Once I found Donde José discreetly concealed behind an unmarked door in an outlying corner of Casco Viejo, I asked myself “how did this 16-seat eatery become Panama’s highest-ranked, most ambitious restaurant in just 5 months?”
Friends, I figured it out and wow! Below, I take you through the journey of Donde José and a tour of its New Panamanian Cuisine, but ultimately you will need to discover it yourself. It’s reservation-only, and you will find the details below.
After a polite hello and a simple “we are honored to have you”, the next words out of the mouth of Chef Jose Carles were:
Panama can become a culinary destination through its unique native ingredients and by supporting young chefs to innovate in the outer edges of local cuisine. Donde José is our own small effort to ignite a movement of culinary exploration, discovery and innovation in Panama.
Big words, but did the nine-course menu match up? And do they walk the talk on native ingredients and on re-imagining Panamanian cuisine as light, gourmet fare? Let’s find out”¦
The menu at Donde José changes radically every couple of months. Menu changes represent the chef’s own journey as his team discovers cool native ingredients and as their techniques mature over time. Open since January 15th of this year, the menu below is their 3rd in 5 months.
Virtually every ingredient in the menu is grown in Panama and most come not through distributors, but directly from artisan farmers known by the chef himself.
It’s critical to help small, specialty producers to bring their produce to the market both directly and by exposing them to restaurants and consumers in the city. Likewise, we have to encourage them to take more risks, to work with the almost 400 edible plants in the rain forest for example, and to do that we must have a direct and deep relationship.
While we were waiting for the first course to be ready, José explained that in the interior of Panama small grocery store owners will sometimes give a piece of candy or other small snack and this is referred to as a ñapa. He then served us freshly smoked corn tortillas with a smoked tomato paste, and told us these were our ñapas for the evening, which we could receive as often as we wanted.
One of the wonderful things about the restaurant is that the chef and his team prepare the food in front of their guests while he explains the story behind each of the key native ingredients. There is also an angled mirror that allows everyone to view the chefs preparing the food.
They Also Grow Their Own Food
One of Panama’s unique dishes is called Saos or pigs feet. At Donde José, Saos has been totally re-imagined and, while I was nervous, it was delicious. The Saos and many of their dishes are flavored and decorated with herbs and edible flowers that make for simple presentation overlaying complex, interesting flavors.
I wondered aloud: “Do you search the whole country for your ingredients?” The first answer was: “Yes, in sea food for example, we have worked with snails from the Bay of Chiriqu to fresh water muscles hand-picked from the old tree trunks of Lake Gatun. The second answer: “But we also grow ingredients at our own urban garden right here in Casco Viejo, where slowly we are experimenting with native, edible plants that are hard to find otherwise.”
And then came a traditional mamallena (Panamanian bread pudding) topped with liquid flan and the interview became to an end, while the fun continued 🙂
Donde José is unique and a must-do dining experience! Its main seating time (at 8:15pm) is booked about 5 weeks in advance, so I encourage you to identify those special occasions and start booking in advance. Also, good news: Donde José recently opened a private dining shift at 6pm for up to 6 guests. It’s the same cost as the regular dining and there is a lot more availability at this time (I just booked private dining for my parent’s upcoming visit!).
The 9-course meal at Donde José is at a set price of $57.00 for a standard table and $67.00 to sit at the Chef´s table (which I absolutely recommend). They are open Wednesday to Saturday and can accommodate up to 16 people during their 8:15pm seating and a maximum of two tables at their 6pm, private dining time.