By Phil Vettel

Confit salmon with quinoa, plantain, herb pesto okra and a pimento vinaigrette served at 1919 restaurant. – MCT photos

Confit salmon with quinoa, plantain, herb pesto okra and a pimento vinaigrette served at 1919 restaurant. – MCT photos

Confit salmon with quinoa, plantain, herb pesto okra and a pimento vinaigrette served at 1919 restaurant. – MCT photos

Ready for some interesting food choices in San Juan?

THE island of Puerto Rico offers so many visual treats – gorgeous beaches, rugged hills, beautiful churches and majestic historic forts – that dining just about becomes an afterthought. A chunk of meat or fish, some sides of mofongo (fried mashed plantains) and mamposteao (rice and beans with other goodies), a stiff rum drink and you’re good to go, right?

Well, yes, that’ll do nicely much of the time. And if you get a chance to attend a pig roast (which draws locals and tourists alike to drink beer, listen to music and feast on lechon asado or whole roasted pig), by all means do so. You’ll have to leave the city for the mountains (mine took place at a water’s-edge park just outside of town, but my host assured me that everything beyond the city limits is “the mountains”), but it’s worth the trip.

There’s no shortage of restaurants in San Juan, of course, but sometimes the frustrating thing about dining here is that many (or most) restaurants cater to the tourist trade, which they identify (probably with cause) as unadventurous. Seasonings can be mild to the point of blandness; local products can be forsaken for the presumed cachet of, say, Pacific Ocean seafood. But there is excellent, locally-focused dining to be had in San Juan, if you know where to look. On a gloriously long weekend here, when the temps back home were in the single-digit range, I found a few places so exciting I’d return even if the weather wasn’t as glorious as it so often is.

A few random observations:

> As with most tourist-heavy, hot-weather destinations, service can be iffy. The people are always friendly, but a certain laid-back “island time” lethargy is part of the deal here. If you’re accustomed to highly-attentive and efficient service, you might want to recalibrate your expectations. You’ll enjoy the pace if you give it a chance.

> Sauteed veal brains are a thing here. Don’t be afraid. If you can handle sweetbreads, you’ll be OK with brains.

> Swordfish is rarely a bad choice in San Juan; they get in good products.

> Beef is rarely a smart choice. Sure, they fly in good steaks, but did you really cross a number of time zones to cut into a steak that might have been on the same plane you took?

Here’s a short list of worthwhile restaurants, all within easy cab or bus rides of each other:

Cafeteria Mallorca: Start your day off right at this cafeteria / bakery in the heart of Old San Juan, the narrow-street neighbourhood where the cruise ships dock. A mallorca is a sweet, filled pastry (about US$3/RM9.60) dusted with powdered sugar, even when the filling is ham and cheese, which is one of several variations. Grab a seat at the counter, pull a couple of paper napkins from a vintage Coca-Cola dispenser and prepare to get messy. The pastries are yummy, warmed to order, but that confectioners’ sugar gets everywhere. Get here before the cruise ships dock and the place will be full of locals; arrive closer to lunch-time and you’ll see a lot of cameras.

Marmalade: A nine-year-old absolute gem in Old San Juan. The simple exterior provides no hints to Marmalade’s undulating, contemporary interior, which easily could be mistaken for a nightclub were it not for the considerately moderate music level and the joyful, locally-focused cooking by chef/owner Peter Schintler, a farm boy from Iowa, the United States, who’s now pushing local produce in the Caribbean. Affinity is too mild a word to describe Schintler’s way with vegetables; in addition to stellar ceviche and pork belly over black bean puree, he offers an entire vegetarian menu, with such treats as baby kale salad using a garlic and mustard-seed vinaigrette, and raw cauliflower with Middle Eastern seasonings and chips made from mustard greens. Main courses will run as high as US$35 (RM113), but most are less than US$25 (RM80.50). Service was, hands down, the best I experienced on the island.

Mounted plaques on the bar walls attest to the restaurant’s various Wine Spectator awards, and among the excellent cocktails is the Global Warming, a sort of margarita bearing a large spherical ice cube made with three hot chillies; the drink has a modest spice level at first, but as the ice melts, the heat level rises. Here’s a situation in which nursing your drink can have serious consequences.\

Chef Mario Pagan of Laurel Kitchen Art Bar inside the Puerto Rican Museum of Art prepares veal brains in dark butter. - Photo by Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/MCT

Veal brains in dark butter prepared by Chef Mario Pagan of Laurel Kitchen Art Bar inside the Puerto Rican Museum of Art.

Laurel Kitchen Art Bar: Mario Pagan’s newest restaurant (he also has Chayote and Lemongrass, both highly regarded) is inside the Puerto Rican Museum of Art in the Santurce district. The menu embraces a wide range of goodies: lamb meatballs, coconut shrimp in guava sauce, shellfish paella and veal brains in dark butter. Most main courses are in the upper US$30s (RM90++). The food is international, but every dish bears hints of local ingredients. Service is leisurely, but who’s in a hurry in a museum?

Pikayo: Chef Wilo Benet is a legendary chef in Puerto Rico. His impressive résumé includes work at Le Bernardin in New York, and he cooked at the governor’s mansion in San Juan. The guy even has his own wine label (Dobleu). Pikayo is Benet’s flagship restaurant, first opened 22 years ago and re-established in 2009 in the Conrad San Juan, a luxury beachfront hotel with casino at the edge of San Juan’s Tony Condado neighbourhood. The dining room is gorgeous and white-tablecloth elegant, and there’s a deep and impressive list of largely Old World wines along with an ambitious cocktail list. You’ll pay resort prices – entrées here run from US$36 (RM116) to US$45 (RM145) – but maybe you’ll get lucky on the slots on your way out.

The cooking generally is quite good, but the menu was designed with tourists in mind, so you have to peruse carefully to find local flavour. The prix-fixe tasting menu (US$65/RM209), for instance, offers main course choices of filet mignon in port wine sauce and shrimp with chorizo – good stuff, but not exactly the pot at the end of the locavore rainbow. Seafood dishes, notably swordfish and salmon, are probably your best bets.

1919: The Condado Vanderbilt hotel is so new it doesn’t have rooms available yet. But when the property was ready, the owners opened the spiffy 1919 restaurant anyway. “We’d already been on the island for eight months,” said executive chef Jose Cuevas. “So we decided to open and get the buzz around.” The restaurant certainly is buzz-worthy. Sun-drenched (with ocean views) by day and dark and sultry by night, the restaurant projects an intimate mood, aided (or hampered, depending on your mood) by sometimes overly formal service. As with Pikayo, you’re in luxury territory; entrées will range from US$34 (RM110) to US$48 (RM155).

Cuevas is a born-and-raised Puerto Rican, but his cooking career has taken him to several top-notch restaurants in New York (Blue Hill, Alain Ducasse) and elsewhere before he returned home. Though he insists “we’re not trying to do Puerto Rican food whatsoever; we leave that to the grandmas”, local vegetables and in-house vinaigrette are the stars of Cuevas’ plates. He offers, for instance, a “taste of tuna” in which pristine slices of raw tuna are draped over respective piles of mozzarella and caviar, pine nuts and capers, and octopus and preserved lemon, and you’ll remember the accompaniments long after you’ve forgotten about the tuna.

You’ll remember Cuevas’ picture-perfect presentations, too. Somewhere in the dining room is a coqui, a native frog whose distinct chirp (more like an all-night-long screech) belies its inch-long size. “I’m not sure how he got here, and we’re not sure where he is,” the chef said. “He just showed up and made his home here.” You might want to do the same once hotel rooms become available this year.

Jose Enrique: I’m still kicking myself for missing out on this restaurant; several of my travelling companions who came here haven’t stopped raving about it. Chef and owner Jose Enrique is a food-fanatic superstar here, and that was before Food & Wine magazine named him one of America’s Best New Chefs of 2013. There are disadvantages to dining here. The restaurant doesn’t accept reservations, and if you arrive after 6pm, you pretty much can count on a two-hour wait for a table. Check the wall board for the day’s menu, but expect main courses to be in the uppers US$20s (RM60++) for the most part.

Happily, the bar offers terrific cocktails, or you can leave your cellphone number at the desk and stroll to one of several nearby restaurants to pass the time. The dining room is filled with young locals, and it’s noisy. The neighbourhood is dicey enough that the restaurant staffers will insist on calling a cab for your return trip (depending on your hotel, the distance is walkable). But the food inspires poetry. Next time for sure. – Chicago Tribune/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services