SINGAPORE — There seems to be a predictable rite of passage when a chef (young or experienced) is catapulted into a position of power in a space as sacred as a kitchen such as the one at Botanico. It starts with astute observation of the current state of affairs, always letting the culinary culture of the mise-en-scene guide them, even when it is at times in dire need of change.
They mull around, careful not to allow themselves to be swept away by the novelty of this moment—the realisation that dreams do come true. You begin to see their personality in glimpses, some bright, others less apparent as they attempt to imbue their culinary principles into the status quo, but at the back of their mind, merely waiting for a chance to revamp and rejuvenate.
It's a calculated restraint that almost always lasts for no more than a year before the new blood manages to convince everyone to go back to the drawing board and rethink everything they know. This would be the exciting stage of a restaurant’s reintroduction into the imagination of diners, food writers, and food lovers alike. It is when newly-minted chefs lay their cards on the table, ready to show the world what their culinary philosophy and principles are all about.
I knew that day would come the first time I tried Chef Sujatha Asokan’s food back in April of 2019. Then, the menu focused very much on the balanced pairing of European and Asian flavours—and to good effect at that. It was all also very safe and, in hindsight, hardly emblematic of the sort of passion and possibility that Chef Sujatha has now injected into Botanico’s DNA—circa 2020, of course.
This time around, the food is hardly cause for celebration for those in need of a curated Instagram feed, which, honestly, is completely fine by me. Food for the feed is just so, you know, post COVID-19 démodé. Now, with restaurants boldly opening up and introducing new menus for our enjoyment, it’s all about the food, nothing more, nothing less, exactly the way it should be.
It starts with a rustic-looking presentation of Beef Tongue Tacos (S$18++), a sort of playful take on the classic, here using baby Bok Choy, Jicama slaw, beef tongue, ginger flower, and cashew cream. It’s a great starter that leans on the whimsical play of acidity from Jicama and texture from the leafy greens.
Corn (S$10++) though simply named, is a delightful and surprising burst of sweet curried Japanese corn espuma and spiced baby corn, housed in a mound of Panni Pouri shell, which must absolutely be consumed while still warm. The two ladies at the table beside us saw what we were eating and were similarly convinced to order themselves a set. Such is the power of a panni pouri.
Balancing the New Normal:
Here is where we depart with all manners of pleasantries and dive headfirst into Chef Su’s embrace of Asian culinary influences. There’s Rojak (S$15++), a starter less inspired by the original, but rather, has firm roots familiarity. Botanico’s iteration doesn’t have the usual smattering of crushed peanuts or the heady aroma of shrimp paste and tamarind.
I reckon it’s more like a beginner’s Rojak kit with seasonal Southeast Asian fruits taking centre stage—guava, balonglong, rose apple, green papaya—alongside other ingredients such as Heiko foam and prawn aioli. It’s slightly less savoury than the OG, and much, much cleaner on the palate. As I said, it’s a beginner’s Rojak.
The Wing Bean Salad (S$15++) is a riotous and intense play of all things good and right with the world. At first glance, it’s deceivingly placid, like all great things. But take a spoonful and relish in the bold flavours of the sweet raw red onions, savoury fish sauce, palm sugar, potent chilli padi, bright aioli, chickpea tofu, and an unashamedly proud pile of crunchy ikan bilis.
It’s like eating ulam, and I absolutely can’t get enough. It’s Chef Su loudly proclaiming her love for her heritage, and we’re all living. Living, I tell you.
Taking on Asian flavours in starters, honestly, is not the hardest thing to do. But mains are where the most ambitious falter. Purists don’t take too kindly to local favourites being munched around, but thankfully, I’m not a purist.
In my notes, I wrote that I understood the intention behind the “Assam Pedas” Snapper (S$32++) with it’s twice-cooked aromatic Saffron risotto and okra done two ways—fried and tamarind-soaked. This one lacked the fieriness of my mum’s and is somewhat closer to an Asam laksa, only less sour. The Asam pedas is also less gravy and more foamed sauce, a clear move away from traditions and a welcome embrace of modern cooking techniques.
Surprisingly, it’s the Herbal Chicken (S$29++) that won my heart. I am surprised because I don’t take too fondly to chicken breast (too many places aren’t deft with its preparation), but Chef Su’s version is tender, gentle, flavourful, and encourages repeated mouthfuls.
The herbal in the moniker comes from the sauce, a masterful and heady blend of dang gui (angelica), yu zhu (Solomon's seal), huai shan (Chinese yam) and red dates. It’s much less intense than the ones wrapped in foil, which means you can easily discern the sweet undertones of the herbal medley and have it be enjoyed and embraced by even the most cynical.
I wanted the Ondeh Ondeh (S$12++) dessert to be more inspirational and wondered if it’s, after all the wonderful things I’ve eaten tonight, a tall ask. It’s not tardy by any means, but one has to admit that the trend of Ondeh Ondeh as a dessert, is long and truly over. Still, here, it’s decent enough with a touch of salt to coax sweetness, and blobs of kaya ice cream to tie everything together.
I did wish dessert had the same grit and tenacity as the starters and mains, but for now, this slight oversight is entirely forgivable. Yet, this in no way detracts from the culinary brilliance of Chef Sujatha which I readily share with anyone with a willing ear. It’s fascinating what a year can do, and if Chef Su continues on this trajectory, who knows what other amazing menus she can conjure if given more time. I wait, like many others, with breath that is bated.
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