A gamble pays off
Chef Julian Serrano, who had already achieved stardom at Masa's in San Francisco, gambled on Las Vegas in 1998. With Picasso, he has hit the jackpot.
Picasso is the premier restaurant in Bellagio, the signature resort of the "new" Las Vegas. Owner Steve Wynn installed a collection of original works by the Spanish master, and the paintings make this one of the most beautiful dining rooms in America. With its rustic mix of brick, tile and wood, and a dramatic view of the dancing fountains in Bellagio's 8-acre lake, Picasso is a dream of country elegance.
It makes a perfect setting for Serrano's cuisine, which partners an utter respect for raw materials with a powerful imagination. To ensure the quality of every ingredient, Serrano offers only tasting menus (four courses for $75, five for $85), which change daily, and whose elements are artfully juxtaposed in creative dishes. Their signature is a triangular balance of main ingredient, complementary garnish and syncopated accent.
For example, the sweetness of scallops is balanced by the earthiness of black truffles and enlivened with the snap of green beans and red peppers bathed in a brisk vinaigrette. The flavors build on each other: elegant, refined and harmonious.
The service maintains the same high standards, which is no easy task given the crowd -- a mix of imperious high rollers and disgruntled losers, along with oblivious tourists and curious foodies with high expectations. One evening I heard a couple complain that their meal was only average. "Then there's no charge for the meal," replied the matre d'. "We don't intend Picasso to be average, and we hope you'll give us another chance."
The wine list is the only element in the dining experience that falls short of outstanding. It's a broad international selection, mostly of young vintages, with a few trophy Bordeaux. But sommelier Keith Goldston is a wizard at matching the food with interesting wines by the glass (an option available for an extra $38 or $48, depending on your menu). And he recently reported that Wynn had given him the green light to invest more deeply in the cellar, so the list should improve.
The only constant in Las Vegas is change. The recent explosion of ambitious restaurants has certainly been impressive, but it's no sure bet they'll still be around when the city reinvents itself next time. Serrano, however, packed up his knives and his family and moved to Las Vegas to stay. The chef attributes the restaurant's high level of achievement and consistency to the fact that he has kept his entire kitchen crew since opening day. That's leadership, and Serrano's dedication is the best guarantee that Picasso is no desert mirage. The art on the restaurant's walls is worth millions of dollars, but it's the chef who is the jewel in the crown.
Address 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Las Vegas, 89109
Telephone (702) 693-8105
Fax (702) 693-8514
Web site www.bellagiolasvegas.com
Open Dinner, Thursday to Tuesday
Cost Very expensive
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club, Discover