Review by John Tatlock
The Botanist, a now fifteen-strong chain of restaurants, including today’s trip to the Didsbury branch, has long traded on its broad menu, in both food and drink, live music every evening, and general sense of accessible opulence.
The chain was also an enthusiastic early adopter of the now ubiquitous and reliably irritating fish-in-a-wooden-box, peas-on-a-roof-slate, why-use-one-typeface-when-you-can-use-twelve style of presentation. I’m glad to report that this has calmed down a bit recently, with humankind’s enduring design classic, the plate, showing up more and more, and menus and signage that border on readable.
The charred edamame beans, with chilli, garlic and sesame oil were something of a revelation
As you can no doubt tell, The Botanist’s busy, colonial-era aesthetic is not to my personal taste, and I’m sure nobody has ever had the spontaneous thought “What would really box this meal off would be an earnest chap groaning out a cover of ‘Wonderwall’ in the corner”. But there’s never been any quibbling with the food, and the service, attentive without being intrusive, is of a reliably excellent standard.
The chain’s new big push is into vegan dining, with a new menu at all locations, so I took along a designated vegan to see if they’d pulled it off.
We opted to share starters from the ‘Nibbles’ menu, and went for two vegan dishes. The charred edamame beans, with chilli, garlic and sesame oil were something of a revelation, with a hearty substance and a satisfyingly smoky flavour. The baked kale crisps, with apple cider vinegar and sea salt, were also a joy; the closer a health food gets to tasting like a really good chippy tea, the happier I get.
The pork belly was the huge drool-inducing thing you’d expect
Replete enough from these to skip full-scale starters, we proceeded to the mains. I opted for a meat dish; one of The Botanist’s signature ‘Hanging Kebabs’. I chose the salt and pepper pork belly, drizzled in sweet chilli and ginger. My companion went for one of the new vegan (and dairy-free) dishes, the harissa aubergine steak, served with saffron and almond Israeli couscous, grilled baby gem and tahini dressing. These seemed two strong choices to see if the new direction can hold up against The Botanist’s mainstays.
And the answer, for now, is… almost. The pork belly was the huge drool-inducing thing you’d expect, while the aubergine steak was substantial but far more sanely proportioned. It also was the more interesting of the two dishes, with a great balance of different flavours and textures. It’s hard to nail down why, but we both agreed that it wasn’t as impressive as the starters had been, and felt perhaps the kitchen had been given a few too many new things to get on top of at once. It was really good, but didn’t yet have the confident expertise of the older menu.
The closer a health food gets to tasting like a really good chippy tea, the happier I get
With that, it was onto the desserts. Again, I went for a mainstay (sticky toffee pudding, absolutely excellent), while my companion went for the vegan option of banana doughnuts, with salted caramel sauce, and a (dairy-free) peanut milkshake. This, I have to concede, they absolutely nailed. Unusual in a good way, and light enough to prompt wolfing down, I was actually rather envious based on the small taste I was allowed.
Although not a vegan myself, I do think a vegan lifestyle should be easier to achieve in 21st century Britain. The Botanist, in providing high quality, tasty, interesting vegan options that fit right in alongside the rest of the menu, are doing something quietly pioneering. Their new menu enables diners of all dietary requirements (gluten-free and dairy-free options also abound) to eat together, with no-one condemned to an afterthought dish or a bowl of fries. Minor issues and teething troubles aside, they’re off to a great start.