"It's pronounced 'Pock-a-mama,'" announced a know-it-all acquaintance when I told her I was driving to Lawrence to dine at that restaurant with the unusual name. But once I arrived there with John and Carolyn in tow, our waitress corrected me: "It's 'Pash-a-mama.'"
Ah! But a couple of days later the restaurant's chef, Ken Baker, informed me: "It's 'Patch-a-mama.'"
I suppose I could have consulted an international dictionary for yet another pronunciation; "Pachamama," according to our very with-it waitress and the unsmiling young host (who looked like a Versace model), the Indian word translates as "Mother Earth."
"It's all about the different cuisines of the world and is represented by our restaurant's logo," said the waitress, pointing to the white vellum menu's drawing of two leaves and a fork with curly tines.
I didn't dare look over at John, but I suspected his eyes were already rolling to the top of his head. When I'd told him I was taking him to a restaurant serving "New World cuisine" in Lawrence, he warned me: "I hope it's not some tired old hippie place with lentil this and tofu that and a Save-the-Rainforest Salad!"
The Pachamama logo does slightly resemble the leafy emblem of a California-based group called The Pachamama Alliance (whose mission is to "halt the destruction of the earth's tropical rainforests and the loss of its indigenous cultures"), which might be a coincidence. There's also a Yugoslavian musical ensemble called Pachamama, which plays music of the Andean culture.
But you'd never guess there were so many interesting cultural connections to the name Pachamama, considering that the restaurant, tucked between a Hy-Vee and a public golf course, looks like a snazzier version of the Woodside Racquet Club.
"It's so big!" exclaimed Carolyn, fanning herself in the August heat. "Are you sure this whole building is really a restaurant?"
The square-jawed host led us past the open kitchen and into a sweeping, barnlike space (tastefully painted a cool sage green) to a nice little table by a window, looking out on a grassy corner of the golf course. With its unpolished wood and native limestone, the room was comfortable and attractive but not elegant -- certainly not fancy: The vinyl-covered tables were uncloaked, simply decorated with a burning candle, an attractive English charger plate with a tropical motif (stylized elephants, zebras, lotus flowers), and a teal, yellow, rose, or green knotted cloth napkin.
I suppose I expected the place, given its location in a college town and its "New World cuisine" sensibility, to be somewhat hipper. But everyone in the dining room -- at 7:30 on a Saturday night, at least -- was Caucasian and over 40 years old. To the left of us was a trio of chubby men in shorts and polo shirts, to the right a middle-age couple having dinner with Grandma.
"But the menu is very hip," said John, as he noted the nine "small plates" (appetizers and salads) and eight entree-style "large plates."
Chef Baker explains that "New World" describes "the cuisine inspired by Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico, using classic French techniques." He completely overhauls the menu on the first Tuesday of each month (though he tinkers with the desserts less frequently).
John and Carolyn carefully perused the excellent wine list, which was presented in a bound volume nearly as thick as War and Peace. He was pleased that the selections included a good number of half bottles, and, once armed with full glasses, John and Carolyn were ready to attack the menu. I was starving, so I ordered several appetizers to share, including a bowl of panko fried oysters ($7.50), which arrived hot and crispy on a bed of not-very-soupy "chowder" (more of a relish, actually) of sage-charred fresh sweet corn dotted with bits of celery, green pepper, and little potato cubes. The rarebit ($7.50), a rich Welsh dish of melted cheese and beer, is a glorious bit of Old World cuisine made here with cheddar so sharp it stings and a splash of lemon-scented ale. Floating on this bowl of cream-colored decadence were roasted wild mushrooms and a couple of toasted slices of freshly baked walnut sourdough bread.