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A week's worth of dining in Puerto Rico - reviews

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A week's worth of dining in Puerto Rico - reviews

jacinthe | Mar 16, 2004 10:15 AM

I first wanted to thank everyone who made suggestions to a previous post asking about places to eat - it was definitely a good starting off point. But, as things are, plans change, and we ate accordingly. I'm going to forget some details, as I was lazy and didn't take notes, so I'm working off sheer memory here.

Our first night there, Saturday night, I'd made reservations at Ajili Mojili. The interior reminde me of what Cuba must have been like in the 50s - but that might have been influenced by the fact that I saw the new Dirty Dancing movie (mainly set in pre-Castro Cuba) right before flying down. We started with pumpkin fritters and a house salad. I definitely enjoyed the former, crisp on the outside, just scrumptious on the inside. The latter included slices of honeydew and cantaloupe atop a bed of lettuce and tomatoes. Then I got the skirt steak - a special, I think - and it was a great cut, perfectly medium rare, served with some sides. My boyfriend got a whole fried red snapper, served with tostones. Dessert was the tres leches cake. Service was spotty - very slow in parts (it took forever to get our drinks - a pitcher of sangria). Everything was superbly executed, but I was left with a very lukewarm feeling towards the place. It was as if there was no personality, no passion. Excellent food, but nothing more.

Most of our lunches were bought at Reposteria Kasalta. It was a few scant blocks from where we were staying in Ocean Park, and so very convenient for picnic lunches on the (very windy) beach. All of the sandwiches we got were hefty - nearly 2 inches of salami in one instance - and I could only eat half of one at any given time. We also got the caldo gallego, paella, tortilla espanola, and croquetas at different times - it was a great deal, substantial amounts of food, and while service was slow, it was complete - those people know what they're doing. (For example, my boyfriend ordered pancakes to go, and they remembered to include maple syrup without his asking.) The line sometimes got ridiculously long, but it was worth it.

Sunday night, we found ourselves in Old San Juan - we initially wanted to try Dragonfly, but it was closed that night, so we went across the street to Parrot Club instead. It's a large festive space, yellow walls with vibrant paintings. We wandered in at around 7:30 and were seated immediately. A little blurb on the menu proudly declares that it is written in Spanglish, and that all of the waitstaff are fluent in Spanglish as well. An interesting touch. We ended up ordering a bunch of appetizers - the ceasar salad with mofongo croutons, a fresh fish ceviche, empanadillas, and slow cooked baby back ribs with a tamarind glaze. Everything was excellent. Service was very prompt if not a wee bit hasty - water refills were plentiful, but they were often too eager to take away our plates before we were done. I had several glasses of the house drink - a frozen blend of bacardi limon, triple sec, oranges and passion fruit, while my boyfriend had his share of mojitos. I know we got dessert, but for the life of me can't remember what it was. It was a purely tourist crowd - mainly people off cruise ships. So for authencity, perhaps not. But nonetheless, it was very good.

The next night, we were determined to get to Dragonfly. In Old San Juan again around 7:30 (this early dining is unusual for us, but a long day on the beach leaves one completely exhausted), and immediately got seats at a long communal table near the bar. Again, we ordered the house drink - some dreadfully sweet concoction. After an exhaustive recounting of the Asian fusion menu by the waiter (as he went through each item one by one). After a bit of dithering, we ended up with 1) the korean-style BBQ ribs, served with a side of rice and some black beans scattered atop. The meat was positively falling off the ribs, it was absolutely great, 2) peking duck nachos - duck shredded atop nacho chips, the duck was a little too sweet for my taste but was still excellent, 3) a smoked salmon pizza - a flatbread pizza, almost, with a mild wasabi sauce, cheese, and slices of smoked salmon atop. I feel like we ordered something else but can't recall, nor can I remember the dessert we ordered either. Note: The markup on the wine here is absolutely ridiculous. A bottle of Yellowtail shiraz was $29, Ravenswood was in the mid-30s. And yet, we saw people ordering off the wine list, so I guess they felt justified in gouging their customers. Service, again, was very good. The interior is rather bordello-ish, a deep red with Asian accents.This was the only dinner I ended up paying for, it was around $90 before tax for 3 (or 4) dishes, dessert, 2 house drinks, another drink and a beer.

Tuesday, we took a flight over to Culebra (instead of Vieques as we had originally planned - since we were making this only a day trip, we figured we'd choose the smaller of the two islands.) Brunch was at Dinghy Dock, a restaurant on the water in Dewey - very Margaritaville-ish in decor and atmosphere. Menu is both in English and Spanish, and we ended up with eggs benedict. Service is dreadfully slow, but perhaps that's just life out on Culebra. Crowd was mainly tourists who were staying on the island. We also later got sandwiches at El Batey, a bar/deli. As at Reposteria Kasalta, the sandwiches were very hefty and filling.

That night - again, back in Old San Juan - we had dinner at La Ostra Cosa. Billed as serving aphrodisical food, it's located in this outdoor courtyard, slightly romantic, tree frogs chirping "coqui" in the background. There is a live classical guitarist adding to the atmosphere. Each item on the menu is ranked by a star system, to describe how aphrodisiacal the dish indeed is. The owner is gregarious, definitely the star of the show here, and he would seat himself down at each table and "consult" with you as to what you would order. We ended up with a smoked squid salad, the conch salad, and the grilled prawns. Everything was very good. When it came time to eating prawns, the owner sat down with us and demonstrated - using one of my boyfriend's prawns - how we were supposed to eat them - how to break off the heads and remove the brown sac and suck the meat out, how to eat the legs, etcetc. He stopped just short of feeding my boyfriend (although he was later observed feeding the girls at the table next to us.) Dessert was a chocolate flan - a speciality of the house.

Wednesday, we found ourselves out on the Western coast, at Playa Crashboat and then Rincon. That night we ate at The Landing in Rincon, which serves what could be described as "international" food. While the food hit the spot, it was otherwise unremarkable - several people at our table got burgers, other got salads - they have larger entrees as well. Beautiful place though, just off the beach. The sunset was gorgeous. There's also an indoor pool table, perfect for working off dinner.

For Thursday's dinner, we went to El Picoteo, a tapas bar in El Convento in Old San Juan. This was hands down our favourite restaurant - but then, we're slightly biased, we love tapas. It's set on the second floor of the hotel, a lovely picturesque setting, part indoors and part outdoors. We ordered drinks at the bar while waiting for our table - mojitos, very well executed, some of the best I've had. Our mistake was actually accepting a table - after waiting 10 minutes at our seats, we still hadn't received any attention at all - and slightly miffed, returned to our spots at the bar to eat there. This was far wiser, for nearly immediately after ordering, we got our food. A plate heaped with manchego, another with jamon serrano. A good-sized chunk of tortilla espanola, a bowl full of amazing mussels, a little pan of albondigas. The servings were more along the raciones size, rather than just tapas. We had to cancel our order of fried calimari, which we really wanted - but after all the other food was brought out, we knew we couldn't finish it all, though we did have a healthy pitcher of sangria with which to wash everything down. The food was simple - no frilly touches - but perfectly done and it precisely hit the spot. A very satisfying meal - and service at the bar was a hundred times better than if we had stayed at our table. We ended with the tres leches cake, which again, was marvelous.

Unfortunately, we had to leave Saturday, but were determined to tuck one last proper meal in before we were relegated to airport food. Since we were staying at Numero Uno, we figured we might as well try Pamela's, the restaurant there. It would be silly not to. So after a morning on the beach, we stumbled into the restaurant for lunch. After starting with a salad - oh dear, I've forgotten what was on it - I remember cubes of mango, some fritters, perhaps some goat cheese? - I do remember liking it a lot - we then got a shrimp wrap and a beef tenderloin strips and manchego wrap. Both were served in spinach wraps, slightly crisp as if they had sat under a sandwich press for a little, served with some amazingly spiced cole slaw. Dessert was our favourite of the entire trip - a banana pie, with a pistachio crust and a small scoop of caramel ice cream. But it was not banana custard - rather, it was composed of thick slices of a small banana baked in a butterly flakey crust, this layer of pistachio crust atop. It is a pricey restaurant though - I think lunch came to around $60, for 1 iced tea, 2 wraps, 1 salad and 1 dessert. But then again, we did get a lot of food.

(I didn't forget Friday night - we were in Ponce, where one of my boyfriend's friends lives, and we ended up at this local bar - not another tourist in sight - where we had some amazing seafood empanadillas, as well as a fried red snapper served with tostones. But I have absolutely no idea where it is or what its name is, and am therefore unfortunately unhelpful.)

With all of this excellent dining - I have to say, however, that maybe my favourite food items were the pinchos we'd get at random stands on the beach. Skewers of chicken or pork, basted with BBQ sauce and some picante - it hit the spot after a spell on the beach. Our favourite we found was near the beaches of Guanica, to the west of Ponce. I could have happily eaten my way around the island, stopping at all the various stands, but my boyfriend has more willpower than I, which is good since otherwise I would have eaten my way into a food coma.

I rather wish we had gotten to eat at La Bombonera - we walked by it several times, but it was always closed - but as the hotel had a free breakfast, and we really wanted to spend maximum time on the beach, we never made it there. Perhaps another time. It's always good to leave things to return to.

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