World cuisines collide at San Juan's restaurants

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I leaned back into a cushy banquette, enjoying South Indian red snapper. Gentle sitar music played in the background as I surveyed the decor and gazed at the giant hookah sitting on the bar.

The most surprising aspect of this scenario was that I was in San Juan, which in recent years has become an ever-more-international hub of creative cuisine.

The white-hot heart is Old San Juan, the city center where the architecture dates to the early 1500s but the culinary scene is decidedly 21st century.

SoFo Indian

Much of the gastronomic excitement is focused along Fortaleza Street (sometimes called SoFo, for South Fortaleza).

Tantra, one of the top restaurant choices, serves up an array of Indo-Latino cuisine, complemented by an extensive wine and martini menu. Among the offerings is a six-course Indian tasting menu, priced at $65 per person ($30 extra for accompanying martinis).

Among the local restaurants with the highest profile is Marmalade, a trendy, lounge-like eatery complete with a DJ on some nights. Entrees, which include seafood, duck and beef entrees, run from $15 to $29.

On Sundays through Wednesdays from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m., guests enjoy a "bottomless" glass of more than 35 varieties of wine.

Celebrity chef and owner Peter Schintler frequently appears to greet his guests, and he's planning to open a restaurant called Jam in the popular tourist neighborhood of Condado.

Among the newest places with stylish ambience and creative cuisine is La Madre, which opened in August by the same owner of the funky Pink Skirt eatery in San Juan.

La Madre offers variations on Mexican dishes, including duck quesadillas with wild mushrooms and guacamole; ahi tuna with black beans and salad; and cocoa and chile pork ribs.

The interiors are the work of local architectural designer Reynold Rodriguez and are as much a draw as the cuisine.

The small but stylish venue uses vinyl and fabric in whimsical ways.

Abstract movies, slides and old black-and-white footage from Puerto Rican documentaries flash on one wall.

Southeast Asian cuisine is on the menu at Dragonfly, albeit with a healthy dose of Latin influence in the form of yucca, plantain chips, pork rinds and other Caribbean staples.

Next door is Aguaviva, which means "jellyfish." Seafood dishes include paella, shrimp salsa and seafood enchiladas, served amid a sleek decor that includes giant lighting fixtures shaped like, well, jellyfish.

Two blocks away is El Asador, which opened in 2007 in a historical building with arched ceilings and minimalist furnishings reminiscent of a trendy monastery.

This handsome eatery specializes in grilled meats and other Latin American favorites.

Beyond Old San Juan is Condado, which has enjoyed an infusion of diverse dining options in recent years.

Al fresco Ashford

Several restaurants with outdoor dining have popped up along Ashford Avenue, the neighborhood's main thoroughfare. Among them is Wasabi, which has outdoor seating as well as a small dining room.

Puerto Rican touches enhance the Japanese cuisine, with lunchtime specials that include a Power Box filled with churrasco (skirt steak), salad and mofongo de yucca (mashed yucca).

Just a few steps away is Yerba Buena, an attractive, open-air restaurant where visitors can people-watch while dining on pan-Caribbean cuisine with a heavy dose of Cuban influence and, on weekends, live music.

For late-night dining with a hip vibe in Condado, guests head to the dark, stylish restaurant/lounge called Kali, which offers Japanese/Asian cuisine and DJs on weekends.

Even with all these international elements appearing on San Juan's tables, visitors should not overlook traditional Puerto Rican cuisine, a delicious blend of Spanish, African and indigenous Taino Indian traditions and ingredients.

These can be savored at a variety of venues, from hole-in-the-wall dives to upscale restaurants including Ajili Mojili in Condado.

A diversity of flavors also can be found at Plaza del Mercado, by day a traditional produce market in the Santurce neighborhood and by night lined with many small restaurants that serve everything from Puerto Rican to Brazilian cuisine.

On the Saturday night of my most recent visit, I took an outdoor table at Cafe de la Plaza, savoring mounds of white rice and red beans, accompanied by steak and onions.

Jazz wafted from the band inside, and the music of a Cuban band floated over from a restaurant a block away.

Across the street, three guitarists played traditional Puerto Rican ballads as an older couple danced on the sidewalk.

This might not have been San Juan's trendiest place to dine, but it certainly was one of the city's most memorable.

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