By: Nancy Trejos, USA TODAY
Jose Santaella has set out to prove that Puerto Rican cuisine goes far beyond mofongo, the typical dish of mashed up plantains with shrimp or other proteins mixed in.
Not that there’s anything wrong with mofongo. It’s delicious, but Santaella, one of Puerto Rico’s most celebrated chefs, is trying to redefine the island’s traditional cuisine, which combines African, French, Spanish and Caribbean flavors.
Santaella opened his namesake restaurant in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan, where some of the city’s most creative chefs are experimenting with classic Puerto Rican ingredients.
A farmer’s market, or Plaza del Mercado, is open daily with fresh produce, serving as a draw to San Juan’s up-and-coming chefs.
“This is a very interesting area always. It’s near the farmers’ market, near nice restaurants and bars,” Santaella says as he sits at a table at Santaella. “It’s a very festive area especially at night. Near the farmers’ market, we can find fresh ingredients and local ingredients that I can use here every day in my restaurant.”
Santaella recently released a cookbook called Cocina Tropical, with recipes for such dishes as rice fritters with baby bananas and quail eggs, pigeon pea soup with green plantain dumplings, and fruit salad with fresh coconut milk and dumplings.
“We try to do a little bit of modern, a little bit of classic recipes but we always try to use as much local ingredients, organic ingredients here in Puerto Rico,” he says.
Puerto Rican cuisine, he says, is “like a melting pot.”
“The cuisine here is super interesting. It’s very unique in many ways.”
Santaella learned to cook alongside his father, a restaurateur in San Juan. He trained with Ferran Adria at elBulli in Spain, Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin in New York, and Gary Danko at The Dining Room in San Francisco.
Santurce was a natural choice for his first restaurant, he says. “The place chose us.”
San Juan is becoming a culinary destination thanks in part to what’s happening in Santurce. On a recent Thursday night, La Placita turns into a lively party spot. Restaurants and bars line the square, and Puerto Rico’s young professionals descend upon it to eat, drink and dance.
At nearby Boronia, people feast on coconut rice, baby back ribs and risotto.
At one-year-old Delavida, chef Fernando Rivera is trying to use traditional Puerto Rican flavors in modern dishes. Think a pizza with chorizo, manchego cheese and carmelized onions. Or halibut over a plantain puree in a nod to mofongo.
“We’re introducing Puerto Rican ingredients and making it more modern,” Rivera says. “It’s an evolution.”
By the looks (and tastes) of things, it’s only just begun.