Unearthing A Gem At Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens
“Are you free for lunch on Monday?” texted my daughter-in-law, Maryanne.
“S**t, yes!” I responded with all the enthusiasm of a fat kid at a candy store.
Excuse the colorful expletive, readers, but I’d had a hectic week. Sleep deprived from the thousand and one thoughts that were swirling around the cesspits of my mind and with a cold that refused to clear, I was in dire need of some fresh air, greenery, a change of scenery.
“Meet us at The Botanic Gardens at 12:30,” she said, with the “us” referring to herself and my son, Justin.
Really? Lunch at The Botanic Gardens? I hadn’t been to the Royal Botanic Gardens (Sydney) since I arrived in Australia in 1976. And while this glorious oasis of 30 hectares in the heart of Sydney, a short walk around the water's edge from the Sydney Opera House, is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful settings you will see anywhere in the world, the uninspiring, white two-story structure that traditionally houses its ‘eateries’ always reeked of mass market cuisine to me. In all the years that I lived in Sydney, I never felt drawn to venture inside.
“Trust me, Mum,” Justin insisted. “Todd’s been doing some amazing stuff and the menu will blow you away.” Justin, a chef himself, was talking about Todd Hunt, The Botanic Gardens Restaurant’s new Head Chef. Having earned his stripes with such stellar culinary talents as Peter Gilmore at Quay and Greg Doyle at Pier, Todd was fast becoming a rising star in his own right.
And so I found myself, on the designated Monday past noon, driving along Art Gallery Road, past the impressive facade of the Art Gallery of NSW to my right. Slowing down for some jaywalkers, I thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t have to negotiate the weekend crowd. Easily spotting a 4-hour parking spot to my left at Mrs Macquarie’s Road, I pulled over, killed the engine, paid the meter for the maximum stay, and sauntered into the lush garden grounds. It was an unremittingly glorious winter’s day, which I was determined to enjoy at my leisure. The sun’s rays on my neck and shoulders and the balmy temperatures were a pleasant contrast to the incessant rains and bone chilling temperatures of the past few weeks.
“Palm Grove, head towards Palm Grove,” I muttered to myself like a mantra as I worked my way through the Botanical Garden’s maze, the smell of earth and vegetation filling my lungs. In the midst of my life’s chaos, I found myself wondering why it had taken me so long to return to this verdant sanctuary. And finally, there it was, the unadorned 19th Century building facade, nestled in the midst of the exquisite gardens, looking as frumpy as ever.
“Downstairs is the cafe, upstairs is the restaurant,” Justin’s voice echoed in my brain. Making my way to the entrance to the top level, I was pleasantly surprised at the light-filled space that opened up before me. Overlooking the duck ponds, the restaurant’s streamlined interiors, decked out in a palette of white and neutrals, had a modern edge without being sterile. With a wide open verandah that wrapped itself around the width of the restaurant, the result of which brought the glorious tropical rainforest into the dining space within, enhanced the sensation of being deliciously moored in the middle of nowhere while in the middle of Sydney’s CBD. After briefly making my arrival known to gracious floor manager, Maurilo - originally from São Paulo, I found out - I spotted Justin & Maryanne at a table by the edge of the verandah and headed over their way. Momentarily resting my eyes on glimpses of Sydney Harbour as I slipped off my sunnies, I gave Justin and Mary a heartwarming hug before settling into my seat.
“Wow! This is amazing!” I exclaimed. Taking the restful ambience in, I felt like I'd just grown another set of lungs.
“Can I get you anything to drink?” Maurilo asked, seemingly appearing out of nowhere.
“A sparkling mineral water for me, please,” I responded.
“C’mon, Mum, are you kidding?” Justin said.
“I don’t normally drink during the day, Jus. Besides, I’m driving.”
“Oh please!” he scoffed. “At least have one with your meal, then,” he persisted.
“OK, I will,” I surrendered, thinking to myself that I’d given in far too easily. I’d already beaten myself up over the fact that I had done zilch for “Dry July.”
After an initial toast and quick catch up, we studied the lunch menu.
“Oh man, this is going to be tough,” I exhaled, as my imagination went into overdrive and my salivary glands exploded in anticipation.
While Maryanne ordered the zucchini flower salad with goat’s cheese, baby beetroot, black olive & aniseed for her starter, Justin and I went for the seared scallops with celeriac, white anchovies and morel vinaigrette.
“Here’s a little something Todd has prepared,” Maurilo said, gently placing a white plate at the center of the table with three golden “cigars” arranged at the center. They turned out to be Tunisian brick pastry which had been rolled and baked into a crispy golden brown. Biting into the light crispiness of the pastry, we found them filled with a raw king salmon tartare, fried bread-capers, chervil, eschallots & lemon oil. With fresh flavors tantalizing our palates, it was a delightfully textural way to start lunch.
“I think I’ll have that wine now, Maurilo,” I said, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the seared scallops. “What can you suggest that is relatively dry and crisp?”
“We have a lovely Chardonnay from McLaren Vale. Modern. Not very ‘oakey’,” he suggested.
“Sounds wonderful,” I said. And it was, thoroughly complementing my seared scallops which were done to perfection. The flavors of the ocean flooded my mouth on the first bite, the white anchovies and morel vinaigrette providing an interesting complexity to the dish without overpowering.
For my main, I ventured to try the special of the day, a king salmon and fennel confit with pencil leeks, served with green lentils. When my dish arrived, I nearly wept with relief when I saw that none of it had been cooked with butter. Hallelujah! While the churned pale yellow mass of cream or milk certainly has its place in baking, sauce making, and pan frying in French and English cuisine, largely due to the cooler weather, contemporary Australian cuisine begs for lighter, fresher flavors. And here it was on the plate in front of me, sea and sunshine, every ingredient bursting with its own natural essences, working in unison, resulting in a culinary symphony. To my further delight, my portion was more than adequate, unlike the dollop on a proverbial satellite dish that is served up at some other fine dining establishments.
For the record, Maryanne had the crisp skinned snapper with vongole, fennel cream, white fungi & tapioca, while Justin had the roasted spatchcock with pine nuts, currants, preserved lemon, parsley & jus gras, both equally sensational. For dessert, I shared in Justin’s soft cheese platter and a sip of his Rutherglen Muscat.
At roughly $20 for the entrees and $30 for the mains, The Botanic Gardens Restaurant may not exactly be on the cards for a day out with the kids. Having said that, I could not think of a more refined way to showcase to foreign guests, valued clients or a loved one the very best that Sydney has to offer: A walk through spectacular grounds at the heart of the CBD, a glimpse of our magnificent harbor, and a few indulgent hours spent savoring the very best of contemporary Australian cuisine. Jauntily walking back to my car at Mrs Macquarie’s Road, I felt the smug glow of self-satisfaction that comes from having unearthed a gem.
The Botanic Gardens Restaurant (open for breakfast, lunch and functions). Royal Botanic Gardens/Mrs Macquaries Rd Sydney NSW 2000 (02) 9241 2419