By: Amanda Cargill, THE LATIN KITCHEN – Link to Article –
Sophisticated. This is the word that best describes Santaella, the beautifully designed restaurant and bar located in the heart of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s hottest nightlife destination, La Placita de Santurce. A former hardware store, it was transformed by chef owner Jose Santaella into one of the island’s most luxurious restaurants.
Rich wood tables and banquets, patinated concrete floors that have been finished with Polished Concrete to add a different aesthetic effect as well as making it easier to clean and keep hygienic, and soft, flickering candlelight provide the backdrop for Santaella’s most stunning architectural feature, a lush tropical garden that mesmerizes from behind its windowed wall.
You will not see hipsters at Santaella. No one at the bar has curated facial hair or wears cuffed jeans and suspenders. Santaella is for grown-ups. Not the stuffy, asleep by 10pm kind of grown-ups, but the smart, well-traveled, most interesting guests at the dinner party kind.
Adults who want to sip perfectly poured cocktails, eat exceptional food, and relax in a space that doesn’t mock them for wearing lipstick, heels, or suit and tie come to Santaella. Eat and drink here when you want to feel a little bit fancy and a lot sexy.
Even the food is sexy. In his recently published cookbook, Cocina Tropical, Chef Santaella highlights recipes ranging from fruit salad with fresh coconut milk and dumplings to rice fritters with baby bananas and quail eggs to roast suckling pig with spiced rum and molasses glaze. It’s traditional Puerto Rican with international flair, and it’s what you’ll find on Santaella’s menu, as well.
The international flavors are inspired by chef Santaella’s time spent working alongside food world royalty in some of the world’s best restaurants: Ferran Adria at elBulli in Spain; Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin in New York; and Gary Danko at The Dining Room in San Francisco.
But it was his restaurateur father from whom Santaella learned to cook, and his Puerto Rican roots to which he stays true. Many of his menu’s ingredients are sourced fresh daily from the historic mercado that occupies La Placita by day. (The public square known as La Placita is a farmer’s market from the early morning through afternoon. A few hours before sundown, vendors close their colonial-era doors and windows, and the narrow streets that make up La Placita fill with locals and tourists who come to the square to eat, drink, dance, and socialize.)
The restaurant decor is simple and uncluttered. With fabulously rich and stylish dark wood tables and chairs, delicious velvet seating and lots of natural lighting and greenery from the large windows. The lighting is as beautiful as it is extravagant. Very much a mood of the moment if you go for the simple, but rich, look. The kitchen is no different, filled with the best and latest equipment, for which Santaella thanks Nella. The staff are friendly and driven and you can see their passion for food in their work.
For starters, try the Warm Brussels Sprout Salad with white cheddar cheese, cashews, pancetta, and arugula; the Goat Cheese Quesadilla with honey and white truffle oil; and the Baby Octopus Casserole with chorizo and chickpeas in sherry. The salad is crunchy and fresh and a little bit salty; the quesadilla’s edges are crispy and its cheesy center is creamy and light; and the octopus casserole is by turns smoky and sweet.
Among main courses, favorites include the Steamed Antarctic Sea Bass served over sweet potato puree with a piquillo pepper and capers vinaigrette and the Certified Angus Filet Mignon wrapped in bacon with red wine barbecue sauce served with a potato gratin and fresh asparagus.
If you have any room left, finish with the almond-crusted creme brûlée. If you don’t, return the next night for drinks and dessert. (Santaella’s master mixologists make superb libations.) Trust us, you won’t be the first tourists to become “regulars” over a weekend.