Thursday, September 5, 2013

Puerto Rico Dining - Day 1

With the Norman's celebratory dinner gala (my 10th anniversary gift to the wife) still fresh in memory, the time quickly arrived for Mrs. Hackknife to give me her present for our anniversary, a long weekend in San Juan, Puerto Rico sans kids (my in-laws were kind enough to fly down to Florida to watch the progeny). This trip was originally supposed to be a secret; however, I accidentally discovered her ruse and was then subsequently tasked by her to plan the dining portion of our journey (which, of course, I was more than happy to do). Given that we'd just attended an amazing event where top-level chefs had presented their take on upscale tropical cuisine, I was really excited about now having the opportunity to try similar dishes in their native (read: less pretentious) environment.

JetBlue flew us nonstop from Tampa to San Juan in only 2 1/2 hours, and by the time we checked into our hotel (a converted building that had spent its first 250 years as a convent), we were knee-deep in the colonial confines of Old San Juan seeking our first taste of comida criolla (as the Puerto Ricans call their cuisine). The hotel front desk recommended that we visit El Jibarito (Calle Sol 280) for lunch, located only a few blocks up the hill and down the street.

Open since the mid-1980s, El Jibarito appeared to be popular with locals and tourists alike, resembling the type of place where Hemingway might have popped in for a daiquiri after an afternoon of fishing (of course, the same can probably be said for many establishments in this corner of the world). While comida criolla primarily reflects Spanish heritage, it also draws in influences from the Caribbean, Africa, and the indigenous Taino people that once populated the island. Our appetizer seemed to be straight from the American South, however, a plate of hush puppies that were a little lighter and creamier on the inside than their USA counterparts (the dipping sauce, a mixture of ketchup and mayonnaise, was addictive and is very popular here, as we'd see later).

For my main course, I opted for a pork and plantain tamale that was accompanied by a scoop of yellow rice, washed down with the island's favorite brew (Medalla Light, as mellow and easy-drinking as any hot climate beer I can remember having).

While the tamale was tasty, Mrs. Hackknife's entree was better: a lightly breaded and fried steak (not as heavy as the chicken-fried variety one might find in Texas) served with a fantastic side of mashed plantains, garlic, olive oil, broth, and bacon known as mofongo, one of Puerto Rico's signature dishes. Apparently, the plantain is usually fried before mashing and combining it with the other ingredients, but we weren't sure that this was the case at El Jibarito, possibly calling into question whether or not this was true mofongo or just a healthier variant. In any case, by the time we sampled a small tres leches cake in a foil cup for dessert, we had been amply fortified for a hot and humid afternoon of sightseeing.

Dark clouds and a heavy rainstorm eventually forced us to retreat to our hotel room, where we napped and got ready for our very anticipated dinner later that evening at Pikayo, Chef Wilo Benet's flagship restaurant. A Puerto Rican native, Chef Benet appeared both as a guest judge in the finale of Top Chef Season 4 and as a contestant in the first iteration of Top Chef Masters. Open since 1990, Pikayo allows the chef to showcase his vision for upscale comida criolla, masterly combining beloved local ingredients with luxury touches. Once located in the Puerto Rico Museum of Art, the restaurant now occupies a swanky spot in the Conrad Condado Hotel, only a short cab ride from our hotel. We stopped long enough for Mrs. Hackknife to win a penny from the slot machines in the Conrad's casino (take that, you bums), then entered Pikayo's strikingly white dining room with abstract tropical paintings to add some splashes of color.

Since we're normally suckers for a good tasting menu, we begged off our server's description of a whole fried snapper special in lieu of the evening's set menu, which sounded spectacular (and was only $65 per person to boot, a pretty fair value for 5 courses). First up was a patty of tuna tartare, mixed with minced jalapenos for some heat and topped with briny green roe, all resting in a pool of sweet and cool yuzu miso broth, all the best parts of Japan and the Caribbean in a single concise dish.

Course #2 was likely the best thing I ate all trip and ranks among the best of 2013, a sizable lobe of foie gras atop a ripe fried plantain disc and drizzled with black truffle honey. This was gastronomy of the highest, plate-licking, eyes-rolling-back-into-the-skull order and I did my ultimate best to scrape up every last drop of that black truffle honey with a fork (no easy feat, mind you).

After the shaking stopped, I was pleasantly surprised to find the next plate almost nearly as special, two delicate scallop ravioli paired with crunchy asparagus and a white wine beurre blanc sauce. Upon completion, I immediately wished there were 12 more of these in front of me.

Sadly, my entree (two giant grilled prawns set atop a bed of coconut milk polenta and spicy guava sauce) ended up feeling a bit anticlimactic following the wild success of the last two courses. Although very good, the guava sauce could have used a little more punch to it.

Dessert provided another uplifting experience, a mini cheese souffle (containing manchego, cream cheese, and Parmesan according to our server) paired with a shooter of guava sauce. These two items melded well together and were the perfect conclusion to what had been a standout meal.

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