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Opening Weekend Report from Julian Serrano at Aria CityCenter


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Opening Weekend Report from Julian Serrano at Aria CityCenter

kevin h | Dec 23, 2009 11:11 PM

After dining at Bar Masa and Sage the previous two nights, it was time to end my tour of Aria's new restaurants with Julian Serrano. Serrano, of course, is best known for revolutionizing high-end dining in Vegas with his restaurant Picasso at Bellagio. Unfortunately, my last visit to Picasso fell short, so I was excited to give Serrano a chance to redeem himself with his new eponymous eatery.

At Picasso, Serrano put forth a menu of French fare, accented with Spanish touches. Here, however, Serrano is able to, for the very first time, explore the essence of his native Spanish cuisine: the food of his childhood. Specifically, Julian Serrano focuses on tapas, mostly traditional, but with a few "molecular" flourishes and a touch of international flair thrown in as well.

Flat Calamari [$14.00] | Lemon E.V.O.O. Sauce, Caramelized Onion
We started with my favorite dish of the meal. At first, the presentation surprised me a bit; I was expecting the calamari to be cut up, but instead, these small spear squid were served nearly whole. They had a wonderful aroma of the sea, and biting in, I loved how the squid's inherent brininess was preserved, while at the same time, the char and the olive oil added a certain depth of flavor.

Traditional Spanish Chicken Croquetas [$8.00] | Chicken, Béchamel
It's hard to go wrong with these tasty chicken and béchamel fritters. I appreciated the crisp golden brown exteriors, yielding to warm, oozing, creamy centers, imbued with the quintessence of chicken. Very nice.

Brava Potatoes [$8.00] | Spicy Tomato, Alioli Sauce
Patatas bravas is a traditional Spanish dish consisting of fried potatoes, topped with tomato sauce, and sometimes alioli (garlic and olive oil). At The Bazaar, I felt that the tomato sauce overpowered the potato, but here, the patatas stood their ground. Nicely fried to a crisp yet creamy consistency, the potatoes formed a base on which the tomato and alioli could really sing.

Wrinkled Potatoes with Mojo Picon Sauce [$8.00] | Spicy Canary Sauce
Next up were papas arrugadas ("wrinkled potatoes"), basically potatoes cooked in salt water and served with their skins intact. The potatoes were delightful on their own, with a gorgeously supple texture, though they could've been a touch saltier. They were served with a mojo picón sauce, which is a spicy condiment originating from the Canary Islands. The interplay between the mild potato and piquant mojo was immensely enjoyable. It would've been nice, however, to have the other famous mojo, the cilantro-based mojo verde, to accompany the papas as well.

White Ceviche [$10.00] | Corvina Fish, Red Onion, Jalepeño Pepper, Cilantro, Lime Juice
Here was a nearly textbook ceviche, which, unlike most of the menu items, is actually not Spanish in origin (being from Peru)--remember, Serrano fully intends to incorporate global influences here. In any case, the fish itself was dense, heavy, with just a touch of ocean. It was deftly countered by the punch of the citrus as well as the bitter, vegetal tang of the onion, leading to an amalgam of light, bright flavors with a great acidity.

Lobster-Pineapple Skewer [$12.00] | Lobster Tail, "Molecular" Pineapple, Sesame Oil
This was one of the "new style" tapas on the menu, and just by looking at the photo, it's not hard to see the influence of José Andrés. The cubes of pineapple made their sugariness very apparent at first, but this then led to the more delicate sweetness of the lobster, while the finish turned distinctly salty. Texturally, it was great compare the almost jelly-like consistency of the "molecular" pineapple with the firm, dense, snappy body of the crustacean.

Creamy Risotto [$10.00] | Wild Mushroom, Manchego, Natural Jus
Though my dining companion thought that the rice was a bit tough, I appreciated its firm, "al dente" texture. Pairing mushroom and cheese in a risotto is nothing new, but nevertheless, I enjoyed the hearty interplay between the luscious, creamy Manchego and earthy mushroom, all over a backdrop of rice.

Tuna Tiradito [$12.00] | Ahi Tuna, Ponzu Sauce, Seaweed, Rocoto Pepper Sauce
Like the ceviche above, tiradito also originates from Peru, and bears a strong semblance to Japanese sashimi. The tuna itself was as it should be: clean, mild, supple. I did feel that the ponzu was a bit too domineering here, drowning out some of the fish's inherent character. However, the sauce was countered nicely by the brine of the seaweed (which also added a great crunch to the dish), as well as the sharp heat from the pepper.

Mediterranean Stew in Deconstruction [$12.00] | Prawns, Bronzinni, Sofrito
What we have here are the individual components of a Mediterranean-style seafood stew. The fish used was bronzinni, better known as branzino, or European seabass. It had a subtly sweet taste along with a supple texture--good, but unexceptional on its own. The prawn was a similar story. The key here, thus, was to eat everything together in one big bite, experiencing the seafood, puréed potato (which I mistook for sorbet!), and sofrito (an olive oil, tomato, onion, and garlic sauce) all at once--now it makes sense!

Arroz con Leche [$8.00] | Merengada Foam, Lemon and Orange Jelly
First up was a sort of rice pudding, tarted up with merengada (meringue) foam and citrus gelée, topped with a sprig of mint. The flavor of the rice was predominant, as expected, but it was aptly set off by the sweetness of the citrus fruit and the slight spiciness from the meringue. It reminded us a bit of horchata!

Torrija [$8.00] | Brioche, Aromatic Cream, Citrus, Caramel Custard
We ended with a torrija, basically a sort of fried cream-soaked bread, typically consumed during Lent. Julian Serrano's version had an eggy sweetness to it, with almost a cheese-like flair. This was accented by the pronounced sugariness of the caramel, and moderated by the tangy citrus.

The meal was a resounding success. Serrano seems to have a good grasp of traditional Spanish tapas, but just as importantly, I really appreciated some of the more global, contemporary touches that he's incorporated into the menu. Though I could identify minor issues with some of the food, I must say that he appears to be doing great, especially considering that the restaurant had only been open for two days. Given more time, as well as more stomach capacity, I'd love to return and give the menu an even more thorough workout.

Full review with photos:

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