Botanik is a lush experiment of a restaurant. It’s set in a bohemian, verdant rooftop garden overflowing with edible plants, the background to whimsical, wholly unique cooking by chef Elijah Holland.
Holland is serious about finding ingredients no one else dares to use (he forages the parks of Shanghai for some of the greens and herbs) and then cooking them in ways most people in Shanghai just don’t do, like outdoor smoking and over live fire on his open-air grill.
You’ve probably heard of this place. It’s been around since last year, though only opens May to October, or whenever the weather gets too cold to fill the 22 seats. Its reputation is outsized, multiplied by Holland’s determination to be different and the space, which is an indisputably magical little corner of Shanghai.
The menu. Holland introduced a summer menu in June but has been relentlessly tweaking it almost every day since. Many chefs say they cook with the seasons and they change their menu in tune with nature, but many chefs are lying. Not this guy. Since I went last week, seven of the dozen or so dishes have changed and so have many of the ingredients. That makes it hard to write about it and tell you accurately what you might eat if and when you visit Botanik (open Thursday-Sundays only), so consider this a snapshot of what the menu was, on one night, and might resemble, at least in spirit, in the future.
I’ve been remiss. Until just recently, I’d not been to Botanik. I dismissed all the forage-y press and food blog drooling as just a bunch of hype. Who wants to eat a plant plucked from the side of some road in downtown Shanghai anyway?
I was wrong about that. I do. I’ll eat those plants (they do not come from the side of the highway).
What Holland is doing is on the one hand, totally unique — I’ve not had food anywhere close to this original in Shanghai in many years — and on the other hand, totally predictable: he’s easy to slot into the global trend for foraged food that Rene Redzepi and Noma kicked off maybe a decade ago now. (Holland was, in fact, the head forager for Noma’s one-year pop-up in Australia.) And as long as I’m peeling off and sticking labels on him, I’d add one for “live fire cooking”, another recent trend that was kick-started by Extebarri in Spain’s Basque country.
I’m all for them. Both of the trends. I love this stuff. I love the little bit of foraging I’ve done in my life, for mushrooms in Yunnan and fruit in Spain, and I grew up cooking outdoors over a grill. Feel like a little kid again at this restaurant, excited to play in the garden and learn about plants. Feel connected to the natural world in a way that is completely missing when you live downtown in a city of 25 million people (I suspect this is the fundamental psychological attraction to Botanik). Also feel a little silly when, after a dozen courses where every dish comes with a long botanical explanation, I’m served a dessert with bananas and bee larvae and a “tea” made from smoked banana skins. Washed it down with water dyed blue by a butterfly pea. Detractors might call this pretentious and conceited. I’d call it extra earnest. It’s definitely precious. I’ll still give them the benefit of the doubt.
Shut up already, St. Cavish. How is the food?
Um, it’s good. Sometimes it hits (the roasted pigeon, the Yunnan mushroom tart, the scallop) and sometimes it misses (crayfish poached in beef fat, sprouted coconut heart). When I went, the menu was more than a dozen courses and dinner took almost three hours. Too long. Don’t get me wrong, sitting in the garden is lovely, but after so many fiddly little bits with this type of herb and that type of grain and the other type of cooking process, it’s tiring. Palate fatigue. Forage fatigue. Description fatigue. I’d say five or six dishes were keepers and the rest — well, I appreciated the effort.
Yes, yes, but what was on the menu?
Oh, right. Yes. I sent our crack SmartShanghai photographer along last Thursday to shoot that night’s menu (688rmb per person).
Scallops, Bamboo, Long kong
Butterfly pea & Lavender sourdough, Black garlic
Fig, Buffalo & Sheep milk
Heirloom tomatoes, Mountain pepper, Banana prawn, Kaluga caviar
Yabby, Beef fat, Palm flower, Sourdough waffle
Pigeon, Green wheat, Rocket
Beetroot, Smoked Russian sturgeon, Horseradish
Beef, Butternut pumpkin, Alliums
Rice, Duck egg, Sea buckthorn, Sand ginger
Cacao, Berries, Echinacea
Overall, I’d call Botanik the most original and eye-opening restaurant I’ve been to since this place. That was in 2012. Holland has found a completely new angle on ingredients, one that I can only hope other chefs in this city will copy bit by bit. Many western chefs complain about a “lack of good ingredients” in China. Botanik, and Holland, are a working testament to just how tired and pathetic this long-standing excuse really is.
One more glass of blue water, please.
Botanik, 4/F, No. 301, Lane 171 Jianguo Zhong Lu, near Ruijin Er Lu. Full listing here.