Why it costs $290 (non-refundable) to book this dining experience?

“Dinners want something special, transformations,” he says. “We want our guests to enjoy a four-hour mini-vacation, and we’re committed to making that happen.”

Dedication isn’t the first word most people think of when dining out, but tasting chefs refer to it constantly, both in terms of time and money. Restaurant Botanic opened last July with the 20-course The Garden Trail menu for $290 per person, payable in full at time of reservation. Without refund.

“There aren’t many restaurants I know of in Australia that can call that,” says Detroit-born James, former executive chef at Melbourne’s Vue de Monde† “But we are fully booked almost from day one. And with only 36 guests and five shifts a week, it is extremely difficult for us if a table of four doesn’t show up for their reservation.”

By coming up with a series of small, consecutive dishes, chefs can create their own language. James says spending an extended period of time with guests will also allow him to see the diversity of flavors that come out of the gardens and tell their stories.

Clockwise from top left: Abalone, daikon, and sea urchin hot sauce; shrimp tacos; Murray cod steamed in paperbark with garum butter and celeriac; Jerusalem artichoke, chives and chamomile; A bowl of mushrooms; Davidson plum, lemon verbena, mountain pepper; Sydney rock oysters, desert limes, green ants and charred cream; Bluefin tuna, charcoal roasted aubergine, yogurt. Jonathan van der Knaap

“Ingredients are like letters, and you start putting those letters together, and you have words. More words and you have a sentence.” He doesn’t consider it a tasting. “For us, it’s not 20 different dishes, it’s 20 unique flavor combinations,” he says. “I don’t even call desserts, desserts. They’re just dishes that can still be savory, but focus a little more on sweetness.”

With the entire botanical gardens on its doorstep, he has a constant and ever-changing reminder of seasonal diversity. “The garden has its own seed bank to protect that diversity for the future. One of the first things we did was to create the equivalent with our Ferment Lab, fermenting and preserving 2000kg of garlic, vinegar and pickles.”

James is cautious about the trend for chefs to have gardens. “They put a few leaves on the plate to remind you where you are,” he says.

“I want to push myself more. What can I do with those leaves, how can I exchange and serve them, so that they still form a story about the garden?”

To illustrate: James smokes abalone in paperbark and roasts it over a wood fire. The tender meat is tossed in a butter made from abalone livers and served on a rock beneath its own shell with a hot sauce of sea urchin, carrot and chili, lightly grilled daikon and a single leaf of Geraldton wax, a citrusy, aromatic native. .

At the table, guests are invited to lift the shell to reveal the abalone, as if they had caught it themselves. Sweet chestnut is cooked in lemon myrtle leaves and branches, with corn and fermented chili.

Spicy Davidson plum is infused with lemon verbena and mountain pepper in a sorbet, and the gardens’ fallen bunya branches are used to infuse a sweet custard glazed with wattleseed miso and native thyme leaves.

Clockwise from top left: Restaurant Botanic final bites – shiitake fudge, pickled beets, finger lime and verbena; Red-haired kangaroo barely cooked over charcoal; Red love apple with muntari, raspberries, juniper berries and buttermilk; Sweet damper; Wagyu and brassica cooked on a pine branch; potato and caviar; Bunya bunya and native thyme. Jonathan van der Knaap

Croissant dough is wrapped around a branch and cooked over the fire, glazed in parsnip caramel and topped with toasted shredded macadamia. Pine needles are collected to flavor a caramelized fudge, speckled with dried shiitake mushrooms and rolled in shiitake powder; one of the small bites at the end of the menu. And that’s only six of the courses, with 14 more to go.

“Everything we do revolves around time and place,” says James. “The place is the Botanic Gardens, then it widens to Adelaide and then South Australia. Now is the time.”

“Everything we do revolves around time and place,” said Justin James, executive chef and owner of Restaurant Botanic. Jonathan van der Knaap

‘If they’re bored, they get tired’

Restaurant Botanic is all about where and when. But Federico Zanellato and Karl Firla have upped the wow factor at Ele, housed in the former Momofuku Seiobo offering of Korean-American chef David Chang.

The chefs add a lot of drama to the experience by making their eight-course menu progressive, not passive. Diners start with a flurry of snacks at the bar and then move on to the kinetic dining space as shape-shifting abstract videos play against curtains and walls. They move back to the wide counter for the final.

“We have decided not to make the traditional distinction between starter, main course and dessert,” says Zanellato. “It’s fun for people to go to the counter to watch us cook the beef on the robata grill and interact with the chefs.”

One of the main requirements of a tasting menu is that it flows naturally, rather than jumping incoherently from fish to meat and from crunchy to juicy. “We always start from lighter to heavier, in terms of taste and texture,” says Zanellato. “You have to have a good flow between dishes and make sure that the first dish connects to the next dish as a natural evolution.”

Pearl meat, for example, has a very subtle, sea-sweet taste, or so it seems at first. Maroon or Murray cod has a depth of flavor that puts it further down their menu. It gets more difficult towards the end. “You’re switching to a protein like Wagyu beef now, so you don’t make it too big,” he says. “Dinners don’t want 300 bites of the same thing. If they are bored, they get tired.”

One of the annoyances of dining for Justin James is that chefs often tick the same old boxes, and one of them is that desserts have to be sweet. In a traditional kitchen, the chef does the main dishes and a pastry chef treats desserts as if he were subcontracting.

“It’s like, ‘Wow, I’m in a different restaurant now,'” he says. “There is no connection. We don’t even have a pastry shop. We just do all the dishes ourselves, so there is more flow and no separation between savory and sweet dishes.”

But as AA Gill so ironically described, the diner’s palate quickly becomes saturated. “Introducing different textures wakes it up and keeps it interested,” says Zanellato, referring to his Chardonnay Fresh to Frozen pre-dessert, in which the grape is expressed in different shapes and textures. “And you have to make sure there’s a good amount of acidity throughout the tasting because that keeps it interesting rather than flat.”

It’s all in the timing, he says: the dishes are delivered quickly, but not too quickly. “I remember dinners where I had to wait half an hour between courses, and then they brought something that was just one bite.”

He and Firla determine a sweet spot of 10 to 12 minutes between courses. “We handwrite the time on the roll when each course is brought to the table, and that dictates we have 10 minutes to produce the next course.”

Karl Firla (left) and Federico Zanellato from Ele by Federico and Karl.

Wine or drink pairings are increasingly used as guests want a luxurious experience without the pedestrian of decision-making. At Ele, the Atmospheric pairing is popular for $170 per person. In Adelaide, the three different combinations of Restaurant Botanic are chosen by half of the guests every evening. Many opt for the premium Sommelier’s Reserve clutch, priced at $330 per person.

But profit margins drop when a table for two likes to sit on a single cocktail in the evening. “We can’t control that,” Zanellato says sadly. “Yeah, it affects the revenue for the night because we make more money on drinks than we do on food.”

with maroon, wagyu, caviar and truffles are on the shopping list, food costs are high. But the fact that every diner has more or less the same dishes makes a tasting menu more sustainable than à la carte, when chefs have to guess twice how many pounds of fish or steak they need. “There is much less waste and environmental impact with a set menu,” says Firla.

The Japanese concept of omakase, where diners respectfully leave it to the chef to decide what to eat, is also on the rise as cash-in-hand diners seek more intimate and memorable experiences. And as the format diversifies, so does the market.

At Ele, Firla says, most of the tables are occupied by young Asian-Australians who typically spend a large portion of their income dining out, while other customers book for special occasions or corporate events.

Internationally, some tasting restaurants are moving from multi-course meats to plant-based menus. Daniel Humm did a 100 percent plant-based turnaround at New York’s Eleven Madison Park last year. Chef Rasmus Kofoed also announced last month that he would be removing meat (but not fish) from the menu of his three Michelin stars. Geranium in Copenhagen

This brushing aside of dining conventions and the desire to entertain and escalate puts dining on the same level as a stadium concert or a night at the theater, for which you would prepay, dress up and commit to sharing three or four hours with people who enjoy the same.

For the chefs, it’s an exciting promotion, and hopefully without spilling, allowing them to work with the best products they can find. “Tasting is the best way to showcase the real heroes, the beautiful suppliers and farmers that we have,” says Federico Zanellato. “It will keep changing and evolving, but it will always be there.”

Three more to try

Lower beam in Victoria; Tim Scott from Brisbane Exhibition; Van Bone in Tasmania.

understeer † ballarat

Underbar (oon-der-bar) will open in the spring in the new luxury boutique hotel Vera with seven suites. The minimalist 10-course menu and drinks for 14 diners stem from the adventurous spirit of former Per Se (New York) chef Derek Boath. 710 Sturt Street, Ballarat, Victoria

Exhibition † Brisbane

Chef Tim Scott, formerly of 10-seat Joy, promises escapism in this dark and moody basement restaurant below the Metro Arts Theater. Exhibition, which opened this month, serves up Australia’s finest produce as a series of Japanese-style curated small dishes of kaiseki. 190 Edward Street, Brisbane

from Bone † Marion Bay

Described as a “restaurant and farm”, Van Bone perches on the rolling hillside of Marion Bay, 50 minutes from Hobart. Tim Hardy and Laura Stucken offer a relentlessly local and seasonal multi-course meal for 20 guests, with equally local views from the table. 357 Marion Bay Road, Bream Creek, Tasmania

The July issue of AFR Magazine – the Culinary Travel number – will be released on Friday 24 June The Australian Financial Review† Follow AFR Mag on Twitter and Instagram


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