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Nature's best at The Botanic
#01-22A, Raffles City Shopping Centre
252 North Bridge Road
Tel: 6837 0995
Open daily: 12pm to 11pm
"WHY don't chefs just open in shopping centres?" is our perennial wail every time we head out to yet another conservation shophouse on a street where finding a vacant parking space is like spotting a mouse deer in a rainforest. The sense of elation, by the way, is almost the same.
Yes, we get it. Rent in a mall is a killer. Plus you never know if you will end up with a kaya toast or ramen joint as your immediate neighbour, which would totally kill your buzz as a progressive modern-European "I worked in Michelin-starred restaurants before this" restaurant.
The Botanic, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have any hang-ups about operating in an environment where shopping comes before food. In fact, while similar cafe-restaurants thrive on people who will pay for overpriced salads and average food for convenience's sake, The Botanic earns its stripes with thoughtful, well-executed cooking that offers a refreshing, cosmopolitan perspective and effortless flair.
Sitting in its own little annex just outside Raffles City shopping centre, The Botanic is a reboot of Salt Tapas Bar without its celebrity Aussie patron Luke Mangan.
Two of his proteges have since taken the helm, and the restaurant is much better for it. You don't see the chef Shannon Binnie in the kitchen (near as we can make out from our table) but he must have trained his team well because on the two occasions we are there, the food is consistently well-prepared.
The Botanic doesn't re-invent the wheel but what makes it shine is that it bothers to get its basics right, which you can't say about a lot of restaurants. You can't go far wrong with good quality, well-priced ingredients that are fresh - and not necessarily expensive - and uncomplicated cooking methods that let food taste the way they should.
As its name suggests, The Botanic is "inspired by nature" so it emphasises whole foods with vegetarian, organic and gluten-free options. It's got a strong Aussie vibe with Middle Eastern and Asian twists. The decor, too, is garden conservatory-like with plenty of glass and wicker chairs. Service is friendly but functional and ambience-wise it's pretty generic and yes, shopping plaza-like.
We were expecting a similar dining experience until our first order of guacamole (S$14) arrived. Why a server would insist on recommending mashed avocado with lemon juice and condiments so highly, we don't know, but we're taken by the fresh, chunky-creamy texture, scooped up with large, oily but deliciously crunchy fried crackers.
It's got a good spread of vegan and vegetarian choices, starting with a fat ball of burrata cheese (S$22) that bursts into a puddle of cream over velvety smooth roast pumpkin mash. Sweet balsamic vinegar dribbles over the cheese for contrast, and there's much satisfaction to be had from scooping up all that healthy goodness with chargrilled bread. A shower of rocket leaves and a sprinkle of crushed nuts, and you've got enough food groups covered.
Even the vegetarian free range scotch egg (S$15) doesn't make you miss the pork sausage wrapping of the original. Here, a layer of lentil-based falafel is wrapped around a perfectly done boiled egg with a soft runny yolk, and fried for that crisp outer surface. Yogurt-smothered tabouli completes it.
For non-vegetarians, the whole roasted fish (market price) is ridiculously simply done, but yet so tasty - perfectly broiled till the skin is blistering crisp, the flesh moist and tender, dressed with just olive oil, lemon and herbs.
Thai-style green mango and papaya salad sits on the side. Jamie Oliver couldn't do it better. No, seriously, he can't.
A fillet-sized portion is available in its S$24 set lunch, a one-course meal with your choice of tasty kale salad or rather bad flat bread/pita which you should avoid.
What you musn't avoid is the smoked sambal wagyu brisket (S$39) which is all-glistening, fatty but fork-tender joy, with added sweetness from shallot puree and jammy-sweet roasted cherry tomatoes. The exact same version can be had as part of the S$24 lunch deal too.
The lamb shoulder (S$32) is a little more iffy. It's slow-cooked till it falls apart at the touch, but is dry in parts, although a minty yogurt sauce and cubes of jicama lift it up with added texture and mouth feel.
For dessert, chendol pavlova (S$12) is almost a success, if the chendol "worms" aren't so mushy. Still, not a bad effort at pulling together coconut cream meringue with jackfruit strips and gula melaka sauce.
Much better is the warm chocolate lava cake (S$10) and ice cream, which gets some sustainable cred with its use of organic coffee to enhance the chocolate flavour.
The Botanic gives shopping centre dining a good name, and truth be told, if it decided to go more upmarket it could give all its fancy peers in conservation shophouses a run for their money.
But we hope they don't because then it would have to move and then parking would be the pits.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: The Business Times pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.