Fine Dining in Puerto Rico: Pikayo and Varita

Joan Nova goes to Puerto Rico to dine at Chef Wilo Benet’s two restaurants at the Conrad Condado Plaza Resort.
By Joan Nova

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.

I wanted to try every variety in the house-made sausage selection, but we settled on ‘cheeseburger’ and ‘chicken and cranberry’. They were served on bed of  buttered sauerkraut and bacon…delish!

Chilean Sea Bass was cooked to charred outside/juicy inside perfection and served with a delectable orange-flavored sofrito sauce.

They really know how to work the grill and a New York strip loin was also done to perfection (although I would have preferred the onions to be more uniformly cut and crisped.)

We ate the steak with tiny mofongo balls that were served with chicken broth meant to be poured over the top.

Both restaurants have large sit-at bars; Pikayo also has a lounge area.

Chef Wilo Benet is as interesting as his food. 
These days, the chef no longer ‘works the line’ but it’s clear there is a lot of respect and admiration for his concept coming out of the kitchen(s).

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.]

Chef Wilo Benet’s Spicy Chorizo Sauce
Ingredients
2 pounds of ground chorizo
1 bottle of chardonnay
1 large onion diced
1.5 tbsp. of Oriental garlic and chile paste
1 cup olive oil
cornstarch
salt and pepper

Instructions
In a large sauce pan on medium heat render the chorizo and add the onions and the chile paste.
Once the onions are soft add the wine and reduce by half.
With an inverted blender liquify the mix and with the blender running add the olive oil in a thin stream to emulsify.
Put the emulsified sauce through a fine colander and season with salt and pepper.

Note
This recipe is obviously restaurant quantity. It’s unlikely you’ll want so large a yield, but the key is we have the ingredients and the technique so just proportion it as you see fit for your purposes.

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