New Las Vegas Restaurant of the Year? Bellagio’s Original Celebrity Chef, Julian Serrano, Returns
It’s no exaggeration to say the Bellagio resort is responsible in large part for the culinary revolution that has made Las Vegas one of the world’s greatest food cities. To be fair, the groundwork was laid by the first celebrity chef who believed in the future of the city’s tourism-driven dining scene, Wolfgang Puck, when he brought his flagship Spago from Beverly Hills to the Forum Shops mall at Caesars Palace more than two decades ago. Puck proved that both big name chefs and big name fine-dining restaurants could work in Sin City. But it was at the Bellagio that forward thinking hotelier Steve Wynn first came up with the idea of importing a full slate of celebrity chef star power and big name restaurants from other cities under one casino roof to raise the Vegas dining profile. To say it worked is a gross understatement, and virtually every higher-end casino resort that has opened since has followed this formula, while older properties retrofitted extensively in “Bellagio-style.” If it were not for what Wynn did at Bellagio there might well be no Vegas presence today of Joel Robuchon, Tom Colliccio, Gordon Ramsay, Guy Savoy, Bobby Flay or many other highly sought after chefs.
Wynn imported then soaring Chef Todd English and his now defunct Boston Olives (living on in the Bellagio), New York’s famed Italian power dining spot Le Cirque, Michelin-starred fine dining legend Jean Georges Vongerichten, and Michael Mina, who is hotter than ever today. But even as he was reinventing the use of out of town chefs, Wynn did something more subtle to fundamentally alter the Vegas culinary landscape: he created the city’s first homegrown destination eatery, Picasso. In a bit of a gamble, Wynn chose Spanish chef Julian Serrano, who had an impressive resume in great Michelin-starred European kitchens but virtually no name recognition, and handed him the keys to Picasso in the new Bellagio. Picasso quickly earned its own 2-Michelin stars, Forbes 4-Stars, and has received AAA’s 5-Diamonds annually for more than a decade, while Serrano won the coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest. Seventeen years after the Bellagio opened, Serrano’s Picasso remains the city’s greatest original fine dining restaurant success. Serrano has expanded within the MGM Resorts family, which now owns the Bellagio, with his eponymous upscale Spanish eatery at the Aria casino resort. This restaurant has also won countless awards and accolades in the past several years.
Now Serrano is returning to the Bellagio for his newest eatery, Lago, an Italian small-plate concept. While his native Spain is the best known country for small dish dining, Italy has a rich tradition of its own, centered on Venetian cichetti, Italy’s version of tapas. Between America’s love of Italian cuisine, Serrano’s impeccable track record, and the unique setting, this is likely to be the hottest restaurant opening of 2015 in a city where high-profile restaurants open all the time.
The Bellagio’s famed musical fountain show, in the lake fronting the casino resort, remains one of the most popular must-see visitor experiences in Las Vegas. But while most people see it from the vantage point of standing on the jam packed sidewalk looking in, the best view is from one of the hotel’s very few restaurants with waterfront terraces, like Olives, totaling just a small number of highly desirable seats. Lago means lake in Italian, and in this case the name is quite literal, as the new eatery, opening in the former Circo restaurant space, has a large shaded patio for outdoor dining with stunning fountain views. The setting alone could make it an instant hit, but given Serrano’s history – and the fact that he is one of the only Vegas celebrity chefs actually based here in Vegas – the food will likely impress too. Lago opens next week (April 13) and according to MGM its menu will include antipasti offerings such as carpaccio and bruschetta; fresh pastas such as risotto and gnocchi; an assortment of pizzas; and some meat and seafood main courses. The Italian cichetti tradition combines glasses of wine with small plates, and Lago will offer a rare 30 by-the-glass options from its 600-bottle list. For those who just want to stop in for a quick bite and drink, the restaurant has a welcoming lounge with high top tables. You won’t be able to miss it – the new exterior façade is wrapped in a colorful mosaic of Italian glass, 15 feet tall and 100 feet wide, portraying an aerial map of Milan.