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    Restaurant Review ~ Esencias Panameñas / 3322 Georgia Ave., NW

    Exotic Eats. DC’s uptown Park View neighborhood a year ago welcomed one of the most unusual cuisines in the Mid-Atlantic: Panamanian food, thanks to the energy and culinary skills of native Panamanian Yadira Stamp. Because Esencias Panameñas is so unique, Stamp often welcomes fellow Panamanians and others who travel from Philadelphia — to say nothing of just coming in from the suburbs. Stamp explains she selected this location on Georgia Avenue because it is Metro accessible and an easy find from Baltimore and Richmond, to say nothing of the daily foot traffic of locals striding by.

    [Ed. note:  To learn about Park View, see “Park View Neighborhood Sizzles; Residents Enjoy Georgia Avenue’s New Eateries and Other Amenities,” InTowner April 2016 issue, page 1. Our reporter included nearly 9 column inches about this restaurant, starting with the last paragraph in column 4 on page 5.]

    Small and sparkling clean, this tiny restaurant offers a two-level dining space, an overhead TV that scrolls through Panamanian vistas, and a distinctive name garnered from the traditional native herb, culantro (not cilantro). As the chef explains, this plant adds a distinctive flavor to many of the country’s dishes, though Westerners may confuse that with the more common cilantro. The two are not the same.

    As you pull up your chair — maybe facing the TV so you can watch Panama stretch out before your eyes — your first task is to settle on a beverage. Choices range from traditional Panamanian teas and coffees to the popular drinks made with fruit juices and cane sugar. An extra exotic drink is the one with a hibiscus flower infused with fresh ginger.

    Now the main parts of the menu beckon. Up first are the appetizer carimanolas, or ground yuca shaped into a patty and stuffed with ground meat or soy crumbles, which is ground yuca with ground meat (beef, turkey, or soy crumbles) stuffed inside. Alongside that are the “must eat” green plantains stuffed with ceviche and cooked in lime juice. By this time in your meal you know you have stumbled across a completely exotic cuisine with no local counterparts, not even Mexican or Salvadoran.

    At lunchtime, the menu is much curtailed with only a few entrée choices, the most typical of which, explained Stamp, is the arroz con pollo — this may sound like the typical Mexican main dish, but instead the Panamanian version contains olives, capers, and fried sweet plantains plus chicken.

    For a fuller Panamanian experience, you might want to plan on a dinner entrée, the most comprehensive of which for newcomers is the Plato Tipico. The restaurant’s signature dish, the plato pairs components of the arroz con pollo with beets, ground corn, chicken tamal, and potato salad. There is a vegetarian entrée, but other meat-based dishes include Panama’s Corivna fish served with garlic and boiled yuca, a whole red snapped in escobeche sauce of coconut, pigeon peas, and rice.

    But however much you wish to overindulge, save some appetite for the unique desserts. How to choose? House-made ice cream with grapenuts, rum raisin, fresh ginger, mango and soursop, or the totally delicious pair of turnovers stuffed with sweet plantains, and known as plantità. Those of us who love food, have traveled to Panama, or are Panamanian should be grateful that chef Stamp has lived out her life’s dream with this unique restaurant.

    Esencias Panameñas / lunch and dinner Wed.-Mon. 202-688-7250; www.esenciaspanamenas.com.

     

     

     

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    Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Click here to visit her website.