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Respectable wine service on the Northern shores of Puerto Rico has been as rare as white Christmases on this Isla del Encanto. I have exhausted all possibilities over 25 years of habitual Isla Verde retreats. The hunt turns up poorly stored, warm, overpriced bottles served in awful glassware to crowds of irritating Ritz Carlton, El San Juan, and cruise ship tourists in Caribbean cookie-cutter outposts of fine New York restaurants or higher-end local establishments feigning sensible wine programs. Blah! Give me a twist of lime, some Barrilito Three Star Rum, a freshly whipped-up batch of sofrito, and a trip to the local market for some tomatillos, chorizo, yuca, salchichon, salt cod, rice, plantains and other goodies that I can transform into a respectable meal on our ocean facing terrace.
So it was with mediocre enthusiasm and little hope that I booked dinner for twelve at BOTTLES on the recommendation of a couple of strangers I met in a hot tub (full disclosure: I crash the Ritz Carlton hot tub each morning following runs and swims on the beach) hailing from Needham, MA. They did their best to lure us into conversation so they could share proud news of a budding soccer star daughter, her world class coach, his brother’s allocation of Screaming Eagle, their annual trips to the Napa Valley Wine Auction, a stream of medium quality, overpriced, name brand California Cabernet conquests, and a regurgitation of other well heeled suburban soccer parent topics that interests me just about as much as a glass of tainted wine. I bailed out quickly, excusing myself with a sigh of relief and a mental note that no restaurant with wine service potential within a 20 minute drive of Isla Verde goes untested.
We made our way through a maze of locally commercial Guaynabo streets to an address within 15 minutes drive of San Juan and 20 minutes of Isla Verde. Bottles was inviting the moment we pierced its space. The entryway is home to a market of fine meats, microbrews, and other worthy foodstuffs. The restaurant is a long rectangle and as I looked beyond the market space I saw a group of high tops surrounded by fashionable young Puerto Ricans and behind them, a series of horizontally set long tables of 6. 10, and 12 that appeared to buttress walls of fully occupied ground to ceiling wine racks. The immediately detectable ambiance was energetic, smart, casual, fun, and vinous. It stayed just that way all through the meal.
There are two main themes to eating at Bottles. First, just walk around the restaurant and pick out the wine(s) you want to drink with dinner. All the wines are sold for carry out or to be consumed at your table at very fair retail prices. The second thing to know is portions sizes are big in a silly way. They must be shared since it is impossible for most normal humans to consume even half a portion. My 16 year old son picked out a cut of beef that could not be ordered in less than a 3.5 pound cut. All the beef is flown in daily, pre-cut and vacuum sealed. The beef was as good as you can find in any New York steak house, prepared on the bone and then sliced and layered around it for service. We ordered a myriad of meats and seafood that were all well prepared, with spicing and flavors that never covered up the innate flavors of the meats and fish. It is a bad idea to order appetizers because each one is as large as a regular meal, and the tuna tartare was cut in one inch square chunks and could have covered a large pizza with chunks to spare. I quietly wondered why Bottles’ management feels they need this gimmick of caveman sized portions since the food is well made and serious enough to stand on its own culinary merits. I figured it out as I looked around and the restaurant was filling with Boston, NY, and suburban tourists directed here by their Ritz Carlton and Marriott concierge desks to drink Caymus Special Select, or some such thing, and gorge themselves while they blended with smart locals.
Our waiter’s orientation was to keep directing our wine attention to the Cakebreads, Caymuses, and Silver Oaks of their inventory. We managed to escape those tourist reflexes and made our way around the wine walls and into the temperature controlled cellar that housed the likes of multiple vintages of Vega Sicilia, a solid collection of smart Bordeaux second growths from recent and older vintages, magnums of Clos Mogador, top Burgundy producers, and more. We had to quench the thirst of twelve, so we picked only one bottle out of the reserve cellar, a ($90 ***1/2) 1961 Giacomo Borgogno Barolo Classico Riserva. When was the last time you ordered a bottle of really good 1961 Barolo in a restaurant for under $100? This is a recently released wine that the winery pulls from their cellar, decants, tops off, and recorks prior to release. Through it all, the wine still presented itself as a mature Barolo with an advanced silky mouthfeel of aging fruit and tobacco leaf aromas. The wine was complex, a real treat, and in superb balance. We also drank the yummy ($38***) 2006 Kumeu River Sauvignon Blanc and the elegant, French styled, restrained, and amazing Dominus second label ($48***) 2007 Napanook Cabernet.
There is a strong inventory of Spanish, Argentinian, Australian, and California wines with a fair representation from France and Italy. Almost every wine is attractively priced. Wines are presented in perfectly fit glassware, and the wine service is responsible if not expert. I would be a little wary of the wait staff’s selection guidance. There is a wall of cases of wines that are on sale and the Bottles team did make a larger than appropriate attempt to sell us some of that wine when there were far better things to pick from, all at reasonable price points. I did not suspect any ill intent here, instead it appeared to be and example of good old Puerto Rican commerce in action.
Bottles is a discovery for discerning local and visiting winos that can manage their way to Guaynabo. It is a hidden gem that I have longed to find, and represents the finest dining experience we have yet to discover in 25 years of travel to our family’s beloved island of Puerto Rico.