It’s one for those days. You want to catch-up with friends over a nice meal but you don’t want a big dent in your credit card. Truth be told, great-value dining options are not exactly plentiful in Singapore but if you search really hard, you might just find one in the not-too-inner reaches of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. It’s not Corner House but this restaurant, Botanico at The Garage (“Botanico”) is no push-over.
In an Art Deco black and white bungalow not far from the Botanic Gardens MRT Station, Sujatha Asokan (“Sue”), the head chef of Botanico, is slowly – but surely – making a name for herself.
Only 29 years of age and one of just a handful of female chefs in Singapore, Sue joined the then-Spanish restaurant as sous chef in June 2017 but took over the kitchen reins several months later, when she led a revamp in culinary direction towards modern European with Asian influences.
Just months after her watershed win as 2019 Rising Chef of the Year (Female) by the World Gourmet Summit and her subsequent two-week stage at the two Michelin-starred Mugaritz, Sue returned to Singapore invigorated to sharpen Botanico’s culinary focus. This time, she was determined to let the food do all the talking about her heritage, hence the Chinese-Indian and Southeast Asian inflections in her recently-updated a la carte menu. Notably, the young female chef’s cooking now comes across as more polished, if a little more matured, and the proof is in the pudding.
From her Nibbles menu, Corn Panipuri ($10) arrives as a trio of puffed pillows with Vandouvan-infused Japanese corn espuma and spiced baby corn buried within – a triumph of blow-you-away airy, crispy and crunchy textures cushioned with the heart-warming taste of curry.
Sue’s newly-introduced appetiser, “Tacos” ($18), is also a win. Beef tongue is brined, slow-cooked and grilled in a charcoal oven until it exudes the flavour and tenderness of what feels like luncheon meat. Served on a platter with jicama slaw perfumed with toasted and dehydrated lemongrass and torch ginger flower, a puddle of cashew nut cream and baby bak choy, you layer it as you would a taco with bak choy as the taco shell, cashew cream to bind the ingredients and finally, a riot of the jicama slaw salad. The rich, nutty and refreshing flavours will astound you but there is no denying how well executed each of these components are individually and as a whole.
Many Peranakan restaurants serve winged bean salad with a tangy belachan-based dressing but Sue’s Wing Bean Salad ($15) is a little special. She makes hers tastier and heartier with the addition of onions, hard-boiled egg and, interesting enough, crisp-on-the-outside and soft inside house-made chickpea tofu as well as lashings of deep-fried ikan bilis for a strong whiff of umami.
And it gets better with the mains.
Her 65° Kurobuta Pork Belly ($30) arrives as a glorious hunk of profoundly savoury marbled meat that has been brined, then sous vide, pan-seared and oven-smoked before it arrives drizzled in a Szechuan peppercorn-infused soy vinegar. So that it doesn’t get too cloying, which it doesn’t, she dresses the plate with textures of sunchoke and stalks of Chinese leek flower for a sweetish counterpoint. Perhaps the only improvement it needs is a heavier dose of Szechuan peppercorns.
Don’t judge a book by its cover and one should not rate Sue’s exceptional Herbal Chicken ($29) dish purely by its messy appearance. Chicken breast is brined then sous vide with salt and angelica, pan-seared then served with fluffy chicken-flavoured couscous, a lightly savoury angelica root sauce and chunks of Chardonnay vinegary-pickled cucumber. Finished with toppings of deep-fried kale and Comte cheese shavings, this unusually “busy” chicken dish sure packs in a startling amount of flavours. Yet it works.
I’m not usually a fan of kaya (coconut egg jam) desserts but Sue’s sweet and salty interpretation of Ondeh Ondeh ($12) makes such a strong showing that it is quite impossible to stop at one bite. The key to its balanced flavours, in my opinion, is the spot-on pairing of kaya ice cream with salt-dusted pandan glutinous rice cake, with coconut foam and gula melaka thrown in for good measure.
Surely, these are proof enough?
If you like what you see here, Sue’s 10-course tasting menu is available at $98++ per head (minimum two pax). While it will include petite portions of many of her dishes from the a la carte, expect to catch a glimpse – or two – of experimental courses from her R&D.
50 Cluny Park Rd, Level 2 Singapore Botanic Gardens, Singapore 257488; thegarage.sg
© Evelyn Chen 2020
Please note that the reviews published on this blog are sometimes hosted. I am under no obligation to review every restaurant I’ve visited. If I do, the reviews are 100% my own.