Mrs Macquaries Rd Sydney, NSW 2000
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri 11.30am-4pm; Sat-Sun 9.30am-4pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 9241 2419|
It's a jungle out there. No, really, it is. There's an Archontophoenix cunninghamiana next to a Waterhousea floribunda and a Flindersia xanthoxyla just outside the panoramic windows, as palm trees gathered from south-east Asia to Madagascar grow among home-grown native Australians.
The Royal Botanic Garden is the perfect setting for the long-established Trippas White Group's newly renovated and renamed Botanic House restaurant, where Luke Nguyen is an "ambassador chef" (whatever that means).
Nguyen was born in Thailand and brought up in Australia by Vietnamese parents and Chinese grandparents, so he, too, has strong roots. They make for a confident pan-Asian menu with everything from Cantonese dumplings to Vietnamese red curry, salt-and-pepper squid, steamed bao with pork belly, and banh xeo turmeric pancakes.
As for Australian natives, look no further than grilled king prawns with tempura saltbush, and wok-tossed warrigal greens with water spinach and preserved bean curd.
Even good old Oz/Chinese sweet-and-sour pork with capsicum and pineapple gets a look in, which, considering the older, garden-loving demographic, is probably a good thing.
Eight weeks of renovations have left the garden's restaurant interior looking less like a Swiss ski chalet and more like a light, bright, mod Sydney restaurant with tables and high benches, intuitive single-line murals by Melbourne artist Jack Devereux, and gorgeous views of the gardens and harbour beyond through a wrap-around sheath of panoramic windows.
Don't expect the likeable Nguyen to be in the kitchen when you get there, as he's busy being an ambassador chef for others as well. Instead, we get Thai-born head chef Pakphom "Em" Meechai, who has cooked at Nguyen's Red Lantern restaurant and whose food I liked at Chubby Cheeks in Paddington.
As well, there's former Queen Chow dumpling chef Jason Chan, who sends out three sweetly presented, beetroot-pink dumplings filled with a fairly firm mixture of mud crab and scallop ($14).
It's good-looking food, and tiger prawn and avocado rice-paper rolls ($14) are halved and lined up on a bright green pandanus leaf. They're as light, pleasant, fresh and bland as pretty much all goi cuon, relying on house-made hoisin dipping sauce for a burst of flavour.
Jet-black, steamed charcoal buns are dramatic to look at, and again, light and mild of flavour, filled with roasted and flash-fried crisp pork belly ($16).
One of the best dishes at Chubby Cheeks is also the best dish here: a, crisp-skinned master-stock chicken ($32) in a tan pond of satay-like sauce flavoured with massaman red curry paste, tamarind, fish sauce and coconut milk.
The breast is dry but the thigh and wings, as ever, are mighty, and the spicing has a gentle warmth to it. Tip: rice for one is just $2, and is enough for two people.
Soy sauce ice-cream, mellowed by a rich creme anglaise, makes an interesting adjunct to a spongy slab of South American tres leches (three milks) cake flavoured with Vietnamese coffee ($16) and accessorised with miso caramel and Chinese almond cookie crumbs.
Service comes in varying degrees from polished to this-is-the-first-time-I-have-ever-carried-anything, but it's an attractive setting for what is essentially approachable, relatable Asian food that likes to keep to the middle of the road.
If they are up to fine-tuning, it would be good to see more wildness, greenery, spice and diversity, to reflect being in the middle of the garden as well.
Vegetarian: Dumplings, spring rolls, tempura, banh xeo, curry and fried rice.
Drinks: Classic cocktails (negroni, whiskey sour, espresso martini) and six beers plus iced teas, cold-pressed juices and a 34-strong locally driven wine list from group sommelier Fabio Nistrio.
Go-to dish: Crisp-skin corn-fed master-stock chicken with ginger, chilli and satay sauce, $32.
Pro tip: Allow plenty of time for exploring the Royal Botanic Garden before or after lunch; there is always something new popping up.