A flurry of flashbacks and neotropical dreams. A soundtrack of food, drinks, music and colour. Panama Social is where you’ve gone and where you’re going – through Central America and back again. A mish-mash of tropical food and poolside cocktails, all in a new twisted world on William Street.
Welcome to Panama Social, the latest offering from the team behind Tiny’s and Mary Street Bakery. It opened in the last week of December, and true to form I was there on the opening night with my girl gang (missing a couple people) and their partners. Needless to say, we were ready to eat!
We’d booked ahead and were seated in one of the booths, which are actually perfect for a group. There’s lots to look at as you make your way through the restaurant (plants, decor, bright colours and more), as well as the booth itself which has a mirrored ceiling and photos and prints galore.
Tackling drinks first is always the best way to start any meal and we were pleasantly surprised when we spied a particular one on the beverage listing. Remember Midori Illusion shakers? Well Panama Social has brought them back (these ones taste way better thankfully) a la circa Metro City 2004 (when I used to work there!) at only $20.
I went a different route (though I was all too happy to have a shot of the shaker) – opting for the chupa cobbler ($15.00) which is a cocktail with Bacardi, fino, sour nectarine, strawberry and almond. This is my kinda drink and one I will definitely order again!
Other drinks we enjoyed throughout the night were the La Violetta Spunk Nat rose 2018 ($48.00 for a bottle – not going to lie we may have had three), Wolf Willows Pacific Sour ($24.00 for a jug), Stranger in a Strange place cocktails ($18.00 – coconut washed whisky, rosso and spiced cane) and Cyanide & Happiness cocktails ($18.00 – dark rum, montenegro, chestnut and fluffy apple).
The drinks list is very well curated, and there wasn’t something we tried that we didn’t love.
The food menu is designed to share, made up predominantly with small plates but a few bigger ones to supplement too. We ordered two of each of the smalls (and an extra two of the chicken ribs after we demolished the first set) between the seven of us.
The dishes we ordered came out as ready, starting with the buttifara ($12.00), which was pork collar, ashiote and salsa criolla. It came out to the table thinly sliced and cold, so it’s almost like a charcuterie board. I couldn’t eat the salsa as capsicum really upsets my stomach, but the meat was lovely and fatty, melting in my mouth.
This was followed by one of my favourites for the evening, the pao de queijo ($7.00). These fried cheese donuts are just ridiculous. There’s no other way to describe them but ree-dick-you-loussss. I will be ordering a whole plate of these on my next visit.
The octopus and black bean empanadas ($14.00) with fennel mayonnaise were a really interesting choice. Flavourful, textural and utterly morish. These were one of Jeremy’s dishes of the night – and we all agreed that the mayonnaise was so addictive!
By an absolute landslide, the favourite dish for everyone that night was the chicken ribs with jerk bbq sauce and crema fresca ($16.00). Like I said before, we ended up having four plates of these, they were THAT good. The sauce was punchy and had a real kick to it, cooled down by the cream sauce drizzled over the top. I love the way they’d been fried – the outside was so crunchy and the inside super juicy.
These can only be described as the food equivalent to crack.
Next up was a much lighter dish of ceviche ($18.00), made up of market fish, pineapple vinegar, choke and coconut. This was really summery and fresh, and technically tasty, but after the chicken it was hard to think of much else!
We finished up the small plates side of things with the fry bake ($17.00) – described as beef tartare, onions and crispy anchovies. I am obsessed with beef tartare so I was really excited for this, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s like a bouji ass cheeseburger! The fry bread is slathered in the beef, onions and anchovies making a very tasty bite. I did find the bread to filling ratio slightly off, and would have liked a creamy element, but the flavours here were really very good.
After enjoying the smaller plates we moved on to some bigger ones like the beef brisket with pineapple, tamarind and cumin ($34.00) and the Caribbean green curry ($32.00) with fresh seafood and white pilaf.
On the side we also opted for rice and beans ($9.00) and roti ($3.00).
The brisket was a contentious dish between Jeremy and I when we chatted about the meal afterwards. I loved the flavours and pineapple, but thought the beef wasn’t as tender as I’d have liked. It was a little dry. However Jeremy thought it was excellent, and liked it a lot. Goes to show that personal tastes really can vary!
The curry on the other hand I really liked. There were prawns and scallops and fish inside, making it quite a generous bowl of goodness. The pilaf and roti worked well with the curry sauce, the latter in particular impressing significantly with its flakiness and taste. The rice and beans were also a good choice, and to be honest I’d happily eat this on its own without the bigger dishes – it tasted yum.
Feeling like we needed a couple extra dishes (we totally didn’t, we’re just greedy) we added on a single serve each of the potato salad ($12.00) which had olives, yellow capsicum, egg and ricotta, and the tomato & mango salad ($11.00) with mint and pineapple vinegar.
I didn’t try the potato salad because of the sauce, though I have to say the presentation wasn’t particularly appetising. The group agreed this was the weakest dish of the night, and surprisingly cold though it looked as though it should be warmed through.
The tomato & mango salad was a different story: fresh and zingy. It was refreshing and light, with a nice modern presentation.
We finished off our meal with two servings of each of the desserts on the menu.
The creme caramel ($8.00) with piloncillo and ginger was the standout for me. Yes, slightly too firm in texture, it had silkiness still and a resounding caramel quality. But it was actually that ginger crumb that did it for me – there was so much of it and I was all too happy spooning mouthful after mouthful of it.
We all agreed that the coconut ice-cream ($5.00) was a real treat, thanks to the hidden lump of dulce de leche inside that gave it a very unique twist. Shame that by the time it hit our table the ice-cream was pretty melted, but regardless we ate it happily anyway.
The final dessert we tried was the cardamon alfajor with chocolate and guava ($13.00). While this was the most visual of the lot, it was my least favourite. The cardamon was so overwhelming and dominant that I found it hard to enjoy the dish – and for the most part the rest of the table agreed. The principle was definitely on the right tracks, it just didn’t quite hit the highs of the other dishes for me in execution. But each to their own!
As mentioned at the start of this post, we visited Panama Social for it’s first ever open to the public dinner service. And I was very impressed. I’m excited to see this joint find its straps even more so with time, and for dishes to continue to be refined and enhanced beyond what they’re already doing. But if I base my thoughts on this original visit alone, I left pretty much in love. The service, the drinks, the food and the vibe – all big fat ticks from this happy diner here.