SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Just because Singapore only has one season doesn't mean we can't pretend to have four - at least in restaurants where we can have summer or winter menus in June or December depending on which hemisphere the chef subscribes to. We know it's contrived but seasonality is such a nice illusion to subscribe to, along with dining in a pleasant English garden setting that the new Botanico restaurant offers.
If there's a sense of deja vu about this new casual-downstairs, fine-dining-upstairs concept at the Botanic Gardens, it's because Botanico is run by the same people behind Summerhouse at the old Seletar Air Base - also housed in a conserved colonial-era bungalow. Both offer a casual cafe and a semi-fine dining restaurant, and both feature head chefs with Michelin star backgrounds.
In the case of Botanico, Spanish chef Antonio Oviedo has worked with the late Santi Santamaria and at el Cellar de can Roca back home, and at Binomio and Iggy's in Singapore. For one who's been in Singapore for some time, he hasn't quite acclimatised himself to the local palate - alternating between awkward attempts to tropicalise his desserts and wanting to fatten us up for winter.
It's not a bad effort, but a lighter hand and hot, rather than tepid food would be better appreciated. It's been a while since we've had Spanish food so we look forward to the familiar Idiazabal Croquettes (S$14) - deep-fried bechamel fritters mixed with Idiazabal cheese and chorizo bits. But after the first few tasty bites of crunchy crust giving way to a thick cheesy cream filling, the croquettes quickly cool into stodgy, pasty bolsters.
Botanico at The Garage
50 Cluny Park Road
Singapore Botanic Gardens
Open for dinner only Wed to Sun: 6pm to 10pm
It's the same with the Calamaritos (S$12) - baby squid coated in thick batter and deep-fried. With a mellow seaweed-enhanced aioli, we're initially happy to chomp our way through but the heavy, greasy batter weighs us down pretty soon.
Chef Oviedo should build up a repertoire of light, inspired creations like the lovely lamb tartare (S$20) - refreshing and without the slightest whiff of gaminess, lightly seasoned and airlifted to a delicious realm with a scoop of mustard ice cream. Capers, pickled onions and egg yolk jam add to the joy that you can scoop onto crisp, flaky, swirly-patterned wafers.
We also start out liking the Chargrilled Carabinero (S$28), especially for the two good-sized Spanish shrimp grilled to bring out the succulent sweetness of the flesh that we devour along with the heads. A side-serving of saffron rice is chewy and comforting, infused with a light prawn stock. It should have stopped there, because the additional effort to braise pork trotters and add cubes of it to the rice is a wasted one.
It's not his fault we seem to have drawn a fat card that evening, with the final one being the chargrilled Iberico pork belly (S$26) - it's technically well-executed with its evenly browned exterior and crispy charred edges that barely hold a quivering blob of melting soft fat in place. If we were going out to harpoon some whales later we could put all that body fuel to good use, but not when it's barely 200 metres to our car.
Dessert-wise, we're always wary when foreign chefs get their hands on local fruit and spices because you never know what they're going to do with it. Chef Oviedo's Tropical Fruits (S$14) is a medley of longan, jack fruit and sea coconut forced into an unnatural liaison with laksa leaf ice cream and sticky, turmeric-flavoured ganache which may work in a parallel dessert universe but not in ours.
You're better off in safer territory with Ceiba ($14) where chocolate brownie squares nuzzle happily with their mousse and sauce brethren, while ginger ice cream and preserved rosella add a refreshing perspective.
Chef Oviedo is no amateur and the cooking is generally sound, albeit a little unsure of what it's supposed to be. It wants to be Spanish yet seasonal, botanically-inspired and tropical, which is a recipe for wishy-washiness. Concepts are nice to have, but we'd rather bite into reality - preferably one that's easier to digest.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: BT pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.