Hotel kitchen artists at specialty restaurants serve up passion on a platter
Staying at one of Puerto Rico’s beachfront hotels doesn’t just mean that frolicking and taking refreshing ocean dips is your day job while in la Isla del Encanto. The dazzling premises are also full of sabor, with delectable meals served in sumptuous surroundings steps from the comfort of your hotel room or favorite beach chair.
Whether it is an opulent, haute cuisine French dinner inspired by Michelin Star Chef Jean-Georges, an exotic teppanyaki feast redolent of Japan, or an imaginative culinary spin on the island’s own cocina criolla, Puerto Rico’s hotels and resorts offer world-class fine dining regardless of what you are looking for.
Signature restaurants serving distinctive world cuisine or a fusion of culinary traditions can be found at major hostelries around the island, offering a wealth of options that will tempt even the most demanding palate. And if you crave seasonal food you are in luck because the farm-to-table movement is the biggest trend in Puerto Rico’s restaurants. You can’t get any fresher than eating a fish plucked from the sea a couple of hours before ending on a dish next to some crunchy greens and savory vegetables picked the day before from a beautiful tropical farm. Island agriculture is exploding with fresh organic produce and niche crops, energized by a new generation of farmers that have made for fresher, more pungent flavors wafting from restaurant kitchens.
Whether famous or about to be, the chef in your kitchen is an artist and might very well be a star. They are responsible for the exciting menus that day in and day out tantalize diners’ taste buds through gastronomic flights of fancy. These maestros of the kitchen are among Puerto Rico’s most creative people, bringing enthusiasm, passion, and versatility to the challenging task of preparing meals that will appeal to diners who hail from all over the world and have wildly different personal preferences when it comes to food.
While all are stars in their own right, some have reached celebrity status like the incomparable Wilo Benet, whose Pikayo restaurant at Condado Plaza Hilton has been taking Puerto Rican cuisine to astonishing heights over the course of its 25-year life.
Another luminary is Angel Santiago, the executive chef of Lola Eclectic Cuisine at the Ponce Plaza Hotel & Casino, famous for his personal motto: “Keep cooking.” Dubbed “the chef with the hands of gold,” he was a finalist in Master Chef Latino 2011, has competed with the Puerto Rico Culinary Team (taking gold, bronze, and Best Culinary Team award in 2012) and has appeared on TV shows like the 2015 Christmas special of “Ellas y Tus Noches” with Chef Marilyn Lopez.
Raul Correa, the creative talent behind Zest at the San Juan Water Beach Club hotel in Carolina, has earned a reputation as a chef, a manager, and a teacher over his 21-year career. Recently named Restaurateur of the Year 2016, he was included in the 2015 edition of “Where Chefs Eat: A Guide to Chefs’ Favorite Restaurants,” published by Phaidon Press. Correa at Zest serves a globally inspired casual menu influenced by iconic local dishes using hand-picked ingredients from Puerto Rico’s farming community. In 2014, he won a gold medal for Best Culinary Team in the Caribbean at the Taste of the Caribbean event.
And then there’s Gustavo Sanchez, the executive chef of Fern at the luxe St. Regis Bahia Beach in lush Rio Grande. Recently invited to cook for the Meals on Wheels gala at the St. Regis Atlanta, Sanchez will be heading to New York next February to cook an entree for a dinner at the prestigious James Beard Foundation, a big honor, and “a huge stepping stone in my career,” he said.
Puerto Rico’s astonishing kitchen talent has made the island a vibrant culinary destination, with hotel restaurants some of the finest on the island, drawing both visitors from around the world and locals with discerning palates. Regardless of style, or the tradition they are working in, Puerto Rico’s culinary creators share a passion to ensure the highest quality of ingredients and a cutting-edge standard of excellence in their execution.
“In the restaurant business, your efforts bring results. Beyond the difficult tasks of creating ideas and developing your team, the most gratifying thing is being able to feel proud about the good results,” said Sanchez, who oversees Fern at the St. Regis Bahia Beach.
Sanchez rose to success working his way up at popular restaurants like Dragonfly, Bistro de Paris, Aguaviva, and Koco, which brought him the experience of cooking classic French, Asian-Latin fusion, seafood, and pan-Caribbean. Open and unafraid to try out new things, he said the actual cooking and execution of an idea is the easy part. “The challenge is how to make everyone on my team excited about what they do,” Sanchez said.
Fern has a menu that is based on the cuisine of Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose eponymous three Michelin starred Manhattan restaurants, is one of the top five best French restaurants in the Americas. Sanchez said he selects the dishes he thinks will appeal to diners and occasionally tweaks the recipe to give it a local twist: “The food is emblematic of Jean-George’s unique style but with some Caribbean gastronomic touches.”
Puerto Rico’s beachfront hotels are luxurious and stylish and their restaurant kitchens are revolutionizing the art of dining.
A light and airy space with magnificent views of the ocean and colorful abstract art on its walls, Pikayo at Condado Plaza Hilton is among San Juan’s most famous restaurants and with good reason. What a menu! On a recent evening the restaurant, open year round for dinner except on New Year, offered these main entrees: wild caught Equatorial jumbo shrimp, seared cold rare Hawaiian yellow fin tuna, Maine diver scallops, Alaskan king salmon, and New Zealand lamb chops. Positively a United Nations of dishes, which reflects the culinary style of Chef Benet, described as “contemporary global cuisine” combining traditional Puerto Rican ingredients with influences from other cuisines such as Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Spanish, Italian, and Classical French. Some of his dishes take inspiration from the flavors of his childhood and the cooking of his mother and grandmother. He likes to take a simple dish and take it a notch higher simply by using premium ingredients and adding a special sauce.
“I want (diners) to have an experience filled with detail and flavor,” Benet said. Pikayo’s kitchen has several refrigerated rooms that store the marvelous ingredients that hail from Puerto Rico and around the world that provide the food here with much of its glory. Because “ingredients are the basis of any good dish,” Benet is a stickler for getting the very best or that perfect item needed to strike just the right tone in a dish, and he doesn’t mind where the hunt might take him.
“What we do here is handcraft food,” said Benet, a consummate stylist, who considers cooking an art form and his profession an artist.
Benet, who initially fancied a career in photography, is a book author, and TV personality who has appeared on Top Chef, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmerman, and his own cooking show, “Sabores de Ensueño con Wilo Benet” with an audience of 11 million people in the U.S. and all of Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina. Despite his fame, he is easy going and unpretentious. Today, his resume runs many pages but the first job he mentions is washing dishes. Dishwashing taught him the valuable lesson of being organized, a skill quite important in keeping a restaurant operation running smoothly, and one that got him tips from waiters who knew they could always easily find clean cutlery at his work station.
Based in a beautifully restored colonial building in Ponce’s historic downtown, Lola’s Eclectic Cuisine at the Ponce Plaza Hotel & Casino has a decor that mixes modernity with Spain’s classic colonial elegance. Likewise, its menu is a fusion of classic dishes with Caribbean and Puerto Rican cuisine. Offerings include lamb, various cuts of meat, risotto and traditional mofongo, mamposteado and tostones. Favorite dishes, according to Chef Angel Santiago, include Dorado in a lobster sauce coupled with a three cheese risotto; filet mignon with a demi-glaze of guava with mushroom risotto; and breast of chicken stuffed with cantimpalo chorizo (trimmed pork shoulder, loin and fresh ham) and manchego cheese accompanied by a mamposteado made with gandules (pigeon peas). “Seasonally, we include menu dishes every weekend especially made to go with the wines selected by our sommelier. All vegetables, herbs, fruits are bought locally. Protein and fish are also bought locally depending on the season,” he said.
Santiago initially planned a civil engineering career but quit to study at the Puerto Rico Hotel School in Isla Verde, going on to work at the Ritz Carlton San Juan Hotel in Isla Verde, the Radisson Ambassador Plaza in Condado, and Jajome Terrace restaurant in his mountain hometown of Cayey. A “careful but adventurous chef,” Santiago said the challenge of cooking is developing your own personal style and taste, maintaining it, and having people recognize it. “To be successful in this industry you need passion and the desire to learn every day,” he said. “You can learn something from every person you work with.”
Concentrating on the food might be a little hard at first if you dine at Zest, the San Juan Water Beach Club’s showcase restaurant. That’s because on top of fine dining you get an incredible sensory experience based on light and sound effects. For example, the ceiling simulates the surface of the ocean, the floors are illuminated with waves of light dancing on the walls, and a 60-foot wide cascade gurgles by the bar; enough to entertain you while you wait to be seated. The menu takes Puerto Rican and Latin America cuisine and gives it an international spin, paying homage to the island’s culinary heritage through the use of locally sourced products. Choices include an amuse-bouche (an appetizer) such as popcorn soup with truffle butter and rosemary or a lightly seasoned chicharron (fried pork skin), followed by a sea bass marinated in miso and accompanied by vegetables, eggplant foam, and green papaya compote, and topping off the meal, an extravagant version of Puerto Rico’s traditional tembleque: a coconut panacotta accompanied by pineapple sorbet, rum marinated raisins, and a crispy almond phyllo. For executive chef Correa, modern Puerto Rican cuisine is bold and innovative and “every single bite is absolutely delicious.”
Asiatic food is another popular trend in Puerto Rico these days so it is fitting that one of San Juan’s newest additions to the dining scene, SAK-I, is an Asian fusion restaurant. It boasts Puerto Rico’s only saki bar, serving 42 different brands of this famous Japanese liquor distilled from rice. Located in the InterContinental San Juan Hotel in Isla Verde, the restaurant features dishes based on Thai, Japanese, and Chinese cuisine with current menu favorites including Mongolian beef filet mignon, Kuntau chicken sautéed with peanuts, and lobster sushi. All vegetables, fruits, and some fish are purchased locally. “I always try for all menu proposals to be well balanced and I like to use what our land produces,” says executive chef Gabriel Rivera, who oversees two other restaurants in addition to SAK-I. A creative chef who likes simplicity, he stressed the value of consistency. “The gastronomic experience I seek to highlight is the fusion of local products with Asiatic ingredients adding preferences from Puerto Rico’s cuisine to create a new taste,” said Rivera, who studied cooking but credits his success on his 16 years of experience and support from influential mentors.
“If you want a menu to be liked you have to like cooking, you have to be inspired by cooking,” he said.