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At NxtRoom, Hell’s Kitchen’s newest cocktail bar, veteran bartender Daniel Villanueva’s mission is simple — create a space dedicated to education and appreciation of mezcal, the smoky, flavorful spirit, added to an equally thoughtful approach to the understanding of whiskey’s complex varieties.
“Most people already know about tequila, but they don’t know much about mezcal — which is not just one product, but a huge category of liquor in itself,” said Villanueva. “At NxtRoom, our plan is to serve a variety of mezcal cocktails and whiskey cocktails from different countries to teach people their origins and flavor profiles.”
NxtRoom, an intimate, cozy alcove off of La Pulperia restaurant on W44th, is designed with inviting touches, from the painted brick walls and intricate, tiled hearth at its center to shelves of colorful mezcals and whiskey bottles arranged like a treasured personal collection. Villanueva and La Pulperia’s owner, Victor Medina, want the space to feel like visiting a friend’s home for cocktails and conversation, with a little bit of history and learning mixed in.
“We kept this space purposely small,” said Medina. “If you grab a drink or book a tasting here, we want it to feel intimate and friendly.” While guests sip and snack on a customizable tapas menu, Villanueva and his team take patrons through the finer points of mezcal production.
“Mezcal comes from South Mexico,” said Villanueva. “We try to share with people that, unlike tequila, every mezcal is made from different agave plants, which can be aged anywhere from five or six years to two decades — accounting for the differences in taste and in price from tequila.”
Villanueva has long been preparing for this moment. Working with the La Pulperia team for almost a decade as the general manager for both its previous W46th and present W44th street locations, he’s now thrilled to expand his reach by leading a new program next door. “I’m excited to introduce a completely new concept,” he said. The small-plate, limited-seating format of the menu (currently featuring six mezcal-based and six whiskey-based cocktails) allows Villanueva to constantly tweak and experiment with new pairings.
“We’re going to try new things — for example, here we’re going to pair one of our mezcal cocktails with sushi. We’ll pair another with ceviche. We want every item on the menu to work with every spirit — for both whiskey and mezcal. When you cure mezcal, you have to be careful in your construction. The idea is to make sure that you can always taste the spirit itself,” said Villanueva.
Through constant experimentation, he’s worked out exactly which flavors embody the perfect cocktail — one of NxtRoom’s signature beverages features a mezcal made with pomegranate, passion fruit, and burnt orange: “A perfect marriage,” added Villanueva.
The expert barman has had plenty of time to work out the details. After a rocky pandemic closure, La Pulperia was forced to shutter for an extended period before relocating and reopening on W44th. Both Villanueva and Medina are grateful that they were able to keep the eatery in Hell’s Kitchen and stay connected with their passionate regulars.
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“Being back is a miracle,” said Medina. “We wanted to stay here, and we love being close to Broadway. It was all a matter of timing — when Broadway reopened, we knew we would be OK.”
Medina and Villanueva cherish their relationship with the theatrical community, who they described as the “cherry on top” of Hell’s Kitchen. “We’ve had so much support from them — everybody has been coming out,” added Villanueva.
In appreciation, they plan to roll out several cocktails in tribute to the area’s shows. The “Jersey Boy”, an homage to Medina’s favorite musical now playing at W50th’s New World Stages, will feature a smoky bourbon-bacon combination, while “The Phantom” will highlight a whiskey, cola, and blackberry mashup. “And if we can get one of the Phantom masks, we’ll hang it up here,” laughed Medina.
While Villanueva and Medina intend to keep tinkering and experimenting with the offerings at NxtRoom, they hope to soon be recognized as trailblazers in cocktail and tapas innovation. “Danny’s been working on this for so many years,” said Medina. “I hope that in five years, he’ll be recognized as one of the pioneers in the field, and as someone giving Hell’s Kitchen an entirely different cocktail experience.”
Villanueva and Medina cited the close-knit hospitality community as instrumental to their success in the neighborhood. “It’s the best — I have restaurants all over New York and there’s not a place in the city like Midtown — and the most interesting part is Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a little pocket of support,” said Medina, citing their friendships with other area bar owners like The Pocket Bar’s Suzy Darling.
Medina and Villanueva hope that everyone from neighborhood regulars to visiting travelers feel inclined to grab a seat at their famous drag brunch, or dinner at La Pulperia before wandering over to the bar at NxtRoom for a thoughtful, guided journey into the world of mezcal and whiskey.
“It’s a restaurant, but it’s really about the experience,” said Villanueva, adding: “It’s about friends, it’s about family. It’s about welcoming you back to the neighborhood. We want every person who comes in to feel like a regular, like, ‘Hey, I know you! Welcome back’.”
NxtRoom will be open from Wednesday to Saturday, 5pm to midnight. 623 9th Avenue (around the corner on W44th Street) @nxtroom