Saturday, December 18, 2010

Julian Serrano, Las Vegas NV

…with a great meal at Sage the night before I’d had a chance to scope out the menu at Julian Serrano, the concept looked to be eclectic tapas with “something for everyone” and as such a great fit for our first group meal of the trip. Largely identifiable as the man who reinvented Vegas fine dining back in 1998 with Picasso at Bellagio, Serrano’s new eponymous restaurant seemed to be the first foray into Tapas for Vegas – odd considering America’s recent fascination with small plates in other major cities.

Stylish and sleek, the restaurant was clearly Spanish in design with bold colors, hanging bubbles, a Hitchcockian entryway, and a 40+ person bar. A Spanish native with two Beard Awards and a resume stretching from Paris to Zurich to San Francisco, Julian Serrano restaurant would serve a proving ground for Serrano’s (and Chef de Cuisine Jose Picazzo – a Andres protégé) take on modern Spanish food – something not really shown off with Picasso’s contemporary French menu.

Arriving early for our 12:30 reservation we were quickly sat at a four person hightop attached to the bar. Greeted by our server, Adrian S, a man who would be a source of much annoyance during the meal we declined Sangria and requested water – water that would be filled and remain filled by the ancillary staff quite adequately. What followed was a nearly 20 minute wait to order as Adrian simply seemed to disappear despite the fact that the restaurant’s ~150 seats were only 1/3 full. On his return Adrian took orders adequately, but seemed largely disinterested.

Sitting and chatting as the ladies had just landed 60 minutes prior to arriving at the restaurant there was a surprisingly long wait before the start of the meal – at least 20 minutes which seemed odd for a tapas place. When the food did begin to arrive, however, we figured out why there was a delay – instead of batching our dozen dishes into waves, they were about to be served all at once. With plate after plate after plate arriving and filling the table I asked Adrian why this was happening and suggested slowing things down to which he responded “this is a tapas restaurant, sir, it is how things are served.” Having already assured himself a lousy tip by this point I explained to him that although I’ve never been to Spain I have been to a multitude of Andres and Garces spots, plus other “tapas” style restaurants and have never seen anything like this. Without apology I watched him amble off to the kitchen where he actually stopped two servers carrying plates (they would have been numbers 8 and 9 on the table at once) and after this service did improve, mildly.

Without belaboring service issues any longer, the menu at Julian Serrano featured hits and misses like any other menu, but unfortunately none of the hits were “wowing” while two of the misses were far off target. Beginning first with the Pan Machego - toasted bread fresh garlic tomato sauce one-year-old manchego cheese, it was perhaps one of the best dishes of the afternoon – the tomato sauce tangy and fresh, the cheese pungent and strong, the bread hot and crisp.

Dish two, Traditional spanish chicken croquetas chicken béchamel would be another solid dish, much like the versions at The Bazaar and Jaleo the chicken was soft and supple, the béchamel creamy and mild. Classic and simple the kitchen executed this dish well, but arriving with all the other plates I did not get a chance to sample until they were already luke-warm, which was a bummer.

A third classic, Stuffed dates almond applewood bacon wrap spicy piquillo pepper would prove to be one of my favorite dishes of the meal. Sweet and smoky the dates themselves were top notch. Stuffed with an almond that I can only assume had been precooked in pork fat and wrapped in a thick slice of savory bacon before flash frying the flavors all worked as expected. Served with a side of intensely hot pepper sauce most of us stuck to the dates solo while my sister enjoyed the heat.

Having already noted her fancy for spice, Stuffed piquillo peppers goat cheese mushrooms would be another choice of my sister’s. While she enjoyed the dish, I personally found the peppers to be quite muted and the cheese overwhelming. Had I not done a double take, I’d have never guessed mushrooms were included in the filling, either. I will note, like the croquetas, this dish was already becoming chilly by the time I had a chance to taste.

Amongst the others arriving early to the party, Salmon with truffle truffle béchamel portabello mushroom did not work for me at all. Not generally a fan of salmon I will say the fish itself was quite good, albeit overcooked and a little dry. Where the dish failed, unfortunately was in pairing such a thick and heavy sauce with an already meaty and flavorful fish. While I understand that in order to convey the mushroom/truffle essence on salmon it would have to be potent, I personally would have just opted for a less dense fish – instead this just ended up tasting like a slightly fishy cream of mushroom soup.

Plate six was Mediterranean stew in deconstruction prawns bronzinni sofrito, the first of the more “modern” tapas. Familiar with European seabass I think the cut we received was a bit close to the tail and the fish’s generally sweet taste was much brinier than expected. With the prawn slightly overcooked and rubbery the seafood on the plate was fortunately brought up a notch by puréed sweet potato and “sofrito” of garlic, olive oil, tomato, and onion. Taking bites of everything mixed did indeed harken to a seafood stew, but not an exceptional one in any way.

The final plate in the first (self limited) wave was the best “modern” tapas of the meal - tuna-raspberry skewer ahi tuna “molecular” raspberry wasabi sesame seed. At $14 the portion/price ratio was poor, but the flavors and quality more than made up for it. With the “molecular” aspect a similar texture to a gelee, the sweetness of the raspberry was nicely tempered by the heat of the wasabi while the pan seared tuna coated in sesame seeds lent heft and crunch to the dish. At the same time visually appealing, texturally intriguing, and tasty this was the sort of dish I had expected when walking into Julian Serrano, though I’d have personally preferred sashimi style from the fish.

Clearly able to detect my annoyance, Adrian stopped by frequently after my complaint to see how things were going – he also asked whether we were ready for more food once we'd finished a few plates. Agreeable the second wave would feature all five dishes arriving at once…a much more manageable number for 4 people and limited table space. The first dish, Octopus cachelo potatoes spanish paprika would be a straightforward preparation similar to what I experienced at Amada earlier this year, but superior is size, preparation, and taste. Flawless in texture I’d not be surprised if the Octopus had received Sous Vide treatment prior to a pan finish, but aside from the excessive olive oil (undoubtedly at least 1/4 cup returned to the kitchen) everything of the dish was textbook…and really, the wasted oil is on the kitchen…had they given me bread I’d have soaked it all up as it was very high quality.

The second dish, Wild mushroom soup shiitake crimini oyster foie gras cream would prove to be another excellent classic dish spruced up with modern technique. Similar to my favorite mushroom soup of all time (Canoe’s creamless Mushroom soup) but topped off with foam featuring the unctuous sapor of foie gras. Taken on its own the soup itself was hearty, earthy, and minimally sweet – the cream simply added a whole extra layer of flavor. This, along with the subsequent dish would prove my favorite of the meal.

Overlooked by myself but ordered by my mother, Creamy risotto wild mushroom manchego cheese natural jus was the steal of the menu at a mere $10. With a base of flawless rice cooked in mushroom broth the dish found heft in the addition of creamy mushroom broth (quite similar in flavor to that on the salmon) while slices of fibrous mushroom added textural variety. Topped with a slice of slowly melting year-old manchego that added its characteristic aged salinity the entirety of the dish was flawless – I was especially thankful to receive this in the second wave of dishes as I imagine it would not have been as successful in the cooled state.

Where the tuna skewers succeeded, Lobster-pineapple skewer lobster tail “molecular” pineapple sesame oil failed. Whether it was the small portions of overcooked lobster or the over sweetened and disconcertingly fibrous pineapple gelee I cannot be certain, but the dish was simply unbalanced and any nuance that may have been intended was lost in the sweetness. As the final fish dish of the night I’ll simply say that aside from the octopus the kitchen at Serrano really needs to pay attention to the textures coming out of the kitchen as nearly every fish was overcooked.

The final plate would present from the “Platos Grandes” section - Chicken breast pollo sous vide finished a la plancha sautéed potatoes spanish pork chorizo. An ample half chicken perfectly succulent on the inside and crispy on the exterior the bird had clearly been brined in rosemary, parsley, and garlic. Sitting atop a pile of peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and spicy chorizo and alongside a “mashed potato” clearly made using an ISI whipper the dish was a fine chicken presentation, but aside from the potatoes nothing revolutionary, just very well done.

Having already waltzed by Jean Phillipe earlier we originally considered forgoing dessert and heading to the Patisserie, but a look at the menu obligated a round of desserts largely because my sister was so intrigued by Eggnog Flan spiced stout foam vanilla tulipa. As someone who fancies neither eggnog nor beer I fully anticipated disliking this dish but the one small bite I tasted was actually well balanced and sweeter than I’d expected. Everyone else at the table raved the dish and it was certainly attractive, just not my cup of tea…or beer…or eggnog.

For my dessert I selected Leche fritafried citrus milkdulce de lechevanilla ice cream. At $8 I will note that the portion size for this item was quite small, but the flavor was excellent. Almost like a deep fried flan or custard the citrus was mild and married perfectly with the dulce de leche. The ice cream was tasty – but yes, Vanilla. Personally I’d have liked to see a more unique ice cream with this dish, something more conducive to a “tres leches” feel.

For my mother the choice was Crema catalane Spanish crème bruleeginger thyme ice cream. It was a good crème brulee – no more, no less while the ice cream was excellent and evidence that the kichen is more than capable of generating more intriguing options than vanilla.

The final dessert, and the best in my opinion, was BunuelosSpanish doughnutsbutterscotch caramel. Slightly larger and more airy than the doughnut holes the night before at Sage the texture of the doughnuts was spot on. Paired with a hefty butterscotch caramel that harkened to a similar dip at Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak in Detroit this simple dessert was once again evidence that the Serrano kitchen works best when it doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel.

Tax and moderate tip included the total cost of the meal turned out to be ~$55/person – not a bad deal considering the fact that we ordered four dishes per person and did not pick based on price. With that said, when a chef like Serrano attaches his name to something there is an expectation that follows and that expectation was not met. Overcooked fishes, muddled flavor profiles, and service gaffs (especially the sort where the server tells the diner he/she is wrong) have no place in such restaurants and considering the superstar competition that just arrived in town with two restaurants at The Cosmopolitan these are the sorts of mistakes that could send diners looking for better.

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