Francis Guzmán and Amelia Dill were halfway through the yearlong construction of their San Juan restaurant, Vianda, when Hurricane Maria hurtled across Puerto Rico last September and tore the island apart. Nearly a year after the storm, residents of some of Puerto Rico’s most remote, mountainous swaths are finally seeing electricity restored in their homes. Guzmán and Dill, who are married, turned out to be among the most fortunate; the hurricane damage delayed the planned opening of their dream project by only two months.
The couple had been moving toward opening their own place since meeting in San Francisco in 2010. They’d relocated to New York together: Both worked at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill (Guzmán in the kitchen, Dill in the dining room); Guzmán went on to be a sous chef at the Modern. When they began to plan their own business in earnest, they faced a classic quandary: How could they ever afford NYC rents?
Following in the footsteps of so many American chefs and restaurateurs over the last decade, they instead chose to go home — in this case, to Guzmán’s native Puerto Rico.
They searched for a year until they found the right space in San Juan’s arty, restaurant-rich Santurce district. While their future restaurant was slowly coming together, they helped a friend launch Tía, a cafe known for its pastries and weekend brunch, and they held pop-ups to rehearse their modern American menu. Then the storm came, bringing floods and causing blackouts, felled bridges, houses smashed to splinters, and lost lives.
Yet Vianda, which opened in March during a fraught time of recovery and reclamation for Puerto Rico, promptly finds itself among the island’s indispensable restaurants. Its vitality — the customers filling the room, the waitstaff’s energy and attentiveness, Guzmán’s polished cooking (especially thrilling when he interprets deep-rooted dishes from his homeland) — is heartening evidence of the island’s resilience.
Before I flew to Puerto Rico, local friends made sure to tell me to look out the window as the plane neared landing. Viewed from above, the occasional cobalt-colored FEMA tarps stretched over roofs; they dot the city’s dense neighborhoods like Mondrian-esque blue squares, bright and distinct against the pale canvas of buildings.
But on the whole, now is prime time to experience San Juan; the capital city is well into its recovery and businesses certainly welcome the return of tourism. I witnessed sunbathers sprawled on resort beaches and travelers cramming the streets of Viejo San Juan. The crab salad and the fried fish over yam mash at Jose Enrique, the self-named restaurant of the island’s most celebrated chef, uplifted the soul as ever. Late last year, veteran chef-owner Xavier Pacheco rebranded his standout restaurant La Jaquita Baya, in the quiet Miramar neighborhood, into Comedería Fonda Urbana, lowering prices and focusing on local comforts like serenata de bacalao (codfish salad), alcapurrias (tapered fritters stuffed with meats and other fillings), and chicken empanadas.
Vianda sits a mile east of Miramar, discreetly at the base of a six-story office building; its windows have been tinted black to reduce the frequent blast of late-afternoon sunlight. The restaurant is an achievement in appealing, creatively engaged balance. The room, styled by Dill, feels both sleek and spare, with a central bar whose wood panels strike a midcentury-modern tone and smartly divide the room. In the hands of capable servers, a meal feels neither rushed nor overly languid.
Most importantly, Guzmán pulls off an impressive equanimity in the kitchen. There are dishes for many different appetites, but his ever-changing menus don’t feel scattered — even when they dip into Italian or Thai repertoires. He channels Puerto Rico in two ways: through the foods of his heritage, and in the farmers with whom he’s developed close relationships.
Promoting the farm-to-restaurant connection is of course stock rhetoric among American chefs, but in Puerto Rico, fostering such ties carries new and urgent significance. Before Maria, the island imported 80 percent of its food. As far back as the 1500s, Spanish colonialism emphasized crops as exports (largely from coffee and sugar plantations) and encouraged a mindset meant to devalue agricultural enterprise and locally grown foods. A nascent farmers market culture and small-scale growers movement was percolating when the hurricane hit, decimating much of the island’s farmland.
Guzmán is among the cadre of San Juan chefs keenly supporting farmers as they restore their land. While acknowledging that he can’t depend entirely on the island’s meat and produce supply, he ticks off the names of farms cultivating exceptional lettuces or tomatoes or pork. He mentions businesses like Frutos Del Guacabo, which functions as a co-op to distribute fruits and vegetables from burgeoning small farms, and one run by a man named Antonio Rosa, who combs the island in search of esoteric fruits and vegetables that he can sell to chefs. With this kind of extemporaneous sourcing, items like fruit-driven salads and ceviches become an improv set of revolving players: watermelon and pineapple one night, starfruit and mangosteens the next.
On the night of my first meal at Vianda, the kitchen showed off its one-night-only spontaneity with a large jackfruit Rosa had brought Guzmán; he and his cooks braised and then pan-fried the pods to resemble carnitas, a trending use for the fruit popular with vegans, and folded them into tortillas for tacos. He braised the edible seeds and mixed them into a salsa fresca of tomatoes and onions and chiles. It was terrific, though Guzmán has yet to see another jackfruit from Rosa.
The menu has one immovable starter, a favorite from Guzmán’s childhood: almojábanas, rice-flour fritters filled with locally made queso fresco. He fries the orbs to a dark-chocolate shade two degrees from burnt; they shatter with a lacy, webby crispness. He serves them with dollops of heavily peppered caramelized papaya — essentially an astute cheese and fruit jam pairing.
I’d follow the fritters with Guzmán’s take on sopón de garbanzos, a staple I’ve tried at San Juan institutions like La Casita Blanca. Tender chickpeas roll around in a soup thick with cuajito (pork tripe) and meat from pigs’ feet. Sofrito — the Puerto Rican version highlighting peppers, onions and garlic — mitigates the flavor of the offal. It’s still a righteously potent dish, augmented with culantro, an herb (also known as recao) that tastes like cilantro in culinary surround sound.
Mofongo is one of the island’s signatures; green plantains, fried and then pounded into a garlicky mash, stands proudly on its own or coupled with seafood or meats. Guzmán sidesteps the common practice of shaping the mofongo into a tight mound, instead mixing it with shrimp and mussels and presenting it as a freeform bed for a fist-size hunk of salmon. In my ideal world he’d prepare this entree with a local fish — triggerfish, say, or tiger grouper — but the supply of imported salmon is more consistent and helps keep the price at a reasonable $24. I’m sold on it, regardless.
I’m most drawn to Guzmán’s expressions of Puerto Rican cuisine but can’t deny the charm of some dishes that look further afield. His eggplant Parmesan is as delicate a version as exists in the world: the layers (shaped to resemble the vegetable’s curving form) are delicate; the blend of mozzarella, pecorino, and Parmesan melting but not gloppy; and pesto joins the tomato sauce as a light falsetto note that cuts through the chorus of ingredients.
That said, the only disappointment was one of the Italian diversions. Fresh tagliatelle ensnared lamb, tomatoes, pistachio, and mint salsa verde registered; its flavors were muddy and the pasta leaden.
For dessert, back to local specialties: cinnamon-tinged rice pudding with strawberries, or, even better, Guzmán’s grandmother’s recipe for “bien me sabe.” Often spelled with the words smooshed together, this trifle-like favorite combines cake covered with coconut custard and whipped cream; the kitchen constructed this version like profiteroles. I sealed the sense of place by sipping a shot of Don Q Gran Añejo (a blend of local aged rums) alongside.
Residents and visitors alike are seeking out Vianda as a next-generation statement of community and gumption. What’s most exciting is that Guzmán’s talent already comes off as accomplished, and yet I’m betting he has plenty more to articulate in his cooking — more risks to take, more of his family’s repertoire to mine, more of the local bounty to show off as its availability stabilizes. Ultimately, dining at Vianda feels like an act of hopefulness. It’s as good a reason as any to book a flight to San Juan.
Vianda: 1413 Avenida Ponce de León, Santurce, PR, (939) 475-1578. Open Wednesday to Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m.; Sunday, 5-10 p.m.
Head here to learn more about the ongoing recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. To donate to disaster relief and recovery, do consider the Hispanic Federation’s UNIDOS Program and the Puerto Rico Resilience Fund.