Iris Murdoch said it right when she said “one of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.” Every trip I take, no matter how much I budget and penny pinch along the way, I try to splurge at least once. Whether it’s one event (like scuba diving trips) or a special treat for my taste buds. For Panama, food was the big splurge- I mean let’s be honest for a minute, this meal I’m about to talk about cost more than the entire rest of my 4 day stay in Casco Viejo. Stick with me, it was worth every penny! Andrés Madrigal, a Michelin Star chef, is the owner of his self-titled restaurant Madrigal. Madrigal is labeled as a blend of Spanish and Mediterranean dishes, mixed with the chef’s personal twists. A fusion of delicious food prepared as intricate pieces of sculpted art.
Since the tasting menu comes highly recommended I asked for the option even though it wasn’t listed on the main menu. I wanted to try various dishes to see what this restaurant really had to experience.
First up was a trio of interesting openers. A classic hummus and bread paired with a warm, creamy soup that tasted like sweet potato. Third was Madrigal’s unique modified carmañola- a yuca fritter topped with sea cow. One was not enough! I was craving more, but luckily round two followed closely behind.
Following the openers was a twist on the classic ceviche. For those that don’t know, (because I didn’t until traveling in Central America) ceviche is a seafood dish popular in Latin America and the Caribbean. It’s typically make from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices and spiced with aji or chili peppers. It pairs well with side dishes such as sweet potato, corn, avocado or plantain.
This particular dish was an absolute play with my taste buds. Sea bass along the bottom was soaked in a citrus juice with a light kick. But the entire dish was covered with a passion fruit sorbet and crème giving a sweet aspect that worked well. The blending of flavors: sweet and savory, with a hint of spice, made for a very interesting dish.
The next dish is something I wouldn’t typically think of when I think of Latin American food, but I was very happy to try this version. Gyozas de cochinita were pork dumplings topped with thinly sliced onion. This plate was very greasy, but still delicious, and paired well with a soy sauce to add to the flavor. While not immediately apparent they did have an after kick of spice. Spicy foods aren’t always my favorite but these dumplings were mild enough I didn’t mind.
This recipe is featured over on Andrés Madrigal’s website. Here’s the link if you want to give it a try: http://www.andresmadrigal.com/gyozas-de-cochinita/
Now, I’m not a seafoodie. Fish is just typically not my thing. So when I found out the fourth round was listed as Sea Bass, I was a little nervous. However, after trying the cerviche I really was hoping this would be something good, and I was definitely surprised. The sea bass was nestled in a sweet tomato paste, and drizzled with a creamy sauce topped with garlic cloves. It was one of the most interesting dishes I’ve ever had, and it quickly became my favorite from the night. The fish was sweet and savory, perfectly cooked, and filling, without feeling heavy. If I was to return to Madrigal I would choose a bigger version of this as my entrée.
At this point I was ready for desert but there was one more entrée to try. Lamb tacos. I’m not a fan of lamb, for ethical reasons, but while traveling I sometimes make exceptions. This was one of them. Unfortunately, this was my least favorite dish from the entire set. The lamb rested on a soft corn taco and was topped with radish and guacamole. The taco kept falling apart, and was dry, but there was a paired sauce that helped balance that problem out. I’m honestly not sure what was in the sauce – I couldn’t even guess – but it really helped save this round for me.
I just wish I had this plate before the sea bass, rather than as my last entrée. The entire time I was thinking bring back the sea bass! But really, it wasn’t that bad, maybe just not my thing.
Luckily it was time for desert, which again left me hesitant, as it was named Lemon Pie in textures… okay? But as the dish arrived I was immediately excited to try. The center was filled with lemon crème and encased with pie crust flakes, covered in whipped ice cream and sprinkled with pieces of grapefruit and orange with pie crumbs. It was the most interesting arrangement of textures, but was wonderfully surprising and delicious.
All tables were offered a complimentary desert of a single chocolate chip cake ball and a mini brownie. Both of which were actually a terrible end to the meal on their own, until paired with a cup of coffee to finish off the night. Then they worked perfectly. I’m not sure why the complimentary item was so plain for the night. Others have commented they got to try something a tad more interesting, so maybe you’ll have better luck than me!
Madrigal comes highly recommended across Trip Advisor, Yelp, Google and blogging platforms and, in my opinion, is worth the hype. While on the more expensive side of dining options in Casco Viejo, I found the food to be adequately priced for the unique presentation and taste combinations. They’re accustomed to tourists, and tourist budgets, despite their lack of English speaking waiters. Don’t make this the only place you eat in Panama city, but it’s definitely worth stopping in for a unique fine dining experience after exploring what this historic part of the city has to offer.
Update 7.19.17: It has been brought to my attention that Madrigal has closed for now. Chef Andres Madrigal is moving onto different projects but may return in the future. I’m still publishing this article since it highlights a wonderful food experience in Panama City.
The entrance was a little difficult to find in the beginning. The sign for Madrigal is lettering on the building but the main entrance is on the side. Once entering you must walk down a hallway and turn left to get to the hostess station- which seems an odd choice to have no one greeting at the door. The ambiance was lacking, it didn’t feel like a fine dining restaurant, but don’t let that put you off from the food.
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I had a wonderful time staying in Casco Viejo if you’d like to learn more about my entire day (including video of my meal) Watch the vlog: COMING SOON!
Ceviche on Wikipedia