“That’s a bowl of sticks, right?”
A friend has seen my Instagram post of crocodile broth covered in charred oak branches and has questions.
“Is this what qualifies as fine dining now?”
“Yes,” I respond, “but you’re meant to sip the soup through the sticks, which act as a smoky filter.”
Welcome to Restaurant Botanic, where you can expect to pay $330 for about two-dozen stimulating and, sometimes, dazzling creations, which may contain sticks. Twig-skewered barbecued crocodile is served with the soup, too, and embellished with an XO sauce that smacks of muntries and saltbush. More, please.
For a long time, fine dining was all lobster and “Would sir like to see the cork?” There’s still plenty of shellfish and nice crockery at the top end of eating out, but the really exciting places, such as Restaurant Botanic, tend to put greater focus on innovation and technique rather than tired formalities and simply sourcing “the very best produce”.
American-born chef Justin James has to compete with pet food factories, for instance, to get his hands on kangaroo tendons. Food destined for the dog’s bowl doesn’t sound very fine at all, but James puffs those tendons into a riveting, pork rind-like petit four licked with salted koji caramel. It’s one of Botanic’s six final “bites”, a smorgasbord of shiitake fudge, emu liver-enriched quandong, and a single leaf of pineapple sage coated in dark chocolate.
James assumed the helm at Adelaide Botanic Garden’s restaurant in 2021, lured by access to more than 400 different herbs, shrubs and trees grown on-site. Previously, he was executive chef at Melbourne’s lauded Vue de Monde and held senior roles at New York’s Eleven Madison Park as well as Noma in Copenhagen. This resume – and the promise of “camel hump lardo” – is why I’ve flown two hours to eat here. You don’t see cured camel fat every day.
You don’t approach a restaurant on foot like this every day, either, passing ancient figs and blooming myrtles to reach a heritage tea-house washed in soft light. There isn’t a bad view in the rotunda dining room, whether you’re looking at the nearby lake, shelves of earthy coloured ceramics, or an open kitchen where chefs pluck, shuck, tweezer, grill and poach.
Our meal, which will last four hours, begins with a tart “flower” of apple – both fermented and fresh – daubed with blitzed nasturtium and prettied up with marigold petals. A cluster of green ants stands in for pollen. Terrific.
Next, three heirloom tomatoes stuffed with bavarois and native cherry. Pooled in tomato and strawberry water, each bite is a tiny garden party for the last days of summer.
My camel hump lardo is melted across slivers of red kangaroo and brushed with charred macadamia brown butter. A subtle smokiness bounces off the sweetness. Pure joy.
There are shades of Noma, most obviously in all the ferments, but also in the hands-on approach to eating fat and juicy marron tail, gently cooked in marron shell butter and rolled over burning wood in a bouquet of leaves, that’s brought, still smouldering, to the table.
Dry-aged roast duck breast is also cutlery-free, with a honey-lacquered skin so crunchy it could be porchetta crackling. Next to it is another twig, this time threaded with barbecued duck leg glazed in duck-heart garum and sticky with the acidic pop of finger lime and more green ants.
But, like a beachside kiosk or suburban milk bar, Restaurant Botanic feels like Australia. You certainly won’t find a “fallen bunya-bunya branch” iceblock, finished with wattleseed miso, anywhere else in the world. Bunya branches, which smell like roasted chestnuts after time in the oven, are steeped in cream and fashioned into frozen custard. It’s a richly rewarding thing to eat, albeit a bit more expensive than a post-surf Gaytime.
Not everything works. A “Garden Cosmo” cocktail ($26) is heavy with citrus oil. An oyster layered with roast eggplant, Oscietra caviar and muntries collapses under the weight of its own ambition. I’m reminded of Peck’s fish paste.
However, the service is well-calibrated – just-so relaxed – and a $195 wine-matching option is full of surprises. A nutty amontillado sherry with your crocodile? Don’t mind if we do.
I also don’t mind dropping the price of a new washing machine for a meal of singular flavours I’m unlikely to forget. The question isn’t whether branch broth qualifies as fine dining, but why don’t we have a restaurant like this in Sydney and Melbourne’s civic gardens, too?
Vibe: Plush garden-party that zigs, zags and thrills
Go-to dish: Crocodile and its broth
Drinks: Serious selection of new-generation producers sharing cellar space with French and South Australian icons
Cost: Tasting menu, $330 per person (must be paid at the time of booking)
This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine
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