Mrs Macquaries Road Sydney, NSW 200002 9241 2419
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri, noon-3pm; Sat and Sun, 9.30-11.30am; noon-3pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed, Private dining, Views, Business lunch|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
Never mind that the Royal Botanic Gardens is the oldest scientific institution in Australia, founded by Governor Macquarie in 1816; or that its 30 hectares of green lung in the heart of the city contain more than 1 million specimens including many rare and endangered species. To many of us, it's just a great place to take mum when she comes to town.
In fact, the Botanic Gardens Restaurant has entertained many a mum over the years. Apart from a brief period in the '90s when it was given over to the talented Lew Kathreptis, it's never been particularly memorable, due perhaps to our tendency to farm out public-space dining rooms to contract caterers. We have first-class contract caterers in Sydney, but few can infuse a function venue with the passion, personality and sense of hospitality of a living, breathing restaurant.
But then, at a reader-recommended lunch (thank you, Jo L., for sharing), I find myself looking down on a limpid pond of onion consomme containing three slinky tortellini ($19) of trout and spanner crab, strewn with leek and ginger. It tastes as intriguing as it looks, full of clear, well-balanced flavours.
Next, another curve ball; crisp-fried snapper ($31) served with a line-up of Cloudy Bay clams, their diamond-shaped shells overflowing with little pearls of tapioca and tufts of snow fungus and black fungus, sauced with a light fennel cream. Uh huh. We're definitely on to something here.
The something, I soon discover, is 28-year-old chef Todd Hunt, hired late last year by the Trippas White Group to head up the kitchen. His CV includes some of Sydney's most celebrated kitchens, from Quay with Peter Gilmore to Rose Bay's then-Pier restaurant, with Greg Doyle and Steven Skelly.
Nor am I the only one to be intrigued. A group of business colleagues is making happy noises over deeply glazed beef cheeks chaperoned by an upstanding marrow bone and silky mash; and zippy-looking roasted spatchcock under a shower of pine nuts, currants and preserved lemon. There's also good organic bread and cultured butter and a rag-bag of entrees from sashimi to seared scallops, including a rich and slightly dry dish of sliced black pudding interleaved with Persian feta and crisp apple ($17).
Belying the original, somewhat functional 19th-century facade, the dining room is sleek, light and modern, gathered around a central island fireplace that's quite rightly ignored in favour of tables overlooking the garden. You're sitting inside in complete comfort, yet it feels as if you're outside; with delicious views of the ornamental lakes, palm trees and creeping wisteria freshened by a slight breeze coming off the harbour and a soundtrack of local birdsong. It all calls for a celebratory drink, and there's a concise but cliche-free collection of easy-drinking, contemporary Australian labels that hits the right spot. A light and crisp Ninth Island Pinot Grigio from Tasmania ($10/$47) makes a good match for the snapper, although considering the tourist-friendly nature of the site, it would be good to see more of a regional NSW focus on the list.
The kitchen achieves the developed flavours of long, slow cooking by widespread use of sous-vide technique. So lamb leg ($30) is cooked overnight for 12 hours until meltingly tender, then repackaged and cooked again to order, freshened up with a tumble of broad beans, peas and baby onions in a garden-friendly flourish.
Desserts don't carry the same clout as the savoury dishes, but a caramelised apple chiboust ($16) will appeal to those who love lots of cream and lots of crunch. It's pretty much a bowlful of candied apple, chiboust cream and meringue; all gilding the lily, botanically speaking, of a very good liquorice sorbet lurking in the middle.
What a nice surprise. My only caveat comes from the staffing levels. Service is helpful and perfectly pleasant, but clearly under a lot of pressure to multitask. The queue-and-order cafe below suffers particularly, with tables staying uncleared for too long. But upstairs, it's good to see how a smart chef working with a tight budget can lift what could be a charming but forgettable experience into something worth sharing. Especially with your mum.
Being in the heart of the gardens.
Cost-efficiency over hospitality.
Crisp-skinned snapper, clams, fennel cream, white fungi and tapioca, $31.
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.