Review: Botanico - 'It's almost like an unexpected shimmery mirage in a sea of gastronomical wonderland'
When did restaurants in Singapore stop being creative? Although the rhyme is most unfortunate, do not ever confuse creativity with pretty. There's a difference, and that difference is finesse. In extolling the virtues of creativity in the culinary universe, one should look for food that demonstrates a fine grasp of the balance of flavours, colours, textures, and ingredients. It is simply not enough (though many young people would beg to differ) to prettify your plate for a fleeting post on Instagram. Can people and other food reviewers in Singapore stop, for God's sakes, using the term 'Instagram-worthy' as a click bait to instant infamy? I've had enough experiences eating 'Instagram-worthy' food to know that absent taste, all it has is a generous amount of food colouring doused in sugar syrup and other nasty artificial flavours.
There's also that other C word that's lacking in the Singapore food scene: Courage. Courage to step outside the norms of familiar flavour profiles to create masterful dishes that exude inventiveness, audaciousness, and a generous sprinkle of joie de vivre; a celebration of life, love, and the pursuit of staggeringly soul-altering food.
Enter Botanico, a dining concept brought to us by the wonderful folks behind 1-Group and the purveyor of Summerhouse, Wildseed cafe, Monti, and Pixies. Helmed by head chef and gastronomy extraordinaire Sujatha Asokan, Botanico tries its hand at bold flavour pairings inspired by the lush greenery it is surrounded by - and succeeds.
Situated at one end of The Singapore Botanics Gardens, Botanico occupies the second floor of the building that used to serve as a car garage in the 1920s and housed the Department of Ornamental Horticulture. The dining room of Botanico is an exercise in Hygge sensibilities. A neutral colour palette of nothing else but greys, warm lights, and handsome wood accents exude a level of simplicity that brings sharp focus to the task at hand: the dining experience. Here, the dining experience is ethereal and exemplified by both the ingredients and Tate Modern-esque plating of the contemporary kind: a clever way to throw off the casual diner's prescience to the type of flavours yet to be presented.
The sharp focus I'm talking about is, of course, the culinary mastery of one Chef Su. Chef Su's cooking is nuanced and the flavours brave, suave, and such a pleasant surprise given the setting that we're in. With a dining room such as this, I would expect the type of food that would annoy me to no end: small dainty plates with lots of flourishes and negative spaces enough to fill the ego of a jaded chef. But here, Chef Su titillates and surprises us with a strong academic knowledge of the gamut of Asian spices which she effortlessly and artistically integrates into every single dish she creates.
We are introduced to Chef Su's Asian ingredient influences with a platter of fresh Irish oysters topped with a dressing of chilli and shallots, doused in Thai fish sauce and a squeeze of lime juice. I've only ever eaten fresh oysters with lemon and I know that for some, the briny nature of oysters renders the dish almost unpalatable. Here, the insistent acidity of the Thai Fish sauce cuts sharply alongside the natural flavour of oysters thereby elevating the pedantic and familiar experience of eating oysters with a mere squeeze of lemon. I don't think I can eat oysters any other way ever again.
I would consider the Asparagus Tempura as a gentle prequel to the testament of care and reverence that is given and accorded to humble ingredients too often relegated to a condiment status unworthy of fame and glory. Here, asparagus is breaded in a house made tempura and then fried to a crisp. A generous drizzle of Miso infused hollandaise sauce gives the asparagus body and depth that asparagus craves. But the brilliance of this appetiser truly lies in its treatment of the full flavoured Sesame Oil, here transformed into powder with the addition of tapioca maltodextrin and sprinkled across the pert tempura, lending a nutty overtone you can only find in dishes of the Asian persuasion.
The ubiquitous Assam Laksa sees a reinterpretation under the capable hands of Chef Su as a Seabass ceviche. Raw seabass is diced into chunky cubes and cured with citrus juices, chilli jam, finely diced jalapeno, shallots, coriander, and mint for that fresh, lucid and naked salad feel that awakens the palate and heightens all sensations. Laid on top is a swirl of glass noodles drenched in a hearty and rich tamarind laksa sauce, the kind that reminds you of a loving mother's labour of love slogging in the kitchen; blending this, pounding that, sautéing this, sweating that. A quenelle of shrimp paste ice cream or more affectionately known in the local parlance as hae ko, sits perched atop the entire arrangement and is meant to be liberally stirred into the glass noodles to give this dish in its entirety, a complex Asian umami juxtaposition.
The next two dishes are a fine testament to Chef Su's penchant for using secondary cuts of meat and presenting it as the star of the show. Thinly sliced beef tongue, beautifully brined, sous vide and seasoned, lays in a casual heap in the middle of the plate, mixed with julienned celeriac that has been pickled in chardonnay vinegar, sugar, and water. In my brief dalliance with the ingredient, beef tongue has no discernible nor unique taste, but in the hands of a master, aromatic flavours of such depth and complexity emerge. Honeyed mustard seeds and deep fried capers lend this dish a peculiar blend of sweetness, acidity, and crunch that makes this dish a perfect textbook example of a balanced appetiser.
We were then presented with Inka-grilled lamb neck slices laid on one half of a plate and flanked by four of the most common sides in the culinary universe: cherry tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, and potatoes. Beautifully cooked lamb aside (although this was probably one of the most sensationally cooked meats I've tasted in my life), I was blown away by the care and love that has been given to these humble sides. First, you have the cherry tomatoes, 24 hours in the making, soaked in a sweet nectar of light soy sauce, ginger, rosemary, water, and sugar. The result is a brilliant kaleidoscopic burst of honeyed flavours in the mouth, enough to convert my tomato-hating friend to a rabid fan. King Oyster mushrooms are julienned and cooked with a blend of curry and yoghurt. Onions are pickled in mirin, sugar, and curry leaves. The dramatic puddle of white is potato foam probably made by fairies working their tiny hands off in the night to put this dish together because that's what it tastes like: magical.
Thick cuts of Australian Wagyu steak cut from the shoulders of a cow is arranged one in front of the other on a deep green sriracha dressing made in-house using green birds eye chilli, citrus juices and exotic Asian spices. Green sriracha is less spicy than I expected, instead serving as an earthy complementary dressing to the beautifully tender, and exceptionally seasoned Inka oven grilled steak. Instead of using mere potatoes as-is, Chef Su opted for the more dressy presentation of potato terrine; sliced potatoes bathed in cream, baked, and pan seared till crispy. Because why opt for normal potato wedges when you can spend almost three times that preparation to create thin sliced taters, compressed, seasoned, and baked? Similarly, why use plain beans for crunch when you can support local farmers by using Singapore grown leek flowers that have been blanched and grilled?
Because of artistry. That's why.
Almost by design, we are presented with a dessert that's void of colours, proudly reveling in the purest shade of white; simple but packed to the brim with complex layers of sweetness. Soft and smooth pannacotta is infused with lemongrass and topped with a quenelle of light ginger ice cream, a brilliant play once again on a flavour pairing in common Asian cuisines. Diced pale green apples are wedged in between the varying softness for that citrusy tart taste, but never once attempting to subdue the creaminess of the pannacotta or ice cream. Pert lemon meringue is carefully arranged at the top for a satisfying crunch and a lovely finish to this beautifully balanced dessert.
I would be remiss to not talk about the Jalapeño ice cream. Inspired by the sweet and savoury overtones of the local Rojak, a quenelle of Jalapeño ice cream is served on a plate of seared cubed Sarawak pineapples (yellow like the sun and a sweet, sweet treat from madame nature herself) and strong savoury flavours of bacon crumble. Separately, each element works. But separately, each element has also been treated with much reverence and respect; the pineapples were sous vide and then caramelised, the bacon has been mixed with cake ingredients and baked, the ice cream has been meticulously prepared and measured to coax a sweetness with a subtle hint of spice. When eaten all at once, each unique taste brings the next to a higher level; the blatantly honeyed pineapple mingles with the bold taste of bacon and the slight spice of Jalapeño to birth an indulgent dessert that impresses with each bite.
It has been a long time since I was this impressed by a meal. The job of a food critic is not easy. We go to restaurants completely blind, usually at the behest of friends or food websites. And when arrive, we pray to all manners of culinary Gods and Goddesses to bless this food not be underseasoned, overcooked, or, God forbid, lazy.
Here at Botanico, I came in with those exact same sentiments of caution. But after a sumptuous 2 hours at the hands of the courageous and bold food couturier Chef Su and her team of merry women and men, I left with a heart that's full and an appetite that's satiated because now I am finally convinced that even in this tiny island state, you can find a restaurant so dazzlingly brilliant, it's almost like an unexpected shimmery mirage in a sea of gastronomical wonderland; a restaurant that's creative, passionate, and every bit a delight from start to finish.