In San Juan, Chef Benet creates masterful dishes that play on flavors from around the globe while revamping the expression of his Puerto Rican roots.
I’ve learned a couple things about fine dining in our travel experiences. Just because Yelp, google or Tripadvisor tells you a restaurant is the best, doesn't always mean it is. For me, fine dining is more than good food, it’s excellent food combined with a comfortable ambiance (white table cloths aren't always necessary) and a chef who has so much passion, you can taste it in their creations. This my friends is what dining is all about and we strive to find in every city we venture to!
So when I did some research, it was pretty easy to identify Pikayo as a well-known Tripadvisor star of a restaurant...but it wasn’t until I read some articles depicting the chef as a quite the personality,that I relented and made a reservation. He has been heralded as a Puerto Rican institution, known for breaking the rules of traditional Puerto Rican cuisine and doing exactly what he wants. For 26 years this has been Chef Wilo Benet’s mantra, and he’s dishes are good, really really good!
About Chef Wilo Benet
Chef Wilo Benet is the culinary innovator and businessman behind Pikayo, as the head chef and owner. Chef Benet received his culinary training from the Culinary Institute of America, after which he acquired elite experiences at the country’s finest restaurants. After cooking in The Maurice Restaurant, The Water Club, and Le Bernardin Restaurant, he returned to Puerto Rico in 1988 to fulfill a position in the Governor’s Mansion. When he created Pikayo, he aimed to draw the flavors of his global palate together by playing off the traditional dishes he knew so well.
While we felt the dishes at Pikayo represented a modern approach to Puerto Rican dishes and flavor, Chef Benet will tell you his style is “new global cuisine.” He aims to merge the tastes of Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Spanish, Italian, and French cuisine in a fashion that still represents Puerto Rico. The result of his efforts is refined dishes with world-class flavors and presentation. We’ll be the first to tell you it’s good, really good and we will be back.
The Pikayo Experience
When you meet Chef Benet, you can’t help but give him a hug, shake his hand, and stare in awe. His demeanor is friendly, and the way he describes his work is equally informative and captivating. Listening to him speak, I wanted to latch on to every word. His descriptions and enthusiasm about food, just resonated so well with me. He knows that international flavors are just too bold to ignore and has the intuition and knowledge to combine unlikely components. Chef Benet is blunt, upfront, and unafraid to cook exactly how he wants...just like his food.
Before we had arrived we heard rumors that he has cameras on all his guests, so of course, I confronted him. He happily told me that there is no audio, but he does have cameras throughout the entire restaurant to help him operate the kitchen masterfully. With cameras, servers know when the next course should be served. If someone is out of the restaurant or on a call, they will wait to serve the food until everyone is seated. If empty dishes stay on the table, a quiet voice comes through the headset of the maître d’ to clear the tables. The cameras simply facilitate a fluid system that runs effectively, ensuring the best possible experience for the guests. I love it!
The ambiance of Pikayo is modern and bright, but the lightening is tactfully subdued to create a more intimate atmosphere. Although the space clearly runs a theme of simplicity, peculiar art pieces are placed throughout. From the paintings erupting with earthy hues to a large, central geometric sculpture, the design of Pikayo seems to parallel the food: worldly and contemporary. Enjoying the restaurant was a mixed crowd of businessmen, young men, and some small groups of friends. Everyone was in the good hands of the stellar service team, who focused on providing the best experience with their expertise.
6 Course Tasting Menu - Yes Please!
Pikayo is the kind of restaurant where even the butter for the bread is good. We munched on the warm bread with sesame honey butter while studying the menu and trying to make sense of it all. There were some fascinating combinations ...foie gras and plantain drizzled with honey? Or how about Swordfish and chorizo? It all sounded so good!
As if on cue, our first dish was promptly served and was a series of four different traditional appetizers. My favorite was the crab stew empanada, but Chris’s was the Ibérico “chicaroni,” which had a salsa, closely resembling my grandmas. Next was a procession of neatly prepared dishes all expertly paired with wine.
Some favorites was the traditional Mofongo, with a few creative liberties taken and it was sensational. Chef Benet took a traditional dish, refined it, tweaked it, and made it damn good! The Pea Risotto was another favorite, but my bias isn’t surprising (blame the Italian in me). The pigeon peas were plump and the cracklings on top gave the risotto a perfect amount of crunch! Typically I’m not a fan of foie gras, it’s too rich for my stomach. But Chef Benet did it well, and the plantain served with the foie gras balanced the rich flavors.
Our main dishes were satisfying and really hit it home for us. I ordered the swordfish, which was very savory, borderline salty and perfectly prepared. Chris said the Bistec was his favorite dish, which was surprising as he’s not a big red meat eater. But the steak was stuffed with caramelized onions and topped with crispy onions — what’s not to love? We ended the meal with an unexpected, savory dessert, which was a first. The mini cheese souffle with guava sauce was delectable and the perfect end dish.
During our entire dining experience, Wilbur, the sommelier, took care of us and made sure to bring us the best possible pairings for each dish. He carefully explained each wine and did it all in a way we could understand. After a quick mention of beer, Wilbur told us that he is working on a new beer-pairing menu. He even brought out ice cold American Pale Ale by Mikkeller for Chris to sip on with the chicharones. Given the selection of unique, craft beers they had on the menu, we know he will create a great pairing menu. Finally, Chris can have his beer pairing. But I’ll stick to wine!
Our experience at Pikayo is best described as well rounded and exquisitely delicious, and we aren’t the only ones who think so. The restaurant has been featured in The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and Gourmet Magazine. Chef Benet even has his own successful cookbook and TV show. Chef Benet’s intentions shine through his dishes and the comprehensive style of service. It’s no surprise that Pikayo is considered a landmark for fine dining on the island — it has certainly given us a reason to return!
For more information about Pikayo Restaurant, visit their website: