Panama

The Great Meals: Dinner at Coconut Lodge

Written by Mark McElroy

Despite how often we eat — and how often we photograph our food — I remember very few specific meals. Often, it’s virtually impossible to recall what we ate just a few nights ago, much less years ago.

And then, there are those memorable meals — the ones that blend great food, good company, and a unique setting into an experience more precious than the sum of its parts. There was, for example, the wonder of the first time we ate fish in Ayuttaya, Thailand: caught off the side of the boat, hauled up out of the Chao Praya River just seconds before being cleaned, fried, and served with a little cucumber salad and rice. There was dinner at Clooney, in New Zealand, with Tony and Marlene, new friends who felt as though we had known them for a lifetime — and where every course served was like unwrapping a present.

And then: tonight’s dinner at Coconut Lodge.

The entire day was magical, really. After a stunning breakfast of honeyed yogurt, home-cured bacon, eggs, and fresh papaya, we set out to Portabelo (to tour the ruins of the old fort and see the Black Christ) and Isla Grande (to take a boat through the mangroves). During the morning, Mike (our host at the B&B and guide for the day), kept hunger at bay with exquisite homemade Hungarian sandwiches (chicken, goat cheese, mozzarella, and mushrooms on fresh-baked baguettes!).

Lunch today? Freshly caught lobster with fried plantains on the side, served seaside in a spot most tourists will never see. (Bizarrely, there was one other table full of people in the joint … and when we spoke to them, they turned out to live in Midtown, just three blocks from our home in Atlanta!)

Back at Coconut Lodge, we drank delicious rum-laced coconut water straight from the shells and swam until dinner. Hosts Nancy and Mike set out candles and strung lights on the back patio, poured wine and shots of a local libation made from fermented sugar cane, and then proceeded to serve us one if the best meals of my life.

Really. I’m not exaggerating. I don’t go around just saying that.

Mike started with his spicy schezuan noodle soup, served in big bowls with Chinese soup spoons. The fresh, clear broth was sneaky: mild at first, then blossoming very gently, just enough to give the noodles and bok choy a glow. Imagine slurping up a liquid jewel — that’s the experience of this soup.

Next came the mild and creamy bowtie pasta with chicken: a nice break from the spiciness of the soup. And then the salad: fresh local vegetables (cucumbers, tomatoes, and more) in a slightly sweet dressing and smothered in goat cheese. Each time a dish appeared, Nancy inspected it. Was the garnish perfect? Was it placed before us just so? Not intrusively or obsessively — just consciously, deliberately, with the desired effect in mind.

After pineapple sorbet ( to cleanse the palette), Mike brought out irresistible oven-roasted pork with potatoes, broccoli, and peppers. The pork was so tender, it literally cut like butter, falling apart when lightly touched with a fork. It is dangerous, this pork, because it has the capacity to make you compare all other pork to it. “This barbecue is good,” I can hear my future self say, “but it’s no Coconut Lodge pork.”

And finally: Mike’s Hungarian apple cake, drizzled with a light, sweet caramel sauce, with fruit that was soft (but not stewed) and cake that was spongy, light, and faintly floral. Mike, who is Hungarian by birth, Canadian by virtue of living there thirty years, and now passionate about Panama, knows how to finish a meal! (He’s also a trained chef — a good sideline for a B&B owner.)

So: perfect food. But what takes dinner at Coconut Lodge over the top? The way it’s served. Mike and Nancy love what they do, and their greatest delight is in seeing your eyes light up with surprise and joy. We met them just 24 hours before, and we felt like their “every Tuesday night” friends, invited over for an intimate little celebration. And when all this happens … and you spend an evening in flickering candlelight and good company … and the bill comes … and you discover this wonderful experience has cost you just $18.00 US per plate … well, it makes high-dollar meals atop overblown Bangkok hotels pale by comparison.

If you find yourself staying at Coconut Lodge and you have only the breakfasts … you’re missing out on one of life’s greatest little pleasures: good food, served in paradise, by people who understand that dinner should feel like a warm, extended hug.

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Mark McElroy

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