Article written by JOHN LETHLEAN
THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN MAGAZINE
11:00PM MARCH 11, 2022
The original article can be read here at the Australian if you have a subscription
Restaurant Botanic, Adelaide review: it’s exceptional
Deep in the botanical wonder of Adelaide’s civic gardens, Botanic is a revelation. Nearly four hours after sitting down I take a last sip of “Garden Liquor”, a light, herbaceous house-made digestif, and wonder: how to sum up this most exceptional experience? How to convey the sense of wonder, pleasure, surprise, satisfaction, stimulation and true hospitality that has, unfortunately, just hit “finished” on the meter?
Somewhere between elegant formality and youthful vigour, Botanic puts the elements of outrageously inventive (but gimmick-free) dining, pure customer focus and tongue-in-cheek humour together in a cocktail that exceeds every expectation.
Nuts and bolts? In 2021 Botanic re-launched: same glorious location, superb new fit-out, chef, team; $220 set menu, $150 wine pairing. Take or leave.
All I knew was that Justin James was Irish and ex Vue de Monde. Um… you’re not on your Pat there.
Exec chef at VdM for five years; Noma, Eleven Madison Park and Blue Hill at Stone Barns before that. So that’s possibly the three most influential chefs/restaurants in the world right now: Redzepi, Humm and Barber.
Their loss. James’s thing is the gardens as both inspiration and larder, and it’s not just silly rhetoric.
Dinner consists of about 20 elements rolled out across an extended sitting, the pressure of expectation rising at each turn; it’s not a rollercoaster, it’s a trajectory.
Intriguing eggplant here; crisp veal sweetbread there; shiitake fudge, of all things, as a petit four.
The kitchen’s technique is phenomenal, the combinations inspired, the flavours often sour/tart/lactic yet truly harmonious. A dish might look like “eggplant and caviar”, or “tomato and scallop”, yet the processes involved are both inspired and labour-intensive. More importantly, the backstory never usurps the simple delicious truth and textural play of the final result. This is food you want to eat, not ponder.
I give you the marron and corn course, a DIY extravaganza halfway through proceedings that actually took my breath away. A smouldering bouquet garni of native herbs from the gardens arrives revealing a plump, delicious marron tail inside that’s been cooked in a marron shell butter before being stuffed with a leaf of native basil. It’s cooked a second time in its now-smoking shrubbery. Next to it, a limey corn kernel sauce laced with fermented chilli oil. On another dish is a piece of corn cob that’s also been cooked in marron butter, then grilled with an emulsion of marron coral (brains and stuff) and, finally, seasoned with dried lemon myrtle, lime zest and sea urchin “bottarga”. Goodness gracious me.
Elsewhere, wrapped in corn husk is a piece of chive and cheddar cornbread glazed with fermented honey and marron butter. It’s wood-grilled and served with “clam jam”, a Goolwa pipi XO, if you will. There’s also a perilla leaf “dolmade” (my word) of marron claw and charred corn paste seasoned with lemon myrtle and fermented chilli. It’s a picnic, all sweet, smoky, tart and crustaceous; for me, it’s The Moment. Yet I hear the couple next to me… what about that abalone with boab and urchin sauce; what about that dry-aged coral trout with its tangy/fishy juices in charred cabbage; what about that “cleanser” of frozen red mango layered with crunchy rose and rosella granita, creamy mango sorbet and finished with tangy green ants and finger lime? I could go on.
The beverage pairing, while not compulsory, is almost certainly the best way to go if you dine solo (thoroughly recommended); I cannot remember the last time I got lost in a dining experience like this. At $370 a head, it’s an utterly unique bargain.