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Brief Trip Report from San Juan

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nycreba Oct 9, 2009 06:14 PM

Having extensively researched my quick trip to San Juan on chowhound and finding, well, not a lot of information for or against certain restaurants, I thought I would add my $.02 since we had a phenomenal gastronomic experience during our 3 days there.

First day: Arrival, bags down at La Concha (very nice place to stay in Condado!) and then off to Aguaviva (http://www.oofrestaurants.com) in Old San Juan. Had a lovely mojito, shared two ceviches (truffle tuna tartare and chillo y aguacate fresco) which were fresh and wonderfully marinated, and tuna wraps and salmon club sandwiches which were fresh as well and absolutely delicious. Service was not indifferent (saw this comment in a number of previous reviews?) and it was an impressive start to our culinary adventures.
Dinner was at Marmalade (www.marmaladepr.com) right across Fortaleza from Aguaviva and wow - what a meal. I can't begin to list all the sublime dishes the 3 of us tried because we all took advantage of their 5 course tasting menu ($69!) and tried, um, everything. First off, the restaurant was super quiet because its still slow season but its beautifully decorated (appreciated the high back chairs!) and the service again, very attentive. Stand out dishes: their famous white bean soup which was sinfully amazing and sprinkled with pancetta dust - does life GET better?!, the gnocchi with short ribs and wilted arugula (outstanding!) and a lobster risotto essentially simmered in lobster bisque. A few dishes were fine, good and the rest were exceptional; no mediocre food on our table that night. Very reasonable wine list. They were hyping their sister restaurant, Jam, but we opted out after reading numerous mixed reviews. Marmalade, however, is definitely worth a visit.

Second day: Breakfast at the hotel and quickie lunch at the pool. Dinner was at Dragonfly (sister restaurant/same group as Parrot Club and Aguaviva) and food was pretty good here - nothing jumped off the table at us but we ordered some very nice dishes. Worth mentioning were the peking duck nachos and rock shrimp tempura tacos; forgettable were the shrimp and lobster dumplings and the Latinasian veggie rolls. These four dishes were plenty of food for 3 girls but our absolutely lovely and gracious server (whose name I cannot for the life of me remember - but she was delightful!) talked us into dessert and the banana almond crispy wontons were a wonderful finish. I don't know that I'd go back - the food wasn't the caliber of Aguaviva or Parrot Club, but it was a lovely dinner.

Third day: Lunch in Loiza - fried foods on the beach. Really wonderful - no idea what we ate but anything fried eaten on a sandy beach under a blue sky is heaven on earth. We planned to hit Pikayo for dinner in its new location at the Conrad Condado Plaza Hotel but sadness of all sadness - it hadn't yet reopened. So we punted, and on the recommendation of multiple friends, went to Chayote (http://www.chayoterestaurant.com/home...) which was really, really something special. The wine list is extensive and reasonably priced and the waiters exceedingly polite and helpful. Immediately upon being seated, our white napkins were whisked away and replaced with black (little black dresses!) without a word - classy. Our waiter talked us through his recommendations as well as the specials and split each and every dish - without our requesting it - 3 ways. Very lovely service.
We began with a few amuse bouches (sadly cannot recall what they were - something heavenly with brie and something else...) and progressed into appetizers. We had the arugula salad with pancetta, goat cheese and papaya (aMazing), the prosciutto, tomato, spinach and gouda cheese Chayote (aMazing) and some special appetizer which for the life of me I can't remember. Also aMazing. Entrees were the angus filet of beef and the yellowfin tuna - both beautifully prepared and executed. I'm fairly certain we ran out of room before dessert although I know we ordered something...I just can't remember what. The food was outstanding and I'd absolutely return, especially to try the tasting menu.

Final day: Lunch at Parrot Club, back in Old San Juan on Fortaleza. Started with the corriander spiced crab fritters (quite nice) and the rainbow ceviche which was not as memorable as those at Aguaviva on our first day. I had the nuevo cubano sandwich which was VERY good (VERY salty!) and huge; my friends had carne frita (REALLY good!) and the grilled chicken wrap which, I believe, was actually fried and not grilled. The food was very good, service totally fine - I'd readily return for dinner there.

Overall, we were VERY impressed with all the meals we had during our stay in San Juan. No traditional Puertorrican meals - mostly fusion and so on - but lovely selections all of them.

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    shanefink RE: nycreba Oct 10, 2009 05:35 PM

    Thanks for the report. Going next week. will definitely check out Marmalade due to this and other posts. Will try to make it to Chayote too. We were in san Juan three years ago and loved the food. Can't wait to go back.

    4 Replies
    1. re: shanefink
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      shanefink RE: shanefink Oct 25, 2009 09:24 AM

      Holy Cow!!! Marmalade's 10-course tasting menu was absolutely sublime. It included every one of their appetizers as well as their house special navy bean soup with bacon dust and one of their entrees. My wife doesn't like lamb so they chef happily substituted the filet for her. The service, atmosphere and food were out of this world. Only disappointment was that it was pretty empty on a Wednesday night.
      It was so good that we did try Jam and were equally impressed. This place is a little more funky and laid back and it even has a kids playroom which was a perfect way to get rid of the 4 and 6 year old for half the meal. Jam had a few of the Marmalade signature dishes and our large party fit comfortably in their private wine cellar. Love this chef and can't wait to go back.
      The other trip highlight for us was The Parrot Club. Everything we ordered there was tasty and the portions were large. We've been to Aguaviva before and really dig this chain of restaurants. Parrot Club was also one of the busier joints on the strip.
      We also had a fine meal at the Ritz Carlton's Italian restaurant. The prices seemed high, but they give you all this free antipasta and bread before the meal that it actually turned out to be a good value.
      The only place I didn't really like that much was Tantra. We thought we'd try something a little different and go with Indian food on our last night. The relatives from Kentucky that never had Indian before really liked it, but I thought the food was incredibly bland. We asked for it to be not spicy for the kids, so I am not sure if that took away from their normal flavor, but I thought every one of the dishes on the $65 veggie appetizer for 2 (which actually fed 3 plus two kids) was missing some flavor.

      1. re: shanefink
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        nycreba RE: shanefink Oct 25, 2009 03:41 PM

        Ahhh....the pancetta dust on the white bean soup. I dream of that soup - so glad you had such a wonderful experience at Marmalade! We were blown away as well - totally surprised to find that type of creativity right there on Fortaleza. Good to hear Jam met expectations as well!

        1. re: nycreba
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          shanefink RE: nycreba Oct 25, 2009 07:59 PM

          My wife wanted to substitute her dessert for a second helping of that soup. Did you get the card with the recipe? I own a restaurant in NOLA and will try to recreate that soup. We'll see.

          1. re: shanefink
            n
            nycreba RE: shanefink Oct 25, 2009 08:05 PM

            I DID get a card...and was hoping to recreate it some chilly Sunday here as well! Did you pick up a copy? Would you like me to scan it to you, if no? Happy to do that.
            I wanted to bathe in that soup...could not get over what a masterpiece it was.

    2. spyturtle008 RE: nycreba Oct 28, 2009 01:08 PM

      Seconding the recommendation for Marmalade! (And for San Juan as a culinary destination.) Just back from a recent trip myself and wanted to chime in on what a treat it was. I'd made reservations for Marmalade for the first night of our trip based on a comment here on CH that the chef (Peter) had prepared a vegetarian tasting menu for a member of a party. Since my partner and I are vegetarian, we thought this would be a good place to try. After the server explained the menu, I mentioned that I'd read there were some off-menu vegetarian dishes. Peter appeared a few minutes later and was super gracious, taking the time to explain the number of dishes he could make. After we scooped our jaws off the floor, we asked if we could do a tasting menu. What followed was incredible. It's super apparent how much he loves what he does, and that made for a delicious and exciting meal. Every dish we had was so creative and worked perfectly. I've never had such a consistent and unique meal. At the end of our meal, he took the time to recommend other restaurants in the area, including Jam Bar, which we tried and also thoroughly enjoyed (excellent mixed drinks there, too).

      Peter recommended Perla, at La Concha, which has a very different feel. It's a gorgeous space -- designed in the shape of a clam shell and overlooking the beach. Again, the meal was delicious and creative and the service was stellar. I can't comment too much on the menu, since what we had was mostly off-menu (another vegetarian tasting). But again, this was a great experience.

      Puerto Rico was a beautiful place to visit -- which I expected -- but it was not on my radar as a chow-worthy destination. Silly me. I'd go back for the food alone!

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