16, Number 4
The shrimp course
A morning of Chef Cuquita's creations
story and photos by Darren DuFord
In this era of the celebrity chef, you can now do something as reckless and forbidden as spending $35 on brunch. Chef Cuquita Arias de Calvo, La Prensa columnist and past television cooking show host, offers a four-course, Sunday-morning brunch at the Bristol Hotel for curious folks who have saved up five times the average daily Panamanian wage (six times after tax and tip).
sure it's not so reckless and
forbidden for those who pay for new
And thus one worth documenting.
I actually say it was a
four-course meal? The menu doesn't count the fruit salad as one of the
but I will, since my wife and I were served our own bowls. The sweet
pineapple, and strawberries came with thimbles of fresh yogurt, honey,
granola. Unsurprisingly, the salad went well with the passionfruit
kept coming and coming, enough for me to tune out the generic,
and generic, old-money furnishings of the
And then there is the bread basket. Paper-thin, cheese-spiked lavash; moist muffins; mini-croissants. Temptation without challenge. A wounded gazelle to a lion. But only a fool would attempt to kill the whole basket. To finish this gastronomical marathon, it is best to pace yourself, since the courses are larger than those of a mere tasting menu.
a chef that has creatively used
Panamanian ingredients in recipes for La
Prensa such as banana
escabeche and corvina in pixbae sauce,
Cuquita's first-course offerings of either straight-up pain
(French toast) or eggs Benedict seemed, at first, like a concession to
spring-breaker gringos staying at the hotel. I immediately thought of
giant, English-only sign next door that advertised the site of the
But I noticed that most of the patrons having brunch were Panamanians, for whom an English muffin under the eggs Benedict may well be considered exotic. (A few blocks away at Market, burgers are served on English muffins as well. Perhaps the English muffin is to well-heeled Panamanians what açai is to trendy Americans: the latest in foreign food fashion.)
the chorizo gumbo and mesclun salad with tangerine vinaigrette arrived
second courses, Cuquita's fusion of Panamanian and international
in. The pork sausages in the gumbo were not smoked, and hence would not
with the gumbos of
Cuquita's brunch achieved what few brunches do in the States: a smooth transition from breakfast to lunch in one sitting, instead of representing one or the other. While she was on a roll, she must have figured, “Why stop there?” The next course --- prawns stuffed with cassava and the Portobello mushroom lasagna with béchamel sauce --- completed a transition from breakfast to lunch to dinner, without us having to leave our chairs. Bonus points were accrued for the lasagna's broiler-browned cheese and perimeter of crispy pasta, courtesy of a chef who is not afraid of a little texture. Our inner gluttons barely had enough steam left to attack the strawberry shortcake with tangy mango sorbet.
After we left, it would have been easy to think of how lighter my wallet had become. But, as we walked out into the daylight of Avenida Aquilino, I reflected that each of us just had three well-executed --- albeit back-to-back --- meals for $35, which included several rounds of passionfruit mimosas. The said libation, Cuquita's simplest creation, may well become her most famous.
DuFord is the author of the book Is
There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in
2010 by Eric Jackson
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