Biota Dining

Terry Durack
Full of surprises: Every dish at Bowral's Biota Dining has a special touch including the Nordic ranch-house of a dining room.
Full of surprises: Every dish at Bowral's Biota Dining has a special touch including the Nordic ranch-house of a dining room. Photo: Steven Siewert

18 Kangaloon Road Bowral, New South Wales 2576

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Opening hours B Sat-Sun; L Fri-Mon; D Daily
Features Accepts bookings, Accommodation, Bar, Degustation, Events, Family friendly, Gluten-free options, Licensed, Long lunch, Open fire, Outdoor seating, Private dining, Views, Wheelchair access
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Chef James Viles
Seats 80
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 4862 2005

Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry. When James Viles talks about sourcing as locally as possible for Biota Dining, one hopes he's not talking too close to home. Right outside the restaurant is a postcard-pretty pond complete with paddling ducks and two fattened geese, named Foie and Gras. By all accounts their role is purely decorative, though the adjacent herb and vegetable garden is there for the kitchen to plunder daily. As for the paddling ducks, best not to ask.

Viles has built quite a gastrodome in Bowral. There's an informal lounge bar, and a very inviting outdoor terrace with tapas plates of manchego and jamon, or bite-sized wagyu burgers on offer. There's even some new and stylish accommodation right next door; good for when the drinking takes precedence over the driving.

But the real action is in the long, light, Nordic ranch-house of a dining room, furnished with the elegant lines of mid-century-inspired teak furniture. Much of the cooking at Biota involves sous-vide equipment, thermo blenders and fancy dehydrators, yet the white-jacketed chefs on the panoramic wide-screen kitchen pass are forever plucking tiny flowers, herbs and grasses to dress plates in an effort to ''bring the outside inside''.

Go to dish: Pork cheek celeriac persimmon chestnuts with Autumn ashes.
Go to dish: Pork cheek celeriac persimmon chestnuts with Autumn ashes. Photo: Steven Siewert

Everything here comes as a surprise. A little house-baked loaf of whole-wheat sourdough arrives in a soft pouch; a quenelle of vine-smoked butter comes precariously perched on a smooth dark stone; and a pennant of glistening ocean trout jerky hangs from a slender wire mast embedded in a rock.

The cryptic menu lists dishes purely by their ingredients, so order ''local sheep milk curd - asparagus - roe - hen yolk - smoked rye'' and you'll get something that looks like a setting sun reclining on clouds. In reality, it is slow-cooked egg yolk, crunchy rye crumbs, bottarga and a 300-thread-count sheet of pasta draped over white asparagus tips and wodges of local sheep's curd; rich, delicate, ephemeral.

A seemingly simple dish of raw bonito with brassicas comes with an action-packed backstory. The fish itself is lightly torched, while its bones have been fried with onion tops and clarified into a citric dressing. A sliver of cured pork loin, broccoli stem and blackened brussels sprouts and red elk add crunch and colour to the clean, clear flavours. The wine list is a good mix of organic and biodynamic wines with a strong showing of Southern Highlands labels, including a 2011 Joadja cabernet/malbec/petit verdot from Berrima. Spicy, complex and earthy, it's a good pick for an equally complex, earthy dish of pork cheek. Cooked long and slow in a light brine, then seared and painted with a reduction of chicken stock, cuttlefish, and leek and onion ash until it resembles lumps of shiny black coal, its long, sweet flavour is framed by celeriac presented three ways: roasted, pureed with local chestnuts and dehydrated into crumbs.

A dish of Holmbrae duck (not duck-pond duck) combines confit leg and lightly salted breast with creamy fluffs of aerated cauliflower, lightly pickled cauliflower shavings, pear paper (uh huh), yarrow and pine needles. The needles, apparently, are a cute reference to the duck's nest-building materials, though I can't help but think they're more suited to architecture and design than actually being chewed and swallowed.

Dessert is intriguing: a pale, creamy, textural treat of whipped brie, furls of dried milk skin and crushed, roasted nuts that's neither particularly sweet nor savoury.

This would be sophisticated cooking for urban Sydney, much less regional NSW, synthesising high technique and the rhythms of the season to produce dishes that feel fresh and spontaneous. The dining experience has its own charm, the young team working in thrall to the kitchen and its rhythms rather than to the diners and theirs. Buy into it and give yourself over to the gentle repetitions of cream and crunch, of the nutty, lactic milk skins as garnish, and of the pampering foams as sauces that flow from entree to dessert.

Viles has said he wants Biota Dining to be a worldwide dining destination, like Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Britain or El Celler de Can Roca in Spain. Considering the level-headed nature of the business structure, the genuinely enjoyable dining experience and the heroic sense of place, he's well on his way.

The Low-Down

Best bit

Nature and artifice combined.

Worst bit

Deciding on restaurant or bistro.

Go-to dish

Pork cheek, celeriac, persimmon, chestnuts, autumn ashes.

Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic forĀ The Sydney Morning HeraldĀ and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.