In 2002 my parents offered to take me to Los Angeles via way of Las Vegas to see the Los Angeles Kings for the first time at Staples Center – it would serve as my present for graduating college. A memorable trip paid for entirely by people of humble means I still have great memories from that trip – and one strange memory of the absolute sticker shock pertaining to a restaurant called Picasso, at that time the best in town, and a place we’d considered eating for my celebratory meal until we saw the prices. With only a hint of interest in the World’s finest tables at that time we’d settle for a meal elsewhere, though I cannot recall where.
Flash forward eight years, countless memorable dining experiences, and five visits to Las Vegas since that trip I will note that the restaurant had long been on my radar, but it had always been put on the backburner because of a promise I’d made to my sister – an artist and admirer of Picasso – that if I went she’d be coming with me. Having returned from Los Angeles (having seen the Kings at home now for the fifth time) earlier that day I maintained that Picasso would prove a more experience than the one days prior at Julian Serrano and with my sister in tow the opportunity was there – on Christmas Eve next to the Bellagio fountains, to boot.
Established in 1998 to accompany the opening of The Bellagio, Picasso still holds its reputation as one of the five best dining spots in Las Vegas and has garnered Two Stars from Michelin in both guide books. While some suggest that the restaurant is overrated, its price-tag is significantly less abrasive than other contenders for “Best of” Las Vegas (Robuchon, Savoy, Twist, Alex) and the room, studded with thirteen priceless pieces of art is perhaps the most opulent. Arriving moments early for our 7:30 reservation we were told it would be a short while before our table was readied and we were welcomed to browse the art, sit at the bar, or watch the fountains from the Patio while we waited. Watching a number of walk-ins be turned away I was glad we’d made reservations – the restaurant was packed.
Mere moments would pass before our table was readied and walking through the expanse of the restaurant, past many lovely floral arrangements and million dollar works of art. Close to the window, as requested, and with excellent lighting we arrived to our two top where chairs were pulled out, a purse hook was offered, and menus were presented. Greeted by our server, a lovely man with a strong French accent named Robert, the Prix Fixe vs. Degustation choice was discussed and a drink menu provided. With chargers and serving plates (and purse hook) all whimsically designed with Picasso’s infamous brush strokes the “theme” reminded me of Le Cirque in its degree of continuity, yet it never seemed over the top or gaudy.
Opting first for cocktails and subsequently placing our orders I will simply say Robert was a perfect server – interested and interesting, there but never obtrusive, ever giving and never hovering – especially since he was also responsible for water refills, bread service, and everything but bussing the tables. For our cocktails, at $14 each, the decisions would be the Picasso Pom with Hangar One Raspberry, Lemoncello, Pomegranate Juice, Spiral of Lemon and the Emilio Cocktail with Lustau Rare Cream Sherry, Level Vodka, Nocello, Tuaca, Spiral of Orange. Refreshing and smooth after a long day of driving both drinks were quite heavy handed with the alcohol, but nicely balanced by the fruity tones.
Arriving as we sipped our drinks the nightly amuse would be Cold Smoked Scottish Salmon, Caviar, Cucumber, Quail Egg, Crème Fraiche, and Potato Leek Soup. Served curled around the crème fraiche the salmon was excellent – more firm than a sashimi prep, but similar in taste. With the caviar somewhat less briny than others I’ve tasted it worked well with the somewhat sour crème while the egg added its characteristic creamy flavor. The Potato soup was a commendable potage – the creamy texture balanced nicely with the onions and chives.
Finishing our soup and salmon, the first of many rounds of bread would begin. With different varieties appearing over the course of our 170 minute meal the options of which we were able to partake included Cherry Manchego, Green Olive, Traditional Baguette, Bacon Onion Brioche, and Cherry Walnut Wheat. While each was delicious and nicely complimented by the sweet “Picasso” stamped butter I must say I particularly appreciated the Cherry Manchego with the nutty and savory cheese balanced marvelously by the sweet dried cherries. The Bacon Onion Brioche too was quite extravagant and tasty, though it didn’t particularly pair well with any of the courses.
With myself ordering the 5-course degustation, largely unchanged over many years at Picasso, and Erika opting to go Prix Fixe for more choices our first courses would arrive simultaneously. For my first dish, Maine Lobster Salad - Apple-Champagne Vinaigrette was ample in portion, elegant in presentation, and lovely on the palate. With thick chunks of chilled lobster in a light cream sauce serving as the base, the “salad” was essentially microgreens tossed with apple-cider accented vinaigrette atop. Flanked by melon balls and tomatoes of varying colors the dish was quite light, a wonderful opening volley even if it was much more “lobster” than “salad.”
My sister’s first course was not the one I’d have selected on a menu with quail and oysters, but honestly it was lovely, perhaps better than my lobster. Titled Crème of Butternut Squash Soup the dish featured an absolutely satin smooth veloute of creamy squash in a large shallow bowl. Complimented with Homemade Amaretto-Nutmeg Marshmallows and Duxelle of Wild Mushrooms the dish was simply a perfect balance of sweet and earthy, creamy and fibrous. One of the five best soups I’ve ever had the chance to enjoy.
Course two of our meal would present me with my only disappointing course of the meal – and my sister with her favorite dish of the trip. Part of the degustation, my plate was a Pan Seared U-10 Day Boat Scallop with Potato Mousseline and Jus de Veau. Served with a potato crisp standing playfully behind the single monstrous scallop the dish looked beautiful and the tastes were lovely, albeit predictable with the savory veal reduction balancing the sweet scallop. With the creamy potato puree loaded with butter the place where this dish missed was in the centerpiece – gorgeously caramelized to the point of a near brulee on the exterior the scallop was simply a bit too well done at its center. While certainly a competent and lovely preparation the fact remains that perhaps twenty less seconds on the pan could have elevated it to a whole different level.
With my sister gushing across the table I was fortunately able to steal (or beg for) a bite of her dish without being assaulted. Titled simply as Sauteed Filet of Black Bass with Cauliflower Mousseline and Saffron Sauce I have to admit this was her second dish in a row that left me jealous. Flawless fish – supple and moist with the skin seared to crispy was just the start. Resting in a delicate pool of buttery saffron sauce and surrounded by a troika of quenelles of Cauliflower Mousseline – the very essence of cauliflower, butter, and cream – everything was refined, mild, and lovely. No culinary trickery, just top quality product prepared with a gifted hand.
The next course would provide my sister with an empty charger while I would receive the Sautéed “A” Steak of Foie Gras with Poached Pears, Huckleberries, Crushed Pistachios, Lemon Zest, and Rhubarb. A large steak of 3-4 ounces of high quality and perfectly cleaned Foie Gras, the liver itself was everything you would expect. Placed atop a “cake” of compressed pistachio and topped with roasted crunchy pistachios kissed with lemon the textures were a nice contrast and exceptionally complimentary. Swirled with rhubarb reduction and plated alongside a poached pear with huckleberries this dish did not attempt to reinvent the wheel, but much like the bass it was quite memorable for its classic approach.
Watching the water show outside through the window it would be a fair amount of time before our main courses arrived – a tad inconvenient for Erika but welcomed for me given the richness of the proceeding dishes and my inability to stop picking at the bread selection. When the mains arrived they would definitely prove to be worth the wait. For myself, Roasted Lamb Chops with Sweet Bell Pepper Farci turned out to be quite the substantial portion – easily 7-8oz including the bone. Prepared rare and extremely juicy yet easily cut with the side of the fork this was without a doubt a top-5 all time lamb preparation. Presented simply with rosemary, a stack of buttery potatoes, and a mélange of sweet bell peppers this would prove my favorite dish of the evening, regardless of how good the Foie Gras was.
My sister’s main course was a surprise to me – I didn’t know she fancied Pigeon. Titled simply as Roasted Pigeon with Wild Rice Risotto the dish was rustic French in every way. Brined and then roasted the whole split pigeon was an impressive portion with lovely golden skin and juicy flesh. Presented alongside equally well roasted carrots and asparagus plus a mélange of toothsome rice and fibrous mushrooms with corn and tomatoes I will note my sister did not love the rice as she felt it tasted a bit acidic, but to my taste it was actually quite pleasant in balancing the bird.
With our server checking in to see how everything was going we were next offered coffee – at $4 a person it was a pleasant but unmemorable blend served in clever Picasso cups with lips and an abstract nose on its side. Along with the coffee would arrive dessert, a la carte for each of us and surprisingly without a palate cleanser. Beginning first with my selection, strongly recommended by Robert, Hazelnut and Coffee Opera with Coffee Hazelnut Ice Cream and Brown Sugar Filberts was quite impressive in presentation. With a thin wedge of moist cake served on edge with a “shadow” of Hazelnut dust the flavor and texture of the cake was somewhere between almond dacquoise and tiramisu. Resting happily next to the tall and proud cake, a small ball of similarly flavored ice cream atop candied nuts – creamy and crunchy, a nice cake and ice cream combination but certainly nothing to write home about.
My sister’s dessert, billed as the restaurant’s signature sweet, would be Warm Chocolate Fondant with Caramel Candy Cashew Ice Cream and Chocolate covered Cashews. Essentially a warm chocolate lava cake that gushed forth liquid fudge when pierced the presentation of this dish was quite attractive and the cake tasty, but the true star of the show was invariably the ice cream which took the idea of salty caramel ice cream and instead made it salty cashew – lovely, and absolutely stunning when paired with the cake and some of the crunchy cashews semi-circling the plate.
Sated and happy the check would come next – a relative bargain compared to the other Michelin 2-Stars in Las Vegas to be sure. Along with the check a small tray of mignardises including an airy vanilla meringue, an apricot pate de fruit, a few fruit and nut cookies, and a goat cheese lollipop with a crisp of apple – all tasty, none overly impressive save for a rich chocolate ganache with four layers of texture and chocolate tones.
Settling the bill Robert asked us if we would like a photograph by one of the many Picasso’s or by the lake – “both” was the only logical response. With a requested copy of the menu in hand I will note that Robert got sidetracked by multiple persons asking for photos, but eventually ours was taken and we bid him farewell before making our way to the door where my sister (not I) would be presented with a box of crispy cinnamon butter cookies in a lovely magnetic jewelry box bearing the Artist’s signature.
Making our way from Picasso I must say I left with mixed emotions – not because anything was bad – as a matter of fact, everything was quite good. The issue was that aside from a lovely Christmas Eve with my little sister at a restaurant that seemed unattainable a mere 8 years ago, nothing was “great” aside from the décor and art. In the end I think Picasso has maintained its place in the Vegas culinary scene – it is just that many other restaurants, and my own personal dining preferences, have perhaps grown to be something more.