Behind the Exquisite Cuisine of Chef Luis Malagon of BLT Steak
A dining experience at The Ritz-Carlton, Aruba starts when you enter the palatial lobby. The resort’s reputation creates the expectation of an exceptional evening, and everyone from the servers to the chefs is there to make your night live up to that lofty goal.
— By Amie Watson
— Photography Kenneth Theysen
With no hotel to the north, the public beach behind
The Ritz-Carlton, Aruba is one of the most tranquil in the area. And the opulent décor adds to that feeling of exclusivity. Upon entering, my view is immediately drawn to the Divi Bar & Lounge, which opens onto the back balcony overlooking the water. It’s the perfect place for a pre-dinner drink (try the Cadushi cocktail with fresh extract of cactus purée, white rum, triple sec, lime juice and lemon-lime soda) while enjoying live music coming from the grounds below.
I make a note to come back for a Hurricane Roll or Ritz-Carlton Maki Roll with king crab, shrimp tempura, tuna and yuzu aïoli, then head to my table at BLT Steak. The steakhouse is one of the property’s three restaurants, which include Casa Nonna (opening in February 2018), an Italian powerhouse featuring frutti di mare with house-made tagliolini, pollo alla Parmigiana and branzini croccante with saffron aïoli, and Madero Latin Grill, the poolside lunch spot featuring mahi-mahi tacos and gluten-free, vegan quinoa salad with a blackberry dressing.
If you love steak and fresh seafood, though, BLT Steak is your destination. Chef de Cuisine Luis Malagon and his team sear 28-day dry-aged prime bone-in strip steaks and American-style Wagyu rib-eyes to juicy perfection.
First comes an amuse-bouche of creamy duck liver with port jelly and crostini followed by giant fluffy popovers made with Gruyère cheese served with whipped butter and fleur de sel. Then a platter from the raw bar: Kumamoto, Beausoleil and Wianno oysters from the West and East Coasts, Alaskan king crab, lobster and – of course – caviar.
Next, the real appetizers. Hamachi, specially flown in from Japan, comes thinly sliced sashimi-style and served with basil oil, Espelette pepper and jalapeño emulsion. And the popular Bluefin Tartare features diced, impeccably fresh tuna served on top of an avocado mash with crunchy, fried shallots and a soy-lime dressing made of sweet mirin, a little tongue-tickling wasabi and a touch of mustard oil. “All these flavors melt together and when you put your fork in there and try it all together, it’s an explosion of flavor. It’s that perfect bite,” says Chef Malagon.
Then, the main show: 36-oz. porterhouses for two, aged in a Himalayan salt-lined room for 28 days before being grilled, sprinkled with Maldon salt and served in cast-iron skillets; butter-basted filet mignon served with Cognac-laced peppercorn sauce; and 22-oz. cowboy rib-eyes with chimichurri. Of all the cuts of Angus prime and American Wagyu on offer, the rib-eye is the chef’s favorite. “I like the richness of it from the extra marbling. The eye is one of the best parts. It essentially comes with its own butter,” he says.
What’s unique about BLT Steak, however, is that the side dishes are far from afterthoughts. While ordered separately and served in cocottes, “each one is more a co-star than a supporting cast,” says Malagon. Take his Brussels sprouts, for example: “We sell so many of them and they go with everything,” he says. “The searing gives a nice char, the honey balances the bitterness and the bacon lardons put it over the top.”
Cones of French fries fly from the kitchen, along with blanched and braised hen-of-the-wood mushrooms, juicy, sweet and heavenly with a steak. And Malagon’s own creation, buttery mashed potatoes kissed with jalapeño, go with everything.
Though the chef only came to The Ritz-Carlton, Aruba from The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel in California in 2016, he’s already added a few West Coast influences to the regular and weekly blackboard menus. He’s most proud of a sophisticated take he did on Mexican posole with smoked pork belly, fresh cabbage, radish slaw and fried pork skins. “It used everything that came from the pork belly and the presentation was very classical,” he says.
A big part of BLT Steak’s success is due to the ingredients, says Malagon. “It’s hard to source ingredients on Aruba,” he says, “but The Ritz-Carlton brand already has vendors in place. We’re the only ones that currently have dry-aged beef on the menu every day. We can get fish from Boston, Japan or Florida. We have caviar and lobster.”
But what’s most impressive is the kitchen’s ability to make those ingredients shine. “It’s about the labor of love that we put into each dish,” says Malagon. “You know you’re not going to get your average steak. We finish each one with a little basting butter and beef drippings and serve it with a maître d’hôtel butter for a classic bistro twist. We make the peppercorn sauce with black and white peppercorns and we reduce the vinegar gastrique with Cognac, veal stock and chicken stock and finish it with cream. And we don’t add the Champagne vinegar to the chimichurri until it goes out to the table, so the parsley and cilantro keep their color.”
If people expect more when they dine at The Ritz-Carlton, Aruba, it’s a reputation that’s well earned, says Malagon. “It’s about making each experience memorable for everyone that walks through our doors. We’re going to take care of those details that others might not. We’re sourcing the best, we’re recruiting the best. It’s about creating a memory for each guest, whether it’s in my restaurant, Casa Nonna or on the beach, for couples who book one of our custom dinners there.”
As the sun sets on BLT Steak’s patio, and I enjoy the last spoonfuls of my tropical fruit pavlova with a glass of dessert wine, the restaurant’s interior fills up with guests about to start their dinner. For me, The Ritz-Carlton, Aruba experience is complete. For them, it’s just beginning. And they’re expecting to enjoy every bite.