A Panamazing Travel Food Review
If upon hearing about visiting Panama your thoughts turn to anything other than hats or the canal then you're certainly more knowledgeable and cultured than I am. Now we'll get those two headlines out of the way nice and early. The canal is a remarkable feat of engineering, raising ships 85ft above sea level for a 50 mile journey through Lake Gatun before a 85ft drop through three locks to the opposite ocean.
The hats are less impressive but just as iconic - made from the plaited leaves of a local plant they're
actually a great shield from the scorching sunshine, and I didn't feel like a trip would be complete without coming home with one. But this isn't ‘Wish You Were Here’ with Judith Chalmers, so onto the most interesting part of Panama, their food.
Panama itself is still a young country, and has taken culinary, and cultural, influences from across the globe, more so than many of the places I have visited before. As the meeting point between two continents, it has taken some of the best flavours from Americas North and South, in particular Mexico, as well as its Spanish roots and Asian and Chinese influences. There was a nod to all of these and so much more when we dined at Donde Jose, an intimate 16 cover restaurant in the Old Town of Panama City.
The self proclaimed mission at Donde José is to tell the story of Panama through their cuisine. They use endemic ingredients, cook with age-old techniques and delve deep into Panamanian traditions and their focus on innovation is appreciated by their awards on the walls.
The journey begins with cocktails shaken and stirred with home-made syrups and infusions before a menu is shared with us, signposting everything, but describing nothing. The journey into the unknown begins, and with each dish comes an explanation of the story behind it, the ingredients used, and the techniques behind it all. All that preamble is a wonderful start to a journey which leads to a variety of incredible plates of food. It did seem like every dish had hit the peak of flavour and creativity until it was superseded by the next one. From a Mexican inspired crispy taco, with dehydrated milk, filled with delicious beef tartare, to a smoked chicken veloute, inspired by grandma’s chicken broth, served in one of her dainty tea cups, to the Chinese steamed bun filled with charred wild mushroom.
The ‘Urban salad’ dish was the only time (other than eating at Nobu, praise indeed) when I’ve been inspired by eating a salad, and the main course of suckling pig wrapped in the lightest of pastry finished with perfectly pickled sauerkraut was a true peak of the evening's culinary journey.
The month long pickles, and home-made hot sauce were fantastic, as were the wines and cocktails that we had recommended to us throughout dinner. Another highlight was the waiter dancing along to Michael Jackson between courses, and the individual bow ties that everyone was sporting aside from the chefs of course– it’s just that sort of place. The mix of fine dining and relaxed but expert service made the whole experience one to remember.
And so if you ever find yourself in Panama, hunt this place out, it deserves to be as famous as the canal. Jose, I take my hat off to you.