Picasso, Bellagio, Las Vegas

Update, October 2009: we went back to Picasso for a return match last month, about two and a half years after our first visit. A good meal, but nowhere near as great as it was back in 2007 – and somewhat alarmingly, the tasting menu hasn’t changed at all, which speaks to me of an over-laid-back kitchen. Service this time was pushier and more obtrusive, the wine pairings weren’t as good as I’d have hoped (a couple of the whites in particular were simply too young), and the prix fixe we settled on was surprisingly tame. The room itself is still fabulous, but I suspect we won’t visit again – a lousy shame, because in 2007, they were absolutely at the top of their game. For nostalgia’s sake, read on…

I’ve held off writing about Picasso for a few weeks because I feel moved to empty the bank account and run away to live at the Bellagio casino resort every time I sit down and think about the meal. It was near-perfect; it’s almost intimidating to write about the place, because I simply don’t have a bad word to say about the experience…and that makes me look like an unthinking, uncritical sort of eater. I’m not; really I’m not – this was just quite simply the very best meal I’ve eaten in my life.

Even if Picasso weren’t serving spectacularly good food, the room itself would be reason enough to visit. Right next to the Bellagio fountains (one of my favourite free Las Vegas attractions – they’re 60ft tall and they dance to a playlist of showtunes, classical music and opera), the restaurant is filled with original Picasso ceramics and paintings, and decked out with vase upon vase upon vase of fresh flowers. Between the fountains, the still-life on the wall opposite me and the enormous jugs of freesias and tulips, even the ravishingly handsome Dr Weasel was having trouble holding my attention. Despite all this grandeur, the room is designed to be very intimate, with little nooks and crannies of seating to make you feel you’re almost eating on your own.

Even if the room were not filled with art and flowers, and even if those fountains weren’t swaying outside the window, the service alone would be reason enough to visit. Perfectly unobtrusive, the waiters changed dirty napkins with such skill you didn’t notice them doing it, poured exactly the right amount of wine, kept the water glasses brimming – there’s a reason the Zagat guide gives this restaurant its top score for service. I am allergic to lobster (as far as I am concerned, one of the worst things that you could choose to be allergic to – I used to love the stuff), and mentioned to the waiter that I would prefer something different for the first course of our degustation menu. Other restaurants have left me without a course when this happens, or with a portion of whatever came to hand in the kitchen (nothing is so galling as sitting there with a small bowl of pumpkin soup while the rest of the table is ripping a couple of lobsters to shreds). Not Picasso. The waiter beamed, told me I could have anything I wanted from the menu…so I took him at his word and selected poached oysters in a delicate beurre blanc, each dressed with a teaspoon of wonderful, wonderful Oscietra caviar. Heaven.

If you visit Picasso, the tasting menu is fit for a king. Lobster terrine (‘totally yum’ according to Dr Weasel – bet you’re glad he doesn’t write this blog) and those aromatic, vermouth-spiked oysters came after an amuse bouche of soupe de poivrons with a truffled potato croquette to dip into the little soup pot. Scallops were sauced with a veal jus, gloriously savoury against their fresh sweetness. An escalope of seared foie gras was prepared perfectly; glass-crisp on the outside with a silky soft interior, with figs and sweet walnuts alongside. Halibut was moist and toothsome, and it seems almost churlish to call my lamb chop a lamb chop – it was one of the best pieces of meat that’s ever been past my teeth. Dessert was a lychee bavarois with one of the most ridiculous and delicious items I’ve seen on a dessert plate – a giant, chocolate-dipped fresh coconut popsicle. And the petits fours with my coffee were delicate and delightful. They even brought a set for Dr Weasel, who wasn’t drinking coffee.

The wine list is large and thoughtful. On another occasion I might choose to have the wine pairing with each course, but this time we chose a Russian River unoaked Chardonnay (a wine that’s extremely difficult to find in the UK, so we tend to order it whenever possible in America), which was absolutely delicious. I love it when the wine waiter ensures he’s not pouring so fast you’ll move through the bottle before you’re really ready; at Picasso our wine was poured carefully so it lasted us until we had finished our main course.

Picasso’s chef, Julian Serrano, has the James Beard award for Best South-Western Chef, five AAA diamonds, and a vast array of Zagat awards. Obviously, a meal of this quality comes at a price, and currently the degustation menu is $115. (This is a positive bargain for those of us used to European prices.) If you visit Picasso, you will need to book at least a month in advance, and make sure you dress well – there were people wearing less smart clothes in there and they looked immensely uncomfortable. I promise you that the meal you eat will be worth the dressing up, the advance booking and at least three times what you’re paying – this is something really special.