The beauty of Las Vegas is that it’s a fantasyland. Dreams of striking it rich with the roll of a die or the pull of a lever run rampant; life is lived in excess and there is no tomorrow. Vegas-import Lago by acclaimed chef Julian Serrano is bringing some of that escapism on a plate to Shanghai’s new Bellagio hotel.
Steering the kitchen under Serrano is Jair Gudino Chavez, who cut his Shanghai teeth first as chef de cuisine at the Pudong Shangri-La and Langham Xintiandi, Shanghai and more recently at the Shangri- La Jing An’s 1515 West Chophouse, where you could feel he had bigger aspirations than just steak.
It’s good to see the accomplished-but-still young chef spreading his wings even more at Lago, where dishes are inventive and inspired – little complete universes unto themselves. ‘Small plates, big flavours’ is the Lago mantra, which for the most part, the kitchen nails.
‘I wanted to introduce America to crudo,’ Serrano once said of the selection of citrus- and olive oil-cured raw fish at Lago in Las Vegas, and we’re lucky he’s making that introduction here too. Medallions of raw tuna pair unexpectedly but smartly with a drizzle of sesame oil, ginger, a pool of coconut cream and razor-thin lotus root crisps. A scallop shell offers salmon with a mild cucumber jelly, enlivened with briny caperberries and jalapeño heat.
Aesthetics dominate. There’s a beetroot salad that’s taken an acid trip: heirloom varieties of the root swirled with a peach vinaigrette and a dollop of creamy mascarpone. Smoked corn ravioli lack the smokiness promised but arrive with gorgeous stripes of yellow and black and are set atop a sweet lemon corn puree that tastes like a deep-fried Oreo at the county fair, which, if you haven’t had one, is very delicious.
Classics are reimagined but not unrecognisable. The visually arresting vitello tonnato (a traditional Italian surf and turf pairing of veal and tuna) offers a charcoal-black-edged round of melt-in-your-mouth, milk-fed veal with a quenelle of tuna mousse, flanked by a bold stripe of squid ink. Salty ’nduja sausage-stuffed squid arrives on a umami-rich background of tomato and lentils. Similarly, the octopus is emotionally evocative – meaty, curled tentacles, slightly charred and draped over pearls of fregola pasta and tomato confit. It’s comfort food someone’s nonna might make, but elevated.
The black squid ink risotto is a bust – perfectly seared scallops brought down by a bland backdrop of rice. Chicken liver crostini arrive in a trio, with drizzles of Calabrian chilli oil and fried capers. If you don’t already love the irony twang of liver, these won’t convert you.
But these are small qualms. Desserts, which Chavez is the architect of himself, continue the theme of classics deliciously reimagined. The tiramisu is a deconstructed affair with a dusting of cocoa powder on the edge of the plate, a trail of toasted ladyfingers crumbles, dollops of mascarpone and espresso ice cream. Order the affogato, and you'll get far more than the simple espresso-plus-gelato-in-a-cup you might be expecting. Chavez does something brilliant with the Amalfi, remixing a signature on the Las Vegas Lago's line-up. It's the Italian coastline put on a plate: show-stopping swirls of ocean blue on a small passionfruit cheesecake with a scoop of limoncello sorbet.
What happens in Vegas is supposed to stay in Vegas, but we’re certainly glad that Lago hasn’t played by that rule.