‘GET THEE to a nunnery.” That was the directive from Little Bird Janet, not Hamlet. And I tried, but El Convento in Old San Juan was fully booked. In fact, the receptionist said, it was overbooked on this mid-March weekend (she sounded a bit concerned about that).
So I bedded down a couple of plazas away and presented myself for a late-afternoon drink the next day. Surely they couldn’t be too booked for that.
And they weren’t–the boutique hotel has a regular wine-and-hors d’oeuvre hour for guests. But even better, Neisha Martinez, corporate sales manager, toured me around the property, which is, as advertised, a former Carmelite convent, dating back to 1646.
Not to worry, it’s been renovated a few times since then. The sisters were put out of business in 1903, and it served as many things, including a flophouse. But Woolworth heir Robert Frederic Woolworth bought the building and restored it in 1959, reopening it as a hotel in 1962. It was reimagined and renovated again in the 1990s and 2000s–it’s now part of IHE Enterprises–and as anyone who owns an old house, even one not this old, knows, renovating and updating are ongoing activities. (Various staff members mentioned the hotel’s chief engineer, who has been maintaining the structure for 42 years. After they mentioned him, they had a nervous look that telegraphed: What will we do when he wants to retire?)
But my old house–don’t know about yours–is not the oldest member of Historic Hotels of America whereas El Convento is. As such, it’s a far cry from the glitzier properties in the Condado beach-front area of San Juan.
As befits Viejo San Juan, El Convento has a shadowy austerity to it in places. And then, all of a sudden, you peek out from under a shadowy loggia and see sunshine bathing the chef’s herb garden and guests lounging around on a tiled terrace to catch a few mid-March rays.
About the chef: Luis Castillo–who’s a Brooklyn boy, by the way–studied accounting, then thought about the law. Finally he realized he liked to cook, so he began not with cooking school but by working in kitchens–he did a stage at Le Cirque in New York, worked at The Palm in Times Square, cooked with Alain Ducasse, and at Blue Hill, the Manhattan outpost of the Pocantico Hills Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Whew–and he’s still a kid. And he heads up the kitchen at El Convento’s Patio del Nispero. (A nispero is a loquat, and the fruit periodically splat right onto the patio, adding a messy authenticity. As for the enormous century-year-old nispero tree that shades the patio, the tale is that one of the nuns planted it. Maybe the splatting fruit are her revenge for having been kicked out at the beginning of the last century.)
Castillo asked if he could cook for me (instead of my ordering off the menu). How could a Little Bird say no? As Mateo, my server and pathfinder (he was born in Poughkeepsie and isn’t even of Hispanic heritage), narrated, I ploughed through a Cucumber Avocado Gazpacho Martini (non-alcoholic); Avocado and Tuna Tartare topped with a Rice Cracker and accompanied by a healthy smear of Eggplant Pudding (eggplant infused with squid ink and orange flavor); a salad of pork belly, walnuts, Brussels sprouts, goat cheese, mango and a hard-cooked egg; and one nice seared scallop topped with shredded plantains and served over white beans and mushroom infused with truffle vinaigrette. I’m pretty sure there was dessert, but by that time I was too sated even to write it down.
I braced myself for a stiff bill–like for one of those $300 tasting menus–but it was surprisingly gentle. I guess Luis likes to cook for people!
The dishes were small, but the flavors sang. You know, like the dinner I make for myself at home every night. Right.
The smallish guest room I saw was a bit more like my own home, in the sense that it was modest and reasonably comfortable. Some of the 57 other rooms (which start at around $220 a night) pictured on El Convento’s website show more lavish arrangements.
Having arrived in San Juan from an island that wasn’t much more than sea and sand, I was happy to stroll around the narrow streets, especially a few, like Calle Cristo, that are still paved with the original blue cobblestones (apparently cast from iron slag). Some houses in this historic area have been painted and tended since I first visited many years ago, but some have lagged behind. Modern mass America is here too, including M Boutique (that’s what the very chic Neisha Martinez and her gal pals call Marshalls!) and Walgreens.
I discovered a great website that has ideas of less-common things to do in Old San Juan. And I’d go back in a heartbeat, but only if El Convento has a room for me.