Monday, February 14, 2011

Food Field Trip Vieques: El Quenepo

Vieques Island: Green Beach

B and I just returned from a week long vacation on the small island of Vieques, which is just off the east coast of the main island of Puerto Rico. We spent the majority of our time last week laying on the island's white sand beaches and snorkeling amid its shore-side reefs.  And I swear I was not going to blog about food on this trip -- this was after all a retreat from reality where my blackberry did not have service even when I wanted to cave and check-in with the world.  But then we had a meal that was quite possibly one of the best we've had in the past year (anywhere) and I thought couldn't go without mention on this blog -- so out came the camera and the mental note-taking.  Sometimes I just can't help myself!  If by any chance you do make it to Vieques, you will not be disappointed with El Quenepo.

Located along a small row of guest houses, bars, and restaurants along the Caribbean Sea in the tiny village of Esperanza, El Quenepo is best experienced after a spectacular February (insert month here) island sunset.  The restaurant faces the ocean and its dining room is marked by understated island decor and white tablecloth, candle lit tables.  The menu consists of some eight appetizer and ten entree options, and the night we were there, they had an additional three and five respective caught-that-day specials.  Our service was flawless (and this was uncommon if not completely nonexistent on this sleepy island); our server explained in great detail and with abounding knowledge all of the evening's specials.  Unable to decide on the dizzying array of food choices, we started by ordering a bottle of Albarino, an unobtrusive Spanish white wine which would pair well with most any fish item and cool us off after an afternoon in the sun.

My conch chowder was rich and creamy; a seemingly New England style chowda-base with tender pieces of conch was complimented by crispy corn and tender potato cubes and topped with a dollop of creme fraiche.  This could have been a meal in and of itself.

The sushi appetizer special of the evening was an overflowing California roll with melt in your mouth tuna topping the ample sized pieces filled with crunchy cucumbers and topped with microgreens.

After these appetizers we shared a unique take on Caesar salad; its crisp romaine leaves were offset by tangy artichokes and the requisite Parmesan shavings.

El Quenepo: Spiny Lobster

And believe it or not, this was all before the entrees.  We definitely over-ordered a bit.  The tender, meaty spiny lobster--caught that day, chosen from three weight sizes--was served over a fettuccine in a tomato cream sauce enhanced with spinach and poached baby shrimp and pesto.

El Quenepo: Shrimp and Lobster in a Mofongo Basket

El Quenepo knew their local lobster.  Our other lobster of the evening was placed in a twice-fried so-called "mofongo" basket.  In both San Juan and Vieques, we sampled our share of mofongos, but none tasted like this.  This hearty version used mashed breadfruit (pictured) in place of the traditional plantains.  We were unfamiliar with breadfruit, so the owner eagerly walked outside to her backyard and brought us one to see.  It goes without saying that fresh and local ingredients dominated the menu, and the apt chefs made each dish more memorable than the last.

Dessert choices were almost as tough to choose from as the entrees and every bit as creative and flavorful.  We were so stuffed at this point, so I was so happy that we lingered long over dessert.  The deconstructed apple pie--which rivaled the creative selections of Restaurant Eve's tasting room--consisted of a poached apple filled with caramel popcorn gelato, nestled beside house made peanut brittle, and leaned on a four cheese biscuit accented with coral-like sugar art.  Every bite of this dessert popped!

El Quenepo: Deconstructed Apple Pie

A lot of dining rooms in exotic locales survive and even thrive simply because of the location.  El Quenepo would be exquisite anywhere, even the spectacular waterside views paled in comparison to the meal.  The prices matched, but this was well worth the cost.  Three appetizers, two entrees, dessert, wine, tax, and tip came to $250.