When I go to a restaurant for lunch or dinner I want food that is innovative and delicious. Food I wouldn’t attempt to create myself.
Am I alone in thinking that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find more than a handful of restaurants that meet my criteria in this town? Whenever one of these closes it’s replaced by something more casual.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but how can we keep ambitious young chefs and apprentices in Newcastle when there are so few places where they can hone their skills? Although, to be fair, hamburgers and craft beer make a profit; in most cases fine dining doesn’t.
It could well be that we, the dining public are responsible for its demise.
Botanica Restaurant in the Hunter Valley ticks all the right boxes. Innovative, delicious and accessible.
There are white linen napkins, expertly placed, fine crystal, elegant tableware, an extensive wine list and all wines by the glass poured at the table from a fresh bottle into appropriate glasses. There’s also expertly handled produce and a staff that cares about you, the customer.
Evidence; delicate, frothy, flavourful cauliflower soup amuse bouche in a demi-tasse that arrives while we wait for our entrees; excellent sourdough (complimentary) made using a 100-year-old starter, although the accompanying smoked, whipped butter was a bit sweet for my taste.
Wild-caught NZ langoustine, gnocchi, prawn butter, chilli, finger lime, tomato. The name says it all; two generous shelled langoustine surrounded by tiny, fried gnocchi in a savoury butter. A tangy sorbet completes a perfect trifecta; texture, taste, temperature.
There’s more of the same with smoked mussels that are not out of a tin, large white anchovies, fine ribbons of cucumber, anise myrtle sorbet and finger lime ‘caviar’. While all the entrees are light and summery, some of the mains seem a bit heavy for a sweltering day.
Not so the darne (thick cut from the centre of the fish) of crisp skinned ocean trout. This comes with a creamy fennel custard and sits on a scattering of broad beans, samphire and micro herbs with a lacy prawn cracker on one side.
And, we can’t resist the Middle Eastern inspired lamb. Perfectly pink and rested meat, a pistachio and cumin crust, potato whipped with yoghurt, al dente asparagus, pomegranate arils and a sticky jus for dipping the last of the bread.
Perhaps an extra side ($7) of vegetables (carrots, zucchini and broccolini) which come from their garden? It certainly fulfils the recommended daily vegetable requirement.
So, feeling virtuous, it won’t hurt to at least look at the desserts. Trouble is, they are so tempting. Coconut ice cream, passionfruit, pineapple and white chocolate satisfies my preference for a fruity finish. It’s another triumph of taste and texture which, unfortunately was not so evident in the two-dimensional mascarpone filled beignets with hazelnut, apple, and Pedro Ximenez; too much sweet, not enough sour.
There’s just one thing wrong with Botanica for Novocastrians. It’s not in Newcastle. But, it’s definitely worth the journey.
- What: Restaurant Botanica, Spicers Vineyards Estate, 555 Hermitage Rd, Pokolbin; 6574 7229; spicersgroup.com.au
- Chef: Matthew Bremerkamp
- Wines: Predominantly Hunter but many from SA, Tas, WA and Vic, NZ, France, Italy and Spain;17 by the glass, including sparkling and dessert.
- Hours: Lunch, 12pm-3pm Sat/Sun; dinner, from 6pm, seven nights
- Vegetarian: Vegetarian and vegan menus. Ask about gluten free.
- Bottom line: $79pp for 3 courses, $69pp for 2 courses with amuse bouche, house bread and butter.
- Do try: Pistachio crusted lamb.
- Wheelchair access: yes