The locally owned OOF! Restaurants group is in large part responsible for raising the dining standards in San Juan. The first of its four restaurants is The Parrot Club (363 Calle Fortaleza, 787/725-7370, www.oofrestaurants.com, lunch Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 11:30 a.m.–4 p.m.; dinner Sun.–Wed. 6–11 p.m., Thurs.–Sat. 6 p.m.–midnight; bar Sun.–Wed. until midnight, Thurs.–Sat. until 1 a.m.; $17–32), which opened in 1996. At first glance, this wildly popular restaurant might look like a prefab tourist attraction. It boasts a Disneyesque tropical-island theme, complete with faux palm trees and wooden parrots, and the din around the crowded bar can make conversation a challenge. But the reality is the Parrot Club serves some of the island’s finest interpretations of Nuevo Latino cuisine.
If you prefer a nice, quiet, leisurely served meal, bypass the bar and ask to be seated in the calm low-lit courtyard out back. The restaurant specializes in a smorgasbord of crisp, refreshing seviches, featuring a wide selection of seafood marinated in fresh citrus juices and served chilled. The shrimp, chillo (snapper), and dorado (mahimahi) are the best of the bunch. If you want something a little heartier, try the thick slab of blackened tuna steak served in a dark, slightly sweet sauce of rum and orange essence. It’s an addictive dish that will have you coming back for more.
Baru (150 Calle San Sebastían, 787/977-7107 or 787/977-5442, Mon.–Sat. 6 p.m.–midnight, Sun. 5:30 p.m.–midnight, $10–28) is a lovely, sensuous restaurant with a casually elegant atmosphere that melds classic architectural features with contemporary art, and then bathes it all in warm low lighting that makes you want to linger long after your meal is over. The cuisine is a creative combination of Caribbean and Mediterranean dishes, carefully prepared and artfully presented. Serving sizes are slightly bigger than an appetizer and smaller than an entrée, so order several and share with your tablemates.
For an excellent starter, go with the goat cheese and almond spread drizzled with mango sauce and served with long fried yucca chips. Its satisfying combination of creamy and crunchy textures pairs beautifully with the blend of sweet and savory flavors. The asparagus risotto is appropriately creamy and nubby on the tongue, and it’s studded with just the right amount of fresh chopped stalks and tips. Plump, slightly charred scallops are served each in their own tiny shell-shaped dish, drizzled with a delicate coconut curry sauce, and flecked with fresh mint. But skip the pork ribs. Although falling-off-the-bone tender, they’re slathered in a supersweet guava sauce that overwhelms the flavor of the meat.
The atmospheric El Asador Grill (350 Calle San Francisco, 787/289-0489, Sun.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–midnight, Fri–Sat. 11 a.m.–4 a.m., $13–37.50), located in a contemporary faux hacienda-style setting, specializes in grilled meats prepared in a courtyard kitchen. Cream-colored stucco walls, dark wood beams, terra-cotta tile floors, and dramatic archways create an inviting environment. And the menu is a carnivore’s delight. Beyond the usual grilled steak, chicken, pork, and fish, you can get sausages, sweetbreads, and kidney too. Unfortunately the service was consistently abysmal on repeated visits. If the staff were more professional and welcoming, this place would come highly recommended.
© Suzanne Van Atten from Moon Puerto Rico, 2nd Edition