RESTAURANT REVIEWS: SANTAELLA -- San Juan, Puerto Rico
There's nothing I like better than a warm-weather escape when it's absolutely frigid back home. And the past few years, my timing was perfect, as I fled from snow and ice and sub-zero temperatures. My latest escape? Puerto Rico, an island so proximate to New York that I'm truly surprised it took me so long to finally make it there!
And what an island it is. Or, at least, the north coast and San Juan, where we spent a fabulous five days. The city of San Juan is like an even-more-Latin Miami, and then Old San Juan takes you back to colonial Spain, even parts of Southern Sicily can be found in the wrought iron balconies on the candy-colored buildings, and the cobblestone streets. And after the holidays, it's still got a very festive vibe. So, we did the beach retreat, the city room on the shore, and ventured into various parts near and far for some amazingly good meals.
The highlight of our dining experiences, however, was clear: Santaella, a creation of local chef José Santaella. With stints a Le Bernardin in New York and Gary Danko in San Francisco -- two of America's best restaurants, hands-down -- the chef's top-notch pedigree is undisputed. Santaella's reverence for seafood certainly stems from his time living on a tropical island, and his urban chef stints surely cemented his love for fresh fish in all its forms. At Santaella restaurant, located in an offbeat neighborhood near the central market in San Juan, the modern dining room is an urban tropical escape. The well-informed staff are warm and helpful, never imposing.
The vibe of the place makes you love it even before your first sip of a delicious libation, like a Sandia mojito (with fresh watermelon), or a tamarind margarita. Moving on, the menu is divided into Nibbles, Specials, Salads, "Barely Touched" (this is crudo and ceviche), and Main Courses, then Desserts. This food is fun, vivacious, expertly prepared, and really delicious, AND, the portions are quite generous.
We started with the Hawaiian Waho Ono ceviche, with tropical juices, radishes, sweet potato, and cucumber with tortilla crisp strips. This was everything a tuna ceviche should be -- bright, happy, crispiness of varying degrees, and a gorgeous meaty tuna barely "cooked" by tart-sweet tropical fruit juices. Seriously yum, and very light. This was good because we ordered a lot of food.
We had the house specialty empanadas that evening, a mix of meat and vegetables like mushrooms and peas. These were expertly prepared and delicious, and not at all bland like some empanadas can be. All in, a nice counterpart to the light tuna ceviche.
Moving on, we ordered another delicious seafood "crudo"-type dish, the "Japanese Crazy Salad," as it was dubbed. This was a spicy crabmeat salad (cold) layered with seaweed salad and avocado, on top of a plantain fritter as large and round as a personal pan pizza. It was a vibrant mish-mash of tastes and textures, reminiscent of sushi restaurant flavors but more interesting...and a lot of fun.
After a delicious salad and a few croquettes of the day, we finished up the savory part of our meal with a casserole of baby octopus, chorizo and chickpeas with sherry. The servers had warned us that this portion was not for the faint of heart, but since we were going through our meal grazing and sharing everything, tapas-style (and since I was with The Big Guy, who was never daunted by a plate of food), we laughed at the suggestion that something might be, well, too much. But this was a healthy portion. Very healthy. And the dish itself, with a huge nod to the Spanish ancestry of Puerto Rico, was rich and meaty and delicious. We were eating an early dinner before heading to the airport to catch our late flight back to New York City, so we definitely wanted to be satisfied, but not uncomfortably overstuffed. This was our last meal in Puerto Rico, however, so we decided to split a dessert because: vacation!
The coconut everything on this tropical island made me a very happy camper. So we decided on a signature Santaella dessert, the coconut and almond custard with a delicious coconut ice cream. The custard tart was very hot, its caramelized crispy almond cover shattering as we dug our spoons into the warm creamy sweetness underneath. The ice cream was the cool counterpoint to the creme brulee -- essentially this was baked and frozen versions of the same intensely flavored coconut custard, sharing a plate. After the meal, I inquired about purchasing the cookbook I'd seen on display at the hostess stand when we came in, as I was a chef and first-timer to Puerto Rico. With the same courteous manners and smiling service we'd enjoyed all evening, our waiter offered to get chef to personalize the cookbook, signed and dedicated to me. It was thoughtful and sweet, and really, what more could I ask for? It was the perfect ending to a wonderful trip, our first but certainly not our last jaunt to this island nation just a hop, skip, and a brief plane ride away from my home back in the cold of a New York winter.