Pretty much since my friend Malvi moved to DC we’ve been trying to try a relatively new Panamanian restaurant, Esencias, that opened of Georgia Ave in the Park View neighborhood.
After one failed attempt, in a torrential rainstorm, we added this spot to our must do list when Matt had a rare week of training during the day.
When we walked in we were greeted with a clean and modern space, quite a contrast to the streetscape we entered from. The first level of the restaurant opened up to a wide second level that provided the bulk of the seating for the restaurant. The main dinning room was decorated in Panamanian art and photos. The tables were covered in mola (traditional Panamanian indigenous art) inspired patterns.
We were luckily we had a “guide” with us to make sure ordered the most authentic dishes on the menu. To start we ordered carmanolas and ceviche en casnasta de platano.
Carminolas are a bit like empanadas but the starch is yucca. These were stuffed with beef and served with a sweet tamarind dipping sauce. Even though they were fried, they were light and airy and we probably could have eaten three a piece. The ceviche was also good and the plantain cups added a nice crunch and balance to the salty, acidity of the fish.
Throughout this adventure we’ve found that often restaurants don’t have traditional drinks to accompany their dishes, so when we saw a few options on the menu we of course ordered some. Matt got a raspadura con naranja and I ordered a te de jamaica con jengibre. They were probably a tad too sweet for our tastes but tasty.
For our main courses we let Malvina guide us and went with two plates to share among the three of us. The first was a Panamanian Plato Tipico and the second was Bistec Picado.
The beef is slow cooked in a tomato sauce and served with white rice and fried ripe plantains. The plato tipico came with a chicken tamale and arroz con pollo (saffron rice with olives, capers, peas, carrots and chicken). Both of these items were delicious and had deep flavor that you don’t always see in dishes served in Latin American restaurants in the US. The real standout of the plato tipico was the Panamanian potato salad – the tiny dish that is overflowing with pink pictured below. The salad was sweet yet savory. Malvina informed us that this potato salad is something traditionally eaten more in the city and not the country of Panama.
Malvina also mentioned to us that Panamanians get their culinary influences from all over the world, largely in part because of all of the different cultures that came to help build the Panama canal and stayed to make it their home.
We did miss out of a few dishes that we were told were a “must try” because Esencias only prepares them on Saturdays when the owner and chef does a Sabado Frito (Saturday Fry) – which means we’ll be making a trip back in the future.
Also because it was the middle of the week, the dessert menu was small. We ordered both dishes they offered, Flan and Cocadas. Matt isn’t a big fan of caramel (or coconut) but he indulged my love and even he couldn’t stop talking about how good the cocadas were. And they were. Tiny pastry shells were topped with shredded coconut mixed with honey and spices. If it hadn’t been for all the food we just ate we probably would have ordered more.
While we finished our dessert the owner and chef came and greeted us at our table. Speaking with her about her food and her plans for making holiday treats was a great end to our Panamanian dinner. We’ll be back and we recommend you stop by as well.