Scouting the gems of San Juan

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — This island offers so many visual treats — gorgeous beaches, rugged hills, beautiful churches and majestic historic forts — that dining becomes a virtual afterthought. A hunk 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"); it's worth the trip.

There's no shortage of restaurants in the city, of course, but the sometimes frustrating thing about dining here is that many/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 weren'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, no question, 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 product.

Beef is rarely a smart choice. Sure, they fly in good steaks, but did you really cross X 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:

Cafeteria Mallorca — Start your day off right at this cafeteria/bakery in the heart of Old San Juan, the narrow-street neighborhood where the cruise ships dock. A mallorca is a sweet filled pastry 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 lunchtime and you'll see a lot of cameras. 300 San Francisco St., 787-724-4607.

Marmalade — A 9-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, an Iowa farmboy now pushing local produce in the Carribean. Affinity is too mild a word to describe Shintler's way with vegetables; in addition to stellar ceviche and pork belly over black-bean puree, 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. 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 chilies; 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. 317 Fortaleza St., San Juan, 787-724-3969.

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. So the likelihood is that you'll visit at lunchtime, in which case abandon the sleek dining room in favor of outdoor balcony dining. The menu embraces a wide range of goodies: lamb meatballs, coconut shrimp in guava sauce, shellfish paella and veal brains in dark butter. The food is international, but every dish bears hints of local ingredients. Service is leisurely, but who's in a hurry in a museum? 299 De Diego Ave., San Juan, 787-522-6444.

Pikayo — Chef Wilo Benet (if you follow cooking-competition reality TV, you've probably run across the name) is a legendary chef in Puerto Rico. His impressive resume includes work at Le Bernardin in New York, and he cooked at the governer's mansion here in San Juan. The guy even has his own wine label (Dobleu). Pikayo is Benet's flagship restaurant (he has others), 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 neighborhood. 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.

The cooking generally is quite good, but the menu was designed with tourists in mind, so you have to peruse carefully to find local flavor. The prix-fixe tasting menu, 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 localvore rainbow. Seafood dishes, notably swordfish and salmon, are probably your best bets. 999 Ashford Ave., San Juan, 787-721-6194.

1919 — The Condado Vanderbuilt 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 buzzworthy. Sun-drenched by day (you can see the ocean from the dining room) and dark and sultry by night, the restaurant projects a sultry and intimate mood, aided (or hampered, depending on your mood) by sometimes overly formal service.

Cuevas is a born-and-raised Puerto Rican, but his cooking career took 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 vinaigrettes 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 a screech, and it goes on all night) 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 later this year. 1055 Ashford Ave., San Juan, 787-724-1919.

Jose Enrique. I'm still kicking myself for missing out on this restaurant; several of my traveling companions (business trip) got to this place, and they 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 6 p.m., you pretty much can count on a two-hour wait for a table.

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. And the neighborhood 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. 176 Calle Duffant, 787-725-3518.

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