Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Panama Dining Room and Bar

(degusted 7th July, 2011)

Overall I was impressed with the food quality, also from the service from the waitress. There are lots of good cheeses available here, both in the cooked dishes and also available as menu items in their own right.
A nice mix of old, character-filled
furnishings added to the atmosphere.

Panama sounded good from the few reviews (and menu) that I had read before going – in particular the atmosphere - there was talk of an upstairs warehouse style space with huge windows and lovely views. With heightened expectations, we managed to find this restaurant and bar after entering through a small doorway off Smith Street and up two flights of eerily dodgy and deserted looking stairs. Pushing through the doors at the top of the stairs and turning left to see the bar area, this place really is impressive. The huge arched windows give views out to the city on one side, and down to Smith street and the Dandenongs in the far distance.
We were seated in the restaurant and told that the kitchen did not open until 6pm – fair enough – we were there at 5:45, so enough time to read the menu and enjoy an aperitif or two.

Perfect for waiting for the kitchen to open..

Skipping the mains tonight.
This whole night out was based around getting into Cafe Rosamond's Thursday night dessert degustation (see our other post for this one), which meant that we were here at Panama as a token effort to at least have some savory for the evening. So instead of filling up too much on mains, we wanted to degust a number of dishes and looked to the list of starters and entrees as the source of these.

I had a short-list of things I wanted to try before I had even walked in, but the waitress advised of the specials and one was too good to pass up – the marinated goat in pastry.

The gruyere cheese puffs were pretty average to look at- but at 5 bucks for a serve of 2, you don’t expect anything too flash, nor should you judge a book by its cover. The humble looking, but crispy shell of these fritters yielded easily to the challenge with fork, revealing a gooey, custard-like interior of molten gruyere; around 3 mouthfuls of golden delight. Wow, this was a really mild cheese flavour, more emphasis I should place on the silky, even fluffy, texture of this fritter's filling. My cholesterol-conscious doctor would hate to hear me say it, but I would happily order these again (and recommend others to give them a try).  The salty cod and mashed potato croquettes were nice, with quite a mild flavour (certainly no fishy smell); these would make excellent canapes or an ideal beer drinking accompaniment.   

Cod croquettes, and only half captured to the left are the Gruyere fritters.

Stuffed Zucchini Flowers - very cheesy flavour,
broken up well by the candied walnuts.
The zucchini flowers were stuffed with a 3-cheese mixture of ricotta, parmesan and gorganzola. Accompanied by a walnut salad (where the walnuts were incorporated into a nice salty caramel), the strong cheese flavour - which for me was a little intense for my liking- was balanced out by that sweet and salty caramel. The walnut crunch gave a good textural element. A well thought out dish, and cheese lovers would probably enjoy it much more than I did.

The “special” entrée de jour was the braised.goat in pastry, with a smoked tomato puree. The goat was very tender, easily pulled apart and melting in the mouth. That smoky puree was amazing- really intense smoke flavour but not so strong as to taste burnt- so good it elicited dual "oh wow!"s from the degusters. Awesome, I could eat these all day long... Yummm.
(They could even be the best re-interpretation of the humble pie and sauce, if panama were to market it and keep it on the menu.. although if it were a pie I think it could do with a little more gravy or moisture in the filling.).
 Although not on the permanent menu it does give some idea of the quality of the kitchen output, and for me, it was the winner.
The Braised goat in pastry. An amazing smoked tomato puree.. What a dish!!

Beetroot Tart - was overwhelmingly more a Sheeps cheese tart.
My next item that I had been really looking forward to tasting was the Baby beetroot tart with sheep's cheese, cumquat and pistachio crumble. In my mind's eye I had imagined a rustic, mainly beetroot-filled tart, however the actual dish was more fancy looking (and I think it photographed quite well).. When we cut into the tart it became apparent that the beetroot was playing second-fiddle to the cheese, which oozed – molten lava style - out of the cut tart. The tart was overwhelmingly dominated by the flavour of the sheep's cheese – which for me was too strong, but for others who love a good smelly cheese* this may be an absolute delight. The sweetness of the beetroot and the cumquat helped to cut through the cheese flavour, and made it tolerable. I thought the tart base was a bit too crumbly for my liking, too. Overall, if you love a strongly flavoured cheese, you could give this a go, but I would not have it again.

The two final dishes were a bit more substantial (considering they were in fact entrees). The quail 'cigars' had some beautifully cooked and tasty pieces of quail (watch out for remaining bones – we were warned by the waitress and found one small leg bone). I really loved the Mt Vikos feta cube that was wrapped in a vine leaf. When taking a little bit of everything on the plate into a single mouthful – the quail cigar, fig, and feta – all combined to give a really nice flavour balance and mouth feel. Very enjoyable.
Quail Cigars, with feta and macerated figs.

In terms of presentation on the plate, you've gotta love the look of this dish of King prawns.
The prawns were marinated in chermoula (a lovely marinade made up of a mixture of various herbs and spices, including cumin, tumeric, paprika and others - a neat recipe is here on Poh's Kitchen). The prawns came served with “caviar lentils” - I can only define them as being slightly seafood flavoured lentils that look like caviar from a distance (but their flavour and texture could never compare to the actual item). That said, I prefer the texture of the lentils as used in this dish. Again, when mixing all elements together - especially with the smoked yoghurt dressing – this whole dish gave some really good flavours and textures. 

Chermoula-marinated King Prawns with "caviar" lentils. The Smoked yoghurt was delicious.

Overall: I was impressed with the food quality, also from the service from the waitress (who was amused by our photography of, and lots of questions about, the food – she even bode farewell to us referring to us as the 'documentarians'). There are lots of good cheeses available here, both in the cooked dishes and also available as menu items in their own right – for me I can take it or leave it but for others this would be a major positive selling point.

Planning a party? This place might be a really cool venue – good potential from the kitchen, and a great space with great views to keep you connected to the real world passing by outside.

* jovially, how do some people enjoy cheese that tastes like dirty socks?... Oh well, each to their own.

Rating:  Nom(x3)  (especially if you like cheese)

Meh                      It’ll Do                   Nom(x3)                              Must go back!

Done and Degusted @ Panama Dining Room and Bar
Gruyere cheese fritters
Salt Cod and potato croquettes
Cheese-stuffed zucchini flowers
Goat in Pasty (special item)
Beetroot and sheep cheese tart
Quail cigars with feta and macerated fig.
King prawns with smoked yoghurt

..& great, friendly service.

I had the Napoleone & Co Pear Cider - Very nice, and worth it's own review (Check it out!)

Panama Dining Room and Bar on Urbanspoon


  1. yay! Glad you enjoyed the cider! Also those prawns look epic!

  2. It was a really nice drop, which we've since ordered more of at other degustations - Keep up the good work, Napoleone Cider!