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David Henesy is the smartest restaurateur I know in Panama, look and I have no idea who would rank second. The dumbest consigliere in David’s management circle is still smarter (by himself) than all the employees at Crepes & Waffles, troche Niko’s and Café Pomodoro’s restaurant syndicates combined. Expert foreigners in Panama make everything a little unfair.
The servers at Elephant Grill are almost robotically well-trained.
Panama was predisposed to love David’s newest restaurant, Elephant Grill, before it even opened and I totally understand why. First, it’s a new territory in his evolving restaurant empire alongside the likes of La Posta, Market, and La Chesa, which is to say, it would be more surprising if Elephant Grill was bad than if it was good. Second, Panama City has a severe shortage of Asian food, which is to say, any kind of Pan-Asian cuisine is usually better than nothing. Lastly, Elephant Grill is located on a prime corner on Calle Uruguay (which Panamanians like) and offers valet parking (which Panamanians love).
We arrived 30 minutes before our scheduled reservation and were seated without hesitation. The décor inside Elephant Grill is dim and Indian. There are some kind of Asian characters on the wall, the furniture has a decidedly organic feel, and an idle dimsum pushcart gets me kind of excited to try somewhere other than the Golden Unicorn.
The menu items at Elephant Grill are conveniently categorized by the vehicular modes on which they will enter your mouth: finger foods, chopstick foods…etc. The prices range from $4 appetizers to $30 entrees and the waiter-recommended cocktail, a leechee martini, was $7. It was pink. It was girly. And it was embarassingly delicious.
David and his wife are sitting next to me drinking wine, entertaining different appetizers and picking at entrees as each arrives with their fingers. Every now and then, David makes explosive, demonstrative hand gestures as if he’s conducting a band of soldiers. Without looking up from the table, one arm in the air means, someone come here I need something pronto. Both hands swirling in the air means we’re done, please remove all our plates now. But when I try these signals a few minutes later myself and they don’t work, my girlfriend tells me to stop being an idiot.
We started with corvina and spinach dumplings, which come four to a serving ($10). They were seared on one side (light and fluffy on the other) and served with a light dipping sauce. They were delicious (but should have been $6). We also snacked on great edamame (soy bean pods) doused in a spicy pork sauce ($5). Wooden chopsticks aplenty grace the tabletop and a small side stool is useful for bags and bottles of wine.
Simply by existing on the night of my dinner, Elephant Grill represents at least four signature hallmarks of David Henesy’s savant-like success in Panama City:
I am including the following anecdote for two reasons, neither of which is, “because it will affect your dining experience.” I was seated under some sort of air conditioning unit that haphazardly released droplets onto my head throughout the course of dinner. In retrospect, this was probably the only unamazing thing I could possibly say about the restaurant. It was the only flaw that exhibited the restaurants mortality. But I kind of liked it because it reminded me of an authentic meal on the streets of Thailand.
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