Julian Serrano

I work hard to maintain an open mind review after review, but since I’m an honest person I’ll admit to sometimes having expectations, however vague and however wrong they sometimes turn out to be.

Considering that I’ve learned, over the years, what a perfectionist Julian Serrano is, and considering he’s a native of Spain, where tapas originated, did I really think his eponymous tapas restaurant in Aria at CityCenter would be anything less than stellar?

Well, no — although I’d have told you if it were.

But that doesn’t mean I knew what to expect from Serrano’s Aria restaurant, which is a decided downmarket departure from his Picasso at Bellagio. Tapas — the little dishes that started as bar snacks, sparked the small-plates trend and have become increasingly popular because of their inherent flexibility and the social aspects of a shared dinner of them — have, as they have spread across the country, been infused with the flavors and styles of many other cuisines.

That’s the case at Julian Serrano, but to a much lesser extent. Serrano’s primary goal seems to be taking traditional Spanish foods and giving them fresh new faces.

There is, for example, the apple and manchego salad ($10), an artfully asymmetrical bowl filled with both, shredded, tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette and topped with a sprinkling of chives — contrasts not only in texture but also in flavor, crisp and astringent against chewy, rich and nutty.

Huevos estrallados ($9) was described on the menu simply as “potatoes; eggs; imported Spanish chorizo” but seemed to be so much more, the julienned potatoes sauteed with the firm, slightly spicy sausage, the poached egg oozing richness over the lot.

Chicken croquetas ($9) would have seemed to be straightforward but were notable in their absolute perfection, the smooth chicken filling rich with bechamel binder, the outer shells golden and crackling-crisp.

Pan manchego ($8) was a triumph of contrasting flavors, the crisp-crusted, gently toasted bread topped with a mellow, well-seasoned tomato sauce and a earthy melted cheese.

Pinxto morcilla ($10) was a bit of a sleeper, dark, rich blood sausage with an intense tomato mixture that was sort of a confit, truth be told.

And we couldn’t leave a tapas restaurant without stuffed dates ($8). These, too, were exemplary, each stuffed with an almond, wrapped with bacon and crisply fried, with a piquant piquillo-pepper puree on the side.

Dessert? Well, three of us were dividing all of this bounty, so why not Santiago’s Cake ($8)? I don’t know who Santiago is or was — or perhaps I should say which Santiago? — but I sure liked his cake, a wedge rich in almonds and accompanied by a scoop of rich, gelatolike ice cream.

And sangria, of course ($8), the red infused with passionfruit for a tropical touch, which seemed to reflect the jewel-toned hues used in the restaurant’s decor, including extensive mosaics.

Service throughout was excellent, our waitress both pleasant and effective. In true tapas fashion dishes came out as they were ready, which was fine since we were sharing and passing.

I’d never compare Julian Serrano to Picasso — the country cousin alongside the city sophisticate. But the more accessible Aria location offers an opportunity for more people to experience the master at work.

Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@reviewjournal.com.

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