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).
Jet-black, steamed charcoal buns are dramatic to look at, and again, light and mild of flavour, filled with
One of the best dishes at Chubby Cheeks is also the best dish here: a, crisp-skinned master-stock chicken ($34) 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.
Address: Royal Botanic Garden, Mrs Macquaries Road, Sydney, 02 9241 2419, botanichouse.com.au
Open: Mon-Fri 11.30am-4pm; Sat-Sun 9.30am-4pm
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.
Cost: About $120 for two, plus drinks
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.
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.