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Up and Coming Chefs

As wonderful as the chefs in PR are now, there will some wonderful new ones soon!

Chef Felipe González is heading up the new Culinary Arts Certificate Program at the University of Puerto Rico, Carolina. Chef Felipe got his BA in Hotel and Restaurant Administration at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Mass.; an Associate’s degree in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.  He has worked with Emeril Lagasse in New Orleans at NOLA’s Restaurant, and learned Indian cuisine to work as chef de cuisine at Tantra Restaurant in Old San Juan.

When Felipe wanted to learn pastry arts and boulangerie, he learned French and studied at Ecole Gregoire Ferrandi in Paris, also gaining more experience at Potet & Chabot, a Parisian catering business.

The Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association has awarded a scholarship to Chef Felipe to pursue an Executive MBA degree at Universidad Interamericana in Puerto Rico.

Other current scholarships that have been awarded for 2014 include : Christian Castro at Johnson & Wales, for an Associate’s degree in Baking and Pastry; Andrés Lugo to Interamericana for a Master’s Degree in Marketing; Melanie Pabón to Johnson & Wales for an Associate Degree in Baking and Pastry; and Joseph Rosa to Culinary Institute of America for a Bachelor’s Degree in American Food Studies: Farm to Table Cooking.

Friends told me they recently had a lovely dinner at Salt Gastrobar, at the Howard Johnson’s Isla Verde resort. Chef Rene Marichal provides a “multisensory experience” with a comfortable dining room and unique  combinations of food leading the list.They said to be sure to try one of the delicious Himalayan Salt Block Platters: either fillet, scallops or shrimp served on a block of salt.

Salt Gastrobar is open from 10am to 5pm on Sunday; 4pm to 11pm on Monday through Wednesday; and 4pm to midnight on Thursday through Saturday. It’s at Howard Johnson Isla Verde Hotel; 4820 Isla Verde Avenue. Their telephone number is 787-919-7575.

Remember, make somebody happy; make reservations for dinner!

Award-winning Chefs Deepen Culinary Experience

Three of Puerto Rico’s award-winning chefs have been named to the 2014 “Top 25 Chefs of the Caribbean “ list, by on-line magazine Caribbean Journal.

Two of the winning  chef/owner s, Wilo Benet of Pikayo at the Conrad Condado Plaza Hotel (999 Ashford Avenue) and chef/owner  Roberto Treviño of Budatai, (1056 Ashford Avenue), both in Condado, should come as no surprise for having won yet another award. Both chefs and their wildly popular restaurants are winners of the Tables Magazine Chef’s Hat Award … so many times, in fact, that they’re in the Tables Magazine Hall of Fame! Both men are also ”Celebrity Chefs,” known for their television appearances: Treviño appeared on the Iron Chef competition show on Stateside television; Benet had his own long-running chef series on South American television. Treviño has multiple restaurants on Ashford Avenue. Benet’s cookbooks, the English-language  Puerto Rico True Flavors and its Spanish version, Puerto Rico Sabor Criollo are both best-sellers. Benet also has his own wine label, Dobleú Wine, which Wine Spectator’s Robert Parker declared “Best Buy” in the Wine Advocate.  And so on….

More surprising was the third winner named by the on-line magazine. A newer restaurant/chef  does  not  usually garner “best of” awards; prudent  reviewers generally wait to see “how things settle” before jumping in with a rave review. However, in this instance, word-of-mouth has probably played a big part in their decision of the third winner. Ever since it opened in the fall of 2013, Yantar Restaurant (1018 Ashford Avenue, Condado) has been the talk of the town.

Yantar’s chef, Xiomara Marquez,  has already delighted diners with her versions of Spanish favorites. Whether it’s tapas at the stunning bar or a full meal at an elegantly set table, Yantar gets raves from happy diners. People love the Spanish-style lamb, the tasty-melt-in-your-mouth halibut, and the various seafood ceviches.  A favorite from the beginning has been the Warm Mango Gazpacho, prepared tableside.  Other favorites include the tortilla española, the seafood risotto entrees and a variety of meat and fish choices.

In addition to the exciting menu and impeccable service, the restaurant is lauded for its elegant décor. And the tables by the windows overlooking the the Condado Lagoon offer romantic views.  As delightful as all this is, so too does the wine list appeal. Lengthy and reasonable, it offers something for everyone.

So make somebody happy; make reservations for dinner.

A Superb Argentinian Restaurant

This month my eldest son celebrates his birthday. He lives in Arkansas now with his wife and family. At one time, some years ago, he went to Commonwealth High School. Played baseball for them. And football. I remember picking him up after practices (before he was a senior and had his own car. Well, his own shared-car. He and a friend bought it for $500. $250 each. I don’t remember if I contributed to that $250. Possibly, because it would have taken him a long time to save $250 back then.)

What I do remember is how hungry he would be when I picked him up. As were his sister and brothers. (It was a familiar pick-up-the-kids-after-school route: first dancing school, then PeeWee football practice, then Commonwealth’s practice.) So we stopped along the way home and bought two loaves of pan de agua at the bakery. One was to go with dinner; the other was to be devoured during the car ride home.  Interestingly, two of the children liked the crust of pan de agua; the other two liked the softer insides. It worked out well.  It was harder getting them to clean the crumbs out of the car once we got home.

Pan de Agua is ubiquitous in Puerto Rico. It is the bread served in all criollo restaurants. Either toasted with a smear of garlic butter, or fresh with a side of butter, it graces all tables that serve Puerto Rican or Caribbean food.

As a matter of fact, its use is even broader than that. One of my favorite places to eat pan de agua is at Che’s, an Argentinian restaurant in Punta las Marías, bordering Isla Verde. (Calle Coaba #35, 787-726-7202). The restaurant has been there forever (well, at least 25 years), and is a Tables Magazine Chef’s Hat Awards, Hall of Fame member. Their lemon chicken is amazingly moist and tasty; their churrasco (skirt steak) is grilled to perfection; their rice and beans is comfort-food heaven. But no matter what I order, I always start my meal with pan de agua and red salsa. Che’s salsa is unlike most others. It’s neatly chopped to a lovely consistency, seasoned wonderfully and tops a slice of pan de agua so that it tastes divine on the tongue. Most people use it on their churrasco. I do too, but usually have to order a second dish of salsa in order to do so; that’s how much salsa I use for the bread.

So if you’re going to Puerto Rico, enjoy the warm weather, beautiful beaches, wonderful hotels and pan de agua and salsa, churrasco,  and Che’s. And make somebody happy; make reservations for dinner.

Great Food for Children

School breaks always offer the temptation of a warm getaway.

With at least  6 or 7 weeks till then, it gives you lots of time to make your plane reservations, secure hotel accommodations and whisk yourselves off to an exotic (but familiar) destination. Exotic because undulating palm trees are not the view you see as you shovel the snow from your driveway; yet familiar because you don’t have to worry about getting a passport. Or changing money into a foreign currency. Puerto Rico uses the same dollars, same postal service, same language (well, one of them, anyway; it’s amazing how many people in San Juan are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English.)

So the big thing is: “I know they have wonderful beaches and a warm ocean,  and the big hotels have exciting casinos, with lobbies often having live music to dance to… but what about entertainment for the kids? What will they do all day? And is there food that they’ll eat?” (Not an insignificant question, that. Many years ago, even before I was a teenager, my pre-teen cousin would only eat hamburgers. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. I don’t remember how long it lasted, but his father, having a meat market, helped fuel his fixation. )

There are marvelous restaurants for kids in San Juan; restaurants that serve familiar food in kid-friendly surroundings.  (That’s in addition to the familiar stateside chain restaurants: Pizzeria Uno’s, for instance, is on Ashford Avenue in Condado. The latest chain is the Cheesecake Factory, which recently opened at Plaza las Americas, the Caribbean’s largest shopping center…a 10 or 20 minute ride from Ashford Avenue, depending on traffic.) But there is also the kind of restaurants the kids will remember as “different” when they get back home and tell their schoolmates what they did on their April vacation.

One such restaurant is The Piña Colada Club at the Caribe Hilton Hotel.   A colorful dining room has an adjoining terrace with a coloring wall, where kids are encouraged to create their own artwork on the side of the building!. The kids’ menu includes stateside favorites such as chicken tenders, mini burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches. I personally prefer the luscious Big Hot Cuban Wrap, a mix of roasted pork, ham and Swiss cheese with pickles and mustard, wrapped in a flour tortilla. Yum!  Everybody loves the dessert, which  includes a warm chocolate fudge brownie served with ice cream… or the make your own ice cream sundae with every kind of topping you can think of, plus pineapple, chocolate or caramel syrup. With whipped cream and a cherry, of course.

After lunch, it’s time to feed the ducks at the Caribe Hilton’s lovely pond… or join other kids at the resort’s supervised activities .More about kids next time.  But remember to make somebody happy; make reservations for dinner.

When Thinking of Getaways Think Puerto Rico’s Diverse Restaurants

It’s freezing cold up north and the balmy, 80+º  Caribbean weather is a strong incentive to leave all the snow behind for as long as you can get away. Sun bathing… wearing colorful cottons with new sandals… not having to make beds… are just a few other incentives.  But the restaurants of Puerto Rico should clinch your decision as to the destination. No matter if you’re lucky enough to be heading to San Juan for a company-paid business meeting, taking a get-out-of-the-cold vacation on your own dime, or thinking of improving your Latino dancing skills with your favorite other, meal times comes three times a day. Here are some suggestions to stretch the food  budget:

If you’re staying at a hotel in the heart of Condado, you can stroll to casual eating options that range from inexpensive to still-affordable. Case in point:  Bar Gitano at 1302 Ashford Ave (787-294-5513) is award-winning chef Roberto Treviño’s casual tapas restaurant. Order as many or as few yummy options as you like, considering your budget and appetite. Choose air-conditioned indoor seating or the breezes on the elevated terrace, where you can watch the evening strollers.

A great place for Argentinean grill is Buenos Ayres, at 565 Condado Avenue (787-725-1818). This casual restaurant also offers indoor or outdoor seating. You can opt for a juicy grilled hamburger, a  tasty churrasco  or their popular mixed grill for 2.

Bun’s Burgers at 1210 Ashford (787-725-7800 is burger heaven, with hot dogs, fries and shakes, too. Open for lunch and dinner, they also serve beer and wine (the beer includes a 50- or 100-ounce “tower.”  For friends to share, and fun to imbibe. Indoor and outdoor seating available.

Danny’s International at 1351 Ashford Avenue (787-724-0501) opens at 7 in the morning and has long been a popular place for American-style breakfast at a fraction of the cost of hotel breakfasts: fresh orange juice, ham and eggs, toasted pan de agua, for one. It also offers salads, sandwiches and pizza for any meal, indoors or at tables on the sidewalk. It’s open ‘til 1am.

Another place for great pizza is Via Appia, across the street at 1350 Ashford. (787-735-8711. It’s also been there for many years and is a people-pleaser for lunch or dinner. The outdoor space fills up early; indoors is a larger space. They have great sandwiches too, as well as a full dinner menu.

Just a few  blocks further along  is Under the Trees at Plaza Galeria, 103 De Diego Avenue.  (787-728-0238), Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it’s an attractive 2-story, self-serve eatery with some service. Omelets, salads, sandwiches, burgers, etc., to your order.

That list should get you started. So enjoy the warmth… and don’t forget, make reservations for dinner.

Eat Your Heart Out on Valentine’s Day

Don’t panic. You’ve still got 4 days. And there are so many options of where to take your beloved for a Valentine’s Day celebration meal.

How about a sexy and glamorous dinner in a luxury hotel? You’ll find that at KOCO, in El San Juan Hotel in Isla Verde. Have a drink at the popular bar and include a few delectable shrimp from the mouth-watering raw bar, as your appetizer. Then slide into a seat in your reserved booth. Admire the  beautiful room. Choose some fabulous entrees from the great menu… so many to choose from: the pan-roasted duck in passion fruit sauce is a treat! Enjoy the vibes, too. Reservations: KOCO , 787-791-1000. (Did I ever mention the time I bought a roll of coins after dinner, to play in El San Juan’s  Casino, and won $1200!  Well, once.)

Want great Italian? You can admire the enchanting and original paintings of the streets and houses of Old San Juan by local artist Margie Alcaraz, if you choose to dine at the award-winning Al Dente Ristorante, in the old city. The menu, by chef/owner Giancarlo Amente (Margie’s husband) is as authentically Sicilian as he is. Diners have been flocking to Al Dente for almost 25 years now, for the fresh pasta, delicious seafood dishes, meat dishes and desserts. Plus the lovely decorations in the dining room. It’s conveniently located, across the street from the Doña Fela parking lot on Recinto Sur Street. For reservations: 787-723-7303.

Want to drink, eat and dance? Opt for the Red Coral Lounge, at the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, at 1309 Ashford Avenue in the Condado. It’s a classy lobby bar with well-educated bartenders; great seating areas for 2 or more; and a tapas menu that includes flatbreads, wings, bacalaitos, ceviche, and the like, all yummy.  Plus live music. For more info, call 787-722-7000.

By the way: for a full meal while you’re at the San Juan Marriott, try La Vista Latin Grill. They have menu options of local or American dishes, plus a fabulous themed buffet. Open for breakfast, lunch dinner and beyond. 787-722-7000

Another romantic option  could be La Casona, the Spanish restaurant at 609 San Jorge, in Santurce (a 5 or 10 minute cab ride from Condado hotels). Unusual for its beautiful gardens, this 35 year  old favorite is in an elegant old mansion, bursting with romance. Award-winning chef/owner Manolo Caamaño presents an elegant menu, as well as live music. 787-727-2717.

And if you want to continue the celebration, drive out to Palmas del Mar, in Humacao. Go to Chez Daniel, in the marina (follow signage) . Chef/owner  Daniel Vasse puts out a glorious Sunday brunch. Salad station, pasta station, seafood station, carving station, dessert station… It’s delicious and beautiful. 787-852-8653.

So make somebody happy during Valentine’ Day weekend, make reservations for dinner!

Valentine’s Day Right Around a Corner in San Juan

While restaurants in Puerto Rico are filled with holiday parties (Christmas, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and Three Kings Day) celebrations in December and January, by the time February rolls around, everybody is focused on where they are going to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Heart Day, as my kids used to call it, is all about romantic settings and hedonistic meals. Flowers for the ladies fit into the equation as well. And being a romantic island, Puerto Rico offers many choices for celebrants young and old.

A few suggestions:

1)  Reserve early; it’s a BIG night for the restaurants, which tend to fill up quickly. Luckily, Valentine’s Day falls on a Friday this year, and so offers the options of Friday night, Saturday night or Sunday brunch celebrations.

2) Consider your budget and your tastes, and then choose your restaurant. If you’re in San Juan and environs, you’ll have myriad options ranging from expensive to inexpensive, fine dining to casual dining, and indoor dining rooms or terraces out-of-doors.

For instance: in Old San Juan, there’s the opulent Marmalade. Chef/owners Peter and Henriette Schintler preside over one of the most attractive dining rooms in town, with colorful banquettes for two to lounge against and gauzy hangings that delineate spaces.  There’s an exciting bar and a totally extravagant menu (taste-wide and dollar-wise… but oh, so worth it! After making his reputation in Asia with his famous Blue restaurant, Chef Peter incorporated some local flavors to his memorable menu when he opened Marmalade. It’s now established as an old city favorite. Indeed, Marmalade is a member of the Tables Magazine Chef’s Hat Award Hall of Fame.

One of my favorite things on the menu is the White Bean Soup. Spoonsful of flavor and smooth air. Incredibly delicious… and I didn’t even know I liked beans. The chef offers tasting menus for 6 or more; go with friends. Marmalade is at 317 Fortaleza Street. 787-724-3969.

Other romantic options include Perla, in La Concha Renaissance Resort in Condado. The menu consists of contemporary American cuisine created by chef Dayn Smith, and the food enhances the incredibly beautiful setting of the dining room. Housed in la Concha, a shell-shaped room, tables overlook the startling beautiful blue reflecting pool and ocean beyond it, that seems to  surround the restaurant. Don’t miss the scallop appetizer… or the Artic Char entrée… or… well, everything is good at Perla, which is also a member of the Tables Magazine Chef’s Hat Award Hall of Fame. 1077 Ashford Avenue, Condado. 787-977-3285.

Being outdoors can be very romantic. Pamela’s, in Ocean Park, not only has  indoor seating with an ocean view, but you can opt to reserve a table on the beach itself.  The menu offers a variety of Caribbean cuisine specialties for which the restaurant is noted. Pamela’s is also a member of the Tables Magazine Chef’s Hat Award Hall of Fame. 1 Calle Santa Ana, Numero Uno Guest House . 787-726-5010.

So don’t forget, make somebody happy, make reservations for dinner!



Many Sublime Fine Dining Choices in Puerto Rico

Chef Wilo Benet is renown for superb cuisine at Pikayo Restaurant in San Juan.

Chef Wilo Benet is renown for superb cuisine at Pikayo Restaurant in San Juan.

Tired of cold weather and snow yet? Go to Puerto Rico.
Not only because you don’t need a passport. Puerto Rico is part of the U.S., and there are non-stop flights to San Juan from most major airports in the states.
Not only for the pristine beaches, although there’s something very hedonistic about the thought of sitting bikini-clad  on a warm,  white sand beach, gazing at the clear blue ocean under a cloudless Caribbean sky. (but that’s you in the bikini, not me).
Not just for the hotels, of which there are options ranging from guest houses to 5+ star luxury resorts both in San Juan and around the island.
Not even for the shopping, which includes the glamorous, largest shopping center in the Caribbean, or a hugely popular discount mall, or the delightful shops of Old San Juan (think jewelry… and discounted Lladro…).
If nothing else, go for the food!
I’ve said it before: Puerto Rico is the Culinary Capital of the Caribbean. You can enjoy American,  Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Thai) Brazilian, Chilean, Cuban, French, Italian, Mediterranean (Greek, Turkish, Arabic)  Peruvian, and Spanish cuisines… as well as traditional and modern  Puerto Rican classics.
Where to start? Maybe at Pikayo,  located on the mezzanine of the  Conrad Condado Plaza Hotel. It’s the first hotel you come to on Ashford Avenue, once you cross the Dos Hermanos bridge. Pikayo is owned by chef Wilo Benet, one of the island’s most famous chefs (he has his own wine, for heaven’s sake!),  as well as having had numerous appearances on local, stateside and South American television, and a best- selling cookbook titled Puerto Rico True Flavors in English and Puerto Rico Sabor Criollo in Spanish.
Pikayo is a 5-star restaurant. The dining rooms are beautiful, the service is perfect and the food is exquisite. It’s always busy, so plan ahead and make your reservation well in advance.
What to eat? Everything. Or, at least, as much as you can manage. I adore the Portuguese Octopus with Shallot Escabeche and Jamón Serrano. And the Scallop Ravioli with Asparagus Slivers and white wine Buerre Blanc. And those are just appetizers!
And the entrees… oh my: a scallop dish with roasted butternut squash with an emulsion of capers and raisins? Not to be missed! Big scallops, tender, deliciously seared… and that sauce! Raisins and capers? Yin and Yang wonderful.
Are desserts your thing? What about a chocolate tarte with peanut butter ice cream? Granny Smith Apple Napoleon with cinnamon ice cream?  Or the Key Lime… well, you get the message.
Pikayo … all you need is a reservation, an appetite, an appreciation for excellent cuisine (and a forgiving credit card.) But so worth it!
So  make somebody happy; make reservations for dinner.

Carli’s Has It All For When You Want It All

Everybody knows the three requisites for a satisfying dining experience:
1) Superior food
2) Attentive service and
3) A comfortable ambiance. (I’ll never forget the time I hitched my chair closer to better reach my plate and mashed my fingers on the underside of the too-low table! Definitely uncomfortable.) That restaurant is closed now. It might not have been just the tables height.
There is, however, a 4th criterion which is the key to enjoying 1, 2 and 3. It’s Mood, with a capital M.
A good Mood is formed by your first favorable impression of 1, 2 and 3,  which shortly builds into a delighted impression, which stays with you all through the restaurant experience and still makes you smile when you’re finally walking out the door. And what better example of 1, 2, 3 and 4 than Carli’s, in Old San Juan.
Over the years, Tables Magazine has printed multiple reviews of Carli’s – all favorable. Each  of the various reviewers wrote their articles highlighting a different part of their pleasurable experiences there. My husband and I have been there many times ourselves, not only for the marvelous menu and delicious dinners, but for the sheer pleasure of listening to Carli Muñoz on the piano.
Carli was one of the Beach Boys and his gold records hang on the restaurant walls. He knows probably all of the musicians in town and often shares his stage with them. Lesser-knowns might be invited to the piano as well: once, it was a sitting judge who surprised the room with his musical talent; another time, it was my young grandson, who ended a short ragtime piece to enthusiastic applause.
Yet still another time, when the two of us were there alone, we struck up a conversation with a couple at the next table, tourists from New York. I asked them how they came to be at the restaurant and  she told me that they took a cruise out of San Juan twice  a year and they always spent a night in San Juan before the ship left…so they could come to Carli’s for dinner that night.
And another time, a visiting female friend and I stopped at Carli’s for a late dinner and drink. We sat at the bar facing the stage and it turned into one of those magical performances that grabs  you and doesn’t let go.  Carli was wonderful; the food we ordered to be served at the bar was melt-in-your-mouth good and the drinks, prepared by a master bartender, were perfect. My friend said, “This  is  like being in one of those wonderful supper clubs in New York.”
“No,” I told her, “it’s Carli’s in Old San Juan and it’s got the Mood.”





When in San Juan Eat As The Greeks Do

Jan 16, 2014

One of the things that’s so great about being in Puerto Rico is that it quite literally is “The Culinary Capital of the Caribbean.” Forget for a moment all the marvelous Puerto Rican food that’s so delicious and so readily available: the zesty seafood asapao; the spit-turned juicy, tender and adobo-spiced chicken; the golden, twice-fried tostones; the steaming bowls of satisfying arroz con habichuelas; the crispy chillo entero.  Oh my god, my mouth is watering already!

Think, instead, about all the other cuisines on the island: tangy tzatziki, a perfect blend of Greek yogurt, chopped cucumbers and dill, served with hot pita bread. Or Italian wedding soup, thick with its little lamb and Parmesan meatballs and al dente pasta. Or delicious dim sum, in its seemingly infinite varieties. Or a taste of bouillabaisse that’s so authentically French you can feel the afternoon Marseilles sun on your face while you eat it.

That’s the joy of dining in Puerto Rico. There’s almost everything to choose from!   And after living there for more than 30 years, the flavors of the Island’s various ethnic restaurants have become the standard by which I measure all others.

Last night we enjoyed a Greek meal in Baltimore, Maryland. It was the first time we’d been to this particular restaurant, which is actually walking distance from our home, just in the other direction from the way we usually go. I suppose that’s why we hadn’t known it was there until someone recently mentioned it to us. (Obviously,  they don’t advertise.) Tch-tch._But once we found it, it had all the charm anyone could want: A beautiful bar; brick-lined walls in the main dining room; comfortable seating, sconces so glamorous I was tempted to ask the management where I could purchase a similar set. The menu was lengthy enough to offer a multitude of options, and the food, skillfully served and nicely presented, was very good. In all, it was a pleasant dining experience and we’ll go back again. (The restaurant is called Waterstone Grill.)

And yet… and yet… maybe I was a tad disappointed because the chef didn’t pop out to say hello to all of his guests, and talk about his menu for the day as listed on an oversize blackboard, as Chef Theo Ladias-Apostolakis does at Fleria, his Greek restaurant on Loiza Street in San Juan. Maybe I noticed the  difference between the sauce on Chef Theo’s Greek-style green beans and last night’s. (Chef Theo’s is lighter.) I must also admit, however, that I loved Waterstone’s falafel, perfectly fried and light as a feather.  Very different than Fleria’s… although both, in  their own ways, are delectable.

Fleria on Loiza Street is not the only place in Puerto Rico where you can get Greek – or Mediterranean … cuisine. Check out the Tables Magazine Restaurant Guide and  you’ll find others.  And come back next week to read my next post about food in general and PuertoRico’s  options in particular.

And remember:  make somebody happy, make reservations for dinner!