With luxe interiors and a democratic menu, all this bistro needs now is to tie the loose ends.
If first-time restaurateurs Sohel Lalvani and Shaan Gidwani's latest offering, Café Panama – that has sprung up in place of the erstwhile Café Zoe – promises to transport you to a tropical recluse within the city, it does that rather suavely. Spindly stalks of areca palm, a giant glass roof and the sprawling space within help add to their vision of creating a space that can be described as – in their own words – tropical glam.
And if the hints of blue, white and green take care of the tropical bit, Lalvani and Gidwani have enough of South Mumbai's who's who on their speed dial frequenting the restaurant to take care of the glam part of that goal. Then, of course, there's the menu, which is decidedly brief, featuring a mix of Latin-American and European staples. Plus, a drink's menu, where the signature cocktail's segment wastes no time in catering to all and keeps it, simply, white-liquour focused with a majority of the concoctions being built on a base of gin, tequila or vodka. Pawri mood anyone?
The interiors at Cafe Panama
Café Panama boasts of a 30-foot-high ceiling and a ginormous carpet-area divided into a decked-up lobby, a central bar, a private-dining section, a lounge and a mezzanine floor. Hues of blue, white, gold and green are interspersed with woven cane lamp shades hanging overhead, velvet upholstery and cane furniture in places, alongside modern copper-tinted light fixtures, to create an ambience that is somehow confused and yet seamlessly bound together. One way or the other, it works. Add to that a cutely done up smoking lounge outside and the interiors stick.
The menu here is a single-page compilation of soups, salads, small plates, pastas and risottos, mains and desserts, offering everything from the predictable burrata to the unexpected amaranth and quinoa timbale. A per-chance glance at the menu and truth be told, you could feel thrown off – the name says, Panama, the vibe promises tropical, but the menu shoehorns Italian, French and Latin, too? That is not to say that the dishes from the menu fail to please at all, with some preparations managing to hit the sweet spot and some others, missing by a mark.The
The burrata salad
I began my meal with the burrata, which simply did not work. And instead of digging into why, I'd like to jump straight to what I liked – the yuca fries, made with a seasonal yam, are plain and simply addictive. It helps that it's nicer to my waist than regular fries, too. The pork carnitas came laden on supple-as-hell tacos, topped with flavoursome and tender shredded pork draped in a sticky-sharp glaze. I loved the flavour pairings of the Veracruz style grouper, with a sassy tomato sauce doing a lot of talking on the dish's behalf. But if I had to pick one item that pleased me through and through, it was undoubtedly the chipotle chicken wings, with a riotous and lovely ranch dressing, to boot. I enjoyed washing it down with their refreshing tequila drink – Luna, which also features cucumber, cilantro and a delicate frothiness from egg whites.
What didn't work
The menu at Café Panama, is confusing and inconsistent in equal measure, with some offerings exceeding far beyond my expectations (like, the yuca fries and chicken wings) and others, falling quite flatly on their face (burrata). The grouper main pleases the taste-buds, save for the quality of the seafood itself, which could have been fresher.
I like the look-and-feel of Café Panama, but can't claim that it knocked me off my socks. If I do return, it will be to check what the space looks like in the day under that gorgeous glass ceiling. And yes, for the yuca fries and wings, too.
Suman Quazi is a Writer, Host and the Food Editor with India Food Network and Start2Bake. She believes that while food is cultural, societal and intellectual, it is also deeply personal and is keen in contributing towards a dialogue around food in India that's meaningful. Her work has appeared in leading Indian publications like Midday, Living Foodz, Zee Zest, Deccan Chronicle, 101India and DailyO.