Table-Hopping in San Juan

 

La Bombonera
La Bombonera, also in Old San Juan, has been around for 100 years, dishing out authentic PR cuisine.

 

In recent years, San Juan has come alive as a culinary destination, with top chefs blending a sophisticated New York/L.A. approach with a traditional Caribbean sensibility. These chefs are bringing the island’s cuisine—influenced by Caribbean, African and European traditions, and emphasizing pork and seafood—to a higher level, incorporating mainland techniques and ideas. With plenty of slick, cutting-edge restaurant décor and stylized dishes, and an appreciative clientele of both locals and tourists, San Juan feels more and more like the culinary capital of the Caribbean.

Barbara Tasch Ezratty, editor of Tables, A Guide to Dining in Puerto Rico, says San Juan has seen an explosion of “must-visit” restaurants in the past five years. And while the southern half of Old San Juan’s Fortaleza Street (SoFo) is the go-to spot for many of the city’s trendiest eateries, many of the hottest new entries are just across the bridge in “new” San Juan—specifically the Condado area.

Take the case of Chef Wilo Benet, who mans the stoves at Pikayo, which moved from the San Juan Museum of Art to the Conrad Condado Plaza Hotel in 2009. His über trendy takes on the traditional (shrimp with bacon mofongo and saffron broth, or red snapper with pastel and chorizo emulsion) are as modern as the clean, chic setting. Benet also helms Varita, a new wood-burning rotisserie restaurant in Condado, as well as the casual eatery, Payá, in Guaynabo’s City View Plaza.

 

 

FOODIE FODDER

 

Best for Honeymooners: Delirio, tucked away in a 100-year-old house in Miramar; Old San Juan’s Trois Cent Onze for its elegant setting and expert French fare; dining on the beach at Pamela’s in Ocean Park.

 

Must-Hits: Old San Juana’s Marmalade; the La Concha Renaissance San Juan’s Perla; the sexy, sleek Pikayo in the Conrad Condado.

 

 

Condado also boasts the new Jam Rum Bar, the latest from Peter Schintler and the team behind the stylish Marmalade restaurant on SoFo. It boasts 50 types of rum, a locally driven, Caribbean/Latin-inflected menu focusing on seasonal ingredients, and cool tropical décor. Head to Dayn Smith’s Perla, in the renovated Renaissance La Concha Resort, for seafood in a serene setting surrounded by a reflecting pool. Or snag a reservation at the older, but still hot, Budatai, from celebrated Chef Roberto Treviño—with its ocean views, mother-of-pearl columns, marble floors, and Asian dishes with a Latin bent (crab shumai with chorizo and lemongrass).

 

Trois Cent Onze
Trois Cent Onze is a longstanding favorite in Old San Juan where Chef Juan Peña serves up a French-inpsired menu.

 

Equally praised is Juan Bodegas’ newly revamped former Compostela, reborn as the tapas and wine bar, Bodega Compostela with more than 50 types of tapas (try the salt-cured foie gras). Indeed, if you walk along Condado’s Ashford Avenue these days, you’ll find dining that runs the gamut from sushi to Italian to Chinese to steakhouses. But, often, a local twist keeps things interesting.

Pass  The Arroz Con Gandules…

Still, many visitors are interested in the real thing—comida criolla or traditional, old-school local cuisine, reflected in dishes such as arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), asopao (a hearty gumbo), pasteles (banana leaf-wrapped meat pastries) and mofongo (mashed plantains and pork cracklings).

The tourist board is giving a boost to purveyors of traditional dishes with the creation of its Mesones Gastronomicos program. The project seeks to make it easier for visitors to find restaurants that serve an authentic taste of Puerto Rico by providing a list of such eateries. Its support of food festivals (see sidebar) has also pushed up the interest barometer.

Wherever you go in Puerto Rico, however, you’ll find food stands and eateries so small you can’t discern a name. And visitors are getting more adventurous in the sampling of Puerto Rican (PR) cuisines, say locals, courtesy of TV personalities like the Food Network’s Daisy Martinez, who highlights the country’s cooking, and Travel Channel’s No Reservations host Anthony Bourdain.

One place to experience local flavor in San Juan is around the Santurce Market (you may see some of the island’s chefs searching the market for fresh inspiration). Live bands on Friday nights add to the festive atmosphere. Here, the unassuming restaurant Jose Enrique is a prime example—its PR menu is scrawled on a chalkboard and simple wooden tables and local artwork complete the laid-back feel. In Old San Juan, head to La Fonda del Jibarito (eljibaritopr.com) or the 100-year-old La Bombonera for authentic PR dining.

 

 

MAJOR ANNUAL FOOD FESTIVALS IN SAN JUAN

 

Condado Culinary Festival: October 22-24, 2010, along Ashford Avenue, Condado.

 

SoFo Culinary Fest: Held twice a year, in late spring/early summer and in fall, on the southern end of Old San Juan’s Fortaleza St.

 

Puerto Rico Wine & Food Fest: Held annually in August at the PR Convention Center.

 

Saborea: Held annually in April at Escambrón Beach.

 

 

What’s New in Old San Juan… and Beyond

Old San Juan is, of course, the locus of many of the trendiest eateries—from the longstanding Parrot Club, Aguaviva and El Toro Salao to Carli’s, Tantra and Trois Cent Onze. Newer entries include the nuevo Latino steakhouse Fogata Latino Bar & Grill in the Sheraton Old San Juan, from the folks behind the Parrot Club.

Meanwhile, in Isla Verde, the first Puerto Rican outpost of the New York-based restaurant Brother Jimmy’s BBQ opened in the El San Juan Hotel, where an outdoor party scene along with a décor heavy on vintage license plates and college pennants draws a lively crowd. The hotel also sports a hot spot, Koco, from the ubiquitous team behind SoFo’s Aguaviva and the Parrot Club. And the posh Ritz-Carlton, San Juan in Isla Verde has partnered with Puerto Rico’s first female sushi chef, Keiko Yabuuchi, on The Ocean Bar & Grill. In recent years, Ritz-Carlton has debuted branches of two New York institutions—BLT Steak and Il Mulino.

 

El Toro Salao
El Toro Salao meaning “The Salty Bull,” is a well-known tapas spot.

 

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