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Nuevo Latino, Puerto Rican Style


January 13, 2005
Copyright © 2005 MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

<----Spinach, apple and queso blanco salad.

Puerto Rico is billed as ''the island of charm'' (la isla del encanto), a magical vacation spot with sunny skies, white beaches and warm blue waters. What you don't hear often enough is that Puerto Rico is also the island of flavor, a culinary destination boasting some of the best Caribbean rums, terrific traditional food and fine restaurants that are as creative and exciting as their mainland U.S. counterparts.

The undisputed birthplace of new Caribbean cuisine, Puerto Rico has bred a cadre of innovative chefs who are taking traditional dishes to haute cuisine heights and creating a global mix with a Puerto Rican touch. One of the foremost practitioners of this style of cooking is Wilo Benet, chef-owner of Pikayo in San Juan.

Tucked into a corner of the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico, the restaurant engages all the senses. Its minimalist elegance is a seamless fit with the museum's contemporary architecture and a perfect showcase for Benet's cutting-edge cuisine.

Watching him cook on the flat-screen over the bar or expertly work the room, you can see that he is every inch a hands-on chef. A tall, bald man with an affable Buddha face, he has a gentle, sunny demeanor that belies his task-master approach in the kitchen.

To the surprise of his father, who had sent him to Fort Lauderdale to study photography, Benet found his calling in the kitchen, and proceeded to earn an impeccable set of credentials. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., he paid his dues at La Bernardin, the Water Club and Maurice at Le Parker Meridien in Manhattan.

He counts as his major influences Alfredo Ayala, the father of the new Puerto Rican cuisine, and Christian Delouvrier, the four-star chef at Maurice.

''With him I learned how to season food properly, to make a flawless beurre blanc and the best orange sauce for duck in the world,'' Benet says.

With a devilish grin, he also recounts how the legendary Delouvrier would shout at him: ``You are an actor, Benet. You are never going to make it!''

He not only made it, but made it big. Pikayo is the place to see and be seen in San Juan, and Benet recently opened the more casual Payá. He also heads the Museum Restaurant Group and Museum Catering Services, and is considered one of the top chefs on the island.

The theatrical bent his mentor derided serves Benet well in this age of mass communication, when chefs who can act have an advantage over their stage-frightened colleagues. He is an effective cooking teacher and communicator, as I observed not long ago in New York, one of his stops on a tour promoting Puerto Rican rum. On a subsequent visit to San Juan, I ate his food in its natural setting.

Benet's rigorous, classical training comes through strongly at Pikayo, but don't be fooled by the very French service from suit-clad waiters (a bit incongruous on a tropical island), the perfectly seared foie gras, the fastidiously chiseled vegetables, the Asian touches (de rigueur at any upscale restaurant today) or the superb chocolate and cheese soufflés. Pikayo's heart is as Puerto Rican as the vibrant paintings that hang on the museum's walls.

Next to the more predictable lamb chops with haricot verts, the rare ahi (yellowfin tuna) and the beef carpaccio, you will find Puerto Rican-inspired foods like crisp salt cod fritters with cilantro mayonnaise, appetizers made with pegao (the rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot), pork stuffed with chorizo and bistec encebollado (steak with onions).

Benet deftly incorporates Puerto Rican ingredients and techniques to raise classics to new heights: His risotto made with gandules (green pigeon peas) is as creamy and earthy as if it were made with porcini mushrooms. His shrimp and chorizo is sauced with an impeccable soursop (guanábana) beurre blanc. His seared foie gras with black truffle honey is garnished with ripe plantains. His sublime halibut filet served over calabaza purée and topped with ajlimójili, a sort of chimichurri made with the tiny, lantern-shaped pepper ají dulce and plenty of cilantro.

As I savored these sophisticated dishes with their elusive flavors and judicious blends of sweet and sour (one of Benet's trademarks), I was in seventh heaven, grateful to be in the hands of a gifted chef on an island where innovation and tradition flourish side by side.

Culinary historian Maricel E. Presilla is the chef/co-owner of Cucharamama and Zafra in Hoboken, N.J.

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