Where to Find the New Cuisine of Panama City, PanamaBy Karen Catchpole
Until recently, no one would have sent you to Panama City for the food. In recent years, however, creative chefs have opened buzz-worthy restaurants across Panama’s capital. Here are some of the most ambitious new cuisine offerings.
The wide-ranging menu at Azafrán, from Spanish chef Álvaro Perrino, offers something for everyone including duck, steak, fish, lamb chops, and more. It’s all inflected with Spanish, Asian, and Latin techniques and flavors.
Capital Bistro Panamá
An early entry in the cuisine scene in Panama City is Capital Bistro Panama, which opened in Casco Viejo in 2014, helmed by Venezuelan chef Elias Murciano, in the fully re-imagined shell of what was a fire station right on the water’s edge. The location is stunning, the ambiance is chic (quilted leather booths, a hip soundtrack, gorgeous wait staff), the bar is sexy, and the food runs the gamut and leans on skills the chef picked up in kitchens in France and Spain.
At Intimo, chef Carlos Alba (aka Chombolín) brings his Spanish training to bear on almost exclusively Panamanian ingredients. Chombolín says he’s left traditions behind and in his kitchen he’s in hot pursuit of pure innovation with his seasonal menu, which includes dishes like rabbit and crunchy corn, root vegetable dumplings, and fish with barley and squid ink. He also offers 5-course and 12-course tasting menus.
Japanese chef Makoto Okuwa was drawn to Panama by the abundance of seafood and he makes good use of it all at his Makoto Japanese restaurant. One local raved that “the outdoor seating experience is great and anything you order is a good choice.”
Currently, the only restaurant in Panama on the 2018 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants is Maito, which clocks in at #29. This is chef Mario Castrellón’s elegant, groundbreaking, 100-seat flagship restaurant in the Coco del Mar neighborhood. Expect chic presentation, surprising combinations, and ingredients you’ve probably never eaten before in dishes like palm fruit in corn sauce and blood sausage made with red rice from the Darien jungle.
Donde José in Casco Viejo has just 16 seats and they’re often filled with diners looking for magic from chef José Olmedo Carles, who is committed to presenting edible evidence of the biodiversity of Panama through his tasting menu (there is no a la carte menu). Make a reservation and look forward to adventurous dishes like sea snails and cashews in a squash and clam broth.
Laboratorio Madrigal, from Michelin-starred Spanish chef Andrés Madrigal, offers an extensive surf and turf menu in a tropical chic setting. Starters like king prawn tacos with jicama are meant to be shared. Main dishes include options like grouper with teriyaki sauce and grilled vegetables and rabbit sticky rice with foie-gras. Factor in some time before or after your meal to enjoy Alquimia bar upstairs.
Chef Hernan Correa won the first season of Top Chef Panama and he’s parlayed that notoriety (and his winnings) into Riesen in the El Cangrejo area of the city. He is committed to using 100% local ingredients and the result is a changeable, laser-focused, 7-course tasting menu offering dishes like homemade organic chicken ravioli in a sancocho broth.