BEING critical is part of my job. Waiters wait, bakers bake, and critics ... er ... critique. Believe me, it doesn't make you many friends. But that's what I'm here for: to tell you what to expect, and -- more often -- where to avoid. Some restaurants leave you scrambling for something -- anything -- positive to say. And then there are places like Panem, where the only criticism I can offer is: (a) you couldn't swing a kitten in the place and (b) if you go there regularly, it will make you fat. Perhaps very fat.
It's just around the corner from my day job at Today FM, so I dropped by for lunch on the hottest day of the year with my colleague, The Intercounty Commentator. The ovens were on full power and all six of Panem's spindle-legged high stools were occupied. In a flash of inspiration, we decided to get a takeaway. Of course, both of us have been in the game too long to walk into to a room of hungry hacks with our arms swinging. And so we returned to the studios with a bag full of sweet and savoury goodies.
The Ambulance Chaser pounced without mercy. Within seconds he'd extricated a sandwich that was buried deep inside one of the bags. It was cut into two fat wedges. Soft, floury focaccia, with just a splash of olive oil, ripe tomato, a few crisp lettuce leaves and simple ham and emmental filling. Nothing fancy, nothing smart. I'm all for not mucking about with a classic. Let the freshness and the quality of the ingredients speak for itself. This was a damn fine sandwich for €4.50.
The Husky Brunette was drawn to the filled focaccia bread -- personally, I'd have called it a calzone. But let's not split hairs. The so-called focaccia Schiacciata was straight from the oven: baked crisp on the outside, the dough was wonderfully warm and stretchy inside. The spinach and oily cheese filling oozed into every fold. I particularly liked the olives (organic apparently), but the Husky Brunette thought them a tad bitter.
Her overall judgement was: "Initially delicious ... but ultimately a bit too samey." They're a tough audience, I tell you. And gratitude doesn't even come into it.
The Freelancer took what she was given, and was glad of it. Another stuffed focaccia -- this time a La Siciliana, with chopped tomato, spinach and cheese. Once again, I thought it was delicious -- and very reasonably priced at €4.50. My own lunch (which I did not share) was a Mediterranean salad, comprising roasted red and yellow peppers, marinated courgette and smoky aubergine, olives, tomatoes and lettuce.
From a choice of toppings that included mozzarella, free-range egg, Irish cooked ham and Irish chicken, I chose the latter. It was cooked in a delicious honey, ginger and orange marinade. Served with some slices of Panem bread, this was a relatively healthy, extremely tasty lunch for just €6.50.
However, it did strike me that Panem doesn't go out of its way to attract meat-lovers. Bar the occasional reference to chicken, the menu is largely vegetarian. But there's a real effort to cater for allergic and intolerant carboholics.
The list of gluten-free options was particularly impressive, with lemon cheesecake, ginger biscuits and the lightest, fluffiest sugar-dusted almond puffs. I tried one and it was divine -- oh so sweet and wispy with a touch of lemon.
Staying on sweet nothings, a buttery oat and coconut cookie proved very popular with the Husky Brunette. But it was the Intercounty Commentator who really scored. His chocolate salami slice was Belgian chocolate bliss. We tried to guess the cocoa content -- 50pc, the Brunette was quite sure. The Ambulance Chaser thought it was at least 70pc. To settle the matter, I volunteered to go back to Panem and find out. In fact, it was 60pc proof -- and for those of us who'd like to eat an entire salami slice of it but do not dare, I discovered they also sell small leaf-sized portions at 90 cents a pop.
They couldn't keep me out of Panem for the next few days. The croissants, I tell you, are superb. As is the chocolate brioche. I haven't got around to the pizza slices yet, and I've heard very good reports about the Torissi 100pc arabica coffee imported directly from Italy.
If pastries and bread are your weakness then proceed with caution to Panem. Thank God it's not open when I'm heading into work. Who has the energy for self-restraint at 8am?
TYPICAL DISH: Filled focaccia
RECOMMENDED: Chocolate salami
THE DAMAGE: €24.60 for one sandwich, two filled focaccias, one salad, two biscuits and one chocolate salami slice
ON THE STEREO: Radio
AT THE TABLE: All walks
WHAT TO WEAR: Nothing fancy
DO SAY: Bread and roses
DON'T SAY: Panem et circenses