Casco Viejo restaurant Donde José has helped redefine Panama City’s culinary scene since opening in 2014 with just 16 seats and two seatings a night, the tasting menu only restaurant is perhaps the most difficult table to land in the city. Headed by José Olmedo Carles, the restaurant is in continual search for new ingredients in one of the countries with richest biodiversity in the Americas. This year Carles opened a food lab, called Artesano, where he can experiment with foraged fruits and plants found by his team around the country.
“Little by little I am finding things that people say are impossible to find in this warm climate, but I keep finding them. It’s all here.” he says. He thinks it might have something to do with how the isthmus of Panama was formed.
“You know something I touched with my own hands than I keep being told can never grow in this water? gooseneck barnacles. They exist here,” he said.
Artesano, which takes up a three level building in Casco Viejo near the restaurant Madrigal, is where Carles can play with the ingredients he and his team is finding, like tiny mollusks that curl like armadillos and native tubers that he can extract tapioca like pearls from. The first floor is home to a test kitchen and, eventually, a 10-seat fonda-style lunch counter, tentatively named La Fondita, that will serve three or four simple, affordable dishes that change everyday based on what’s in season. The second floor is home to a production kitchen, while the third floor is being used for fermentation and they’re already experimenting with beer and kombucha.
The menus at Donde José change completely every few months, though during those periods there are regularly rotations based on what is available at that moment.
“For a while now our menu has been a mix of new things we work on in the food lab and new versions of things we’ve done in the past. It’s more interactive,” he said. “There are a lot of small changes all of the time, big changes once in a while.”
1. Smoked corn tortilla with smoked tomato sauce.
2. Ñamffle and its sides (“A waffle made 100% with ñampí, jobo syrup, and homemade spicy yogurt with basil from our garden”).
3. Smoked sancocho (“only the broth, served in my grandma’s tea cups”). Photo by Tarina Rodriguez.
4. Truffled saus, chirican bean sauce, crackling.
5. Where is the Milk? “A tribute to product, producer, and tradition. Crispy milk shell made with a milk from my cousin George’s farm in Penonomé. On the inside a purée of garlic and the same milk. To finish a tartar flavor like tasajo. Completly raw but with the taste of the cooked product.”
6. A Chinese-Panamanian thing. “More than a tribute to Chinese influence, our representation of the big Chinese-Panamanian community. A steam bun stuffed with corn tamal and a crust of caramelized onions in roast chicken fat and crispy plantains. Chicken soy sauce to go with it.”
7. Avocado toast. “A local version of the global dish. A base of yuca chicharrón, avocado, and pixbae two ways.”
8. P.C. “Arroz, Poroto y Carne. Rice, beans, and meat. The everyday Panamanian meal. Grilled Darién langoustine, red rice burnt cake, and black bean/bone marrow sauce.”
9. Left: It’s not what it looks like. “Our version of an apple crumble with chayote instead of the apple. Banana Crumble, smoked whipped cream, and Hibicus powder.” Right: “A tribute to the land that gives us everything” with raspao of local berries.
10. The Drowned. “A tribute to Panama’s Italian influence. Our version of affogato. In this case, citrus yogurt sorbet, homemade coco krispies cereal, okra seeds, and coffee bubbles.”
Avenida Central at Calle 11
Panama City, Panama