There are places which are ‘Gram-worthy, and there are places which are foodie-worthy. Sometimes, the two come together in an exciting manner — as is the case for Botanico and Bee’s Knees, helmed by rising young chef, Sujatha Asokan.
The Botanic Gardens, a Unesco World Heritage site, is an absolutely gorgeous place for an energetic walk or run. Not only that, it can be a lovely venue for having a great dinner, taking a few pictures for Instagram, or enjoying a nice, refreshing cocktail as well — and The Garage is the perfect place for all three activities.
A multi-concept F&B destination, The Garage is home to two restaurants: Botanico and Bee’s Knees. The beautifully-restored 1920s Art Deco bungalow located near the Cluny Road entrance to the Botanic Gardens has Bee’s Knees on the ground level, a casual cafe with an easy, relaxed vibe, great cocktails, and comfort food; and Botanico on the upper level, which is its more gourmet offering with some serious eats.
I recently had the opportunity to enjoy both Bee’s Knees and Botanico’s refreshed menus, and was particularly impressed by rising young chef, Sujatha Asokan, who has taken over the responsibility of revamping the culinary offerings of both restaurants.
Asokan, who is half Chinese-Malaysian and half Indian-Singapore, graduated with a diploma in Baking and Culinary Science, and worked her way into the kitchens of renowned establishments like Stellar at 1-Altitude, Pollen and Esquina, amongst others. The 29-year-old then found her culinary home in the inaugural intake of 1-Group’s Management Associate Programme.
1-Group, formerly known as the 1-Rochester Group, is the holding company of a number of popular bars, cafes and restaurants across the island, including The Garage, ALT Cafe and Bar, The Summerhouse and Wildseed Cafe & Bar. In 2017, Asokan was promoted to lead the kitchens of The Garage, and in 2018, at just 27, she was entrusted with leading the major revamp of the property’s culinary direction. Last year, she was awarded “Rising Chef of the Year – Female” at the World Gourmet Summit, for which she won the opportunity to stage at the Michelin-starred, avant-garde restaurant, Mugaritz, in Spain.
The experience she has gained is evident in her inventive and unusual take on familiar local flavours.
While not every dish was a hit with me, there were several absolute standouts which make Botanico and Bee’s Knees worth several repeat visits (which I have actually done since the review). At Bee’s Knees, we kicked off a tummy-busting meal with Fiery Shrimp Pizza ($30), with squid ink aioli, tiger prawns, mozzarella, parmesan, and spicy chilli dressing; and the Spicy Loaded Duck Fries ($17) which is exactly what is says on the tin: loaded. Here, sautéed smoked duck, sriracha cream, mozzarella, mayonnaise and scallions sit on top (nearly obscuring) thick-cut fries underneath.
I absolutely loved the loaded duck fries, which hit all the carb-craving spots and busted every diet known to mankind in one serving. It’s the perfect accompaniment to Bee’s Knees four new house specialty cocktails: Grapefruit Stardust, Cheeky Unicorn Sunrise, Under the Sea and Floral Fuse ($25 for two).
I sampled two: the fruity Grapefruit Stardust, an original creation made with gin, peach and fresh pink grapefruit then blended with edible silver; and the bright aquamarine Under The Sea, another original creation made with dark rum, fresh passionfruit, calamansi, and blue lagoon, then topped off with passionfruit spheres.
At Botanico, we had a slew of appetisers: Beef Tongue Tacos ($18), Corn Pani Puri ($10), Rojak ($15) and Wing Bean Salad ($15). The Beef Tongue Tacos were not really tacos: rather, the dish appears to be inspired by the Vietnamese style spring roll. Here, leaves of baby bak choy serve as “taco shells” to cradle the brined and grilled beef tongue (very tender) with the jicama slaw and cashew cream.
SEE: Eat, drink and be merry
Asokan gives tribute to her Indian heritage with the Corn Pani Puri: puffed little pillows of Indian-inspired puri pastry gently holding spiced baby corn and a rich espuma of curried Japanese corn. These were melt-in-the-mouth, savoury, slightly spicy, and an absolute delight to eat, both flavour-wise and texturally.
The Wing Bean Salad is my favourite of the appetisers. Combining all the salty, spicy, sweet and tangy flavours I love about local cuisine, the fresh winged beans (also known as four-angled beans) are served with onions, eggs, fish sauce, palm sugar, birds eye chilli, lime aioli and chickpea tofu for a really lovely and refreshing salad. Garnished with deep-fried ikan billis (anchovies), this dish was wonderfully-balanced and textured.
For mains, we had the Kurobota Pork Belly ($30), Herbal Chicken ($29), Crab Rissoni ($32), and Assam Pedas Snapper ($32). The pork belly was another straight-up winner for me: Slow-cooked kurobuta pork belly is served with textures of sunchoke (or Jerusalem artichoke), leek flowers and house-made soy-vinegar infused with Szechuan peppercorns. The pork belly is brined for 24 hours, sous vide for 18 hours, then pan-seared and smoked in an Inka oven — and the tender loving care shown to this fatty, melt-inmouth piece of meat clearly shows. It falls apart easily with a gentle touch of the fork, and I cannot find a flaw with this dish.
Then there is the Herbal Chicken, perhaps a nod to Asokan’s Chinese side: A dish of slow-cooked chicken breast served with “chicken rice” couscous, angelica sauce, cucamelons, comte and kale. The Assam Pedas fish — which I really liked — is grilled on a banana leaf, complemented with saffron risotto, okra done two ways, assam pedas and ginger flower.
The Crab Rissoni is one of Asokan’s best dishes, I feel. Japanese deep-sea red crab and blue swimmer crab, is served with Japanese nori risoni (a type of short-cut pasta shaped like a grain of rice), comte custard and octopus bottarga. The result is a creamy, sweet, savoury dish with a pleasantly firm bite (from the risoni, which is cooked perfectly al dente) that is contrasted with how soft the crab flesh is.
Now we come to the dessert. First, there is the Ondeh-Ondeh ($12), which is Asokan’s playful interpretation of the ondeh-ondeh, consisting of coconut foam, kaya ice cream, pandan glutinous rice cake and gula melaka. I cannot praise this enough. I love ondeh-ondeh, and this is a fun and inspired way to present something familiar in a new way.
Next, we had the Black Glutinous Rice ($12), which is black glutinous rice mochi cake topped with toasted rice ice cream and compressed coconut on a bed of black glutinous rice foam. All I can say is that both desserts were both more than worth the calories.
Overall, I definitely enjoyed the food at both restaurants, and I am excited to see what Asokan comes up with next.
50 Cluny Park Road,
Singapore Botanic Gardens
Tues to Fri : 6pm to 10pm
Sat and Sun : 11am to 3pm; 6pm to 10pm
Daily: 8am to 10pm