A Distracted Review of Julian Serrano at Aria

I downed two and a half glasses of Pinot Grigio with an old friend before even looking at the menu at Julian Serrano. I think the prices were reasonable for the strip. But I’m not sure. The wine fell on an empty stomach and I was having a hard time concentrating. Marisa was fully sober, unable to join us for the pre-dinner drinking, and I think she handled the ordering. She’s good at it, so I’m sure she did fine. I should note here that when I say “old friend,” I mean “old girlfriend.”

Serrano serves tapas, and is just off the guest check-in at Aria, in the heart of the City Center complex. The space is refined while still having a nice, casual vibe. Which was great because when I say “old girlfriend,” I mean it was forever ago. She noted in a text earlier in the day that I’d last seen her was some twenty years previous. The concept of that alone is tough to get you’re head around—that you’re now at a point in your life when there are meaningful people in your history you haven’t seen for decades. Fucking decades. A full bottle of wine appeared, which may not have been the best idea for me, but I was happy to see it.

One of the tapas-sized dishes was dates wrapped in bacon, a classic that’s always welcome. It’s really pretty hard to go wrong with this one. If you’ve got access to decent bacon and dates all you really need to do is put them in contact with one another. That’s not to say that Julian Serrano serves easy dishes, I’m just saying that when you’re sitting across from someone you haven’t seen in that period of time, there’s a lot to think about There’s all this confluence–a moment in the past crashing in to the present. And pretty naturally, the conversation turns to the important points in the interim. So it’s all there in an instant: past, present, and everything in between.

Think I Ate this

Weird, even if the chorizo with mashed potato is pleasant and clever, but unremarkable. But it’s cool, too, because over the course of a couple of hours of conversation you can see so much: that this is undoubtedly the person you remember so well. And in comparing notes, you see that in ways the years have rewarded and abused you in similar ways. Different, of course, but similar.

The poblano peppers were good; a dish called, simply, “beef and cheese” serves yummy versions of both atop a thick slice of bread to very nice effect. And look, you can’t get to this age without enduring some rough shit. There are people who disappointed you or you disappointed them or maybe you disappointed each other or maybe you just don’t know. But you get to a point—a point you can reach at Julian Serrano—where you can say that it’s okay. That the trespasses happened. But you have people in your life now that make all that past manageable in your head.

Summing up Serrano. It’s the kind of place where an old girlfriend can captivate one’s wife with stories of her far-flung travels. And the old girlfriend can see that two decades later I have a wife who is nothing short of amazing. Best I can tell, the past and present can exisit happily at Julian Serrano. But it’s not even that really. It’s all in the present and everyone’s happy and well and that’s a damn good thing.

The pastry menu’s a little uninspired, but what the hell do you want from a single restaurant. Making a old friend a current one seems quite enough.

Thai, Thai, Thai

When we moved to Vegas, my wife Marisa (rhymes with ‘Lisa’, as she often says) got what might be the best job a dedicated educator and obsessive foodie could ask for. She teaches English as a Second Language to classes full of Asian and South American students, many of whom work in restaurants.

In one of her early conversations with students on the subject of authentic cooking available locally, she heard the strangest thing I could have imagined. Her Thai students were claiming that Lotus of Siam was good, but geared to western tastes and not all that authentic. For years now, I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that Lotus of Siam was one of the great restaurants I’d ever eaten in, and easily the best Thai I’d ever tasted. I’d taken almost every guest who’d come through Vegas there, and every single one of them raved about the food. Gourmet Magazine rated LoS as on the 50 best restaurants in the country some years back, and it was mentioned prominently in a recent New Yorker piece (sorry, unlinkable).

We confirmed this point of view with a student at Marisa’s school while socializing one night. I jotted down the name of a couple of restaurants he recommended, and off we went.

Five minutes later we were seated in Krung Siam. It turned out to be the second best Thai I’d ever had. The flavors weren’t as crisp or complex as the best of LoS—there wasn’t that fine dance of chili and vinegar that enlivens every part of the pallet. But boldness of the basils and curries and spices were wonderful. We thought the papaya salad was even better than the LoS version. Even at a level of 6 out of 10, the spiciness was more than we could comfortably handle, but we made it through every dish joyfully.

Krung Siam has ample booths, high ceiling strung with Christmas lights, and a small performance stage on which some dreadful covers are sung. All-in-all, it’s a comfortable place. It’s not the undertaking that going to Lotus of Siam can be, with its lines and harried staff. We said after our first meal at Krung that all-in-all it might be preferable to the great LoS.

Marisa’s students had recommended another place: a small chain with a few locations throughout Vegas. I was skeptical and held off on a tasting until Archi’s was mentioned in a Best of Las Vegas rundown at the Review Journal. There’s a location just five minutes from us. So we went.

It was fabulous. The food is more nuanced than Krung though not as complex as LoS—just bright and tasty and joyful. Last night we had three dishes: vegetable soup, papaya salad and red curry with tofu.

For the soup, the broth was light, and the bowl was full of vibrant greens. Nothing fancy, but terrific. Interestingly, it’s the second time we had that soup, and it tasted quite different. Clearly, the cooks were working with the best of the produce at hand and letting the flavor change accordingly.

The papaya salad may have been better than Krung’s. And the curry was simply delicious. I sometimes find Thai curries a bit of a slog—they can weigh down the pallet. But not here. We finished with a Mango with Sticky Rice that again showed the cooks dedication to fine ingredients. They don’t serve it outside of mango season, and this mango was perfect.

I’ll write more about Lotus of Siam and Krung Siam at another time.

Hopefully we’ll discover some more Thai gems before too long.

On-Strip Dining for the Vacationing Foodie

Las Vegas is probably the best place in the world to enjoy the trappings that surround fine dining. You want gorgeous, spacious, comfy interiors—we’ve got them by the dozen. You want attentive service that borders on obsequious—no problem. Great food, however, is a lot tougher to come by.

Vegas is where celebrity chefs trade their hard-earned reputations for cash as they push out mediocre fare. Thomas Keller’s famous obsession with quality ingredients didn’t make its way to Bouchon, his brasserie in the Venetian. Bradley Ogden’s Vegas chefs apply salt in Denny’s-like proportions. And New York’s great Fiamma has an outpost in MGM that serves gnocchi that could be used as adhesive. I could create a new blog dedicated solely to the ubiquitous, flavor-free $45 steak.

The restaurants do this because they can. They open strong, and bring in a talented chef during the early days when they draw reviewers. Once any sort of reputation is gained, they don’t need to worry about maintaining quality. There are no familiar faces from night to night—just one convention and weekend party crowd after another. As long as the food is inoffensive and the experience doesn’t outrage the diner, they’ve pretty much done their job.

So what’s the visiting foodie to do—how do you avoid the mediocre and get some value for your food dollar? Here’s my suggestion.

Say you’re here for three nights, and are planning on three nice dinners—an itinerary of something like Bouchon, Sushi Samba, and Rao’s. I’d ditch the plan in its entirety. The food in each will be good, but you can get good at a 1/3rd discount in your home city. The first two nights head off-strip. Vegas has some of the best Thai food around, and a lot of solid options for Korean, Vietnamese, and Mexican.

Then on your final night go seriously up-market—Picasso at Bellagio, Guy Savoy at Caesar’s, or Joel Robuchoen in MGM. I haven’t eaten at any of these—I live here now and a $165 3-course prixe fixe doesn’t fit into my daily life. But I have heard repeatedly that they’re excellent. I had the pleasure of trying Cut in Palazzo a couple of months back, and had a $75 steak that was better than piece of meat I’d ever eaten (and way more expensive). But I’d gladly trade one tasting of that steak for two a Palm or its kin.

For the foodie, the $30-$40 entrée price point just holds too much uncertainty. Celebrity chefs deliver too inconsistently. Go cheap or go over-the-top expensive—that’s where you’ll find the best food in the city.

Pho So 1

West of the Strip on Spring Mountain drive, there’s a mile-long stretch where you’ll find densely packed strip malls filled with small, relatively cheap Asian restaurants—mostly Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese. You hear the area referred to as Chinatown sometimes, and there are some Chinese places, but in my understanding the best cheap Chinese places are scattered around the Vegas sprawl, with some very good options within the large casinos.

There are great restaurants on Spring Mountain, including two of our favorites—Krung Siam and the outstanding Raku—and I’ll write about both of these soon. But last night we wanted something cheap and simple, and so we opted to return to one of the Pho joints we tried some time back, Pho So 1.

You don’t expect much in the way of atmosphere or service when getting Pho. And we got neither. Our waiter seemed angry with us in the few moments he was around.  And the interior was bright, a bit antiseptic, and on a breezy night, a little chilly. But the patrons, almost all Vietnamese, seemed happy enough to keep their heads down and focus on the food.

Our order was simple: pork spring rolls, and two noodle soups, a Pho with well done flank and rare steak, and an udon noodle with pork.

Spring Roll with Pork

The spring rolls were tasty. The pork was nicely seasoned, and the greens within the wrapping were fresh.  The accompanying peanut sauce was better than most.

Overall, the soups were good. The beef broth in my Pho was rich and pleasant, and both selections of beef were joyfully fatty. The pork with udon was notable for the quality of the broth, which was light, delicate, with heavy scallion flavor. However, the pork strips were disappointing—dry and lacking in any independent flavor.

Marisa and I enjoyed the meal, but with so many offerings up and down Spring Mountain, I think we can find something that provides a better experience throughout.

Pho So 1
4745 Spring Mountain Road
Very inexpensive

Rosemary’s

I want to write a gushing review of Rosemary’s. It feels like the right thing to do, given how hard everyone involved with the place is working. The service was extraordinarily attentive; the interior design showed admirable thought and focus; and every dish that came out of the kitchen displayed a precision that was clearly the product of diligence.

But with this type of dining–I’d describe the place as expensive and refined–a greater sense of effortless would be nice. When you spend $200 on a dinner for two (including a bottle of wine), you expect good service, but you’d rather it didn’t call attention to itself. I got the point quickly: with a tag-team waiter thing going on they were ready to scoop up soiled silverware at the first possible moment. But when you hear the question “are still enjoying that?” more than three times in the same meal, you wish for a more hands-off approach.

The evidence of labor coming from the kitchen started with the first dish. Our appetizer of prosciutto wrapped scallops over couscous had admirable qualities. The product was spectacular. The ham was of the greatest quality and the scallops were also outstanding. So the chefs put in the work and money to get the best stuff available.

The problem is that they couldn’t’ stop working. The prosciutto, in the quantity delivered, overpowered the scallop. And the couscous upon which it was served had too many flavors to keep track of. Including walnuts in the couscous mix introduced another strong flavor where none were needed. The whole dish was sadly muddled  until I went through the effort of dismantling some of the construction to create my own tasty forkful.

The salads suffered from the same problem. The mixed greens with duck breast covered in duck egg and a trumpet mushroom vinaigrette, could have been a signature dish. After all, how often do you get the opportunity to enjoy this much artery clogging goodness in a salad? But the chef couldn’t leave excess alone. Sprinkled thought the salad was a pungent blue cheese. I uttered the phrase “gilding the lilly” at this point. And I’d repeat it a couple of more times before the meal was done.

The entrees and desserts had the same strengths–wonderful product, perfect execution–and the same failings. A deliciously gamey rack of lamb with rosemary in a wine reduction doesn’t need flavorings from kalamata olives. The classic dish without that sort of adornment would have been a delight.

The interior is comfortable–a nice approximation of homey. Culinary themed impressionistic canvases cover the walls. And the lighting is pleasant and soft.

Like so many Vegas restaurants, the wine list is unforgivably expensive. Finding a bottle under $75 required a lot of flipping through pages and a discussion with the sommelier that alerted us to our few available choices. (I will note, though, that our $55 bottle was delicious and well described by the sommelier.)

In the end I think that by showing just a little more restraint, Rosemary’s could be a excellent restaurant. But given the choices at this price point, I can’t imagine going back any time soon.

Rosemary’s: (website)
Address: 8125 W. Sahara
Style: American/New American
Price Range: $55 prix fixe for 3 courses is the best deal
Wines range from $50 up.