There’s Room for Improvement at Tapas by Alex Stratta

The chef ventures out of his comfort zone—with mixed results

Valencia paella | Photo by Jon Estrada

Paella valenciana | Photo by Jon Estrada

Some chefs spend their entire careers creating a single style of food. Others prefer to challenge themselves. Alex Stratta falls into the latter category. He made his Las Vegas reputation creating award-winning French haute cuisine, first at Renoir in The Mirage, and later at Alex in Wynn. Stratta then embraced his Italian heritage to create mouth-watering delicacies at his second mononymous Wynn restaurant, Stratta. When he decided to open a suburban restaurant in Tivoli Village, he once again chose to try something new: tapas.

The opening of Tapas by Alex Stratta endured several delays, not only because of a change of partner and locale, but also the chef’s desire to educate himself on proper Spanish cooking techniques and ingredients. While the restaurant is still new, and some of the chef’s recipes need to be refined a bit, some excellent dishes are already on the menu.

Tapas by Alex Stratta occupies the space that was home to Angelo Sosa’s Poppy Den, and before that, an abysmal Greek restaurant, Petra. It’s two stories with wonderful outdoor patios both upstairs and downstairs, although the chef is reserving the second floor for special events and private parties. Quite a bit of the colorful artwork on the walls was painted by Stratta himself. The menu includes traditional small plates, as well as larger daily specials and four varieties of paella.

Black kale fritters | Photo by Jon Estrada

Black kale fritters | Photo by Jon Estrada

Paella is where the chef really shines. It’s cooked to order in shallow pans on which Stratta and his crew concentrate on creating socarrat, a crisp bottom crust that needs to be scraped from the metal. That crust is certainly this dish’s signature, and it’s much heartier than what you’ll find at other paella spots in town. I’ve actually heard of some people complaining their rice is burned, but for me it’s perfect. So far, I’ve only sampled the Valenciana version, made with thick bites of rabbit and a smattering of snails offered in their shells with a green garlic sauce—and it was among the best paellas I’ve ever had in either this country or Spain.

The smaller tapas for which the restaurant is named are a bit more hit and miss. The standout is a fritter of kale, fried and topped with tart green apple slivers and a cherry and pine-nut chutney. That anyone can make this trendy health food seem decadent is a tribute to the chef’s talent. On the flip side, empanadas stuffed with greens and

Mahón cheese tasted like they were packed with vitamins and minerals—but they work. And while the texture of the pancetta-wrapped dates might have benefited if the chef had stuffed them with almonds, the mixture of sweet and salty was right on. Unfortunately, I found an order of albondigas (meatballs) and patatas bravas (fried potatoes) incredibly boring and bland. And I was wholly unimpressed with the fried oyster lettuce wraps.

Empanadas stuffed with wilted greens | Photo by Jon Estrada

Empanadas stuffed with wilted greens | Photo by Jon Estrada

My biggest problems with the menu came from the large daily specials. In particular, an order of beef cheeks in a dried fruit and red-wine sauce was far too sweet for me, even with a smattering of hot chili peppers. But like everything else, that’s a matter of taste, and I’m sure others might like it, given the extraordinarily tender meat.

Tapas by Alex Stratta, just a few weeks after opening, doesn’t live up to the chef’s reputation quite yet. But I know him well enough to believe it will get better. In the meantime, I’m happy to return for what may be this town’s best paella from time to time and monitor the progress.

Al’s Menu Picks

  • Medjool dates ($11) 
  • Valenciana paella ($21 per person)
  • black kale fritters ($9)
  • and empanadas ($10)

Tapas By Alex Stratta

In Tivoli Village, 702-483-3555. Open for happy hour 5-6 p.m. Mon-Fri, and dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. Sun-Thu and 5:30-10:30 p.m. Fri-Sat. Dinner for two $40-$100.

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