Chef Julian Serrano is truly a culinary icon of Las Vegas. He went to work with Steve Wynn and Bellagio 18 years ago, creating Picasso, perhaps the most awarded restaurant on the Strip. In 2009, after MGM Resorts had become his business partner, he opened his namesake tapas restaurant at Aria, dazzling the Strip with his native Spanish cuisine.
Now coming this spring to Bellagio is Lago, an Italian twist on tapas, Serrano’s customized concept for the fountain-fronting restaurant space formerly occupied by Circo. Las Vegas Weekly recently spoke with the chef about his history and future on the Strip.
Picasso at Bellagio hasn’t changed much since opening in 1998. How have you maintained success there through the years? The important thing is consistency and that comes from the person who runs the business. Different people have different ways of doing things and my way is hands-on. I spend most of my time here at [Picasso] though I do spend some time every day at [Julian Serrano] at Aria.
Another reason is you have to have a company that supports you. You have to make money, sure, but you have to have the same goals, and we do—for people to come in and get a great gastronomic experience. We do whatever we have in our power to accomplish that, from buying great produce to having a great staff down to the China and the silver. Some places, you can go and have a great dinner one day and come back after three weeks or three years and say, what happened here? That doesn’t happen here.
You also have the benefit of one of the greatest restaurant locations possible, right on Bellagio’s lake. The setting needs no adjustment but how have you changed your approach to food at Picasso over the years? We still have two menus, same as the beginning. We’ve changed dishes many times but everything is very much the same. Restaurants change when everything is not working well together—the location, the restaurant, the food, the wine, the service. From the beginning, this has been working and for that reason we don’t need to change anything. Some places you go, especially in other cities, there’s a great view but the food sucks. They’re only putting the money into the view and everything else is secondary. Here we put it into everything and make sure we improve.
There has been little change to Bellagio’s restaurants over the years, too, which makes it very exciting that you are about to open Lago. How did this project come to be? Even here at Bellagio, there is a time to update things, and the company wanted to make a change and they offered it to me. I said yes but I already had an idea of what I wanted to do, and if it wasn’t a good fit, I wouldn’t want to do it. I wanted similar food as Julian Serrano at Aria but in Italian.
What inspired that idea? I feel the age of most people coming to Vegas is 25 to 50—that’s what we’re seeing at the restaurant at Aria but at Bellagio, too. A lot of these people are going to clubs, but they want to dine, too. When you’re going out to a club you don’t want a big plate of food, you want small portions so you can still eat more and be happy and taste different flavors and try different foods in one dinner. This presentation is so popular and it’s really working well.
Italian food is so familiar for Las Vegas visitors. Will it be tricky to execute your vision of smaller plates and still put out food people identify with? I don’t think so because it is just that, food that everybody knows. You can do a smaller portion of ravioli. You can do a smaller portion of risotto. Two people can share one plate of two cannelloni. And we are going to have seven main course dishes—chicken, lamb, fish, beef—if you want a larger dish to share with the table. It’s always whatever the guest wants, but the service will be focused on smaller portions. It will be a large menu, too, 45 to 50 items. You’ll have to come in more than once to taste more.
What are you most excited about with Lago? There’s going to be a beautiful patio. I can’t believe Bellagio didn’t already have a patio at this [location]—you have to have it because you have at least eight months a year you can do service outside. People want to eat outside. At Picasso, in the summer at certain times, the sun hits outside and it’s just tremendous, so hot. But we don’t open for lunch here. At Lago, it’s in the corner so the sun never hits that way because of the building. The location is just fantastic.
Lago is set to open in time for this year’s Vegas Uncork’d events, which arrive April 23-26. Yes, we’ll be ready to go. And I’m participating in so many Uncork’d events, I forgot how many. I think we’re doing five or six different events, including a brunch at Lago.
It seems like every year there’s sort of a star of Uncork’d, a chef who is doing lots of events and maybe has a new restaurant to show off. Are you the star this year? I hope so. Every year we are doing a lot of stuff, but it is nice to time it with the opening of this restaurant. It’s important to be part of this event, and if you have the ability to do it, why not?