SINGAPORE - Looking through the menu of Botanico, one thing jumps out. The prices at the latest restaurant to open in the Singapore Botanic Gardens are surprisingly decent.
They are not dirt cheap, but with starters at under $20 and most main courses at less than $30, they are not much higher than what you find at hipster cafes these days. And you get much better cooking, service and ambience.
The Spanish restaurant is located on the second floor of a standalone building in the gardens called The Garage - converted from what was an actual garage for professors of the former University of Singapore adjoining the gardens, with living quarters for their drivers on the upper floor.
The car bays on the ground floor have been walled in and are now used as a kitchen as well as a daytime cafe called Bee's Knees, run by the operators of Botanico.
The chef running the kitchen for both outlets is Spaniard Antonio Oviedo, formerly with Binomio in Craig Road and Iggy's at Hilton Singapore. He has also trained under the late chef Santi Santamaria of the former Santi at Marina Bay Sands, as well as the Roca brothers of El Celler de Can Roca in Spain.
Botanico is a much humbler establishment than those restaurants, but the chef's fine-dining experience is evident in the cooking.
50 Cluny Park Road, Singapore Botanic Gardens, tel: 6264-7978, open: 6 to 10pm (Wednesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays and Tuesdays
Food: 4/5 stars
Service: 4/5 stars
Ambience: 3.5/5 stars
Price: Budget $70 to $80 a person
His Idiazabal Croquettes ($14 for two) easily rank among the best croquettes I have eaten. The crust is delicately thin and crisp, enclosing a creamy filling of smoked Idiazabal cheese that oozes out when you bite into it. Shavings of chorizo are generously piled on each croquette, the distinctive flavour of spicy cured meat providing a good balance to the rich cheese.
Sardines - except for the canned variety - are usually too fishy for me, but the Smoked Sardines ($20) here are perfectly palatable.
They are not very smoky, but the tender pieces of fish go so well with ajo blanco, a cold soup of almonds and garlic that is used as a sauce here. On the plate too are pieces of Kyoho grapes and I love the sweetness they provide when you bite into them.
Even a salad is treated as a gourmet dish here. The Botanico Salad ($18) looks really pretty on the plate - a worthy tribute to the Unesco World Heritage Site the restaurant is located in - and boasts a good combination of flavours in the mix of momotaro tomatoes, pickled beetroot, radish, edible flowers and burrata cheese.
Seafood lovers will be pleased with the Japanese Scallops ($27). They get three plump and sweet scallops that are grilled just right.
To add variety for the palate, the shellfish comes with sprigs of samphire (a crisp sea vegetable that looks like green twigs) and shavings of topinambur or Jerusalem artichoke. Even more lovely are the bits of Iberico lardo that you hardly see on the plate, but pop up as aromatic bursts of fat in the mouth.
Another seafood dish I enjoy is the Chargrilled Carabinero ($28), comprising two barely cooked scarlet prawns that are sweet and juicy. In a separate bowl is a serving of saffron rice studded with - of all things - diced pig trotter. But it works, as the gelatinous trotter bits add a dimension to the rice that I find original and very moreish.
Meat dishes are good too, especially the Chargrilled Wagyu Flank ($34). The cut is not very marbled, but the meat is flavourful. And it is done just right, so it stays tender and juicy even without the fat.
If I have to find fault with the restaurant, it is the rather unglamorous entrance. The staircase to the upper floor is at the side of the building, a narrow flight of steps that ends in a closed wooden door that you have to open gingerly and close behind you, hoping that it will not slam too hard and draw everyone's attention to your entrance.
But once you enter the dining room, you are greeted by well-spaced tables and a high ceiling. There is also an outdoor bar area with views of the gardens that you can adjourn to for postprandial drinks.
It is also a good place to escape the blast of air-conditioning in the dining room, which not only makes you feel that you are inside a chiller, but also turns the food cold too quickly.
That is a shameful thing to happen to such good cooking.
•Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter @STahyoke and on Instagram @wongahyoke
•The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.
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