lunes, 20 de julio de 2009

La Cinta Costera

A Panamanian Panacea

Now, we know that this site is alleged to be a Restaurant Review, however for this post we’re going to offer something special, break out of the mold, if just temporarily, to review the new and majestic Cinta Costera: The Jewel of Panama City. How could we resist?

So what exactly is the Cinta Costera? To start, we'll show you a photo of the welcome sign at the entrance:

In Spanish (the predominant language in Panama) Cinta Costera quite literally means “Coastal Belt”. In this case, although not directly implied in the name, “belt” refers to “green belt.” Think biological corridor, carbon sequestration, oxygen production. Think ecological refuge.

The Cinta Costera extends along the length of Avenida Balboa, a major thoroughfare named after the great Spanish conquistador Vasco Nunez de Balboa, noble founder of the first permanent colonial settlement on mainland America. We realize that if it weren't for the heroic adventuresome spirit of Vasco Balboa, many of us may not had ever had the pleasure of living and working in Panama. So thanks, Vasco.

We have heard that during the creation of the Cinta Costera, great pains were taken to preserve his magnificent monument, which was a vestigial point of interest of the otherwise drab Avenida Balboa. We've driven past it many times but have never stopped to check it out up close. Since the Cinta Costera renovation the statue has been re-highlighted as a major focal point. Balboa is perhaps the most revered historical figure in all of Panama. Not only does he have a major coastal road named after him, but the major coin currency is called a Balboa, and the most popular beer in the country is called Balboa. There are numerous parks called Vasco Nunez de Balboa, not to mention a large port area and American military residential zone. Sometimes it´s fun to buy a Balboa beer with a Balboa coin and drink it at the base of the Balboa statue situated along Avenida Balboa. Think about it, where else in the world can you do something like that?

Moving on, the Cinta Costera is Panama City’s tribute to the natural world; a demonstration of how advanced modern societies can achieve symbiosis with the non-human world.

Until recently, most people didn’t necessarily think of Panama City as being an internationally renowned paragon of urban ecological awareness, but with the unveiling of the Cinta Costera this cosmopolitan metropolis is quickly making a name for itself amongst the A-list of environmentally progressive capital cities worldwide.

Were it not for the generous, forward thinking, ecologically conscious spirit of the Panamanian government coupled with a Balboaesque conviction and cutting-edge minds tirelessly devoted to working locally in green architecture and engineering, the actual realization of the Cinta Costera would have never been possible.

While in its conceptual phase and throughout construction, this massive and impressive undertaking was not without its share of criticism. Like any of the great engineering feats of the world, some die-hard skeptics simply thought it would never happen. Some thought it would happen poorly and then fail. Few people imagined it possible that a raw sewage dump could be transformed into a vibrant habitat for local flora and fauna. What these naysayers and pessimists didn’t know was this: In order to command a position at the forefront of sustainable urban development - in order to make a positive difference in this world - you have to be willing to persevere against all odds. You must be willing to question the dominant paradigm and strive to set new, higher standards. And that, friends, is exactly what happened here.

So last week we decided to dalliance our Sunday away walking the length of the newly completed parkway, beside the placid sea and along the meandering promenade. We wanted to experience this thing first hand.

It was your typical Saturday afternoon in Panama City, the hot equatorial sun playing hide-and-go-seek behind billowing clouds, perhaps a rumbling thunder-head in the distance. All in all it was looking to be a fantastic day.

Initially striking was the impressive swath of green stretching out before us. The way this luxuriant mat played with the sparkling hues of the adjacent sea - oscillating between grey and raw-umber hues - was nothing short of remarkable.

And the wildlife! Let us tell you about the wildlife: Just five minutes into our walk we encountered not one, but two species of native bird, the first apparently about to break into song and the other happily foraging away in the undergrowth. What an incredible thrill!

With an ultra-zoom lens we were able to capture both of these glorious little creatures. Check out the photos below.

And the other.
It is worth noting here that since our arrival to Panama City, back in the late eighties, we have not come across such a profusion of non-human fauna within the confines of the city. So, although we weren’t fortunate enough to have any additional bird sightings on the Cinta Costera that day, what we saw in the first moments of our walk made it abundantly clear that the green belt was already working wonders.

The photo below makes clear the sheer depth of eco-oriented, artistic genius behind the Cinta's artisan sod work, and why it is worthy of remark. You see, grass needs water to grow, and water, as we are all aware, is a diminishing resource. So what has been done throughout the Cinta Costera, as a logical solution to this pressing issue, is a sort of patchily arranged mish-mash of sod pieces - an abstract checkerboard pattern if you will. What this accomplishes is simple and to the point: it saves water. Some of the sod pieces don't make complete contact with the soil, this too seems to be an intentional design point. It's really quite simple: Less contact between sod mats and soil-cap equals less water uptake, equals water conservation. This strikes us as a poignant aesthetic manifestation of the human / nature relationship - a living, breathing Piet Mondrian. The sodwork takes on a dynamic state, changing as time marches on, like nature itself.

In the following photo we have captured an example of one of the most architecturally striking engineering feats of the Cinta Costera. What you are looking at is a walkway round-a-bout which leads to a bridge, so pedestrians and bicycle riders can safely traverse over the roadway from one green oasis to another. Impressive, to say the least, somewhat reminiscent of the classic Mesoamerican ziggurat.

As was apparent in the above photograph, the design of the round-a-bout epitomizes the concept of ecological integrity. Notice how it is clad in mini-terraces of partially dormant sod, and how it follows the same water conserving concept/philosophy as the sod work in the previous photo. It is clear that designers at Odebrecht are breaking out of the mold here, making room for native species to establish a loose and local influence. Observe the organic, nebulous form, now a senescent void, patiently awaiting natures whims.

The walkway is both lofty and spectacular. Note the ornamental pink ginger meticulously placed at the base of the concrete piling.

Below we have included an example of some of the exquisite landscape architecture concurrent throughout the expansive green areas and promenade. The overall design scheme follows many core tenants of the increasingly popular eco-minimalist aesthetic.

Here (below) we see a bold gesture: Panama is taking suit with the 1st world recycling paradigm. In an instant, it seems, The Capital has gone from no recycling program whatsoever to an advanced, multifaceted system on par with those we've observed in Scandinavia, Japan, and other nations on the forefront of green infrastructural practices. So please, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. We all have to participate, we are all in this together. If you see someone throwing, for example, metal into the organics receptacle, do your part and call them out on it. They are probably the ones responsible for the accumulating litter in the area. If someone tries to tell you this new recycling effort is a complete farce - an illusion - maybe give them a reprimanding whistle, a red card, or just report them to the nearest special agent working under the City of Panama Municipality's "Pig Hunting Campaign." (For more information see the July issue of The Panama Report.) For someone to think that Panama City is still throwing all of their waste in one giant of trash heap is both ignorant and ludicrous. With the inauguration of the Cinta Costera, Panama entered into the 21st century and no longer employs such barbaric wastefulness.

The Benches are positively one of our favorite features along the promenade. You will find The Benches to be abundant and strategically placed. When evaluating the ecological integrity of the overall project, don't let the solid concrete nature of the benches fool you, this is, in fact, the most ecological approach to bench making in our current day and age. You see, they are sustainable because they'll be around, relatively unchanging, forever.

As is apparent, The Benches take on a minimalist, industrial design, and almost look as if they're made out of high-quality hardwood painted white. They aren't made out of hardwood, and they are painted white, specifically, to reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere, mitigating the effects of global warming. Sure, Panama may be famous for its large tracts of primary rainforest, replete with valuable tropical hardwoods, but Panama no longer subscribes to the philosophy of defiling ones own backyard in order to build ones house, no, those days are over.

In the photo below you will bear witness to the enticing arrangement of benches, decided up by the Cinta Costera's team of elite designers. You will note, above all else, the very formal placement. The reasoning behind this is complex, drawing on both historical and contemporary factors, admittedly beyond the scope of this review. In an attempt to keep it brief, we'll try to summarize the broader meaning in a sentence or two: The formal row is intended to invoke memories of Panama's militaristic past and traumatic dictatorship, one of the darker periods in the country's history. However, the fact that what we're looking at is benches, organized as such, completely transforms the overall implication, and we think of community. Thus the benches allow us to enjoy the benefits of collective activities and communal experience.

Here is a view of yet another bench line, with a roundabout pedestrian overpass just beyond.

Lets take a moment to talk about lights and lightpoles and the role they play in defining the conceptual framework of the Cinta Costera. As one of its foremost artistic expressions, the abundant integration of lightpoles into virtually every square foot of the Cinta gives a bold but abstract reference to its unique maritime location. Observed from afar, the lightpoles give striking resemblance to ship masts, thus offering the unique visual allusion of Cinta Costera-as-marina. Seen up close the lightpoles almost resemble deciduous trees. At night, when the lights are on, the sky is filled with glowing dots, which succeeds in creating a sort of starry-night effect, even when overcast.

In that most of the lights do not work, and that they greatly out number trees planted in the area, some perceive the mass installation of 550 + poles and fixtures as being absurd (We say nonsense.) Like many great works of art, this installation elucidates a truth by enacting the very abhorrence it seeks to denounce. To take it at face value is to miss the point. Such infantile perspectives are merely negative and pathetic attempts to write-off what was actually intended to be a profound, historically significant statement. The lightpoles, in their symbolic representation of Panama-as-Marina, memorialize the myriad of individual lives lost in the construction of the Panama Canal, over a hundred years ago. A token of remembrance. Think Cinta Costera-as-requiem.

The sheer diversity in light pole styles is impressive, rivaling that of plant species present on the Cinta Costera. Below we'll take you on a photo tour of some of what we found.

Below you'll find the classic double half-arch design, with rounded fixtures, clearly reminiscent of the harpy eagle, one of Panama's great natural oddities.

And here you see a more minimalist single-arching, arm-lamp. Representing the slight wobble in the earth's rotational axis, also known as the obliquity of the ecliptic.

Although not all of the lights installed along the Cinta Costera work, some of them do, here's an example of one, which also illustrates yet another intriguing lamp style. Now, you may be asking yourself, what do you mean not all of the lights work? Energy saving my friends, energy saving. With the help of experienced computer programmers from PIT (Panama Institute of Technology), the Cinta Costera employs a complex light-timer algorithm working in conjunction with the nocturnal and diurnal cycles, so the lights aren't on all day. A simple yet novel concept.

The next photo is a side shot of the the lamp photographed above. This particular design makes abstract reference to sailboats and ocean liners, clearly invoking a maritime feel. Don't let the asymmetry throw you off. Sailing is a perfect example of human symbiosis with nature. This kind of gesture forces us to reconcile our anthropocentric aesthetics with the complexity of the unknown.

We haven't yet identified the symbolic representation of the next light style, although we like it immensely. It seems to summon an almost crude and industrial feel, less organic then those presented above.
We were positively taken aback by the diversity in light pole models, the artistry of their layout, and the profundity in their collective, multi-layered symbolic representation, but what really put the icing on the cake had to have been a prominently displayed art installation reminiscent of certain formal devices employed by renowned Scottish sculptor, photographer and environmentalist, Andy Goldsworthy.

This is Panama. Panama. This small, unassuming Central American country has been variously referred to as the Singapore, the Dubai, and the Switzerland of the Americas, in other words, in a league beyond most of the other “developing” Latin American countries.

Near the end of our stroll we came across another sculpture, a bit of colonial residuum, a metal statue of Vasco Nunez de Balboa, located at the halfway point along the Cinta Costera. Here Balboa stands tall, strong and wise.

Colonial residuum. Our research has highlighted a few of his somewhat unfortunate attributes, including a) his keen ability to obtain large quantities of gold through the use of violence, and b) his fondness for forcing groups of male Indians to dress up as females and engage in lewd sexual activities, then unleashing his trained packs of "war dogs" to attack the Indians while they lay on the ground naked, humiliated, and vulnerable.

Even more curious is the fact that one of the highest orders granted by the Panamanian government to distinguished and outstanding figures, foreign and domestic, is the Orden Vasco Núñez de Balboa, in various degrees, as established by Law 27 from 28 January 1933.

Building the Cinta Costera has been a bold and progressive venture, which gives a backward nod to Panama's cultural heritage. Balboas statue, in this particular context, provides us with a fresh approach to the outdated, idea of the Monument. Here, Balboa isn't exhalted as such, but rather is read through a post-monument, post-modernist lens as a point of departure rather than and end in itself. The antiquated figure of Balboa amidst this center of progress references how far we've come from the barbaric colonial practices popular in days of yore. The preservation of this statue reminds us, once again, that the Cinta Costera, like many great works of art, elucidates a truth by enacting the very abhorrence it seeks to denounce. Although it hasn't always been smooth sailing, Panama bounds into the 21st century with renewed vigor!

So, if you decide to take a stroll along this local landmark (a definite must!), please remember to be a curtious and inquisitive visitor, and most importantly, inform yourself before you make rash assumptions, keep an open mind, and most importantly que lo pasen bien, fren!

jueves, 16 de julio de 2009

El Mercado de Mariscos

Satisfaction Guaranteed

El Mercado de Mariscos: You may have heard about it, but have you actually eaten there? If not, you’re missing an essential Panamanian culinary experience, whether you live in the city or are merely visiting.

We’ll lay it out for you: The building is a large block, unassuming. Blue and white are the predominant colors, and Japan, being keen on fishing, fish, and countries located near oceans full of fish, had something to do with the construction and establishment of this particular locale, thus the prominently featured Panamanian and Japanese flags, standing side by side, in an expression of collaboration and mutually beneficial commercial ventures.

The building is situated precisely at the end (or beginning, depending on which way you’re going) of the new and impressive Cinta Costera, a recently inaugurated, ecologically friendly, national monument, built entirely on a landfill; formerly part of a bay which, for years was used to treat municipal untreated sewage. Even more formerly it was a pristine mangrove estuary.

(For those of you who are as-of-yet unfamiliar with this majestic gem (La Cinta Costera), consider walking to the Fish Market along its verdant pathways.)

The Mercado de Mariscos, or, Seafood Market, is not merely a Seafood Market, but a cultural center encompassing a whole slew of social and commercial events and institutions. Some of its functions include the following: a dock where fishermen bring their haul in the early hours of the morning; a venue for the occasional government sponsored, alcohol saturated dance and music party; small vegetable and fruit market; wholesaler of the best ceviche on this side of the Isthmus.

It’s safe to say you’ll arrive either by car, by foot, or by taxi, unless you come on a bicycle or a motorcycle. Disembark and survey your new surroundings. Seems a bit rugged at first, but go ahead and step inside, let your senses go wild. If you come during the first half of the day you’re really in for a treat, especially if you have a special affinity for fresh seafood markets and all the associated hullabaloo. This particular fish market is consistently rated (internationally) among the best in the world, full of large steel tables piled high with an impressive variety of incredibly fresh, seasonal sea critters. You have lobster, you have crab. You have five or six or seven varieties of prawn and shrimp. There’s corvina, sierra, pargo rojo, pargo blanco, salmon, tuna, cohinua, bojala, robalo, and guavina. And there’s more; we could go on… There is octopus and squid, and a wealth of shellfish species. Occasionally there’s shark. And we still haven’t named everything.

It is notable that that this market sells strictly seasonal, organic fish. So there you have it, fresh, local, organic, seasonal fish. That’s a pretty good start, wouldn’t you say? And we haven’t even gone upstairs to the restaurant yet. That’s where you eat the fish.

Now we’re upstairs. This is The Restaurant at Mercado de Marisco where, unsurprisingly, despite its almost 30 tables and at least four times that many chairs, the place is almost always packed. You may have to wait to be seated. You may have to grapple for a chair. Another notable fact that this may very well be the only restaurant in Panama City where one can expect to wait for seating. But don’t let this deter you or you’ll miss out on one of the most authentic dining experiences this country has to offer. Ask for a cold one while you wait and gaze over the bustling market below, or lean against the railing and watch people eat; observe the astonishingly diverse milieu of clientele.

If you can fandangle a seat next to a window, we say go for it. The soft sea breeze and stunning views of the immaculate Cinta Costera will offer endless inspiration while you wait for your food. If you're dining alone or with a muse, consider bringing along your watercolor set.

The menus are fixed, meaning they are sandwiched between the table and its glass top. On them you will find an impressive selection of tasty dishes. We have our favorites but won’t pretend like we’ve tried every item on the menu. If you’re looking for suggestions, we’ll offer the following lineup:

To start we usually go Peruvian with a couple Pisco Sours and a few orders of Ceviche Peruano (mixto is darn good, but the straight corvina is a spectacular introduction to this intriguing South American ceviche style, try one of each).

Note: If you detect a subtle resentment from your server when you order the Peruvian instead of Panamanian style ceviche, consider ordering a Panamanian one as well, but only if you intend on finishing it because there’s only one thing worse then not ordering Panamanian ceviche when ordering Peruvian ceviche in Panama, and that is ordering both and not eating the Panamanian one. It occurred to us to add this clandestine advice as we have found some of the waiters to be more sensitive then others. Recall the timeless saying, “the guest of the tortoise has mushrooms for supper.”

If you don’t think the two (or three) ceviches will suffice as an ample appetizer, go for the Jalea de Pescado, or the Jalea Mixta. Disregard the English translation for this menu item, which reads “Jelly of fish”. The Jalea de Pescado is not actually a fish-based jelly, but a fairly large dish consisting of tasty corvina nuggets, lightly fried and served with abundance of fresh minced tomatoes and red onion, with a side of yucca frita or patacones.

For a main course we typically go with a few lobsters, or langosta, as it is referred to in the local dialect. Whether ordering off the menu or selecting your own in the market below and bringing it up to be cooked (see note below), lobster is always a safe way to go. Why? Because its fresh, its local, its organic, its luxurious, and you probably won’t be able to eat it a decade from now due to the rapidly declining health of the earth’s oceans. So seize the day!

When ordering lobster we try to remember to bring our own Danish butter (available at higher-end grocery stores), and a maybe few bottles of good white wine (there’s no cork fee, but bring your own bottle opener). That said, sometimes we just let the chef do his thing. His subtly daring culinary finesse never fails to leave us pleasantly astonished, with our bellies full.

For fear of offending any Crustacean purists amongst our readers it may prove a mistake to mention most mind-blowing meal we have been fortunate enough to eat at the Mercado de Mariscos: Lobster, deep-fried in coconut oil. Fritura de langosta, as it is called, and it must be special ordered. Blasphemous, you say? We say, shut up. This is the kind of thing you don’t think about, just get down there and do it!

Note: A little known fact is that you may select and purchase seafood from one of the many spirited vendors on the ground floor and then take your selection upstairs and request that it be prepared for you to eat. The fee for this service is usually nominal, ultimately depending on the quantity of seafood you buy and how you want it prepared.

Another thing to be aware of when planning to take a meal at the Mercado de Mariscos, which is this: Fast service isn’t one of its high-points, nor should it be, nor do they ever purport it to be. So prepare yourself for a half hour wait post-placing your order. Drink your beer, fool with your watercolors, or chat with your dining partner, but don’t complain because it won’t get you anything excpet maybe some day old fish instead of the fresh stuff. This is the most popular restaurant in Panama City. You are a nobody here, resign to your new temporary status of being just another proverbial fish in the sea.

So go ahead and order your food, but don’t expect it to come for a while. There’s one very hard working chef back there in a small, hot room behind the bar/cash register and he’s working long hours to take you and countless other expectant diners on a culinary odyssey. Ttry to be patient and enjoy the ride.

While on the subject, we have a loose recommendation, or coping mechanism, for anyone who wants to both eat and drink at the Mercado de Mariscos: When you first sit down, order Beer Bucket. Not a beer (singular), but a bucket of beers (plural). The bucket comes full of beer in bottles packed onto a bed of ice. Following this strategy you can finish a beer and then proceed to serve yourself the next one instead of waiting for an overworked server to perform the task for you, which can turn into a unnecessarily lengthy process.

If you do happen to run out of beer and would like to order more, be forthright with your intent. Yes, the waiters are busy, but they also have a job to do. Sometimes they neglect to attend to you as thoroughly as you might like, this is because they aren’t accustomed to receiving tips, thus no incentive to please you. They are paid Panamanian waiter’s wage, which isn’t much. So if you’d like a bit more attention go ahead and slip a twenty to your waiter when he or she is in reachable distance, catch their eye and wink, then order your bucket of beer. They’ll know what you mean and you’ll be rewarded with VIP service for the duration of your meal.

Truthfully, whenever we dine at the Mercado de Mariscos we end up so full after Pisco sours, appetizers, beer and/or wine and our usual multi-lobster main course that, lamentably, we rarely make it to dessert. But one can be sure their Crème brûlée is outstanding. Be adventuresome, try it all.

Let’s end on this note: There are a lot of restaurants in Panama City; a lot of pretentious bullshit and ulterior motives. But amidst the superficiality and money laundering schemes there are a few real jewels, Mercado de Mariscos is one of them, a traditional, honest to god, no bullshit seafood restaurant where value and ambiance are only overshadowed by quality. So leave your stilettos and fancy handbag behind for a few hours, throw on some jeans and a t-shirt and take a walk to the fish market. Let your mind, body, and spirit indulge in one of the most delightful experiences offered in this special little corner of the world.

sábado, 16 de mayo de 2009

TOMATO., 4th Street, Casco Viejo, Panama

Rotten Tomato

TOMATO is the latest in casual Casco Viejo eateries. Interestingly, TOMATO is a chain. I saw another one in Albrook Mall, of all places. TOMATO: Soups, sandwiches and salads, I think the sign said. The sign on the new Casco Viejo locale just says TOMATO, in large, red block-letters. The name simple, and somehow modern. Tomato, one thinks, fresh, simple, essential.

We tried the door. To our utter dismay it was locked. One of us motions to try the other door when we hear the first door unlock, we are ushered in.

There is no one else inside.

Not knowing whether to sit and order or order at the counter we awkwardly shuffled around while simultaneously trying to make sense of the massive chalkboard spanning the entire wall above the kitchen, cashier, counter area.

The chalkboard resembled something akin to what you would imagine a severely obsessive compulsive neon-chalk-obsessed child could produce after a rigorous drawing session on a triple-dose of Adderol. Visualize massive chalkboards, side-by-side, they are completely covered with words, every other word is written in a different color of neon chalk, there are little doodles and infantile pictures in between, around, and on top of the words. The words attempt to communicate menu items. Although it is technically possible to decipher these items, the task is overwhelming, causing one to feel as if they are going have a spontaneous epileptic seizure, like those infamous Japanese cartoons.

Realizing that the process of decoding and selecting an item from the menu might be difficult, we decide to sit down.

Embedded somewhere within the maddening cacophony of colors, I thought I saw “Sausage and red pepper” listed under a heading that said “Waffles”. Ok, I thought, that sounds odd, sausage and red pepper waffles? Maybe I’ll try it. After ordering that and a cappuccino I turned to my fellow diners, who had ordered a turkey sandwich with a cappuccino, and nothing, respectively.

Then we got to taking in the rest of the environment. I felt like I was in a miniature model room designed by a drunken primate with a deeply contradicting set of values.

One of the first things I noticed was the prominently featured, bright green, Ecological Oven, which actually said “Ecological Oven” in bold letters across the front, just begging for an inquiry. Also notable was that there were no tomatoes in sight, not even on the menu. You would have expected at least a bowl full of tomatoes on the counter, or next to the cash register, but no.

Instead of tomatoes, all along the front counter was a presentation of every imaginable mini-Kellogg’s breakfast cereal flavor, like the variety packs your family would take camping when you were young, when your mom would always remark at the sheer excess of packaging and sugar. To sort of balance out the mini-cereal box barricade, just behind it, along the left half of the back wall (below the chalkboard) there was an impressive collection of mini chip bags. Your typical to-go mini-mart junk food, loaded with trans-fats, MSG and genetically modified corn derivatives. I began to feel like I was in a gas station. I glanced around for a Slurpee machine, but didn't see one.

The open-face refrigerator (highly illogical and energy inefficient), located at the far right end of the room, was half full of beverages: there was a neat rows of private label TOMATO. bottled water; there was not one, but multiple varieties of Vitamin Water, in plastic bottles as well; and there was Snapple (also encased in plastic). There were also four or five utterly pathetic looking, limp Iceberg-lettuce salads, diminutive portions wadded into bulky (plastic) to-go containers.

And there was this heinous wall-paper, what looked like layers upon layers of totally random, irrelevant images. Like the chalkboard, the wallpaper was basically just a tasteless visual distraction, I would have much preferred to stare at a neutral colored wall or the original calicanto underneath.

Aside from the generic tomato symbol in TOMATO's logo, there wasn't a sign of real tomatoes anywhere, not even a bowl of tomatoes on the counter. There weren't even items containing tomatoes in the menu. If there had been, the tomatoes would have been of a shitty quality.

Just before our food came, one of our dining party (the one who didn’t order anything), asked the waiter, “What makes your oven ecological?” After babbling something brief and totally incomprehensible the poor man proceeded into a five-minute torrent of further nonsense, something about how the oven was ecological because you didn’t need to use chemical products to wash it when it got dirty. It didn’t make much sense to me, but maybe I missed something.

Even though the coffees we ordered were clearly “for here”, they were served to our table in “to-go” cups, complete with little foldout cardboard handles.

And now that I think about it, my sausage and red pepper waffles were served with a plastic fork. (Was the plate plastic too?) Said waffles were barely worth mentioning, but I can break it down real quick. First of all, they were mini-waffles. The two halves of each mini-waffle were sandwiched around a little dollop of minced red pepper and processed meat. There were three of these mini-waffle-sandwiches, crudely served with a somewhat ambiguous white sauce in a small plastic cup. I tried a little bit an it was pretty bad, my best bet is that it consisted of salted margarine and aerosol cheese, 50/50, whipped together and microwaved, eaten warm.

Let me just throw this prediction out there: TOMATO will not last long in its new Casco Viejo locale, unless it is a) loosing money constantly, or b) a money-laundering front, or c) both.

The advice I would give to the people behind TOMATO? (That is, if they are actually trying to create a successful business). 1) Do away with the ridiculous neon nonsense covering your chalkboard. Erase it. 2) Neatly write the menu with a white piece of chalk. Use consistent lettering, as level as manageable. Get some alphabet stencils if need be. 3) Forget the multi-colored scrawl. Keep it simple. 4) Do something about all of the packaged food in your store, i.e. get rid of it. It is simply un-cool to sell so much godforsaken plastic packaging these days. And to display it so overtly is simply retarded. 5) Put a piece of duct-tape over the place on your big toaster oven that says, “Ecological oven”. For any remotely cognizant person that is interpreted to read, “We are full of shit.”

The most interesting thing we saw or experienced during this whole extravaganza was the following sentence written in noticeable, bold letters across a section of the chalk-board: “Tendre que salir a buscar paz en otro sitio.” For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, this means, “I will have to leave and look for peace in another place.” Well yes, yes indeed. Fantastic advice. And with that we left, whether we would find peace, we did not know.

martes, 21 de abril de 2009

Manolo Caracol - Casco Viejo, Panama

Paradise Lost

We’ve heard about Manolo Caracol – renowned as the preeminent destination for fresh, local cuisine in Panama City – now it’s time to go check it out for ourselves.

We can hear the din of a full house even before entering, the place is packed. Should we have made reservations? Once inside we loiter for a brief moment between a cork filled aquarium and a rack of green criollo bananas propped against a rustic wooden box, an artful detail, both subtle and in-your-face at the same time.

Once spotted by the somewhat zaftig Maître d’ we are briskly ushered past a bustling kitchen framed by a row of ten gallon galvanized steel buckets brimming with an impressive diversity of tropical fruit. This looks like it’s the real deal; fresh, local, abundant.

Our table is situated in the very back of the overflow dining area, Beyond our table is a floor to ceiling rack of beautifully presented jars full of herbs and spices, which partially masks an odd back-office area.

We realize that ours is not the most coveted table at Manolo Caracol, but we got here late and are lucky to have been seated at all, besides, the spice rack entertains. We peruse the many jars, recognizing some of their contents, achiote, coriander, mustard seed, even a small vial of saffron, and others.

When the waiter appears he mentions something about having to get up and walk across the restaurant to look at the selection of wines, which sort of put us off, so we go with a 2003 Garmendia that was sitting on the table.

The waiter brings out the wine, two glasses, and a basket of Panamanian baguette. He then takes the opportunity to inform us that the night’s fixed menu will consist of ten dishes, 85% local seafood.

Local. Every day we become more and more conscious about the earth’s diminishing resources and the increasing frequency of environmental crises, so we support going green and local whenever possible.

The meal begins with an amuse-bouche of small clams smothered in a zesty, putanesca sauce, all cleverly presented in a smart espresso cup. The clams are fresh, the sauce fantastic. Our palates are tickled; we are giddy with anticipation for the next plate.

Just as we finish this delectable concoction, our waiter clears the plates in a flourish and sets down a much-anticipated accompaniment to our Panamanian baguette, olive oil.

We top off the wine and go for the bread, taken aback by the noticeably high-quality of the olive oil, which had a particularly smooth front body, nice grassy tones, and a pleasantly sweet finish. There was an undertone of pepper, but not, almost like a Capazzana. Intriguing.

Initially, we were pleased to find that the next dish was drowning in said olive oil, citrus and onion. Aside from the oil bath, this dish consisted of what appeared to be a dry canned tuna. We couldn’t imagine this was actually the case, given this restaurant’s general modus operandi. This could be a salt cured mahi-mahi filet, but it tasted more like Starkist then ventresca.

Give us more olive oil.

Promptly, the apparently clairvoyant chef sent out a citrusy corvina ceviche, a hybrid of the Panamanian and Peruvian styles, submerged in a rather deep pool of olive oil and mixed with thinly sliced red onions, culantro, sea salt and pepper.

The salad follows. What initially appears to be balsamic drizzled, feta and romaine turns out to be saccharine, lemon juice and tamarind paste, slathered on leaf lettuce and sprinkled with Orville Redenbachers’ Movie Theater Butter Lovers Pop-Corn. Had we realized that this was going to be our last encounter with anything resembling fresh produce for the rest of our meal, we would have at least tried to savor this ridiculous melee.

What came next quite frankly blew our palates out. At this point we were at our limit, saturated with citrus, oil, and salt, yet this dish consisted of clams, again, and the same heavy putanesca, anchovy reduction, again, only this time in mountainous quantities. It was essentially the same as the amuse-bouche, but not nearly as amusing. A mountain of clams, in their shells, piled in a bowl of the once appreciated, now dreaded, putanesca sauce. This acidy, anchovy assault left us parched, our palettes blanched.

Salt. Oil. Acid. Oil. Our waters are empty. We need some more bread. One of us mumbles something semi-coherent about loosing sensation in parts of their tongue and perhaps some skin off the roof of the mouth. An odd, unfamiliar sensation is gurgling up from the depths of both of our stomachs. At this point we are actually worried, dare we say petrified, about what will come next. We so yearn for something fresh we even consider stealing some fruit from the buckets up front. Please, let the next dish be something other than heartburn.

Out comes a heap of nutty, rubbery, over-cooked shrimp, drowning in a pool of, you guessed it, oil; achiote and coriander infused, with a touch of citrus. It is hard to imagine being able to eat tomorrow, let alone sleep tonight.

Truthfully, what happened between the shrimp plate and dessert is somewhat of blur and were it not for our notes and shaky photographs, we would not have remembered the last half of the meal. It’s all a very vague, distant trauma.

There were these fried skate-cakes, smothered in corn syrupy tamarind goo. Oil, sugar, acid, tough fish. After that came another substantial mound, coconut rice and these peculiar, deconstructed tamales. There was also a plate of mayonnaise fish, species unknown, but undoubtedly local and organic.

At this point we had both been frightened and abused into a kind of horrific delirium, listlessly mumbling to one anther, occasionally exchanging defeated glances, but mostly just looking down at the table and moving our food around with our forks.

The dessert was only memorable for one reason: it consisted of two miso-soup spoons laid on an over-sized, round, white plate. In one spoon there was a glob of what basically amounted to under-gelatinized passion-fruit JELLO. In the other spoon were small cubes of canned pineapple, saturated in corn syrup, and then there was a shortbread cookie smeared with dulce de leche.

It didn’t dawn on us until later (at the time our minds were in a food-induced coma), but after thinking about it, one gets the feeling that this might very well be some kind of a punitive joke. Is the chef discreetly, and almost artfully, punishing us?

It is important to point out that each individual dish we were served could have been good in and of itself. But in succession the quantity and homogeneity of the ingredients simply did not work. Indeed, it felt as if the same thing were being served over and over again. Towards the end, eating our meal had felt like purgatory.

When you are offered a set menu by a restaurant, it is their responsibility to design your meal. Mindful pacing, order and variety are paramount to a constructing an artful dining experience. The diner is at the complete mercy of the chef, for better or fore worse. Here we were captives being force-fed, and for most people, that is not a pleasing dining experience.

Did we get our money’s worth? Yes! Would we have been satisfied with half the amount of food? Absolutely. Would we like to have seen something basic, vegetable-based and non-acidic to neutralize the volcano of acid burn we were both experiencing in our stomachs? You betcha! Did we stagger home and wake up in the morning with massive diarrhea, and did one of us experience heartburn for the first time in her life? Affirmative.

So what’s a good note to end this on? Well, if you want to feed your family for the next week, come to Manolo Caracol and ask for your whole meal to go. Pay your twenty-five bucks. Then walk down the street to the Chino and buy a bunch vegetables. Get yourself some Rolaids. Mix the Manolo’s with the vegetables, adding generous quantities of Rolaids to taste, or until the mixture is PH neutral. Bon appétit.

martes, 14 de abril de 2009

La Comedia - Plaza Herrera, Casco Viejo

Comical Cuisine

Let it be told, La Comedia presents an intriguingly unique take on the contemporary Central American dinning experience.

With a Miami palate, modern LED lights and i-pod compatible audio equiptment, La Comedia throws a daring splash of color on to a shadowy corner of Casco Viejo's historical Plaza Herrera.

Sharply dressed waiters amble amidst disparate groups of causal clientele, who recline under suitably beige umbrellas.

One dapper waiter deftly slices at a shish-kebab rotisserie, no doubt preparing the signature house tacos for some lucky diner. I've heard rumors of these tacos.

Before we enter we are greeted by a milieu of six smiling, eager waiters who proceed to usher us through a chaotic pastiche of murals depicting popular Latin American television comedians to a table in front a small corner stage. One of our maitre'd's indicates that shortly we will behold a comedic spectacle that will take place on the stage, and that this table is considered VIP seating to view this event. We graciously decline and seat ourselves at a table a bit closer to the door.

The second in command maitre'd/head waiter, accompanied by our small fleet of busboys, adamantly assures us of the authenticity of the featured Mexican cuisine. The help aid us in getting settled, variously laying our napkins in our laps, adjusting our wine glasses, and presenting us each with a weighty hardcover menu. Impressive.

Opening the menu one is immediately struck by the realization that every item listed carries a price so severely and absurdly exaggerated that even we, seasoned foodies, are completely taken aback.

A clown pesters a nearby table, occupied by a family of truly elephantine proportions who giggle at the clown giggling, while each of them grovels and hoovers at the plates before them. This is the only other occupied table in the restaurant.

In the menu, try as I might, I cannot find the fabled tacos. There are thirty-two dollar steaks, nine-dollar salads, and a slew of other plates, all basically consisting of the same ingredients arranged differently. We order drinks and keep perusing. The fish fillet caught my eye, Panama offers great fresh fish, but it cost twenty-seven dollars and I would rather buy one tomorrow at the fish market for two (dollars).

The absurdity of it all drives us to order two of the downright cheapest items on the menu: the tacos (which, interestingly enough, were not listed but had to be clandestinely requested), and a combination dip-platter consisting of canned beans, common farm cheese (heated), and over-salted guacamole, all this garnished with a platter of elongated, oily, paper-thin corn chips.

We prod our food, attempting to polish off the farm cheese before it coagulates into rubber. The comedy show gets underway with a shriek from a squat little man dressed in lederhosen hiked up above his belly button. A second character joins the first and the goofy duo - both resembling your quintessential homely, androgynous village idiot - begin bob and hop about, dancing to a particularly obnoxious music track from an unidentifiable genre. Occasional simian squeals punctuate this performance, a kind of perverse, self-congratulatory cheerleading.

We feel insulted and violated.

Not only is the price point for this absurd endeavor twice the living wage of the average Panamanian, but to dine here is to bear witness to one of the most painfully idiotic spectacles in recent memory.

Indeed, one is hard pressed to imagine a more ridiculous scenario for a restaurant. La Comedia, indeed, a joke in all respects.