Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Puerto Rico Dining - Day 4

Four our last full day on the island, Mrs. Hackknife and I had decided to go native by renting a car from the airport and heading out into the Puerto Rican countryside for some exploring. Our ultimate destination was the resort town of Dorado, located a mere 30 minutes west of San Juan and site of the evening's highly-anticipated dinner at Mi Casa, Chef Jose Andres's restaurant in the new Ritz-Carlton Dorado Beach resort. But first, we had other plans in mind, namely to visit some renowned caves in Camuy and the giant radio telescope facility out by Arecibo, another 45-minute drive west beyond Dorado. Traveling to the western part of the island was easier than I'd imagined, with a 4-lane toll road taking the place of the dirt paths overrun with livestock that I had envisioned at one point (yes, I know, it's a U.S. territory). Once off the main highway, the secondary roads to the caves were no worse than motoring down Florida 60 across the middle of the state, giving us a chance to get a brief sample of life in Puerto Rico outside of the big city. At one point, we passed what appeared to be a roadside cafe called Johnny's - I made a note of the location as a potential stopping place for our lunch and managed to convince Mrs. Hackknife to swing back after the cave tour.

This decision turned out to be a shrewd one, as Johnny's (on Puerto Rico 129, somewhere between Arecibo and the Caves de Camuy, no website) was a veritable gold mine of traditional Puerto Rican dishes, the perfect place to try out a bunch of new foods (basically our "No Reservations" moment of the trip). Even better for us, the kind young man running the counter spoke flawless English and was very patient while we peppered him with questions before making our selections.

Featuring both hot and cold dishes, Johnny's menu included some things I recognized (like mofongo and pollo asado) and lots of things that I didn't. Using the cashier's recommendations as our guide, we picked out some morcilla (pork blood sausage with rice), fried breadfruit, something called pastelon (described to us as like lasagna with plantains in place of the noodles), a scoop of crispy yellow rice (browned on the bottom of the pan not unlike paella) with beans, and slices of avocado.

Everything we ate was fantastic, with the pastelon probably being our favorite. This concoction seems to be unique to Puerto Rico/Dominican Republic and is normally made with ground beef (ours had shredded chicken instead), but, just like lasagna, the locals apparently tailor their pastelon recipes to suit their own tastes. Most recipes I could find online include fried plantains, a protein of your choosing, sofrito, eggs, a seasoned MSG salt called sazon, adobo spice, and tomato sauce, plus sometimes cheese, raisins, milk, and/or olives (heart-healthy it's not). Even the breadfruit (a starchy fruit that, while nutritious, I'd heard to be unpalatable) was pretty darn good (of course, it had been fried). Given the opportunity, we'd gladly return to Johnny's someday to sample more swaths of the menu.

Feeling pretty satisfied, Mrs. Hackknife and I spent an hour or so at the nearby radio telescope facility before heading back towards Dorado for dinner. We weren't staying at the Ritz resort (too rich for our blood, we were slumming it up at the Embassy Suites down the road), so we got a little lost seeking it out in the darkness once night fell (there aren't so many street lights in Puerto Rico illuminating the roadways outside of towns). When we finally arrived, we discovered the resort to be magnificent, almost like a Polynesian village set in the middle of a lagoon (I couldn't see the ocean, but I could hear and smell it out there somewhere), with tidy, modern buildings on stilts connected by elegant walkways above the water.

Mi Casa itself has something of a playful look when compared to the rest of the resort, a Japanese steakhouse-meets-the Spanish Inquisition (note the Catalan steer head mounted on the wall). Jose Andres is also known for injecting a bit of whimsy into his cooking style, showcasing traditional Spanish dishes in non-traditional ways (and, in this case, incorporating some ingredients that are indigenous to Puerto Rico). We opted to try the evening's multi-course "Tapas Experience" menu and we were certainly not disappointed.

The first course simply consisted of sliced Jamon Iberico (quite possibly the world's best ham) served with Catalan tomato bread, proving that you can't really improve on a classic combination. I'd had the same tomato bread at Chef Andres's restaurant The Bazaar in Los Angeles (they had two sous-chefs solely dedicated to making tomato bread there) and it was just as good the second time around.

Next up was a variation of the salmon cornet originally made famous by Chef Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, with a phyllo dough cone filled with green papaya marmalade and Canarejal cheese from Spain, then topped with hazelnut shavings, a great combination of sweet and savory in a single bite.

Course #3 was more of an avant-garde cocktail/palate cleanser, consisting of four little spheres filled with rum, mint, lime, and coconut water resting in a pool of the same liquid inside a green papaya shell. Being a Jose Andres menu, I figured we'd be getting edible spheres at some point (he's an unabashed disciple of Ferran Adria, you know) and this was it.

The spheres were followed by this, um, acrylic gym shoe filled with a very common tapas dish, chicken and bechamel croquettes, that were uncommonly delicious (not sure I quite understand the shoe tie-in, however).

A light and refreshing platter of four local mussels marinated in Sherry dressing and topped with a relish of tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and bright yellow foam (saffron?) then arrived at our table. The mussels were briny and delicate, and I wished we had about 20 more of them to nosh on.

More raw seafood followed, this time a beautiful tuna ceviche (tuna mixed with coconut dressing, jicama, cilantro, and serrano peppers) underneath a vibrant green avocado, which sported a crown of crispy quinoa. I've had a lot of ceviches over the years and this was probably both the best-looking and richest version I'd ever encountered.

Course #7 was the chef's take on a deconstructed Caesar salad, albeit different from the one that Graham Elliott made famous. In this dish, romaine lettuce was wrapped in four cylinders of jicama, then two of the cylinders were topped with shaved Parmesan, while the others had the raw egg yolk dressing and anchovies on top, respectively. A lonely pair of croutons perched on the plate next to the jicama rounds. I was happy to let Mrs. Hackknife have the egg yolk cylinder and she was kind enough to let me take the anchovy one. If there ever was a way to encourage people to eat salad in their cars, this dish would clearly be the best means to achieve that.

In homage to the numerous stands in the Puerto Rican town of Guavate selling spit-roasted whole pig (known as "lechon" around these parts), the kitchen next prepared a duo of pork belly slabs topped with pieces of puffed chicharron (pork skin) and chayote squash marinated in mojo (garlic, sour oranges, and olive oil), all served on crunchy fried buns. Yes, these little sandwich flavor bombs were as amazing as they sound.

Believe it or not, after this massive collection of small bites, we still had two MAIN COURSES on our tasting menu, the first of which you see below, a traditional Puerto Rican stew or gumbo (called "asopao") made with local spiny lobster from the holding tank in the middle of the dining room (we could see the servers bringing the pot of cooked lobster out of the kitchen and preparing the final dish at the station next to the tank - I wish they could have done it tableside). The asopao also contained more chayote squash, plus another island relish referred to as "alcaparrado", a mixture of finely chopped olives, garlic, capers, and pimento. As if that weren't enough, a basket of ethereal fried plantain chips accompanied the hearty stew.

The other main course was a plate of braised veal cheeks with shrimp, polenta, and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (which I politely declined). The missus and I were both surprised to find that the veal cheeks were a little on the bland side, lacking the flavor punch we'd experienced with this ingredient at other places (B&B Ristorante Las Vegas's beef cheek ravioli, for example, or the mindblowingly rich beef cheek penang curry from the Next Thai menu in Chicago). This was the one and only dish of the evening that left us a little disappointed (of course, the fact that we were both stuffed to the gills at this point might have played a minor role in our discouragement).

We'd noticed sometime around the lobster stew course that the kitchen had fallen behind and had more or less ground to a halt, with most patrons in the dining room looking expectant. This lapse in activity (I'm sure that the kitchen must have been all a-frenzy behind closed doors) seemed to go on for a while - not that it really bothered us (actually, we welcomed the respite), but I felt bad for the other diners, especially those not doing the tasting menu and, thus, waiting for their entrees. Eventually, our server came over to offer us a complimentary glass of dessert wine, a wonderful 2005 Privilegio dei Feudi di San Gregorio from the Campania region of Italy, made from the white grapes Fiano and Falanghina.

This wine was a perfect match for our dessert course, a Spanish flan with Catalan cream, oranges, and passionfruit. Those tricky folks at Fogo de Chao know that their papaya creme dessert helps digest all of that roasted meat preceding it in your tummy, and this tropical-inflected custard served much the same purpose, allowing me to reach an upright position and walk out of the restaurant without much agony when the time came.

As far as value goes, I have to say that this $85 tasting menu is about the best deal you're likely to find in the Western Hemisphere (and you get to experience eclectic versions of regional dishes in a stunning setting for no extra charge). I dream of returning someday to the Ritz Dorado for an actual stay next time (donations happily accepted) and greatly look forward to my next meal at Mi Casa (you can bet we'll be driving back out to Johnny's for lunch, though)...

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