photos by Blake Myers

Chef Julian Serrano’s culinary journey began with his graduation from the Escuela Gastronomie P.P.O. hotel management school in Marbella, Spain. Subsequently, he honed his French cooking skills at some of Europe’s finest restaurants, including Lucas-Carlton in Paris, L’Aubergine in Munich, Chez Max in Zurich and the Hotel de France in Auch, France.

After coming to the U.S. and spending a short time in Miami and Nashville, he travelled to San Francisco, where in 1983, under the tutelage of Chef Masataka Kobayashi, he helped open “Masa’s,” often rated as one of this country’s top French restaurants. While he was there, the San Francisco Chronicle awarded the restaurant four stars. Additionally, he received not one, but two James Beard awards: “Best Chef-California” and “Best Chef-Southwest.”

We first welcomed Chef Serrano and his French-Mediterranean cooking skills in 1998, when he arrived here to become the Executive Chef of Picasso at the Bellagio, where he continues his mastery to this day. His culinary skills have been recognized with the AAA Five Diamond Award, Wine Spectator’s Grand Award-Best Wine List and the Forbes Travel Guide Five Stars Award. Impressively, the restaurant received two stars from Michelin.

In 2009 Serrano was offered a restaurant space at Aria by MGM International. He responded, “Only if I can do tapas.” Considering his 13 years of ongoing success at Picasso, MGM consented immediately, and Julian Serrano Tapas Restaurant was born. 

In a 2011 interview with the late Robin Leach, Serrano commented, “For about 15 years I had a goal of opening a restaurant that represents the food of Spain. The food of Spain represents the people of Spain. The people are happy, they share, they like to go out and have a good time. They drink wine, and they laugh. I wanted a restaurant that reflected all of that.”

As Chef Serrano recalls, “The first thing I needed to do was to find the perfect designer, so I flew to Spain and began to interview. When I found Gente de Valor, I knew we were on the same page. I feel that balance in a restaurant is important. The food needs to go with the restaurant, and the restaurant needs to go with the food.” 

Serrano’s confidence in designer Valor was not misplaced. Upon entering through the restaurant’s ultra-modern portal, your senses are surrounded by an explosion of light, color and texture that evoke the vibrancy of the Spanish countryside. The mirrored and reflective glass surfaces, many hanging elements, unusual fixtures and tiles all combine beautifully to create a sleekly modern interior. Though the visual elements are impressive, the menu is no less so with its attractive array of choices that showcase Spain’s rich culinary history.

However, your initial decision making may involve the immense wine list covering virtually every wine-producing area of the world, and divided into Champagne and Sparkling, Spanish Whites, Rose, California Whites, French Whites, Other European Whites, Spanish Red, California Red, North American Red, French Red, Italian Red, Southern Hemisphere Red, Dessert Wine and Spirits and Cordials.

But the sheer number of Spain’s world-renowned Riojas and Tempranillos is especially staggering, with every region of the country extensively represented. They are truly representative of one of the world’s great wine-producing countries. Bringing your own wine will incur a $50 corkage fee.

The rest of your journey through Spain now begins as you choose from the menu’s large selection of classic and modern dishes. The expert preparation of these Spanish specialties is overseen by Executive Chef Rafael Salines-Catala, who came to Serrano’s directly from Spain nine years ago.

Many diners begin with, or have an entire meal of, tapas, those small plates of food that originally were served in Spanish taverns without charge to customers when they ordered a drink at the bar.

You may wish to start with the lobster gazpacho soup, pata negra (Spain’s world-famous Iberico de Bellota ham) stuffed piquillo peppers, chicken croquetas or gambas (sautéed shrimp with garlic and spicy tomato sauce). Other tapas of note are rabo de toro (red wine braised oxtail with Iberian pork and potato puree) and carne asada (slices of prime New York steak with potato puree and a mushroom demi). And for many, no meal is complete without Spain’s national dish, paella, from which you can choose five versions.

If you still crave more, their array of mouth-watering desserts includes Spanish orange cinnamon bread pudding and orange blossom crème brûlée.

Spain’s best cuisine is available at Julian Serrano Tapas—and you’ll save the 12 hour flight time to Madrid.