Thursday, February 25, 2010

Manolo Caracol - Panama City, Panama

At the end of our holiday, Andrew and I found ourselves in Panama City, in a quite romantic part of town, on a very (admittedly manufactured) romantic day of the year. Due to the fact that we were thousands of miles from our kitchens and apartments, if we were going to celebrate the holiday, we had no choice but to deviate from our typical stay-in-and-cook Valentine's Day celebration and cease control of our palates to a stranger. Thankfully, we were thousands of miles from home, thousands of miles from prix fixe menus dotted with purported aphrodisiacs, thousands of miles from profit-hungry restauranteurs who view Valentine's day as nothing more than a ripe opportunity to turn tables as quickly as possible and take advantage of dudes who need a table that will impress their girlfriends.

We were staying at a little bed and breakfast (breakfast to come) in Casco Viejo, a neighborhood on the southern edge of Panama City that has seen a renaissance of late - its narrow, cobbled-stoned streets have been the subject of a vast gentrification effort. It was hard to imagine a better scene for a Valentine's day stroll and repast. The buildings range from gutted and totally renovated, with new, wrought iron railings to charmingly (and not-so-charmingly) dilapidated structures with balconies that appear mere seconds from collapse. With much of the city's residents out of town to escape the insanity of Panama City's Carnival, the neighborhood was dark, quiet, peaceful.

As we'd heard that the restaurant is one of Panama City's most popular, we made reservations ahead of time, figuring that between Manolo Caracol's destination dining status and Valentine's Day we'd need one. However, the mass Carnival-driven exodus meant that there was little reason for them. While nearly all of the tables had little reservation cards noting the party's name and anticipated time of arrival, many tables remained unoccupied throughout the duration of our meal. We didn't mind, though. After so many meals in the crowded confines of New York City restaurants, it felt nice to have some breathing room.

Manolo Caracol is fully ingredient-driven. There is no set menu whatsoever, except for wine. The chef creates twelve small plates, served tapas style, based on what is fresh and what his suppliers have come through with that day. For this reason, I've heard that the restaurant is very hit and miss - sometimes spectacular, sometimes less so. From what we tasted, I'd imagine that the better the haul of the restaurant's seafood suppliers, the better your meal will be.

We were treated first to plantain chips with a tomato and olive salsa. The chips were great, sliced lengthwise, super thin and perfectly crispy. Because of how thin they were, they didn't risk turning soggy as soon as they reached room temperature. I think the kitchen waited a bit too long to salt these, though, after they came out of the fryer, since they were on the bland side, the bottom of the serving glass littered with salt crystals.

At the same time, we were brought two little cups of ceviche, which were stellar. The shrimp were juicy and tender, having been perfectly cooked by the lime juice without turning rubbery. The onions were raw so that they were still crunchy, but their sting was tempered by the lime juice as well so as not to overwhelm the other elements. There were other crunchy things in there, which now escape me, but the dish as a whole was really great, especially spooned atop the plantain chips, which provided another level of crunch.

After that came a huge salad, topped with fresh, crunchy greens and what I believe was a beet vinaigrette. The salad was great to provide some much-needed roughage, which had bee missing from most of our meals in Panama, but was otherwise unremarkable. It seemed a bit out of place with all the other dishes, since there was no element that elevated it or made it anything more than your standard side salad. Still, I ate it gladly.

Following the salad, we were brought tiny bites of tuna tartar, wrapped in seaweed. They were topped with julienned carrots, a couple of sesame seeds and sesame oil. and were so, so good. The tuna was finely diced, but contained in a neat little package, and had a great mouthfeel. It was simply a classic dish, but one perfectly done.

Oh yea, there were button mushrooms too. They were...button mushrooms.

Two discs of chicken roulade, stuffed with basil and carrots, dusted with paprika and paired with a passion fruit sauce. The chicken was well-seasoned and just slightly on the dry side of well-cooked. The passion fruit sauce seemed a bit odd at first, since I don't tend to associate chicken with fruity sauces the same way that I associate pork or duck or other gamier meats, but it actually worked. It was light and not overly fruity and I ended up eating every last bit off the plate.

Steamed littleneck clams in a basil and parsley broth (I think). The clams were nothing remarkable, tender, but could have been cleaned a bit better. They were good, but nothing mind-blowing.

Roasted red peppers stuffed with shrimp and vegetables were next. These were extremely flavorful, especially after the lightly seasoned clams, and were a big hit. The shrimp were finely diced, yet managed not to get lost at all in the aggressively-flavored pepper.

"Meat," as this plate of veal was so artfully described by our server, followed. The meat was overcooked, save for patch of pink in the thickest part of the veal. It was seasoned simply with salt and pepper, and tasted very vealy; had it not been overcooked, it would have been a winner.

We were then given a plate of rice and beans, topped with a chunky salsa. While Andrew is not a bean fan in the least, I love rice and beans with an unbridled passion. That said, these were nothing amazing. I like the "beans" part more than the "rice part" and I like my beans to be mildly soupy. These were dry, and, though they were perfectly cooked, they got lost in the rice. The salsa provided a wonderful textural contrast.

This piece of fish was next up. It actually reminds me a little bit of the mahi-mahi I made with cilantro chutney once upon a time. This one was really a winner. The kitchen's strength is definitely in its seafood preparations. This little piece of fish, I'd venture to guess it's corvina, which is widely available in Panama, was tender, flakey, pretty much everything you want in a piece of fish. It was seasoned delicately with an herb sauce and dotted with capers to provide a briny note. Really, truly wonderful.

Dessert was another simple affair. A lilliputian bowl of vanilla ice cream, topped with a rich, thick caramel sauce, decorated with slices of strawberries and crowned with a swirl of whipped cream. There was something chunky going on in there that I couldn't put my finger on as well, it had the texture of partially-hardened wax and didn't really taste like much. That said, it didn't adversely affect the dish, which I enjoyed because hell, I'll eat ice cream any day of the week.

All in all, this was a really enjoyable meal (made more enjoyable that the tasting menu is $25 per person, which I'm sure made me more forgiving in my criticism of the restaurant throughout the meal). Though I've only been there once and don't know if the kitchen tends to reuse certain staple dishes, since there is no menu, it's probably a really fun place to stop in frequently, since it's unlikely you'd get bored with the menu choices. The kitchen prepares a bunch of the same dish at once, it seemed to be sending about 4 or 5 out at a time, so that affects the timing and pace of your meal, sometimes negatively. We would sometimes be brought two dishes at once, or three within 6 minutes, and sometimes would wait 20 minutes between courses. Overall, though, it was a very pleasant dining experience and one that will not put a huge dent in the wallet. Manolo Caracol is a pioneer in the Panama City restaurant scene, having spawned restaurants using a similar concept, and generally opening the door for fine dining in the city. Though it's hit or miss, if you have the time to spend a leisurely couple of hours enjoying some simply prepared food, it's a worthwhile risk to take.

Manolo Caracol
Calle 3a Oeste (at Avenida Central)
(507) 228 4640
Panama City, Panama