Executive chef Cheong Liew
The trouble with all the food criticism now streaming online is that sometimes the babbling majority can give the wrong impression about a place. That’s the conclusion I come to after a visit to Botanical in South Yarra, where Cheong Liew OAM has recently taken up residence.
To listen to Urbanspoon, you’d think a meal at the Bot involves dishes that don’t arrive, listless service and general disappointment. Our experience is nothing like that.
It’s fitting that a legendary watering hole such as the Bot now has a legendary chef in Cheong Liew, who for 14 years reigned at the now-defunct Grange restaurant in the Adelaide Hilton. During his tenure there he was crowned “one of the hottest chefs alive” by American Food and Wine magazine and was credited with pioneering the East-meets-West cuisine we now identify as Modern Australian. It will be fascinating to see if he can reach the same giddy heights here in big-city Melbourne.
My guest is 45 minutes late (he’s not the only one – the parking around here is dire), so staff chat to me about the art, namely Janenne Eaton’s digital-age photography blending dot-screen overlays and computer codes, and about the wine list, which is comprehensive and impressive. A glass wall between the restaurant and sleek back bar is stacked with Giacondas and burgundies.
Eaton’s art aside, the revamped pub’s décor feels blandly corporate. A swirling Aboriginal-esque carpet in ochres and dots looks like something Qantas might have printed on its uniforms circa 1994. A patterned glass screen dividing the entry and the dining floor is “absolutely the most ghastly thing I have ever seen" says my aesthetically sensitive lunch date (it’s really not that bad).
On the menu: Loligo squid with curry leaves.
The food, thankfully, is far from ghastly. Do not miss the spiced Loligo squid with curry leaves. It is vintage Liew, testament to his reputation as the godfather of fusion. These days he describes his style of cooking as cuisine sans frontières, which sounds a little lofty. Let’s just say no one knows how to spice up some tender squid with curry leaves, turmeric and a sticky sambal of shallots, chillies and aromatics like he does. The dish smells and tastes utterly decadent.
Scallops, $7 apiece, are served with something called air-dried sea essence that, on closer inspection and after coaching from our waiter, is revealed as another sambal-like topping made from minced calamari and sundry seafood and a zing of cumquat. Essence, schmessence. It’s a winning starter.
There are positives and negatives to the chicken and Tasmanian black-lip abalone set in gelatinous chicken consommé. The aspic mold subsides into an unappealing nicotine-coloured glug at the mere hint of a knife. Morsels of roasted tomato, purple violas, two snapdragons (perfectly edible, we’re assured) and half a barely cooked prawn, its opaque flesh silky and moist, help lift the mood of the dish. A wedge of 1000-year-old egg on the side is in fact 100 days old, we’re assured, and spent most of its life slow-cooking underground in natural thermal heat. The white of the egg has clarified to a smoky, translucent crescent and the entire wedge is brownish-greenish, like something out of Dr Seuss. Despite all this, it still tastes quite like an egg.
Nougat glace with Champagne-poached peach and spun sugar.
We enjoy two very pink grilled Suffolk lamb cutlets with grainy mustard, fried lamb’s brains and a pastry-puff drizzled with a casserole of kidney and tongue. The riot of organs is a gift for the offal lover but possibly challenging for everyone else.
Beware the menu. The Bot plays to its core capitalist audience with stores of exorbitant wines and dishes such as the Victorian Highland dry-aged beef tenderloin with Noosa spanner crab, foie gras and winter truffles. It costs $81. For one person. That’s surely some sort of record, even for South Yarra.
It’s impossible to know whether it’s the occasionally eye-watering prices, the online crits or the parking that keeps the crowds away this day. While the casual Wine Store diner at the front of the hotel is jam-packed, there are only five tables occupied in the restaurant at the rear.
Let’s hope the fastidious local clientele warm to Liew’s likeable new venture. Not being an expert on Cheong’s oeuvre, it’s impossible for me to say whether he’s brought his A-game to the Bot, but he’s certainly turning out some cracker dishes. Ignore the décor, close your eyes and enjoy the indulgence.
169 Domain Road, South Yarra
Cuisine \ Modern Australian
Chefs \ Cheong Liew, Tom Milligan.
Hip Pocket \ About $120 a head for food and good wine
Open \ Mon-Sat 7am-1am; Sun 7am-11pm.
Highlights \ Cheong Liew cooks in Melbourne
Lowlights \ The service and energy need a lift
Bookings \ Yes
Phone \ 9820 7888
We rate it 7.5 out of 10