When Rick Moonen opened RM Seafood in Las Vegas in 2005, he was like a breath of fresh air. The chef did not extend an existing restaurant empire. Instead he moved from New York, where his Oceana was an insider's favorite for seafood, settled in Las Vegas, and introduced the idea of sustainable, beautifully prepared fresh seafood to the desert. (He beat Paul Bartolotta of Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare to the punch by a couple of months.)
From the beginning, the place had a serious vibe. Moonen is a star chef; he took second place on season 2 of the TV show Top Chef Masters. He has a creative take on fish preparation, and my early meals there reflected an uncomplicated style with inventive touches. I also noticed empty tables then. Not any more, though. Being on TV seems to have brought in the crowds. The place was buzzing earlier this week when my wife and I stopped by for dinner, my first visit in three years or so.
I love the food, particularly the appetizers. We had a pristine sashimi of fluke, slices of of the fish folded with razor-thin lemon slices into a delicate flower. A fabulous sushi roll played the flavors of maguro tuna against the light sweetness and creamy texture of ripe, fresh figs. An excellent crab cake, mostly flakes of crab barely held together with bread and eggs, was accompanied by a clever side dish that looked like shoestring potatoes but was actually a jicama salad flavored with chipotle pepper. A main course of sockeye salmon, seasoned as if for tandoori but seared in a pan, was nice but not as compelling.
The vibe is different today, however, and I am not sure I like how it has changed. The kitchen seems just as serious as always, but prices have climbed and the service experience is not nearly as welcoming. Managers and waiters sprout earpieces now, running the place more like a night club than a comfy restaurant. We mistakenly entered from the second floor into a private party; fortunately I knew my way down the inside stairs because no one offered to help. And when we got to what looked like the host's station inside the restaurant, a guy with an earpiece shuffled us to a more elaborate podium outside the restaurant. Even though we had a reservation, we queued up behind folks waiting for walk-in tables.
At the table, our waiter seemed more intent on upselling us to the most expensive seafood platters and specials, the most expensive wines and as many extras as he could, rather than finding out what we might have wanted and matching his recommendations to our preferences. This may be the kind of thing that folks expect from Las Vegas. After all, this town is about as commercial a milieu as there is, but in my experience the best restaurants here provide an oasis of something else.
The wine list seems to have lost its edge too. Once a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner, it still has plenty of pages but the range of wines is smaller. It's not in our restaurant awards program this year either. Markups are high on wines by the glass, and that selection was pretty wan.
In short, it looks like Moonen has gone old-school Vegas on us. Except for the kitchen. Only that food could bring me back.
Rajiv Modak — Arizona — August 27, 2011 1:25am ET
David Rapoport — CA — August 27, 2011 12:31pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — August 29, 2011 10:33am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — August 29, 2011 1:47pm ET
Mark Lyon — Sonoma, CA; USA — August 30, 2011 1:16am ET
Paul Adams — Las Vegas, NV — August 31, 2011 10:06pm ET
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