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I ATE•PR: Fine Dining at Pikayo and Varita + the Chef’s Secret Recipe for Chorizo Emulsion

September 27, 2011 by Joan Nova in Nuevo Latino, Restaurant Reviews, Travel Retrospectives | 16 Comments

If one picture is worth a 1000 words, this may be my ‘wordiest’ post ever!

Tuna Tartare on Crispy Rice with Chipotle Mayo

Vacationing in a tropical place like Puerto Rico offers distinct and varied dining opportunities. I’ve written before about eating and mixing it up with the locals on their beautiful beaches or in the mountainous countryside and quaint towns…so I thought it was time to showcase the high-end resort side of dining in Puerto Rico, compliments of Chef Wilo Benet who has not one, but two, restaurants in the Conrad Condado Plaza Resort. I had the pleasure of enjoying tasting menus at each.

There are many things that set this Chef apart. He’s genuinely nice, almost renaissance-like in all his artistic endeavors, and he’s a top-notch chef who presents creative contemporary dishes with native roots. You’ll see what I mean.

The food at Pikayo is the true essence of the island — local flavors are present in almost every offering, but they’re lightened, refined and elevated to an art form.

A perfect example is the foie gras on sweet plantain with truffle honey, pictured below. This was served with a late harvest wine and I, literally, swooned!

A large prawn on apio mash appeared on a puddle of chorizo sauce, the recipe for which the chef graciously shares with us (see below). Click here for photo of the root vegetable (apio) which I spotted in a local supermarket.

I like to keep it clean with no more than 5 elements on a dish…if it looks orange, so be it.” Chef Benet

Another delightful taste was a beef carpaccio lollipop, rolled in parmesan and drizzled with truffle oil.

We also tried a crispy Branzino with shitake mushrooms in a delicate buerre blanc sauce.

…followed by a boneless Australian lamb on veal demi glace with micro haricot vert. Visible in the background is butter dish with guava butter.

Each dish was paired with a wine, starting with a rosé champagne and ending with an opportunity to taste the Chef’s “Dobleú” label (Spanish for ‘w’ which his mother calls him). Two varieties of tempranillo were produced with a vintner in Spain and received ‘best buy’ and 87 points from acclaimed wine critic Robert Parker (Wine Advocate edition 2009).

Dessert: We finished with dual souffles: cheese with guava sauce and chocolate with vanilla sauce and a taste of the chef’s macarons.

The atmosphere in the large dining room is basically neutral and subdued, but well-appointed with a few pops of contemporary art and a view of the ocean. I can’t help but liken the serenity to a museum that showcases the art on the wall…only here it was on the plates.

The prices are not cheap but it is an exceptional gastronomic experience in a fine dining atmosphere and you won’t regret the $$$$ spent. Besides, after dinner, you can walk across the lobby to the casino and with a little good luck, you might recoup the expense at the gambling tables or machines.

BTW, this is my favorite casino with lots of  playing choices and live Latin music on the weekends. When I was there, people were getting up from their machines to dance in the aisles. Only in PR. :)

Similar tasting dinners are available at $65/pp; wine pairing adds an additional $25-30 or you could order off full menu.

Across the road on the lagoon side of the resort, Varita is alternately known as a ‘wood rotisserie’ and ‘steak tavern’.The visual here is different…darker colors, abundant in decorative textural mixes, and the walls are adorned with more than a dozen of the Chef’s photos and paintings. The menu, too, takes on a different mood – somewhat casual with sliders, salads, house-made sausages and a top-notch grill. Variety is the key on this menu. There’s something for everyone, even the kids. 

Tuna Tartare Lettuce Wraps served with guacamole, peanut sauce, wasabi foam and crispy rice sprinkles.

I wanted to try every variety in the house-made sausage selection, but we settled on ‘cheeseburger’ and ‘chicken and cranberry’. They were served on bed of  buttered sauerkraut and bacon…delish!

Chilean Sea Bass was cooked to ‘charred outside/juicy inside’ perfection and served with a delectable orange-flavored sofrito sauce. 

They really know how to work the grill and a New York strip loin was also done to perfection (although I would have preferred the onions to be more uniformly cut and crisped.)

We ate the steak with tiny mofongo balls that were served with chicken broth meant to be poured over the top.

Both restaurants have large sit-at bars; Pikayo also has a lounge area.

Chef Wilo Benet is as interesting as his food. 
These days, the chef no longer ‘works the line’ but it’s clear there is a lot of respect and admiration for his concept coming out of the kitchen(s).

Wikipedia classifies him as “a Puerto Rican celebrity chef.”  Yes, he is! He trained at the Culinary Institute of NY and worked at such esteemed locales as Le Bernadin and The Water Club NY. In PR he served as the Chef de Cuisine at the Governor’s Mansion and 20 years ago he created the Pikayo concept which first opened in Old San Juan, then was housed at the San Juan Museum of Art and, ultimately, now at the Conrad.

He’s an author (most recently  Puerto Rico True Flavors), has been featured in top print media like Conde Naste, National Geographic Traveler, Food + Wine, Bon Appetit, etc.  and he has appeared on many TV shows, notably Top Chef Masters.  He’s also an established photographer, painter, musician and businessman.

Yes, he’s accomplished! But he could not be more humble (in every nice sense of the word). Just read the the dedication, introduction and forward in his cookbook. It sings of love and appreciation for family, patria and those who supported him along the way.

[The Conrad Condado Plaza stands in the footprint of what was once the Flamboyan on the lagoon side and the San Geronimo oceanside on Ashford Avenue in the Condado section of San Juan.]

5.0 from 2 reviews

Chef Wilo Benet’s Spicy Chorizo Sauce
 
Ingredients
  • 2 pounds of ground chorizo
  • 1 bottle of chardonnay
  • 1 large onion diced
  • 1.5 tbsp. of Oriental garlic and chile paste
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • cornstarch
  • salt & pepper
How To
  1. In a large sauce pan on medium heat render the chorizo and add the onions and the chile paste.
  2. Once the onions are soft add the wine and reduce by half.
  3. With an inverted blender liquify the mix and with the blender running add the olive oil in a thin stream to emulsify.
  4. Put the emulsified sauce through a fine colander and season with salt and pepper.
Notes
This recipe is obviously restaurant quantity. It’s unlikely you’ll want so large a yield, but the key is we have the ingredients and the technique so just proportion it as you see fit for your purposes.

 

NOTE: Some recipes found on FOODalogue are offered without ingredient quantities. They're meant as a guide to food pairings and techniques to be experimented with … in your own kitchen … to your own spice and taste levels … to your preferred portion sizes … and to however many people you’re cooking for. A perfect meal has multiple levels of flavor and textures, bright colors and tastes, and healthy(ish) choices. It's all about enjoyment. Enjoy the process, the presentation and the just rewards...eating!

16 Comments

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  1. bellini says:

    So much visual “eye candy” in each of the steps of this post Joan.Travelling truly opens our world to all possibilities.

  2. Buela says:

    Your proficiency at photography has enhanced your blog. It is similar to looking in a art or food magazine with an added personal touch. Lovey Juana.

  3. norma says:

    I was supposed to be there with you, but because of that horrible hurricane Irene everything was ruined. Wilo is one of my favorite chefs and I treasure his book and his recipes are so well executed…works of art. I cannot wait to return to Puerto Rico and have the pleasure of meeting Wilo and tasting his creations. Joan you really did an exceptional job on this post. It’s lie almost being there…
    norma recently posted..Cabillaud Toulonnais – Cod Toulon StyleMy Profile

    • Joan says:

      The book is really authentic ‘down home’ cooking. One of my friends in PR who looked at the book said it was “her mother’s recipes”. I also like at the back where the techniques are shown in photographs. I, too, will treasure it.

  4. Pictures are great and the food looks so wonderful it almost makes me feel like getting on a plane headed to PR. Tuna tartare is one of our favorite dishes and one of our TV dinners. Wish I had his recipe.
    Patricia Durr recently posted..Marky’s – International Food EmporiumMy Profile

  5. What a great post! Your pictures are fabulous as are your descriptions. I felt like I was there with you. I wish I was. Aren’t you a lucky girl? Puerto Rico this month and Tuscany next month!
    sandra axelrod recently posted..Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain CookbookMy Profile

  6. Gail says:

    Great post! No wonder Puerto Rico was just on the top 10 foodie place in the US. Every little thing was not only beautiful, but sounded really delicious!
    Gail recently posted..Out of the AshesMy Profile

  7. Woww! So interesting!!! and the chorizo sauce??? it fits us argentineans so well….goes directly to my recipe book!
    Cristina, from Buenos Aires to Paris recently posted..Oh Beautiful ! (Part II) Yes, I was in Napa Valley……Quince in Red Wine, Panna Cotta and Cornmeal (Polenta) BiscottiMy Profile

  8. Elba Rodriguez says:

    I’ve been to Pikayo 3 times and once to Varita. If I had to choose which one was the best, I would have to say it’s a tie! Excellent food and service at both restaurants was very attentive. At Pikayo, Chef Wilo’s presence was a special treat. He was very gracious to autograph his book for his customers.

  9. Robin Sue says:

    This book interests me since Himself and I will be going back to PR this coming winter- we loved it so much there! I really enjoyed the review of these 2 restaurants and will have to check them out when there. Thanks Joan- bookmarking this for future travels!
    Robin Sue recently posted..Lazy LasagnaMy Profile

  10. I love this ‘wordliest’ post – I have a jar of fine French Foie Gras……waiting to perch delicately on some plantains (abundant in sunny Nigeria).

    And I love the chef, perched so elegantly on a bunch of green plantains – a worthy rest
    Kitchen Butterfly recently posted..1st of October – Nigeria’s Independence DayMy Profile

  11. Sippitysup says:

    I love California, but I need a trip to the islands. GREG

  12. Bunkycooks says:

    These dishes are a feast for the eyes. I will definitely have to remember this restaurant if we make it to Puerto Rico.

  13. Now I”m hungry and I want to travel badly.
    angela@spinachtiger recently posted..Aretha Frankenstein’s Buttermilk Biscuits and Six Tips for Making Great BiscuitsMy Profile

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  1. [...] cookbook, Puerto Rico – True flavors.  If you want to see Wilo’s creations, go to Foodalogue where my friend Joan had the pleasure to meet Wilo and visit his two restaurants in Puerto Rico. We [...]

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