Hey there! Cliff here! While y'all wait on me to put together my recap of the new Top Chef: D.C., here's a morsel to keep those hunger pangs at bay ...
Last week, on the occasion of my parents' 50th wedding anniversary party in San Juan, I had the occasion to finally hit Pikayo, the restaurant of famed Puerto Rican Chef Wilo Benet. Benet, best known (to folks like me who only know what they see on Bravo) as the guest judge for the finale of Season Four of Top Chef and as a contestant on Season One of Top Chef Masters.
Being Puerto Rican myself, it's always a huge delight to see fellow Boriquas on TV, especially on Top Chef. (Of course, it's always a bitter pill to swallow when they crash and burn before making it to the end. But I still hold out hope.)
Now, a couple of years ago, right after the end of Top Chef: Chicago, my partner and I attempted to go to Pikayo back when it was located in the lobby of the sumptuous Museum of Art of Puerto Rico. But, as luck would have it, the day we had set aside to eat there they were filming some program for the Food Network and my plans were foiled.
Later, hearing of my plight, a cousin in Puerto Rico did me the immeasurable solid of getting me Chef Wilo's cookbook, Puerto Rico True Flavor.
Of course, in between not being able to find typical Puerto Rican ingredients in Central Ohio and that nasty "still can't cook" thing, I haven't attempted any of the recipes in there. Yet.
So, with all this in mind, on this trip we were bound and determined to eat there. The first thing we learned is that the restaurant has since moved to the spectacular Hotel Conrad in the Condado section of San Juan. (The lobby and bar of the hotel itself is are works of art and not something you'll want to miss.)
As it happened, we couldn't get anyone to go with us, since the place is rather well-known for its sky-high, fine dining prices. And since Puerto Rican cuisine is generally thought of as inexpensive home cooking-style food, my folks simply could not fathom paying $37 for a bistec encebollado (Puerto Rican skirt steak with onions) when it normally would go for under $12 anyplace else on the island.
Hence, we went alone. But what a treat it was when we walked in the door and found the Chef sitting at the bar.
Yes, it was him. And he could not have been kinder or more gracious. I told him about my Top Chef recap blogs, All Top Chef, my previous attempt to dine at his restaurant, his cookbook ... and my persistent inability (or sheer terror) to cook a damn thing. Naturally, he suggested I try recipies from his cookbook. And I all but promised I would. When I mentioned that we've used the premier all-time best-selling Puerto Rican cookbook Cocina Criolla, by Carmen Valldejuli, now in it's one-millionth pressing, he remarked that those kind of sales are the things dreams are made of.
After our friendly chat was done, we were seated in the elegant, modern and clean dining room and attended to by the dapper and friendly wait staff. (As it was a Thursday during off-season, we had the place all to ourselves. ... Also, I had forgotten that 7:30 p.m. really is way too early to be considering dinner in Puerto Rico. The crowd finally started arriving somewhere close to 9 p.m.
After examining the menu, we discovered that (as had been noted in online reviews) that class of Fiji water that had been so conveniently poured for us would be added to our bill at $2 a pop. (Not that I minded terribly, but I really have never seen that as an automatic thing anywhere before.)
And while we both lusted after many of the traditional Puerto Rican dishes on the regular menu, the sticker shock really did take hold. I was really eager to see what magic this great chef could perform that would transform a traditional toston (fried plantain) into something that was that, er, pricey?
So, we opted to order off the more reasonably priced prix fixe menu.
After our amuse and cocktails (I had a traditional daiquiri, seeing as it's a PR creation), our first course arrived.
I ordered the Portuguese Octopus, with Granny Smith Apple and Ver Jus Vinaigrette. It was delicious and the chef managed to counteract the usual chewiness of the octopus by slicing it very thinly. And the acid of the vinaigrette played off the tartness of the apple.
My partner ordered la sopa del dia, the Potato, Garlic and Truffle Oil Soup of the Day. He reported that it was equally delicious.
For my main course, I ordered the Double Cut Pork Chop on a bed of Risotto de Gandules and Fricasee Sauce. Here, I really saw a hint of the traditional PR cookery in one of these fine dining dishes, as the gandules (pigeon peas) are a staple on the island. And paired with the pork chop, which was, without question, the best I have ever had in my life, the dish was a home run.
My partner ordered the Chicken Breast with Truffle Cheese & Oven Dried Tomato Puree. As with the other dishes, he adored it and ate up every morsel with gusto.
For dessert, I opted for the Cheese Flan. Now, normally flan is not my thing at all. I've had all kinds of flan and, for one reason or other, the traditional custard dish doesn't do it for me, either for the taste or the texture. This flan, though. was something else entirely. The cheese was doubtlessly the reason it was so remarkable. It tasted like the greatest cheesecake you've ever had in your life, with a hint of traditional flan. It was amazing!
(Side note: When it arrived on the blue plate you see above, my partner thought it was being served in a blue sauce of some kind. At which point I broke into my Fabio Viviani impression and remarked, "There is-a no blue food!")
Being the resident chocoholic in the family, my partner couldn't turn down the Chocolate Decadence with Coffee Ice Cream. Not only was it a work of art, but it was a delicious, decadent concoction which really lived up to its name.
Once dinner was over, we paid our check and, while a few dollars poorer, were smiling over our incredible meal, we headed back to Isla Verde with stories to tell and the memory of a time well spent.
(See you folks in a few days for the Top Chef: D.C. premiere recap. Should be fun!)