Monday, March 30, 2015

Wine and Food in Panama

Empty Red Wine Glasses in Panama
March 2015 – There are no wineries in Panama, but there are plenty of wines in the restaurants, bars, grocery stores and occasional liquor store. Due to its location, linking Central America to South America, it is not surprising that the majority of the wine is from Chile and Argentina. However, we also found a large selection from Spain, and a few bottles from Australia and California – primarily Yellow Tail and Gallo brands, such as Barefoot and Apothic.

A positive is that the price for wine in Panama seemed quite reasonable, and you could purchase a basic glass of white or red wine from South America in most restaurants and bars for $5 to $7. There were also some more premium selections priced at $10 - $14 per glass. The currency is the US dollar, even though Panama has its own money called the “balboa.” However since this is matched to the US dollar, the majority of establishments use the dollar, but occasionally they will give you change in balboas. Credit cards are accepted in most restaurants.

I was in Panama with friends to attend a business conference and present a research paper.  The temperatures in March average in the mid 90’s everyday, and for this reason we focused on drinking chilled white wines.  However, I did see many people drinking red wine in the evenings around the bar and at restaurants. Of course the local Panamanian beer, Balboa, was always present as well as a plethora of mojitos and other tropical cocktails.

Three Bottles of Wine in Three Restaurants

We ended up buying three bottles of wines in different restaurants over the five days we were there.  The first was an Argentinian sparkling rose called Bodega Norton Cosecha Especial for $40. We had this with sea bass in the Light House Restaurant at our hotel, the Intercontinental Playa Bonita. Both the service and the food was excellent, in a lovely setting overlooking the ocean, with white tablecloths, candlelight, and beautifully presented plates. Surprisingly the wine was not chilled though, so we had to wait about 15 minutes for it to rest in an ice bucket near our table. As I had tasted this wine previously, I was familiar with the fruity medium-bodied bubbly, which was clearly New World in style. Later I was given a tour of the restaurant’s impressive wine cellar that proudly featured Concho Y Toro’s top of the line wine, Don Melchor.

The second bottle was at The Jazz Club in the old section of Panama City. The club is located inside the American Trade Hotel, and we ended up having dinner outside in a small alley next to the club. The reason for this was because when we arrived, we discovered that Wynton Marsalis was scheduled to play there in two hours.  Since the club was small there were no tickets left to purchase, but we were told if we wanted to sit in the patio for dinner, we could still listen to him play. Obviously we jumped at the chance and ended up having an excellent dinner. This time I had local prawns served in a red sauce that reminded me a bit of a New Orleans dish. We ordered a bottle of 2013 Masi Tupengato Paslo Blanco from the Uco Valley of Argentina for $36. It was a strange blend of Pinot Grigio and Torrentes that was rather heavy on the palate and minerally in character – more like a Semillon. It lacked the floral notes we were expecting from those two varietals.

The third bottle was a 2013 Marques de Riscal Blanco from Spain for $26, that was a blend of Verdejo and Viura.  It was crisp, lemony and very refreshing – perfect for the sea bass with prawns I had on our last evening at Alberto Restaurant on the Amador
Somm at Alberto's
Causeway.  Sea bass and prawns are both local in Panama, and therefore very fresh – so I found myself ordering these dishes frequently. The restaurant smothered it in a white cream sauce however, which I wish they had not. Otherwise, the service was fine, and we especially enjoyed meeting the sommelier from the Dominican Republic who gave us a tour of their wine cellar. The only strange note was that the white wine was, once again, not chilled, and we had to wait 15 minutes to open it while it sat in an ice bucket near our table.  We wondered if perhaps the cost of chilling white wine is too expensive in Panama and this is why we encountered this situation twice.

Cuisine of Panama

Sea Bass With Plaintain & Sparkling Rose
In addition to fresh seafood, Panama has some excellent local dishes, which I had a chance to try at our hotel as well as at local restaurants and food stands.  I found the food much more interesting here than in Costa Rica, where they don’t use any spices. Panama has some spicy food, and a compelling blend of cultures that has allowed them to develop a national cuisine. From the many native tribes that still reside in Panama, to the Spanish explorers settling here in the 1500’s, and the West Indians who came to build the Panama Canal, some delicious dishes have evolved. Following are several examples:

·         Empanadas: made of pie dough and stuffed with cheese, meats, and/or vegetables.  May be baked or fried.
·         Bollos: made with corn dough and wrapped in plantain leaves.  May also be stuffed with beef.
·         Patacones – sliced green plantains that are fried as small disks; similar to potato chips.
·         Ceviche: raw fish cooked in lime juice with herbs, garlic and onion.

They also eat many dishes which are similar to those found in Mexico, such as tamales, rice, refried beans, enchiladas, and tres leches cake.  Fresh seafood and fruit is abundant, and chicken, beef, and pork are common.

Short Video Highlighting My Time in Panama

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