Many people understandably shy away from fancy fine-dining. It can be so stressful.
First of all there’s the cost. Then you have to worry about what to wear, which fork to use, and how to pronounce all those unfamiliar and pretentious sounding menu items. And if you can’t even pronounce it, how do you know you’ll even like it??
Well, fortunately, I just discovered a relaxed, approachable and delicious fine-dining restaurant that any Proud American Traveler would love.
But you have to fly to San Juan, Puerto Rico to experience it.
Marmalade, tucked into the Colonial Spanish quarter of the second oldest city in the Western Hemisphere, takes all the stress out of fine-dining — except the cost, which won’t be cheap.
Don’t Succumb to Diner’s Remorse
As I’ve written about before, it’s fun to occasionally splurge on one of those fancy fine-dining restaurants if you’re on vacation or celebrating a special occasion.
But there are drawbacks that can give you “fine diner’s remorse” when you get the hefty bill at the end of the evening.
The cost. The pretentiousness. The supposed “delicacies” that just don’t taste that impressive.
And the pangs of hunger that prompt you to reach for the hotel phone and order a pizza even though you just dropped $200 on minimalist bite-sized food.
But Marmalade, the best restaurant in Puerto Rico – and one of the best in the entire Caribbean – is a dining experience like no other.
Nobody leaves hungry.
This isn’t just going out for a fancy dinner. Marmalade is a dining “experience” in the truest sense of the word.
All Night Long
My wife and I had an 8:30 dinner reservation. It was almost midnight by the time we paid the hefty bill and walked out onto the ancient blue cobblestones of Old San Juan.
Yep. This is an entire evening of indulging in one wave of culinary creativity after another.
Marmalade gives a good first impression with its comfortable, elegant atmosphere. You will not be crowded together shoulder to shoulder with strangers like at so many other modern hip sophisticated restaurants.
Marmalade wants you to settle in for a night-long gastronomical experience.
That comfort extends to the staff who put you at ease and make you feel welcome. Our good-natured waiter cheerfully substituted humor instead of your more typical fine-dining pretentiousness.
When my wife kept asking if she should hang on to her used utensils between courses, the waiter assured her he would bring her fresh ones, quipping, “We can handle the extra dishes. You’re paying enough.”
Freedom to Choose
Marmalade is a rare fine-dining restaurant that completely embraces the individual liberty of the diner rather than imposing a chef-dictated dining regimen.
Each diner chooses either a four, five or six course meal which comes with a $75, $85 or $95 price tag.
If you want dessert to be one of your courses (which you ABSOLUTELY do), then you pick one entrée and two or three from the appetizer or small plates menus.
All dishes are the sophisticated, organic, free range, personally blessed by Pope Francis, gourmet creations of celebrity chef Peter Schintler. Yet everything on the menu is completely approachable.
Some fancy fine-dining menus leave you scanning up or down for anything remotely familiar.
At Marmalade your options are different, unique, and creative – yet familiar and delicious. Even though you get to pick four or five courses, you will be negotiating with your dining partner to narrow your options and maximize all the great sounding dishes you both want to sample.
Each course is comfortably spaced out leaving plenty of time to leisurely reminisce about what you just enjoyed, sip your cocktail, and enjoy the conversion with your dining companion.
When the next course arrives, it is always accompanied by a detailed description of what you are about to experience, with restaurant staff noting the ingredients, flavors, and textures of each dish as they place it before you.
Nine Courses of Culinary Heaven
My wife and I started with “popcorn” shrimp — not the type of fried seafood you get at a Florida fish camp. Note “popcorn” is in quotes. This was grilled shrimp with guacamole accompanied by actual spicy popcorn for a fun crunch.
Our delicious small plates included lobster risotto featuring generous chunks of lobster, gnocchi with braised beef tips, and pasta with tender rabbit and shaved truffles.
My favorite small plate was a pot pie of blue cheese, foie gras, apples, onions and a whole confit duck leg all spiked with a hazelnut crunch.
Absolutely delicious. And nothing pretentious about it.
My main course was tender pork cheek with greens, pineapple, and smoked spicy black beans.
My wife’s cod was accompanied by clams, octopus and sausage.
In case you are counting, that was four courses for me and three for her.
We each still had one more coming — and we saved the best for last.
Let’s just say the eight layer chocolate cake didn’t disappoint.
Wow. That was a lot of delicious food.
No need to call Dominos after this meal.
I Told You This Won’t Be Cheap
The total with drinks, tax and tip came to a hefty $275.
If you are a wine drinker, which we aren’t, the tab will be higher still.
You can add $45 per person for “wine pairings” – hand selected pours designed to complement the dish you ordered.
Instead I opted for two $13 Roquefort 10 Trappist Ales from Belgium. My wife ordered two rounds of homemade sangria.
Obviously dining at Marmalade is not something you can do on a regular basis. Neither your wallet nor your waistline could tolerate that.
This is strictly special occasion dining. A vacation splurge. A lasting memory for those of us who live to eat, rather than just eat to live.
I can’t say that any single meal justifies a $275 price tag.
But take comfort in the fact that if you choose to splurge on Marmalade, it is an experience that you will never forget.