Friday, February 8, 2008

Bold Claims and Goat Stew

It's 10:00 am in San Juan and I just got back from a rigorous workout at the hotel gym, where I attempted to sweat out of my pickled body the seven hundred cocktails, and five billion calories I've consumed in the past forty eight hours. To say I've been on an eating jag is an understatement; I came here to eat my way through San Juan, and, overachiever that I am, that's just what I've been doing.

Last night we had a superlative dinner at a restaurant in Condado, called Ropa Vieja. I actually went there for the classic dish, ropa vieja, but the goat stew caught both my eye and attention as the owners confidently claimed it was "The Best in the World." Now, I can claim many things about myself; I'm a trustworthy friend, I have a wry sense of humor, I am pretty good in the kitchen, I like to think I'm a decent writer and designer. But, Best in the World??! That's a bold statement, and one you better be able to back up. So, I called them on their brazen claim, and ordered the goat stew with a side of rice and beans, and for a starter, a cazuela of cuttlefish broiled in garlic and wine. Jay--our faithful dining and drinking buddy for the past two evenings, and always open-minded and enthusiastic about new foods and experiences, which is what I love about him--engaged in a lengthy and passionate dialogue with the owner about the difference between Cuban and Puerto Rican rice and beans (for those who care, Cuban is black, Puerto Rican is red), and the next thing we knew, the most delicious rice and bean dish I have ever tasted--Mamposteao--was delivered to our table. Even Jay, who just lost twenty pounds on a low-carb diet, and has ten more to go, couldn't resist throwing Atkins out the window, and dug in to this traditional Puerto Rican dish with gusto. I cannot wait to get back home to make it, test it, and share the recipe.

But let's move ahead to the goat, shall we? (I'm not dismissing the tender, juicy and superbly garlicky cuttlefish, but I have tanning and cocktails by the pool to get to after all). The goat stew--tender pieces of lamb, still on the bone--simmered for hours with tomatoes, and onions, and peppers, and traditional Puerto Rican spices, was so meltingly tender, so stuffed with flavor, that I actually closed my eyes after the first bite, and took a deep breath, like I had just witnessed something incredibly moving. The rice was perfect, and I used it to sop up all the flavorful tomato and lamb broth, and then grabbed a wedge of bread and mopped up the rest; when I was done, all that was left on my plate were the picked-clean lamb bones, and a few bay leaves. I have not had many stews made of goat in my life, but the ones I have had pale in comparison to the dish last night at Ropa Vieja. Of course we are going back this evening to try the actual dish, ropa vieja; if it is anything like the Best in the World Goat Stew, I may never return back to New York.

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