For someone who pays the rent by complaining about restaurants, I’m surprisingly tolerant when it comes to the foibles of contemporary dining. As somebody who grew up endlessly amused by build-a-burger gummy sweets and those fresh-breath strips that dissolve on your tongue like a clammy tab of LSD, I welcome deconstructions, edible soils, and any form that molecular gastronomy transforms food into.
And while I've never had the patience or sanctity to say grace, I never fail to engage in another pre-meal ritual of bowed heads and table-wide hush; trying to compose that perfect photo for Instagram.
The one thorn in my side though - and I try not to let it bother me, I really do - is novelty tableware. Banana splits served in a stiletto, conical flasks of mushy peas, soft shell crab tempura on Season 5 Disc 2 of Friends , you all follow @WeWantPlates, you know the drill.
At best it’s misguided pretence to add “a message” or “intertextual reference” to dishes, at worst an admission that there’s nothing of interest or value in what they’re serving, and an attempt to cover it up with wackiness - like that twat in your office with the Mrs. Browns Boys talking tie.
Things weren’t off to a good start when my starter - innocuously described on the menu as a basket of chicken wings - came as an actual miniature wicker picnic basket of chicken wings.
Thankfully, the lack of a physical, tangible dish was the only fault I could find with the dish. The wings themselves had plenty of meat on them, with hot, taut skin so crisp that when bitten it gave a satisfying crack. Like somebody opening the spine of a thick, leather bound book for the first time; or a 15 stone bloke enthusiastically stamping his foot through a miniature wicker basket…
In its defense, The Botanist is at least consistent in its eccentricities. That some of its dishes are served on trowels or in miniature wheelbarrows, or sharing cocktails come in a watering-can to be divvied up between plant pots is a continuation of its high-concept decor.
Fixtures are cobbled together from weathered planks of wood, features are made from repurposed gardening tools or wrought-iron ornaments while menus are covered in textbook-etchings of botanicals and vegetables, giving that Lewis Carroll meets Scrapheap Challenge aesthetic.
This blossoms onto the drinks menu, as well, with an impressive and well thought-out range of Gin, paired with garnishes and tonics that play well with their unique botanicals, and nearly all cocktails are vitalized with the fragrance of an old English herb - such as the piney sprig of Rosemary freshening up my pleasingly bitter Negroni (premium components like Burleighs Gin and Lillet Rouge are accounted for in the £9.95 price tag)
Old English food, by all accounts, was a pretty joyless thing - all tripe, and boiled leeks, and eggs in aspic, and tripe - so you can understand why the food menu plays fast and loose with the theme. Snacks such as Pork Crackling sit alongside tapas-like bites of Padron Peppers (£4.75) fried in oil until the skin turns translucent like tissue paper, and served with a harissa mayo. There’s homemade Scotch Eggs and Potted Salmon, but also Middle Eastern touches of Sesame-Coated Falafel, and Homemade Hummus. Decidedly non-English Curry sauce adds a depth to the smoulder of a classic Smoked Haddock Fishcake (£5.95), a particular highlight, topped with a runny poached egg.
For a split-second I’m tempted to go for the signature Hanging Kebab - a dangling contraption like something from Mouse Trap, skewering of barbecued meat and just waiting for me to make a complete mess of - before settling on the Lamb Tagine (£12.75), and I’m very glad I do. Served on pert, bulbous, caviar-like beads of cous cous, the slow-cooked meat is juicy, full of flavour, and absent of the usual fat and connective tissue that usually pads out stewy dishes. Naturally, the tagine it arrives in is just a serving-prop which seemingly played no role in actually cooking the dish - and I should know, I pretty much licked the thing clean.
Salmon Fillet (£13.25) had spent half a minute too long on the grill and fell apart with a little less persuasion than I’d like, but there was a pleasing chilli crust fried onto one side of it, and the minted, tartared accompaniments served it well. Portion sizes aren’t huge, so a couple of sides are recommended - £3.50 each for a few florets of broccoli and a corn on the cob seem a little mean, but about £16 for a main and side isn’t too unreasonable.
The place was heaving inside and out on the evening we visited, a group in front of us were informed there were no more tables available for the rest of the night, at 7:30. On a Wednesday. The waiting staff - especially our server Amy - handled the restaurant floor effortlessly, suggesting that this wasn’t a one-off, and it’s not difficult to see why it’s popular.
If you go here - or to any restaurant attached to a shopping centre, really - expecting a progressive menu then you’re barking up the wrong tree (and I’d suggest reading menus before placing bookings at restaurants) - but there’s something for everyone here, and it’s all good quality. Combine this with great booze and the atmosphere, and it makes The Botanist a no-brainer for eating in big groups or with “selective” eaters.
Maybe take your own plates though.