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vegan abroad: review of Marmalade Restaurant in San Juan, PR

Following is a guest review by a good friend of ours who recently visited a veg-friendly restaurant in Puerto Rico. Let’s all imagine we’re drinking cocktails in the sun while we read it…

In late February I had the pleasure of visiting San Juan with my mom. Since holidays with my family are always an excuse to consume obscene amounts of delicious food, we wasted no time looking up the best places to eat. Marmalade is located in a restaurant-laden area of the beautiful district of Old San Juan, and its atmosphere is classy and open while still being funky and intimate. Backpackers be warned: this meal is not going to come cheap, but I assure you it is worth every cent — what’s a vacation if you don’t treat yourself?

glow bar

Before I talk about the food, I’ll just say that the service was incredible — attentive, accommodating, and knowledgeable without being imposing or pretentious. When I mentioned I was reviewing for a vegan food blog, our waiter was not only eager to point out appropriate items on the menu, but even asked the chef for a copy of the menu for me to take home (which he apparently doesn’t do for just anybody). The chef himself — Peter Schintler, an accomplished gentleman who studied under Gordon Ramsay — came out later on to talk with us about the food and the blog, and vegan/vegetarian food in general. Apparently his wife is vegetarian so he doesn’t find it difficult to cook without meat or dairy, and often will at home. I also appreciate his willingness to make something for everyone by leaving items out or altering dishes to meet dietary restrictions or allergies, something many chefs would consider akin to ruining the food.

Marmalade has a full page of vegetarian items on their extensive menu, and nearly all of these are or can easily be made vegan, which our wonderful server assured me would not be a problem. You can order à la carte if you’d like, but I recommend doing one of the tasting menus, which gives you four, five, or six smaller courses (including dessert, for $59, $69, and $79 respectively). I did five courses (though it was a bit much for me, admittedly), of which three were vegan.

sweet corn and lemongrass soup

The first dish I tried was the delectable sweet corn and lemongrass soup, which came poured over a salsa of haas avocado, grilled corn, red onion, and organic sprouts, and topped with sunflower shoots. The sweetness of the corn was offset by the tart pieces of avocado, and it had a pleasantly spicy finish. The texture and creaminess were reminiscent of a chowder, but the flavour palate was completely unique. I’m a big soup lover, but it’s not terribly often I have a soup in a restaurant that really blows my mind. This one did.

ratatouille

For the main course, I went with the ratatouille (I asked to have the goat cheese left off). This hearty provençal vegetable stew featured potato, spinach, zucchini, and a handmade roasted red pepper sheet pasta in a creamy tomato sauce, topped with pine nuts, sunflower shoots, and candied black olives. The sauce was so beautifully creamy that I actually double-checked with the server to make sure it was, in fact, vegan (he was jokingly offended that I would even ask). All the vegetables were cooked to perfection — no mealy potatoes or squishy zucchini to be found here — and each individual flavour was brought out. I don’t recommend ordering this as your last of four dinner courses, like I did; it’s quite filling so I could barely manage half of it, much to my own disappointment.

lemon-chamomile sorbet
Thankfully, there’s always room in the dessert stomach, and I had the lemon-chamomile sorbet*. This soft and delicately flavoured sorbet was punctuated with crisp pieces of sesame-peanut brittle. Certainly a combination I’d never encountered before, but it worked wonderfully, and its cool, light sweetness was the perfect finish for someone like me who had eaten too much but still wanted dessert.
*please note: this dish has honeycomb in it, but since most vegans I know are okay with honey, I felt I could include it here.

Overall, I think Marmalade was honestly one of the best restaurant experiences I have ever had. Not once were we kept waiting, not once was a bite of food I put in my mouth anything short of incredible, and not once did I feel rushed or uncomfortable. But the pinnacle of service that goes above and beyond? When we arrived, we had just been caught in an impressive rainstorm and had been using my mom’s scarf to shield our heads. Thus, it was completely soaked and she asked our server if he could hang it somewhere for her. When he gave it back to her at the end of the night, he hadn’t merely hung it up — it was still warm from being in the dryer!

I truly hope that anyone planning a trip to San Juan, or any Puerto Ricans who may be reading this, will devote an evening to visiting this delightful and creative restaurant.

all photos by me, from my flickr