When you first visit The Botanist, you think to yourself: here is a place that needs absolutely no help from a restaurant critic. You can feel (and see and hear) its howling grooviness, its 24-carat trendiosity, from 100 yards away. It radiates heat. It palpitates with excitement. It is the hippest place in town since Sir Hippesley Hipman opened a hip-replacement clinic, to cries of hip-hip-hooray. It is, indeed, full of Hooray Henries and Henriettas. The nouveau Sloane Rangers stride in and out of The Botanist as if they own the place (a sure sign of its success) and crowd along the pavement in braying herds. The men are burnished by suntans recently acquired in Ibiza, and wear blue jeans with frayed hems; the ladies mostly favour a Mariella Frostrup blonde bob, and wear cream tops to render their pale skin even paler. Rich expatriate divorcees in Marc Jacobs shades survey the throng as if scouting for new husbands to conquer. Debonair, white-haired sugar daddies, fresh from a day at Ascot Races, sneak their arms around the lissom waists of young Pixies and Sukis, who later loll around on chairs wearing their benefactors' grey toppers, like spoils of war.
The reason I dwell on the place's physical appearance is because the true spirit of The Botanist lies in the bar and the street. Actually, it sometimes seems as if the bar is the street, because the floor-to-ceiling windows are open to the elements and the smokers outside sit on the low partitions. The actual restaurant, though it's an attractive room with cream leather banquettes and a back-lit picture wall featuring exotic flora and fauna from the journals of Sir Hans Sloane (the titular botanist), seems a secondary affair. And the food, when it comes, has a decidedly perfunctory feel about it.
The owners are Tom and Ed Martin, entrepreneurial brothers who gave the world The Gun in Docklands (it won an award for London's best gastropub, and is a favourite with Independent staffers). The Botanist is much classier than a gastropub, but the menu plays it safe with Anglo-French favourites: asparagus, Stilton and onion tart, seared foie gras, duck confit, sole meunière, tarte tatin. Regrettably, they then hang too many accessories on them, until each dish resembles one of the expatriate Chelsea matrons in Sloane Square, smeared with too much lip-liner and clanking with otiose jewellery.
My starter of pan-fried scallops, for instance, came with "curried apple and potato purée, with a golden raisin and caper beurre noisette". I ordered it out of sheer curiosity. Why would you want to do so many things to the simple scallop? Would they draw out some secret identity from its subtle depths? Of course not. Raisins and apple go together brilliantly in a pudding with custard, but shouldn't share a plate with scallops. As it turned out, both shellfish and purée were overwhelmed by the taste of raisins, the capers lacked any flavour at all, and the scallops had a secondhand taste, as if they'd been left in a warmer for hours; the beurre noisette had hardened on to the plate like an oil painting.
My companion's Cornish crab and avocado ravioli with tomato and chilli nage was an unlovely single green raviolo crash-landed in a dense, shallow soup. The crab and avocado were fine, but the edges of the pasta were hard and rubbery, and the soup seemed indistinguishable from tinned lobster bisque.
The main-course bream, sorry, "pan-fried gilthead bream with fricassée of summer vegetables, coriander pesto and shrimp sauce", was an improvement, nicely cooked, firm-textured, crisp-skinned and mercifully fresh; the summer vegetables were asparagus and peas, coincidentally the same ingredients as featured in the seasonal salad that we ordered on the side. My confit Telmara duck leg, served on sliced new potatoes with a dolly-mixture of salsa al rafano, was a touch over-baked; whether this was the result of long cooking or of being left too long on a sideboard, I couldn't say. It had the same tired air about it as the scallops.
We shared a sludgy cherry and white chocolate pannacotta and came to a conclusion: The Botanist isn't the place you'd choose to go out to dinner. It's a little too frantic, too rushed (the charming but relentless waitresses bustle you through the meal as if racing a difficult deadline) and insufficiently relaxing. It's the place at which you'd choose to meet someone for a drink and, after two hours of agreeable people-watching, might decide to stick around for dinner. For the moment, though, the place is a yelping success after only five weeks, and worth a journey for its sensational mojitos and hair-flicking thoroughbreds.
The Botanist, 7 Sloane Square, London SW1 (020-7730 0077)
Around £100 for two, with wine
The new chelsea set
By Madeleine Lim
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