. Where Moonen waved his magic wand to conjure them up is anyone’s guess, but ELV can’t remember when he’s seen a better looking waitstaff.

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Would that we could say the same for the food at  Rx Boiler Room. All the cowbell in the world can’t mask the rudimentary, copycat  nature of this enterprise. The fact that the dining out public no longer flocks to fancified, three course meals is no excuse for great chefs to throw in the towel and put forth the same dishes (burgers, chopped salad, fish and chips!) that every one else is doing.

We realize this is an aging boomer’s lament, and it must be said that chefs like Moonen and Mina execute these standards to a fare thee well. It’s not their fault that Americans have relentlessly pushed our dining habits into the lowest common denominator trough.

For the well-traveled gastronaut, though, seeing these soul-deadening menus is depressing  indeed. (Imagine all superstar rock bands playing the same songs all the time and you’ll get our drift.)

Reading menus full of time-worn and trite tripe (no matter how “classic” the dish might be) is a sign to us that these great talents have given up.

Eating meal after meal of cliche after cliche tells us they are out of ideas….and inspiration.


In the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino

3930 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109


17 thoughts on “More Cowbell

  1. I don’t eat fish tacos in restaurants. I won’t. I won’t go to a place where they serve fancy food and sustainable yada yada yada yada and order a fish taco. More than half the time they’re grilled or roasted or pan-fried or some preparation that is not battered and deep-fried, and then they ruin everything else.

    Fish tacos in Ensenada are simple affairs: a piece of seasoned shark dipped in batter and fried in a metal drum of oil, then laid on a corn tortilla. You dress it yourself—canonical dressing is shredded, lightly salted cabbage, either crema mexicana or mayonnaise (or a mixture of both), lime, salsa cruda/”pico de gallo” (PDG is a powder for fruit in Mexico, not a fresh salsa), and your choice of spicy salsa, like salsa de aceite or salsa de chile de árbol.

    And I happen to agree with you on the gastropub thing—oh look, tired of inventing, want to make grandma’s recipes (or somebody else’s grandma’s recipes) with all that fancy French larnin’. They can’t even make a mac ‘n cheese that doesn’t taste floury or hard, yet they want to put short ribs on everything. And don’t get me started on the cochonnaille they call poutine… in fact I think I’ll rant about that on my own blog later.

    That said, you’ve managed to write off forty years of human birth right there (Gen X and Gen Y—millennials are the same thing as Gen Y). Sounds pretty crotchety if I may say so myself.

    Also, extra-virgin olive oil in a drink? Did they shake it with the syrup to try and get it in suspension, or was it broken and floating?

  2. Thank you for your rant. I find all of these places to be really boring. I hate that Seablue is replaced by a “gastropub”. I hate that all of these guys gotta do the same thing.

    Give me Andiamo Italia anyday…it’s not pushing any envelopes, but it serves a classic 3 course meal in a classic style, with white-jacketed waters. And the food is damned good.

  3. These menus read like an upmarket TGIFriday’s. What an incredibly cynical view of the dining scene when the best solution to your perceived market demand is a jumbled collection of ideas straight out of 2008. These chefs thought they were so damned smart when they were able to turn a profit and expand into little empires during boom times. All this grasping at hipness and relevance just comes off as pathetic. Steampunk? Gastropubs? Sigh.

  4. A sawbuck for a drink in that joint, nah, don’t think so! Now, as to the waitstaff, that I would spend money for alittle “service”. Nice!

  5. Correction…..Double sawbuck….no….Alyssa, Sarah and Chelsea and Sarah…si…si….Regards,,,Carlos Danger

  6. After taking magnificent pictures of the staff, one must ask if your camera lost its steam(punk). The food looks atrocious! Ricky’s in trouble….. The King of Sustainability seems to be a Jester in this sad fad.

  7. You guys are overly cynical– we are in the business of entertaining tourists- if they want a side of spaghetti with their risotto, give it to them. There are still plenty of fine dining options in our city- and i would rather have Moonen or Mina cooking my bar food then someone else who is barely trying and lacking in standards.

  8. Hmmm, I must have missed something. What I took away from ELV’s review is that Moonen and Mina are not only cooking pedestrian bar food but they’re barely trying and there’s a lack of standards to boot.

  9. OK ELV– We get that you are not a fan of gastropubs in general(very trendy amongst critics ) — but is this good bar food or not?– evaluate it for what it is, not what it isn’t. If Moonen’s food is bad- say so- what are you scared of?

  10. The best crab cakes I’ve ever had were at RM downstairs. A good cocktail too, as recommended by ELV. I was hoping to have some of the sustainable seafood RM is famous for on my next visit to RM-land. Sustainable seafood is a given here in Vancouver, but a rarely encountered concept in Vegas. Has rarely been replaced with Never?

  11. Let’s add an element here that is rather important, and perhaps offers a notion that some of the superstar chef’s still don’t get “Get It”. Moonen was quoted in the Las Vegas Sun as saying “Las Vegas diners want comfort food at lower prices, and we have to give them what they want.” But there is still a “Value” aspect that the new offerings my Moonen, Mina and others still seem to be missing. Over time, as both the national and local economies recessed from a somewhat artificial high around the turn of the millennium, diners lost the charm of the $30-35 entree that may have had a value point of $20-25. A certain fiscal reality had to set in. That does not necessarily mean that there is a desire for purely lower prices, it means that the price point has to reflect the product.

    So what is in vogue now? The $15-18 items that represent about $10-12 in general value. Yes, the prices are lower with these more casual menus, but is the consumer any better off? Not at these value ratio’s. It makes one shudder to think about what is going to happen in a couple of years when the novelty of the $15 hamburger wears off.

    It is understood that these restaurants have exorbitant rents in their locations, so the blame is not just on the guys bringing the food – sooner or later the folks that own the buildings have to stop holding their breath and hoping for a “comeback”, and instead deal with what the genuine economic realities are, and are going to be. You just can not beat up the consumer with tricked-up comfort food at a bad value point and expect much of a shelf life.

  12. this was a great review and so spot on. I had the best meal of my life at stonehill tavern. Then to go to pub 1842 or whatever it is called Mina’s new “gastropub” was such a joke. I also hate these I-Pad menu’s there is nothing convenient about them.
    Anyways this was a great bashing on the pathetic clowns that like these spots. BTW, new Jap joint called Taiga Japanese Restaurant and Sake Baron sunset road between Pecos and eastern. Looks like has great potential today was the first day it opened and I was the first customer go check it out. (and no I do not have any affiliation with them)

  13. John, I trust you will forgive me if I can’t muster a great deal of sympathy for your culinary version of “white people problems”. Your knee-jerk scapegoating of Gen X or Y diners as somehow being responsible for the admittedly tiring “gastropub” phenomenon sounds a little like a cranky grandfather blaming the “kids these days” for the ills of the world. try and remember you are in Las Vegas and have an embarrassment of riches in terms of your dining options relative to the rest of the world.

  14. Stop cursing in your reviews. It is unworthy of a trained professional (I believe you are a lawyer).

  15. The last time I ate at RM Upstairs, a couple years ago, I was the only one there. Such a shame, because the food was really, really good. I understand Moonen feeling that he needed to make a few changes, but the whole steampunk theme sounds like a younger chef’s game.

    And for the record, I’m a Gen Xer who enjoys fine dining… when I can afford it.

  16. Perhaps RM’s biggest problem is simply location. What a godforsaken place that is. Stuck in a mall between Mandalay Bay and The Luxor… Absolutely no convenient access unless you are staying there.

    Honestly, how may gastropubs am I going to pass just to get to it?

  17. those that can’t, teach. with that being said, I am not sure why such a scathing review was necessary. is it my favorite restaurant? no, but not many are. Will I return to try all of the different offerings? yes. it is my opinion that being hypercritical isn’t helpful. You may not be a fan but it’s not a horrible place by any means. don’t go if it isn’t your favorite, but at least try to say SOMETHING positive otherwise you just sound bitter. I will be back because it was good food and we served by pleasant people. the decor is just that: decor. Why let it ruin your evening? what exactly would you have preferred as decor?

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