The Botanist

Terry Durack
Rowdy ... The Botanist is more bar than bistro.
Rowdy ... The Botanist is more bar than bistro. Photo: Fiona Morris

17 Willoughby Street Kirribilli, NSW 2061

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Opening hours Mon-Tues 4pm-11pm,Wed-Fri 11.30am-12 Noon,Sat 11am-12 Noon,Sun 12 Noon-10pm
Features Bar, Wheelchair access, Gluten-free options, Vegetarian friendly, Accepts bookings, Licensed, Groups
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Justin Walshe
Seats 80
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 9954 4057

THE LINE BETWEEN restaurants and bars is blurring by the minute, and I'm not just saying that because I'm drinking an elderflower lychee vodka martini and everything is blurring by the minute.

The lines would still be blurring had I abstained from alcohol (unlikely) and the Botanist, now occupying the Kirribilli corner that had been home to the long-serving Milsons restaurant, is 100 per cent proof.

The latest effort from Ben Carroll and Hamish Watts, the team behind the buzzy, beachy Bondi Hardware, has all the DNA of a loud and lively bar, but it also synthesises all we've come to expect from contemporary Sydney restaurants: the lighting is glow-in-the-dark low, the tables and chairs are high-rise with stools, and the food runs from sliders to pizzas to salt-and-pepper squid and all manner of share plates.

Go-to dish ... lamb kofta and crab and prawn sliders.
Go-to dish ... lamb kofta and crab and prawn sliders. Photo: Fiona Morris

If you're wondering about the name (of course you're wondering about the name), it's a reference to an eccentric, globetrotting English botanist named Gerard Fothergill, who moved to Australia late in life and ran a small bookshop on this very site until his death in 1932. His influence can be seen in the charming logo (pith helmet, spectacles, bow tie); in the illustrations of relevant botanicals, such as vanilla beans, cinnamon and jasmine, in the cocktail list; and in chef Justin Walshe's appropriately globetrotting menu, running from Tahitian to Sichuan, Mexican, Indian, Tunisian, Javanese and Ethiopian.

I'm not quite sure what a Victorian botanist would make of the dedicated slider selection (classic burger, lamb kofta, butter chicken and king crab, from $20 for four), but the young local and vocal crowd - in rowdy, flashing-lights, secret-santa office-party mode - is not stopping to argue. They're probably the most successful things on the menu, in fact. The lamb kofta is well constructed, nicely spiced and freshly cooked, slipped into cute buns with tabbouleh, hummus and garlic yoghurt, and the crab and prawn version is fresh and tangy, with a remoulade of kohlrabi that isn't overly awash with mayonnaise.

It's an Australian batting line-up of a menu, with its mix of hits and misses. Hits include a fresh, Tahitian-style mahi-mahi ceviche ($17), oddly served with toast, and a warm, lightly scorchy quesadilla (pictured) filled with chorizo, spiced beans, potato and cheese. Little pots of guacamole and tomato salsa add freshness.

It's a better bet than the pizza, which is model-thin and super crisp, the crust as fine as a cracker. The classic tomato, basil and bocconcini version ($18) is just plain boring, bland and cheesy.

Other misses include a bowl of freshly steamed clams ($19) tossed in a gritty-nutty tarator sauce, and an east African-inspired doro wat spicy chicken curry with coconut rice ($18). It may well be authentic to overload this dry curry with the deadening effect of cardamom, but it makes it one of the least wine-friendly dishes I've ever met.

The emphasis is more on cocktails and jugs than on wine, anyway, with eight whites and nine reds listed, mostly available by the glass and few over the $55 mark. A Polish Hill River Wilson Vineyard riesling (no vintages listed) is pleasant enough, until the doro wat renders it anaesthetised, at least.

Keen young things on the floor waft around in asymmetrical dresses and ankle boots, one step ahead of the kitchen, which is having a hard time keeping up with the baying crowd.

As at big brother Bondi Hardware, there's a build-your-own cheeseboard. Choose from Tarwin blue, Pyengana cheddar, Old Telegraph Road Fire Engine Red and Tarago River triple cream washed rind at $9 each, all in pretty good nick, served with a bunch of red grapes and still-warm fruit toast.

But good luck with even talking about what to order. The noise level is such that no matter who bought the last round of drinks, it's your shout. It's so deafening I give up yelling at one point and ring my partner on the other side of the table for a chat. Being rammed with end-of-year office parties doesn't help, not to mention being clad in poured concrete with little to dull the decibels. It's good that the Botanist is happy to be something other than fine dining, but it's in danger of not being the fun dining it could be, if you can't hear yourself speak.

In the tussle between restaurant and bar, I'd say the bar is winning, loud and clear.

The low-down

Best bit The charm of the Botanist concept.

Worst bit It's shouty-loud.

Go-to dish Lamb kofta or king crab and prawn sliders, four for $20.


How we score 

Terry Durack is a reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.