I was intrigued to try this restaurant, partly due to some personal history. Back in the 1990s I had many visits to San Francisco and used to stay at a fairly nondescript but friendly little hotel called the Vintage Court on Bush Street. One of its more endearing aspects was offering its guests a free glass of wine early each evening at its lounge, the latter set around a constantly burning log fire. The restaurant of the hotel was called Masa, and back in the days before on-line blogs it was an impressive surprise to me, serving probably the best food in the city at that time. Its somewhat gloomy dining room doubled up as breakfast room for hotel guests, so you would eat your cereal in amongst the wine cabinets displaying Chateau d'Yquem and the like. The chef at Masa at that time was Julian Serrano, and some years later on a trip in the late 1990s it became apparent that he had moved on, as the restaurant food suddenly dropped in standard (it later revived somewhat, eventually closing in February 2013). It turned out that Julian had moved to Las Vegas, opening Picasso in 1998 in the lavish Bellagio hotel.
Mr Serrano was born in Madrid and went to hotel management school in Marbella. He trained at Lucas-Carlton in Paris, Hotel de France in Auch, at Chez Max in Zurich and at the famous Aubergine in Munich, the first German restaurant to win three Michelin stars. In 1983 he moved to San Francisco, where he helped open Masa’s restaurant, working under the restaurant’s founding chef, Masataka Kobayashi, later becoming its head chef by the time I started to visit Masa regularly.
The Bellagio is about as different a setting as it is possible to imagine from the simple charm of the Vintage Court. Bellagio is even to this day probably the flashiest hotel in Las Vegas, not a city noted for its tasteful restraint. With almost 4,000 guest rooms and a spectacular light display amongst its fountains, Bellagio is certainly a change of scene from Bush Street, San Francisco. The fountains alone have 5,000 lights, require 38 engineers to maintain and have two dozen separate synchronised displays, running every quarter of an hour in the evening.
The Picasso restaurant has a real Pablo Picasso painting near its entrance, and has outdoor seating available as well the tables in the main dining room. A total of 140 diners can be seated at one time, with up to 54 of these on the terrace. The room itself is gloomily lit and uninspiring, but if you get a table at the edge of the terrace you get a nice view over the artificial lake and the spectacular fountain display. There are just two menus available, each with a small element of choice for each course; there is a four-course menu ($115) and one of five courses ($125), though some dishes have considerable supplements in addition.
The wine list features a selection of between 1,700 and 2,000 labels. JJ Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatese 2011 was $97 for a wine that you can find in the high street for $49, Alion 2009 was $230 compared to a retail price of $84, and for those with the means Romanee Conti Echezeaux 2003 was $3,105 for a wine that will set you back around $1,260 in a shop.
A nibble of cold white asparagus soup with almonds had limited flavour (12/20), though a little pheasant croquette that came with it was tasty and comforting, garnished with a sliver of Serrano ham (15/20). A variety of breads appeared during the meal, and these were pleasant without being memorable; a slice of olive bread was the best of these (14/20).
Quail salad was rather uninspiring, coming with sautéed artichokes and pine nuts, the quail cooked well enough but not having much flavour (13/20). Torchon of foie gras was served rather too cold, the liver flavour limited, served with caramelised pineapple that provided useful acidity, with blobs of cherry puree and port reduction. This was enjoyable in a slightly retro way, but could have been better (13/20).
Medallions of fallow deer came with caramelised green apple and Zinfandel sauce. The deer was ordered medium rare but arrived the wrong side of medium, the sauce rather thin. It also came with lightly cooked snow peas, carrots and distinctly soggy red cabbage (12/20).
For dessert, a tropical fruit dessert was prettily presented and had good passion fruit sorbet but flavourless mango slices, pleasant rum-braised pineapple, coconut macaroon, coconut jelly and some avocado cream that appeared rather out of place on the plate and I presume was there mainly for colour (perhaps 14/20).
Service was capable enough, with a waiter (originally from Biarritz) who was friendly and welcoming, with dishes coming at quite a rapid pace; this is a restaurant that typically does 200 covers a night, so many tables have to be turned. The bill came to $235 (£140) before tip with a bottle of J.J. Prum Spatlese. If you shared a bottle of modest wine then a typical all-in bill would come to around £110 per head.
Picasso is a large-scale operation blessed with its terrace with lake and light show, so attracts plenty of customers. Its dishes were generally prepared capably enough, though more than one ingredient lacked much flavour. Presentation was rather old fashioned, but the menu was certainly appealing enough. However this is very much a mass-market offering, a pale shadow of the fine meals that I remember from the same chef back in the little dining room of Masa all those years ago.