LA CHESA: A Surprising Mix of High End Taste, Authenticity and Sustainability in the Heart of Central America

When you go to a place with no expectations whatsoever, it is amazing how much capacity it has to amaze you. This is exactly what happened to me last week when my boyfriend and I descended on Panama City on a short break. We were joining his parents on a 60th Birthday celebration vacation, so all the planning was done by them, allowing us, for once, to simply tag along.

I wonder what you will be thinking right now when I say “Panama City”, assuming you have not been there before: what images will be conjured up in your mind from various pieces of background information you may hold about it?

I held very little apart from rudimentary knowledge of its geographical positioning and some history and politics of the building of the Panama Canal.

So, as someone who has lived in Central America – between Guatemala and Nicaragua – for the past year, I expected to see much of the region’s same: besides a modern business district, a patchily developed city with hectic concrete backstreets and coarse building signage broken up only by occasional European-feeling colonial façades and plazas. Perhaps evidence of the start of a Western coffee culture with barista chains and local cafés dotting a low rise city-landscape and the invariable invasion of the world’s best known fast food chains intermingled with local restaurants trying their best, but perhaps not quite hitting the mark on taste or presentation.

How wrong I was. Panama City looks more like a post-modern, sleek, futuristic playground for businessmen and up-market holidaymakers, at least in the newer centre that is. Amazing architecture, golf courses and designer shopping malls aside, however, nothing surprised us more than the food on offer. Yes, the glowing Golden Arches and Hard Rock style neon guitar are ever present, but it was the culinary delights of local, boutique eateries that really made an impression. None quite so much so as La Chesa, a Northern Italian style restaurant nested in the heart of the glossy city.

Set in a gorgeous converted house, the atmosphere is one of stately grandeur, but with a toned down homeliness inviting you to share an authentic experience. The three rooms seating 46 are beset in low lighting and tasteful decoration. The restaurant is one of four belonging to the Panamanian Henesy-Rodrigues Group.

To get your taste buds tingling, the centre of the left-most room is adorned with a giant 2009 Parmigiano cheese wheel, pieces of which find their way to your table almost immediately at the hand of one of the highly professional and attentive local staff. Meanwhile, the room is teased with waves of cooking smells coming from the open kitchen slightly upstairs to the back of the house.

The set-price four course menu is simply delightful. The antipasto misto starter changes daily and is designed to be delicate yet decadent and so authentic you feel practically airlifted to Tuscany. Should you have intolerances or be vegetarian the staff will do everything in their power to oblige. The complimentary glass of Prosecco that is included, the only restaurant we found to be serving the fizzy delightfulness at all, let alone three varieties of it, leaves you wanting and ordering more.

The starter plates are a choice of a dozen or so pasta and risotto dishes. The Risotto Nero has already gained some notoriety among the restaurant’s patrons, but the gentlemen folk of our group tried the Italian Sausage Cavatelli and the Mushroom Risotto, whilst the ladies’ whims were gladly catered to as we requested entirely off menu vegetarian salads.

All of the plates were beautifully presented and the dainty appearance of modest size was blown out of the water with a fullness of flavour that packed a punch. The Risotto di Funghi Selvatici in particular delivered a surprising hit of truffle that lingered on the pallet, reminding you of the freshness and authenticity of the ingredients used.

The main courses were equally memorable and the table was treated to four full home-made desserts: rich peach and ricotta cheesecake with strawberry coulis; peach marmalade and vanilla tuile; chocolate casserole with vanilla cream and sugar cookies; velvety pistachio semi freddo with strawberry coulis and fresh blueberries and, of course, a classic tiramisu. The latter was perhaps the less tasty of the lot, being somewhat disappointingly bland, but the others, although not quite as refined as the savoury dishes, served a perfect ending to a meal that in fact came much closer to fine dining than the flagship fine-dining restaurant of the group, La Posta, which we frequented for the 60th birthday celebration two days earlier.

The next thing to leave your jaw dropping is the price. At $35 a head this meal was simply incredible. This style of cooking and hospitality in a place like Panama City reminds you that authentic, delicious, pure food can be found in the most unexpected of places. A little taste of Italy away from home.

Yet even this is not all there is. The group’s aim is to be the best of higher end dining in Latin America and they boast to want to do so sustainably. According to their website, they seek the best available ingredients in Panama and serve organic vegetables and certified humane chickens from their joint venture Biogranjas farm in the Coclé province, whilst setting off all carbon emissions through the Futuro Forestal – a reforestation program jointly ran by Yale’s and Smithsonian’s tropical research institutes.

Going further still, the restaurants and the parent group serve as ambassadors of “good, clean, and fair food” to the entire country in their role as one of the initial partners of the Slow Food Movement in Panama.

This is more than just authentic, delicious, memorable gastronomy. It is a social and a political statement, a sure way for the aware and the conscious diner at home to stick to his moral sentiments abroad.

INGREDIENTI

Serves 4

Arborio rice. 1/2 lb
Butter. 5 tbs.
White wine. 1 Cup.
Minced onion. 1/2 cup.
Chicken stock. 6 cups.
Parmegiano reggiano. 1 cup
Portobello mushrooms. 1/2 lb
Dried or Fresh Porcinis 4 onz.
Bottom mushrooms. 1/2 lb
Cremini mushrooms. 1/2 lb
Truffle oil. 2 tbs.
Hole Garlic cloves. 3
Thyme. 4 sprigs.
Sage. 1 1/2 tbs.
Italian parsley. 2 tbs.
Salt & Pepper to taste
1

First clean the mushrooms with a damp cloth and quarter the bottom and cremini mushrooms. Cut the portobelo into 1/2 inch cubes. Rehydrate the dried porcini mushrooms in a bowl of water a few hours in advance and then cut into cubes.

2

In a frying pan add the oil and brown the mushrooms except the porcini. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add whole garlic cloves, thyme sprigs and butter and cook for an additional 30 seconds. Take the mushrooms off the heat and set aside. Take out the garlic cloves and the thyme sprigs as these are used just to add flavour.

3

For the risotto, in a saucepan add olive oil and onions and cook in low heat until the onions are translucent but not colored. Add the rice and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Then, add the white wine and let it reduce completely. Add your chicken stock one to two ladles at a time and wait until the liquid is almost evaporated.

4

Repeat this procedure until rice is cooked but still al dente (about 22 minutes) then add the cooked mushrooms, more butter and parmesan cheese. Stir well to combine all ingredients.

5

Just before serving add sage, Italian parsley and a few drops of truffle oil. Stir one more time, divide the risotto into four plates and serve with a generous sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. Enjoy!