Panama Dining Room

Level 3, 231 Smith St

Fitzroy, VIC 3065

Lounge quarter.

I love having family and friends visit me. They look at my old city with fresh eyes, and by doing so, I too see everything around me in a new light. At times, I almost appear more of a tourist than my visitor! Cousin Nick arrived yesterday. I took him to Yarraville, a suburb with the charm of old village-life. We had coffee and browsed the booksellers beside Sun Theatre. I took more pictures than he did.

I picked Nick up after work today and took him to see Fitzroy’s urban nightlife. For dinner, he chose Panama Dining Room out of a selection of 5 joints I’d shortlisted from the Entertainment book. I knew nothing about the place except that we can get 25% off with our Entertainment gold card. Stingy me, lol.

Restaurant quarter.

The place had an unobtrusive entrance: a small doorway off Smith St. You walk up a narrow flight of dark stairs and at the top, face grey fire-escape doors. I almost thought we were in the wrong place or it had closed down. But we opened the doors and entered something totally different. The venue was gorgeous! It had a New York loft feel to it. Large open plan area, retro 80’s decor, and beautiful old-style arched windows with lovely views. The geeky chic waiter told us we could sit anywhere. We chose a table by the window.

 I looked past the arched windows over the sun-rubied rooftops of Fitzroy. My cousin half watches the shadowed activity on Smith St below. The music was comfortably quiet, good for conversation. I love that. The venue was half full. It was a Thursday evening. The sun was setting and its rays were framing the leaves of the trees just outside the window. Very nice.

The restaurant food wasn’t that great, It was reasonably priced though. Most mains were around $24-26.

I had pan fried snapper fillet with skin on. The flesh was a little dry and it was sitting on a hommus-like dip that did not go with the texture of the fish. The dill and fennel salad that came with it was nice though. The dressing was light, delicate and went well with the fish.

Nick had the grilled scotch fillet. I stole a nibble, it was good. Chargrilled outside, juicy and full of flavour inside. The baked potato was hard and dry though. He didn’t think much of the light and slightly mustardy horseradish butter. I thought it was okay. I would’ve blobbed it on top of the meat.

As a side dish, we had ‘chickpea chips with roasted pepper and almond sauce’. I am almost certain the chips were pan fried polenta cakes. They were too fat and not crispy. The dip tasted sour and confused. I did not like it. To be honest, the menu description made me expect thin crispy chips so we were disappointed with what arrived.

(I need to practice not looking disappointed in front of serving staff when they serve disillusioned food.)

We shared the ‘Valrhona chocolate terrine with red fruit sorbet and strawberries Romanoff’ for dessert. Lofty name, ordinary taste.

I think this place shines because of its ambience. It is a great venue to catch up with friends over drinks. Service was friendly, relaxed and attentive.

The restaurant aspires to serve imaginative European cuisine. But I think it falls short of that dream. Many of the dishes we ordered today did not live up to their elegant descriptions on the menu. The words did not match the food. Accompaniments that were meant to be edgy ended up not marrying well with the other components of the dish.

I would visit again because of the casual, relaxed atmosphere. But I would not have dinner there, just drinks and bar food. I spied the table next to us ordering a burger from the bar menu. It looked yumm!

We walked the length of Smith St and Brunswick St after dinner. Nick loved the buzz of the streets here at night. I pretended to be tour guide but, really, I secretly was as much of a tourist as he was.

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