If one picture is worth a 1000 words, this may be my ‘wordiest’ post ever!
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.
Both restaurants have large sit-at bars; Pikayo also has a lounge area.
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.]