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Volume 16, Number 4
April 3, 2010

culture

Also in this section:
Calypso, Leslie George and Yomira John
Chef Cuquita's creations
Sparky the Wonder Dog
Cool Internet Sites
Glimpses of Balboa's public art
Chamber music with Fernando Bustos and Lupe Avila
Poets' Corner
End of Dry Season exposition at Allegro
The pollera paintings of Julia O'Malley-Keyes


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).

I'm sure it's not so reckless and forbidden for those who pay for new Panama City condos in cash. But for the rest of us, especially those of us who are not staying at the Bristol to the tune of $360 per night, it is --- to borrow Joe Biden's preferred observation --- a big f***ing deal.

And thus one worth documenting.

Did I actually say it was a four-course meal? The menu doesn't count the fruit salad as one of the courses, but I will, since my wife and I were served our own bowls. The sweet mango, pineapple, and strawberries came with thimbles of fresh yogurt, honey, and granola. Unsurprisingly, the salad went well with the passionfruit mimosas that kept coming and coming, enough for me to tune out the generic, old-money muzak and generic, old-money furnishings of the Bristol's dining room.

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.

For 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 perdu (French toast) or eggs Benedict seemed, at first, like a concession to the spring-breaker gringos staying at the hotel. I immediately thought of the giant, English-only sign next door that advertised the site of the Bristol's new luxury condos.

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.)

When the chorizo gumbo and mesclun salad with tangerine vinaigrette arrived as our second courses, Cuquita's fusion of Panamanian and international cuisine kicked in. The pork sausages in the gumbo were not smoked, and hence would not compete with the gumbos of New Orleans. But her gumbo was not intended to. It was her own Isthmus-ized creation: a chicken sancocho in the rhythm of the bayou.


The lasagna

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.



Darrin DuFord is the author of the book Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medal winner in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards. Check his website http://www.omnivoroustraveler.com for his latest articles and recipes.


Also in this section:
Calypso, Leslie George and Yomira John
Chef Cuquita's creations
Sparky the Wonder Dog
Cool Internet Sites
Glimpses of Balboa's public art
Chamber music with Fernando Bustos and Lupe Avila
Poets' Corner
End of Dry Season exposition at Allegro
The pollera paintings of Julia O'Malley-Keyes

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