It happens every time. As soon as I started live-posting on Facebook and Instagram about a meal I’m having at Julian Serrano, the comments start pouring in:
“Phoning it in.”
“Wanted to like it but didn’t.”
“Not a fan.”
These opinions come fast and furious from a fount of foodie friends every time I mention I’m dining there.
“Oh come on, ELV,” they’ll say. “Everyone knows Jaleo is so much better.” (No, it isn’t. It’s different, but not qualitatively better.)
So what’s the problem? Has Eating Las Vegas lost its finely honed sense of taste and discernment? Is everyone out of step but me?
Let’s take a step back and assess.
To begin with, there is a problem and it’s called progress. The kind of progress that comes from a more educated consumer. The kind of consumer who, thanks to the internet, knows a helluva lot more about food than he or she did in the 90s, but still not nearly as much as they think they do.
Fifteen years ago, Spanish food was almost unheard of in America. If you asked an educated American who Ferran Adrià and José Andrés were, most of them would’ve guessed “Latino telenovela stars.” Outside of a few Spanish joints in a few big cities, Spanish tapas were a niche market, and a mighty small one at that. Few remember that Cafe Ba Ba Reeba came to town about this time, hung around for five years, and then quietly folded its tent, years before Andrés made his first big splash at The Cosmopolitan.
No one gave two craps about Spanish food ten years ago and now everyone’s a friggin’ expert.
All credit is due to Andrés for raising everyone’s awareness of the bounty of Espana, and there’s no doubt that his restaurants are some of the best in Las Vegas (and the United States). But Julian Serrano — a native of Madrid — knows a thing or two about this food too.
So why all the love for José and dissing of Julian? Partly we think is because of p.r. (José is a one man force of nature) and Serrano is more of a classic chef — someone who lets his cooking do the talking. But it’s also about a fundamental misunderstanding of what Spanish tapas are, and how, in classic form, they are not always to American tastes. That, and the epicurean standards of the day demand more bells and whistles than many classic tapas deliver. (This is why Andrés gets cheers from the casual gastronome, while Serrano gets a shrug. José’s chefs are always doing cartwheels in the kitchen, while JS sticks more to the basic small plates that made these dishes famous.)
This is why, when we post a picture of this first class bouquerones:
…we hear snide remarks like: “Big deal, food from a can,” from people who didn’t even know what a bouquerone was a decade ago. (For the record, Joël Robuchon once told me that the hardest dish to make well is a Caprese salad. “There’s no room for error,” he said. “Even the slightest flaw is visible.” For the record #2: He wasn’t talking about growing your own tomatoes and making your own mozz.)
These days, everyone’s a critic and the adage that a little learning is a dangerous thing gets proven every day on our Facebook feed. (True, traditional bouquerones are bought pre-salted and soaked (in vinegar) and packed here, but so are various Spanish peppers and other fish. And I’d rather eat a pound of certain packaged tuna than an ounce of some of the stuff that gets pawned off as fresh in our humble burg. The Spanish are the canned food kings of the world, and the tapas bars of San Sebastian are filled with little bites that come from their tradition of ready-to-eat seafood.
But forget things like stuffed peppers and charcuterie (that isn’t cured in-house here or anywhere but Spain), and focus on paella: