Panama Dining Room review

Inside the sprawling Panama Dining Room.
Inside the sprawling Panama Dining Room. Photo: Paul Jeffers

3rd floor, 231 Smith Street Fitzroy, Victoria 3065

View map

Opening hours Mon-Sun 5:00 PM – 1:00 AM
Features Accepts bookings, Bar, Events, Groups, Late night, Licensed, Romance-first date, Views, Wheelchair access, Gluten-free options, Vegetarian friendly, Family friendly
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Ayhan Erkoc
Payments Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9417 7663

It doesn't matter how many times I lug myself up the steep stairs to Panama Dining Room, I'm always made at least as breathless by the city views as I am by the long staircase that got me there. This is a quarter-acre-block-sized bar and restaurant, so large that the billiard table and booths look like dollhouse furniture. Enormous windows face east (to the burbs and hills) and south (through plane trees to town). In a town of bolt-holes and boutique hideaways, it's nice to take a turn in a place that has room for dozens of cool cats to swing, swig, swagger and dine.

Panama Dining Room is casual and comfortable rather than serious or highly polished and the snacky build-your-own-meal menu works well. Chef Ayhan Erkoc has been here almost two years and has slowly moved the menu towards sharing plates, many of which reflect his Turkish heritage in smart, contemporary fashion.

The food isn't overly showy but the kitchen evidently plays a long game. Ox heart is treated a bit like prosciutto, cured, spiced and hung for six months, then shaved over roasted Savoy cabbage in a pink flurry. Native ingredients get a good look in: the garlic butter that seeps between the leaves is spiked with blood lime, an indigenous citrus hybrid. The salty funkiness of the ox, the succulent crush of collapsed cabbage and the bright pop of the lime combine to create a dish of depth, balance and interest.

A slab of cabbage topped with shaved dried ox heart.
A slab of cabbage topped with shaved dried ox heart. Photo: Paul Jeffers

A jaunty quail entree is similarly poised. The bird is steamed then fried, keeping it nice and juicy, then it's glazed with a sherry caramel. It's served with a fresh-cut spicy carrot salad.

Every restaurant seems to have a cauliflower dish on the menu – it's the veg version of pork belly, once unloved, now ubiquitous. When it's as good as Panama's cauli, I'm not complaining. Broken into florets and fried to a deep golden, it's served over a yoghurt and molasses sauce that harks back to a Turkish breakfast Erkoc's parents used to make him. Slivers of preserved lemon and a good sprinkle of za'atar spice further anchor the dish in the Middle East.

Fazzoletti is Italian for handkerchiefs and it describes the pasta that's draped over roasted pumpkin and a silky pine nut sauce. A sunny egg yolk lolls on top, taking the dish into veg-friendly carbonara territory. It's lovely.

Vegetarian carbonara: Fazzoletti pasta with egg yolk and roast pumpkin.
Vegetarian carbonara: Fazzoletti pasta with egg yolk and roast pumpkin. Photo: Paul Jeffers

The menu is pleasingly seasonal, right down to a dessert that showcases mandarin as sherbet, custard, sorbet and even its preserved skin. If you're a mandarin fan like I am, you'll love it: it's gentle, subtle and refreshing.

A chocolate dessert speaks less of winter yet much of joy. White chocolate mousse and sorrel granita are the smooth and tart counterpoints for shards of meringue dusted with dehydrated Davidson plum, another Australian fruit.

Panama Dining Room has had various iterations over the years ranging from grungy to glam. The current version is easy, energised and – bonus – you can build up an appetite as you slog your way up the stairs. (Note: there is wheelchair access via a lift.)

A contemporary white chocolate dessert.
A contemporary white chocolate dessert. Photo: Paul Jeffers

Raing: Three and a half stars (out of five)