Dining

Julian Serrano packs Spanish into every plate

Value and flavor are hallmarks of Aria’s new tapas spot

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Julian Serrano’s paella
Photo: Beverly Poppe
Brock Radke

The dining and drinking options of Aria are arranged in themed groups. At the resort's southern entry is the hip Union and adjacent Deuce Lounge. Upstairs, near the Viva Elvis showroom and Gold Lounge, are some heavy hitters from familiar names: Sirio, American Fish and Jean Georges Steakhouse. Just below is a small Asian pocket, with Lemongrass (Thai) and Blossom (Chinese). And just off the lobby are the showcased: Sage, Bar Masa/Shaboo and Julian Serrano. Of all the restaurants in this new casino-resort, the foundation of CityCenter, Serrano's is the place everyone has chosen to try first.

There are many reasons why, and the main one is value. It might be the most affordable place to eat in Aria, and it sits right next to what might be the most expensive restaurant in the country (Shaboo). It also serves a menu of Spanish tapas, something everyone loves or claims to love, especially in Las Vegas. Also, there are not a lot of Spanish restaurants in town. Simply put, this one is the best.

Restaurant Guide

Julian Serrano
Four stars
Daily, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
At Aria, 3730 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 590-7111.
Suggested dishes: stuffed piquillo peppers, $10; chicken croquetas, $9; tuna-raspberry skewer, $14; Paella Valencia, $40.
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The restaurant is splashed with bright colors and has an open-air vibe, turning up the volume (and fun) in the ridiculously dark casino space. The selection of Spanish wines is peerless, and the house-made sangria and signature cocktails like the spicy, strawberried Dulce y Picante are mighty tasty. Drinking is part of eating when you're having tapas, and you're covered well with both parts of the experience at Serrano.

Of course, there are a few dishes more substantial than tapas. If you like paella, order it first because it takes awhile, and opt for the house specialty Valencia version, which has rabbit, chicken, chorizo and vegetables sprinkled about the saffron rice. We find it much more enjoyable to skip the heavy stuff and see how many of Serrano's fun, flavor-packed small plates we can try before we get full. Crispy, delicate chicken croquetas are a rich delight, as are sweet roasted piquillo peppers, oozing goat cheese. The options reach beyond what you'll find at other local Spanish eateries with three ceviches, three tiraditos and imported cheese and meat plates that can include Iberico ham.

Unbelievably, the vegetarian section of the menu is my favorite, for its delicious simplicity. You know what to expect with basic dishes like brava potatoes with spicy tomato sauce and a Spanish tortilla of potatoes, eggs and onion. But then they get you with a creamy wild mushroom risotto, deeply flavored with an earthy jus, and the most elementary item on the menu: sautéed padron peppers, in simple olive oil and salt. The clean vegetable goodness here is the perfect between-course enhancer, and every sixth or seventh pepper packs surprising heat. Again with the fun.

Our first visit to the restaurant came on its third day. The service was a bit slow for a late lunch and started rough when we were seated at the absolute worst table in the room, pinched in the corner. But the food was delicious, and minor scrapes are to be expected in any restaurant's infancy. A month later, the joint was packed at dinnertime, running on all cylinders with quick, smiling bar service, and there was nothing to complain about in the dining room. It's nice to think they've already worked out the kinks.

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