Gourmet Panamanian fare with a warm attitude finds a home in Casco Viejo. Open for dinner, Manolo Caracol serves a prix-fixe 12-course meal that combines wholesome flavors in harmonious succession. A favorite among the locals, reservations often need to be placed at least a week in advance. But it’s worth the wait, as guests will find themselves feasting their eyes in addition to their palates: cultural décor lining the walls tells you that if Grandma were Panamanian, her comfy kitchen would be a lot like this one.
We had the pleasure of checking the place out in the afternoon during the prep cooking. Executive Chef Dany, an electric character with long black hair and eyes that nearly popped through his thick glasses, was happy to show us around. He spoke in rapid Spanish, shouting intermittently and giving people hugs just to change up the pace. Take a man this animated and put him in his element with food, knives, and fire… you’re gonna get one heck of a product.
Manolo Caracol has a personal relationship with many of the farmers who grow its produce and supply its meat, with chefs going out to hand-pick the ingredients they use. We got to film in their small kitchen, where Dany walked us through several of their organic dishes. Fresh-caught langoustines — or large shrimp — cut and de-veined, goat cheese going into hand-picked peppers, and Jamaica flowers boiling in a dark pot excited us that much more about tasting the upcoming novel creations.
As a food writer I’m accustomed to working with chefs on a regular basis, but this was my first time previewing a kitchen on film. And because we wanted to disturb the sous-chefs as little as possible, we didn’t have time for more than 1-2 takes per scene. Dany would speak, we would get his words translated, and I’d plan the message as much as I could in the two seconds it took to turn the camera on. Dany had never been filmed before and showed humorous confusion as we walked about the kitchen. A lot of on-the-fly thinking for this first restaurant shoot, but an informative experience with a delicious follow-up that night.
Now, time for dinner.
Large jars of exotic spices line floor-to-ceiling shelves along the walls, as do pictures of religious saints and pop culture ‘heroes.’ The restaurant puts these characters on opposite ends, claiming ‘they just don’t get along.’ We took our seats at a window-side table that looked onto the tranquil plaza. At 6:30 p.m. we were the first to arrive, but we sipped a fine Spanish Garmendia and watched the 15 or so wooden tables gradually fill to form a pleasant bustle in the air.
The meal began with light tastes. Fresh-baked bread paved the way for snapper ceviche with grapefruit, mango, and mint. A classic starter, though its creative additions delivered smooth undertones to its strong flavor. The seafood continued with seared tuna caught just 6 miles from Isla Palenque, finished with a sesame crust and served over chopped pepper salsa for a zesty compliment. Rice paper-wrapped spring rolls followed, filled with fresh lettuce and a powerful passion fruit dipping sauce.
It escalated from there. The langoustines we saw being prepared earlier came out in marvelous fashion, wrapped in filo dough and a fresh jalapeno sauce for bold character and dreamy composition. Roasted scallops after that, and then another highlight we saw from the beginning: Manolo’s tamales. Free-range chicken and pixbae, a Panamanian fruit with hearty taste that resembles butternut squash, cooks in a banana leaf with and finishes with a drizzle of Venezuelan chocolate mole. Earthy body with a touch of Southern comfort; this is what Latin food is all about.
Chili peppers stuffed with goat cheese and a zucchini-eggplant mixture made a light bridge, and grilled Dorado fish in a Panamanian curry escalated the meal back up. Black risotto followed, boasting locally grown arborio rice in a dark cream sauce with mixed seafood. The entrees ended with a tender braised short rib, enhanced with a tomato creole base. And for dessert, hot crepes with Jamaica flower jelly and mousse from mamey, a Latin flower that produces a light, heavenly finish that lasts long after the last bite.
12 small plates and an array of cultural tastes. From natural ingredients to its welcoming vibe, those looking for fine indulgence in historic Casco Viejo will find this venture to be solamente excelente.