In a resort hotel filled with top notch restaurants that are housed alongside the ultimate water fountain show views, it’s more than a little intimidating to think you’ll find a relaxing place you can share food and hangout with good friends. But it was opening week for Chef Julian Serrano and he greeted us at the entrance of Lago, his latest culinary creation that brings his Italian cuisine to the “small plate generation.”
Opening week of a restaurant is a stressful time even for a heavily decorated chef like Serrano, who makes several rounds, checking on guests in his already packed establishment, while he repeatedly dashes into the kitchen to make sure every one of his creations meets his standards before being served. Serrano is the master behind Bellagio Resort and Casino’s Picasso, undeniably the finest contemporary restaurant in the city of Las Vegas, if not the entire United States.
Picasso has been awarded 2 Michelin Stars and the AAA Five Diamond Award, and received a 28 of 30 by the Zagat guide, so it’s no surprise the resort trusted Serrano in his Italian shared-plate vision. “It has been an absolute thrill to re-imagine Italian cuisine for today’s small-plate culinary era. This restaurant will bring together food lovers of all generations who crave exciting and thought-provoking dishes along with excellent service and high culinary craftsmanship,” said Serrano.
As the saying goes, my eyes are bigger than my stomach, so I tried to order everything on the menu, most notably a delightful gnocchi dish with lobster knuckles (yeah who knew they had knuckles?) and a red wine risotto that I could eat every single day of my life. The atmosphere is gorgeous and yet feels casual, considering the high quality cuisine you’re getting and the dancing Bellagio fountains are your incredible view. I eat more than I should with no regrets because damn, it was good and plus the shared plates style makes you think you’re not really being a glutton.
When the restaurant has cleared and he can finally take a break, Serrano sits down to talk to us. Serrano is slight in stature and for a top chef in a pressure filled industry, seems very kind in manner. Born in Madrid, Chef Serrano worked his way to the states, starting his culinary career inside the kitchens of Caribbean Cruise lines in Miami in the 1970s before making it out to San Francisco to open his first restaurant, Masa’s in 1983. Eventually, Serrano’s stellar reputation in foodie land caught the attention of Las Vegas tycoon, Steve Wynn who called Serrano to come out and create a fine dining establishment inside his new venture, Bellagio. Opening in 1998, the Bellagio was the pioneer resort to put an end to the family-destination town that Las Vegas spent most of the 1990s trying to become. By then, the city learned you can put a bad girl in a Sunday dress, but that doesn’t make her any less of a bad girl, so instead let’s embrace it and make her look like a million bucks.
With the triumphant achievements of Picasso and the acclaim from his namesake restaurant inside Aria Resort and Casino, Chef Serrano explains his desire for opening this latest dining endeavor, an Italian tapas place, recognizing that guests want to talk and eat and share food, which gives them an opportunity to taste everything. Lago still offers full entrees but caters to our socially driven society. Serrano now lives in Las Vegas and runs three thriving upscale restaurants. He’s made appearances on Top Chef and has seen his industry grow from the importance of impressing professional critics to now pleasing the entire Yelp-using world. It’s a challenge he enjoys. “I think it’s fantastic everyone wants to be a critic. Some of the people [are] right; some of the people don’t have any clue what they say, but never-the-less…I listen, because it’s important for me to know what the people feel about the restaurant.”
Chef Julian Serrano’s success spans decades. So I had to ask his advice to all up and coming chefs. Simply and yet flawlessly put, Serrano says, “Number one is to have a passion. To be a chef is very hard… It’s a lot of actions in the kitchen, a lot of things that you have to do, yesterday… If you don’t have [the] passion, you will not be in this business. If you have [the] passion, you are going to have a lot of fun and you will do good.” That said, back to work it was, for the busy chef.
Lago is open 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. nightly and is located off the casino floor next to Hyde Bellagio.