Dateline: San Juan, Part II

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While I mostly have great things to say about Puerto Rico, there was one place that annoyed me so much, I feel compelled to warn others to stay away, especially because it’s supposed to be one of the best places on the island.

The Disappointment: Budatai in Condado. Frommer’s led me astray with this one, naming it one of the 10-Best Dining Bets in Puerto Rico. Perhaps the good people at Frommer’s only ate at 10 places in Puerto Rico? Otherwise I cannot fathom how this made the list. Executive Chef/Owner Roberto Treviño is a contestant on Iron Chef America this season, and if this cuisine is any indication of Treviño’s talents I’d avoid putting any money on him winning.

Located across from La Ventana al Mar Park, the terrace area where we ate did have lovely views of the sea and surrounding area. However, that did little to make up for the limited menu or poor execution. My first beef with Budatai came with the menu, which boasted “Wild Salmon” but which our server then informed us was actually farm-raised. My sense of distrust raised immediately. Why would you put “wild” on the menu if it isn’t? What other fabrications are included? Is the vegetarian cuisine truly vegetarian? Is the duck really duck?

We started with some vegetarian egg rolls, which interestingly enough had cheese in them. Yes, cheese, which in my book is the ultimate faux-pas when it comes to Asian-fusion cooking. Worse, the cheese was gooey and tasteless, adding nothing but calories and a strange mouth feel.

My companion, who keeps kosher and hence had little to choose from on the shell-fish and pork heavy menu, reluctantly opted for the salmon, which came with vegetables and a béarnaise sauce- again, a strange offering at what is supposedly an Asian restaurant. It was forgettable at best. I opted for the pork dumplings (billed as the house specialty) and a side of duck fried rice.

In his last column as The New York Times’ dining critic, Frank Bruni suggested that one way to safely navigate a restaurant’s menu was to “scratch off anything that mentions truffle oil.” I wish I’d listened. As a rule, pork dumplings are usually a safe standby in Asian places. Budatai’s started off promisingly enough with some well-flavored pork wrapped inside a doughy wrapper. Then things got a bit… well, crazy. The dumplings looked like they’d been grilled, but they were about as crispy as chewing gum. Then, they were topped with what looked like any and everything the chef had within reach: some strange brown sauce, caviar, truffles, truffle oil, garlic, sesame seeds, watercress… and those are just the things I could identify in the terrace’s half-light. It was a cacophony of flavors, so busy I wondered if I’d even notice if half the ingredients were missing.

The duck fried rice was similarly busy. Greasy, with only a trace of duck, this dish came laden with sweet plantains, which were just weird. Just say it: rice, banana and duck… it even sounds weird, doesn’t it? This dish would have been saved with more duck and perhaps the inclusion of some complimentary ingredients: think scallion or bean sprout. Banana? Not so much.

The Surprise: Miró, also in Condado. This place obviously caters to tourists, but had a few hard to find dishes, like grilled baby octopus and arroz negro– rice cooked with squid ink and then mixed with a variety of shellfish. In addition, the sangria was pretty amazing. Made to order with red wine, brandy, triple sec, pineapple juice and a squirt of sprite, it was refreshing, but not too sweet.

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