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Destination Vegas: Lunch at Julian Serrano

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It's just a few hours by car or practically the blink of an eye by plane--Las Vegas has long been one of Angelenos' favorite escapes for a night or two (or more for the brave) of great food, drink, gambling, and entertainment. LAist is taking a look at some of the great reasons to be lured to the Nevada desert for some sun and fun in Sin City in our Destination Vegas series.

Las Vegas has steadily gained a reputation as being a gastronomical destination. Though you can still score some abundant cheap eats, the famed Strip has evolved into a food lover's paradise, with a handful of high-end, lauded restaurants tucked into each luxury hotel. One of the newer kids on the blocks is the Aria, home to Julian Serrano, named by Esquire as one of the Best New Restaurants of 2010.

The focus is tapas and contemporary Spanish fare served in a bold but elegant space. It's big, yes, and splashy--this is Vegas after all--but in nouveau Vegas, the high-caliber food isn't just for casino high rollers.

Serrano came to Vegas from his native Spain by way of France, and also San Francisco, when in the early 80s he was known for taking charge of the kitchen at Masa. In Vegas since the late 1990s, his namesake restaurant at the Aria really lets him explore a big menu of big flavors.

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It's an ambitious menu, with about 60 items, all intended to share. Though the cocktail menu is excellent, the Sangria is a great way to keep in the sharing spirit.

Cold plates like the tuna cones definitely play into a dying notion that ahi tartare is a sign of fancy fine dining (and they will still wow many), but Serrano makes up for this faux pas with the rest of the tapas items, like seared scallops in a romanesco, or the playful "beef and cheese" (tenderloin with brie). Charcuterie plates showcase Spain's finest cured meats, including "the most delicious ham in the world," aka the "pata negra" ham. Vegetarians score here, with addictive bites of "brava potatoes" and their spicy tomato dipping sauce, or the subtle burn of sauteed padron peppers garnished simply in salt and olive oil and piled high on the plate.

Julian Serrano includes on a set of menu items called "new tapas." Here are the foams, and the word "molecular" in quotation marks, which for many diners, will be the true gamble.

If you've got time to make a full-on meal of it, the paella is a gorgeous spectacle, served tableside for two or more diners; it takes 35 minutes to prepare, but it is a hearty dish that can easily fill you up before you return to Sin City's playgrounds...or your next meal.

Should you be able to save room for dessert, here is where whimsy abounds, as you dip crispy, twisted loops of churros into a spicy chocolate sauce, or spoon your way to the bottom of the plate of arroz con leche de coco (coconut rice pudding).

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Angelenos who delight in the getting-to-know-you vibe of the twice-yearly dineLA event will appreciate Julian Serrano's wallet-congenial $39 early evening (5-7 p.m.) three course prix fixe. For those who prefer to drop their cash on dining--not blackjack--tables, Serrano is a great, easily shared, splurge.