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.
A 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.
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.
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,
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.