By Phil Vettel

Confit salmon with quinoa, plantain, herb pesto okra and a pimento vinaigrette served at 1919 restaurant. – MCT photos

Con­fit salmon with quinoa, plan­tain, herb pesto okra and a pimen­to vinai­grette served at 1919 restau­rant. – MCT photos

Con­fit salmon with quinoa, plan­tain, herb pesto okra and a pimen­to vinai­grette served at 1919 restau­rant. – MCT photos

Ready for some inter­est­ing food choic­es in San Juan?

THE island of Puer­to Rico offers so many visu­al treats – gor­geous beach­es, rugged hills, beau­ti­ful church­es and majes­tic his­toric forts – that din­ing just about becomes an after­thought. A chunk of meat or fish, some sides of mofon­go (fried mashed plan­tains) and mam­posteao (rice and beans with oth­er good­ies), a stiff rum drink and you’re good to go, right?

Well, yes, that’ll do nice­ly much of the time. And if you get a chance to attend a pig roast (which draws locals and tourists alike to drink beer, lis­ten to music and feast on lechon asa­do or whole roast­ed pig), by all means do so. You’ll have to leave the city for the moun­tains (mine took place at a water’s‑edge park just out­side of town, but my host assured me that every­thing beyond the city lim­its is “the moun­tains”), but it’s worth the trip.

There’s no short­age of restau­rants in San Juan, of course, but some­times the frus­trat­ing thing about din­ing here is that many (or most) restau­rants cater to the tourist trade, which they iden­ti­fy (prob­a­bly with cause) as unad­ven­tur­ous. Sea­son­ings can be mild to the point of bland­ness; local prod­ucts can be for­sak­en for the pre­sumed cachet of, say, Pacif­ic Ocean seafood. But there is excel­lent, local­ly-focused din­ing to be had in San Juan, if you know where to look. On a glo­ri­ous­ly long week­end here, when the temps back home were in the sin­gle-dig­it range, I found a few places so excit­ing I’d return even if the weath­er wasn’t as glo­ri­ous as it so often is.

A few ran­dom observations:

> As with most tourist-heavy, hot-weath­er des­ti­na­tions, ser­vice can be iffy. The peo­ple are always friend­ly, but a cer­tain laid-back “island time” lethar­gy is part of the deal here. If you’re accus­tomed to high­ly-atten­tive and effi­cient ser­vice, you might want to recal­i­brate your expec­ta­tions. You’ll enjoy the pace if you give it a chance.

> Sauteed veal brains are a thing here. Don’t be afraid. If you can han­dle sweet­breads, you’ll be OK with brains.

> Sword­fish is rarely a bad choice in San Juan; they get in good products.

> Beef is rarely a smart choice. Sure, they fly in good steaks, but did you real­ly cross a num­ber of time zones to cut into a steak that might have been on the same plane you took?

Here’s a short list of worth­while restau­rants, all with­in easy cab or bus rides of each other:

Cafe­te­ria Mal­lor­ca: Start your day off right at this cafe­te­ria / bak­ery in the heart of Old San Juan, the nar­row-street neigh­bour­hood where the cruise ships dock. A mal­lor­ca is a sweet, filled pas­try (about US$3/RM9.60) dust­ed with pow­dered sug­ar, even when the fill­ing is ham and cheese, which is one of sev­er­al vari­a­tions. Grab a seat at the counter, pull a cou­ple of paper nap­kins from a vin­tage Coca-Cola dis­penser and pre­pare to get messy. The pas­tries are yum­my, warmed to order, but that con­fec­tion­ers’ sug­ar gets every­where. Get here before the cruise ships dock and the place will be full of locals; arrive clos­er to lunch-time and you’ll see a lot of cameras.

Mar­malade: A nine-year-old absolute gem in Old San Juan. The sim­ple exte­ri­or pro­vides no hints to Marmalade’s undu­lat­ing, con­tem­po­rary inte­ri­or, which eas­i­ly could be mis­tak­en for a night­club were it not for the con­sid­er­ate­ly mod­er­ate music lev­el and the joy­ful, local­ly-focused cook­ing by chef/owner Peter Schintler, a farm boy from Iowa, the Unit­ed States, who’s now push­ing local pro­duce in the Caribbean. Affin­i­ty is too mild a word to describe Schintler’s way with veg­eta­bles; in addi­tion to stel­lar ceviche and pork bel­ly over black bean purée, he offers an entire veg­e­tar­i­an menu, with such treats as baby kale sal­ad using a gar­lic and mus­tard-seed vinai­grette, and raw cau­li­flower with Mid­dle East­ern sea­son­ings and chips made from mus­tard greens. Main cours­es will run as high as US$35 (RM113), but most are less than US$25 (RM80.50). Ser­vice was, hands down, the best I expe­ri­enced on the island.

Mount­ed plaques on the bar walls attest to the restaurant’s var­i­ous Wine Spec­ta­tor awards, and among the excel­lent cock­tails is the Glob­al Warm­ing, a sort of mar­gari­ta bear­ing a large spher­i­cal ice cube made with three hot chill­ies; the drink has a mod­est spice lev­el at first, but as the ice melts, the heat lev­el ris­es. Here’s a sit­u­a­tion in which nurs­ing your drink can have seri­ous consequences.\

Chef Mario Pagan of Laurel Kitchen Art Bar inside the Puerto Rican Museum of Art prepares veal brains in dark butter. - Photo by Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/MCT

Veal brains in dark but­ter pre­pared by Chef Mario Pagan of Lau­rel Kitchen Art Bar inside the Puer­to Rican Muse­um of Art.

Lau­rel Kitchen Art Bar: Mario Pagan’s newest restau­rant (he also has Chay­ote and Lemon­grass, both high­ly regard­ed) is inside the Puer­to Rican Muse­um of Art in the San­turce dis­trict. The menu embraces a wide range of good­ies: lamb meat­balls, coconut shrimp in gua­va sauce, shell­fish pael­la and veal brains in dark but­ter. Most main cours­es are in the upper US$30s (RM90++). The food is inter­na­tion­al, but every dish bears hints of local ingre­di­ents. Ser­vice is leisure­ly, but who’s in a hur­ry in a museum?

Pikayo: Chef Wilo Benet is a leg­endary chef in Puer­to Rico. His impres­sive résumé includes work at Le Bernardin in New York, and he cooked at the governor’s man­sion in San Juan. The guy even has his own wine label (Dobleu). Pikayo is Benet’s flag­ship restau­rant, first opened 22 years ago and re-estab­lished in 2009 in the Con­rad San Juan, a lux­u­ry beach­front hotel with casi­no at the edge of San Juan’s Tony Con­da­do neigh­bour­hood. The din­ing room is gor­geous and white-table­cloth ele­gant, and there’s a deep and impres­sive list of large­ly Old World wines along with an ambi­tious cock­tail list. You’ll pay resort prices – entrées here run from US$36 (RM116) to US$45 (RM145) – but maybe you’ll get lucky on the slots on your way out.

The cook­ing gen­er­al­ly is quite good, but the menu was designed with tourists in mind, so you have to peruse care­ful­ly to find local flavour. The prix-fixe tast­ing menu (US$65/RM209), for instance, offers main course choic­es of filet mignon in port wine sauce and shrimp with chori­zo – good stuff, but not exact­ly the pot at the end of the loca­vore rain­bow. Seafood dish­es, notably sword­fish and salmon, are prob­a­bly your best bets.

1919: The Con­da­do Van­der­bilt hotel is so new it doesn’t have rooms avail­able yet. But when the prop­er­ty was ready, the own­ers opened the spiffy 1919 restau­rant any­way. “We’d already been on the island for eight months,” said exec­u­tive chef Jose Cuevas. “So we decid­ed to open and get the buzz around.” The restau­rant cer­tain­ly is buzz-wor­thy. Sun-drenched (with ocean views) by day and dark and sul­try by night, the restau­rant projects an inti­mate mood, aid­ed (or ham­pered, depend­ing on your mood) by some­times over­ly for­mal ser­vice. As with Pikayo, you’re in lux­u­ry ter­ri­to­ry; entrées will range from US$34 (RM110) to US$48 (RM155).

Cuevas is a born-and-raised Puer­to Rican, but his cook­ing career has tak­en him to sev­er­al top-notch restau­rants in New York (Blue Hill, Alain Ducasse) and else­where before he returned home. Though he insists “we’re not try­ing to do Puer­to Rican food what­so­ev­er; we leave that to the grand­mas”, local veg­eta­bles and in-house vinai­grette are the stars of Cuevas’ plates. He offers, for instance, a “taste of tuna” in which pris­tine slices of raw tuna are draped over respec­tive piles of moz­zarel­la and caviar, pine nuts and capers, and octo­pus and pre­served lemon, and you’ll remem­ber the accom­pa­ni­ments long after you’ve for­got­ten about the tuna.

You’ll remem­ber Cuevas’ pic­ture-per­fect pre­sen­ta­tions, too. Some­where in the din­ing room is a coqui, a native frog whose dis­tinct chirp (more like an all-night-long screech) belies its inch-long size. “I’m not sure how he got here, and we’re not sure where he is,” the chef said. “He just showed up and made his home here.” You might want to do the same once hotel rooms become avail­able this year.

Jose Enrique: I’m still kick­ing myself for miss­ing out on this restau­rant; sev­er­al of my trav­el­ling com­pan­ions who came here haven’t stopped rav­ing about it. Chef and own­er Jose Enrique is a food-fanat­ic super­star here, and that was before Food & Wine mag­a­zine named him one of America’s Best New Chefs of 2013. There are dis­ad­van­tages to din­ing here. The restau­rant doesn’t accept reser­va­tions, and if you arrive after 6pm, you pret­ty much can count on a two-hour wait for a table. Check the wall board for the day’s menu, but expect main cours­es to be in the uppers US$20s (RM60++) for the most part.

Hap­pi­ly, the bar offers ter­rif­ic cock­tails, or you can leave your cell­phone num­ber at the desk and stroll to one of sev­er­al near­by restau­rants to pass the time. The din­ing room is filled with young locals, and it’s noisy. The neigh­bour­hood is dicey enough that the restau­rant staffers will insist on call­ing a cab for your return trip (depend­ing on your hotel, the dis­tance is walk­a­ble). But the food inspires poet­ry. Next time for sure. – Chica­go Tri­bune/M­c­Clatchy-Tri­bune Infor­ma­tion Services