Puerto Rico in 10 plates

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Sample the best of the region with these unforgettable dishes that take the island’s traditional ingredients to a new level.

By Julie Schwietert Collazo

Puerto Rico’s culinary scene is finally gaining recognition on the global stage. Locals, of course, love the enchanted island’s cuisine, but travelers rarely raved about Puerto Rico as a food destination, and the gastronomic world’s arbiters of good taste never included the island on any of its “best of” lists.

But something’s been shifting lately, and long-ignored Puerto Rico is suddenly appearing everywhere, from food-themed reality TV shows to the lists of winners receiving respected culinary awards.

There’s been no change in base recipes or key ingredients from the Puerto Rican repertoire, and no influx of foreign-born chefs trained elsewhere. Many of the chefs leading the new food movement in Puerto Rico are from the island, like Rocio Varela, executive chef at The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort. Varela has noted a significant evolution in Puerto Rico’s food culture over the past decade.

“I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, but I left the island because it didn’t have a culinary program at the level I wanted to study,” Varela says. “Now, though, there are four or five culinary schools in Puerto Rico, and some of them are very good.”

The establishment of culinary schools has been one important factor in the island’s developing culinary scene, but it is chefs’ interpretations of traditional cuisine that is sparking the sudden widespread interest in Puerto Rican food.

“Chefs are getting creative in the kitchen and fusing local ingredients with traditional methods to create modern and elegant dishes,” says Paulina Salach, co-founder of Puerto Rico Restaurant Week and owner of Spoon Food Tours, based in San Juan. “They are showcasing Puerto Rico’s diverse culinary scene that has been influenced by Taíno Indian, African, Spanish and American cultures.”

Here, take a tour of the island with the taste buds and try 10 not-to-be missed dishes that spotlight those cultural influences and talented chefs.

Bolitas de Pana Rellenas de Pollo
Mild-tasting “pana,” or breadfruit, isn’t as ubiquitous on Puerto Rican menus as plantains, though both types of Caribbean produce grow here and can be used similarly. For example, they can be made into fried, chip-like crisps called “tostones” or used as the base for “pasteles,” Puerto Rico’s version of tamales. At Casita Miramar, father and son duo Jesús and Leonardo Pérez give pana the starring role in chicken-stuffed dumplings, which are served as an appetizer. Casita Miramar focuses on fresh, local ingredients, and though many of the items on its menu hew closely to traditional Puerto Rican recipes, the presentation of dishes and the setting in which they’re served—a colonial style “casona,” or big house—elevate otherwise ordinary plates into memorable meals. (787-200-8227)

Casita Miramar
Traditional dishes become memorable meals at Casita Miramar.

Black Pepper Octopus        
Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Puerto Rican outpost, Fern, is an upscale homage to the Caribbean’s iconic island ingredients: fish and seafood, tropical fruit, hot peppers and bright, fresh spices. At Fern, in The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, many of the fruits and vegetables come from the restaurant’s own garden. The recommended appetizer here is black pepper octopus with sweet onions and aji dulce. Though common—aji is used by Puerto Rican home cooks in everything from soups to beans, and cilantro and lime are stock items in any decent cook’s kitchen—this appetizer’s ingredients are combined in unexpected ways by Varela, the executive chef. The same ingredients find other, equally delicious iterations in Fern’s entrees. (787-809-8103; fernrestaurant.com)

Fern Black Octopus
Black pepper octopus at Fern.

Yellowtail Snapper
Though he left the island to train at The Culinary Institute of America, 35-year-old, Puerto Rican-born José Enrique couldn’t resist the idea of returning to his roots and experimenting with the possibilities of the island’s cuisine. It doesn’t hurt that his namesake restaurant is within a stone’s throw of San Juan’s fruit and vegetable market. The chef—named one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2013—changes the menu daily, based on availability and freshness of ingredients. A crowd favorite is the yellowtail snapper served on a bed of “batata dulce” (Caribbean sweet potato) with an avocado papaya salad. (787-725-3518; joseenriquepr.com)

Ahi Tuna Tartare      
When the father of modern Puerto Rican cuisine, chef Wilo Benet, moved his Pikayo restaurant out of the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico, locals felt a void—even though Benet had moved only about a mile away. Benet had introduced Puerto Ricans to the idea of food as art, and the restaurant’s location in the museum had reinforced the idea that Puerto Rican food could be aesthetically beautiful. Enter chef Mario Pagán—a proponent of what he calls “nuevo Caribe cuisine,” or new Caribbean cuisine—who filled the space Benet left behind. At Laurel, try the ahi tuna tartare and sesame aioli on green plantain tostones. Like Benet and many of the other chefs included here, Pagán takes traditional Puerto Rican favorites and common local ingredients, like plantains and fish, and elevates them to works of edible art. It’s clear that Pagán enjoys experimenting and innovating; his Facebook page is filled with photos of recipes in progress. Though he often draws upon techniques learned during his travels and exchanges with chefs abroad, they’re typically applied to Puerto Rican ingredients. For example: octopus tacos with sofrito aioli and coconut rum foam. (787-522-6444; laurelkitchenartbar.com)

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Traditional dishes become memorable meals at Casita Miramar.

Cheese Souffle
Though he considers Alfredo Ayala to be the “father of the movement towards refinement of our gastronomy,” many of the chef’s colleagues consider Benet to be the progenitor of the upscale dining experience in Puerto Rico. The chef of the eponymous José Enrique restaurant has cited Benet as an important mentor and, looking at other upscale restaurants’ menus, the line of influence between Benet and younger chefs is strong and clear. It was Benet, trained at The Culinary Institute of America, who popularized the idea of creative, upscale Puerto Rican cuisine when he launched his first restaurant, Pikayo, nearly 25 years ago. According to Benet, Pikayo is Puerto Rico’s “longest running true fine dining establishment centered on our local gastronomy.” While he’s helmed numerous ventures since then,
writing cookbooks, starring in his own TV show and exploring the idea of a line of TV dinners, Pikayo remains his flagship project. The restaurant is also where the full scope of Benet’s talents as a chef who is adept with “alta cocina” (upscale) dishes is on display. Try the cheese souffle with cinnamon and clove guava sauce to taste Benet’s particular take on the creative use of some of Puerto Rico’s signature ingredients. (787-721-6194; pikayo.com)

Chef Wilo Benet’s cheese souffle at Pikayo.
Chef Wilo Benet’s cheese souffle at Pikayo.

Chicken Kebabs
Casa Lola is one of several holdings in chef Roberto Treviño’s culinary empire, and it’s the one where Treviño, the first Puerto Rican constestant on “Iron Chef,” experiments most boldly with Puerto Rican ingredients, like the coconut and pineapple that liven up the fried rice accompanying chicken kebabs. Typically a beach or party food in Puerto Rico, the humble kebab is elevated by Treviño’s treatment. The incredible setting—a beautiful mansion decorated in vivid pinks and purples—only serves to enhance the dining experience. Treviño, who is also inspired by other countries’ cuisines, intends to bring upscale Mexican to Puerto Rico, too; he’ll be opening the first Rosa Mexicano on the island in late 2013. (787-998-2918; casalolarestaurant.com)

Bold flavors abound at Casa Lola, with dishes like the chicken kebabs and fried rice made with coconut and pineapple.
Bold flavors abound at Casa Lola, with dishes like the chicken kebabs and fried rice made with coconut and pineapple.

Golden Beet Salad
Chef Peter Schintler isn’t from Puerto Rico, but his commitment to local ingredients is, perhaps, stronger than that of any of his contemporaries. Schintler has long worked with the island’s farmers and small producers to source fresh ingredients rather than import, which can compromise freshness and quality. On an island where a pork chop and a side of rice and beans are the go-to meal, Schintler has made a concerted effort to include delicious, inventive vegetarian options on the menu at Marmalade Restaurant and Wine Bar. In fact, in addition to a standard tasting menu, Schintler offers a vegetarian tasting menu. Try the heirloom golden beet salad with hearts of palm, avocado and a grapefruit almond vinaigrette, with local ingredients that prove that Puerto Rican food doesn’t always have to include a meat and a starch. (787-724-3969; marmaladepr.com)

Marmalade Restaurant offers a vegetarian menu.
Marmalade Restaurant offers a vegetarian menu.

Oceano Ceviche
Oceano is one of San Juan’s newer restaurants and among its most popular since appearing on a Food Network reality TV show in early 2013. It may seem odd that a chef from landlocked Colorado would helm the kitchen of an upscale beachside restaurant—and more surprising still that he’d do it so successfully—but Austin Henry was chef poissonnier at the upscale Denver restaurant Coohills before moving to the Caribbean. The man knows his way around a fish and, in his short time on the island, he’s proven that he knows how to handle tropical ingredients, too. Every ingredient in the Oceano ceviche appetizer is domestic, and it’s difficult to imagine a ceviche that’s fresher and brighter than this one. King snapper is marinated in a passion fruit dressing and served with pickled mango, red onion, papaya, cilantro and a side of crisp, crunchy plantain chips. (787-724-6300; oceanopr.com)

Shepherd’s Pie
Santaella, the eponymous restaurant of renowned chef José Santaella, is just steps from “La Placita” farmers market in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan. Local ingredients, purchased daily from the farmers market, add freshness to the dishes, which feature Puerto Rico’s “comida criolla” cooking style infused with techniques and flavors from around the world. For an entree, try the au gratin shepherd’s pie with “lechon” (roasted pork) and Italian sausages with sweet plantain puree and Edam cheese. The restaurant was once Santaella’s catering workshop and a former hardware store, which have been transformed into an architecturally acclaimed space with the view of an interior tropical garden. (787-725-1611; santaellapr.com)

At Santaella, sample the au gratin sheperd’s pie with roasted pork and plaintain puree. Courtesy of Santaella.
At Santaella, sample the au gratin sheperd’s pie with roasted pork and plaintain puree. Courtesy of Santaella.

Stuffed Squid
Chef José Rey may not be as well-known as Benet, Enrique and Treviño, but he has been quietly turning out exceptional Galician and Spanish-style tapas, entrees and desserts for more than 30 years at his San Juan restaurant, Bodegas Compostela. His menu reflects a faithful devotion to his Spanish roots, but certain plates, such as the stuffed squid with oxtail in oxtail jus, are more than a nod to his adopted home. The restaurant has an impressive wine cellar, with an array of varietals and vintages from all over the world. (787-724-6099; bodegascompostela.com)

As Puerto Rico’s restaurants continue to gain attention on the global stage, the chefs and diners are creating sufficient demand for the island’s farming industry, which has been stagnant since the mid-20th century, to get back into business. “I see Puerto Rico’s farm-to-table movement evolving significantly over the next 10 years,” Pagán says.

The development will be a win-win-win for chefs, farmers and diners—there’s never been a more exciting time for food in Puerto Rico. B