Botanic Gardens Restaurant has long been one of Adelaide’s best dining experiences. But the dated interior of the former tearoom was out of step with the gorgeous grounds it calls home and the aspiring, garden-fresh food on the plate. Now, with the appointment of new executive chef Justin James, the fine diner is entering an entirely new era.

“It was a pretty stale environment,” says James, who was executive chef at celebrated Melbourne restaurant Vue de Monde for five and a half years. Before that, the US-born chef did stints in the kitchens of Noma, Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Eleven Madison Park.

“I’ve worked in some amazing kitchens and this one was, in the nicest way, a bit run-down. But I thought, ‘There’s something special here’. The rotunda is over 100 years old, it’s a heritage building, it’s in the Botanic Gardens. We’re able to pick from the gardens … I was like, ‘Hell, that sounds pretty good’.” He proposed an extensive renovation, to which owner Steve Blanco (of Blanco Horner Hospitality) obliged.

After a month-long closure, the renamed Restaurant Botanic reopened in early July with a new open kitchen and hearth; a curved chef's table with 12 seats watching the action; a 650-bottle wine cellar; and a freshened up dining room.

“[Before] the guests were taking the garden views in, and basically I’ve flipped that around,” says James. “So now it’s an open kitchen, it’s really interactive between the chefs and the dining room team. And we’re also bringing the gardens into the restaurant.” Both literally and figuratively.

Designer WBL (Williams Burton Leopardi) took inspiration from the surrounds with tones of green and brown and natural elements such as timber, marble, leather and stone. (The cutlery rests by local furniture maker Peter Fong are made from reclaimed timber that James sourced). There’s also a ceiling installation of foliage from the garden that’ll change seasonally, and some new indoor greenery.

The changes don’t end there. Straying from the usual restaurant formula, the team at Restaurant Botanic will have their hands in every aspect of service. That means the head chef might make your cocktail or pour-over coffee. And James doubles as the general manager.

“My whole idea is to create this new way of hospitality where it’s one team: where everybody can make cocktails and everybody can make coffee and everybody can run food and greet guests,” says James. “I want one clear vision.”

Perhaps most novel, James and his team have drawn up 12 menu iterations to cater for any dietary requirements thrown at them. They include vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, no-shellfish, gluten-free, nut-free, dairy-free and fructose-intolerant. “I’m basically ready for anybody to come in here,” he says.

“Just because you choose not to eat seafood doesn’t mean you should just have the vegetarian menu. I’ll provide some dishes that change it out with some sustainably sourced meat.”

“Like, the vegan dessert might be better than the dessert I serve you,” he continues. “I thought, ‘should I just serve that to everyone? It’s actually a baked potato dessert, cooked in the hearth overnight. It’s sweet, nutty, crispy, salty, bitter.”

Speaking of that hearth: the open fire will touch every dish in some way, from a smoked celeriac and apple tea that opens proceedings, to a closer of smoked milk sorbet with native basil.

Guests can choose from two menus – the short path or the long trail – which might feature marron (head and all) with fermented chilli and lemon myrtle from the garden; locally grown mushrooms with a 30-day fermented vegetable paste; dry-aged Murray cod served with fermented and fresh truffles and a koji- and anise-myrtle sauce; and duck-fat biscuits (scones) with 30-day-cultured butter and “clam jam” (“It’s like jam but with clams – honestly I made it because it rhymes,” says James).

Ferments will play a key role in the menu, so much so a temperature-controlled ferment lab will be added soon. “That’s going to have all our lacto-fermented products, our misos, our garums, kombuchas, fermented juices and things like that,” says James. “It’s a huge fermentation program, I’m not just fermenting a few jars.” More than 1500 kilos of produce, sourced directly from the gardens and local growers, has already been fermented or preserved ahead of reopening.

These ferments will factor heavily in the “temperance menu” – a selection of non-alcoholic drinks including kombucha, infused juices, garden blend teas, mocktails and more. If it’s booze you’re after, you’re well catered for with an extensive list of new- and old-world wines. And cocktails including a koji Old-Fashioned, wattleseed Espresso Martini and a Chef’s Negroni with mezcal, whisky and Campari.

Restaurant Botanic
Adelaide Botanic Gardens, Plane Tree Drive, Adelaide

Thu 12pm–3pm
Fri & Sat 12pm–3pm, 6.30pm–10pm
Sun 12pm–3pm