Add: 4/F 169 Middle Jianguo Road, Shanghai 建国中路169弄4楼
Hours: Fri-Sun, dinner only (reservations only, no walk-ins)
Price: 688 / 12-course
Visited: May 2019
Botanik is like nothing Shanghai has seen before. Perched on the rooftop of Taikang Terrace in Tianzifang, it opens just 3 nights a week, Friday to Sunday, and runs from May until late October, or perhaps early November, when the weather gets too harsh for al fresco dining. Beneath a canopy of twisting vines and swaying leaves, mismatched tables are enshrouded in stretches of lush greenery made up of over 150 types of edible plants.
Such an urban oasis clearly wasn’t built in a day. Ever since taking up residence on the rooftop last year, executive chef Mr. Elijah Holland and his team have been patiently tending their garden, transforming the space bit by bit until it resembles a scene stolen out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
This is not my first encounter with Mr. Holland’s cooking. His other operations in Shanghai (C Pearl, Osteria, The Plump Oyster) offer a glimpse into his penchant for herbs and foraging. At Botanik, his food takes a quantum leap in complexity and ambition.
His tasting menu, some dozen courses updated every few weeks, would resonate with those modern diners who desire a sense of connection to where their food comes from. All the ingredients used are grown or raised in China, their provenance clearly a point of pride if the way Mr. Holland presents each dish is anything to go by. The plethora of herbs folded into the menu are either grown in the verdant rooftop garden, or else collected during the team’s regular foraging trips around China.
With a concept as unconventional as Botanik’s, we might go in expecting more education than fulfillment, and the wholehearted exploration of locavorism that Botanik has embarked upon is so exceedingly rare in China that it would deserve a fair share of limelight in its own right, even if the cooking weren’t remarkable. Yet Mr. Holland’s food proves to be vivid, robust, and almost invariably satisfying.
From the snacks, you get a preview of what you are in for. A chewy coin of grilled acorn tostada provides an insistent vein of savoriness to counterbalance tongues of sea urchin from Dalian, accessorized with sour cream, chervil and chives from the garden, and wild sender celery from Moganshan. Wild peas and spring beans are heaped over a wild pepper leaf, made all the more radiant with a pinprick of mint and a spritz of chamomile vinegar.
Acorn & uni tostada; Spring beans, peas & legume flowers
The cherry-like fruits hanging from a juniper shrub turn out to be house-cured duck prosciutto (from Jiangsu) filled with a purée of wild pine nuts (Guizhou), and then encased in a gel of mulberry and juniper from the garden. Their fragrance and spice flow in quietly, and hang there a moment. Thick slices of sourdough made with a natural lavender yeast is streaked with soft purple from butterfly pea, and accompanied by a kombu butter that draws you in with its swirling subtleties.
Duck prosciutto, pine nuts, juniper
Lavender & butterfly pea sourdough, kombu
The only point in the meal that comes up a bit short is the heavily singed jicama naan laden with grilled anchovies (South China Sea) and Russian radish “wasabi,” a robust-sounding combination that tastes unaccountably inert. But the menu quickly picks up with some chilled river prawns scattered over nasturtium paste alongside crunchy prawn heads and 5 types of sorrel flower, unfurling languidly in layers of grassiness, umami, and soft acidity.
Anchovies, Russian radish, jicama
River prawn, sorrel, nasturtiums
An incredibly muscular heft rushes out of the mélange of mushrooms piled over a jagged potato chip. Waves of musky richness and gentle smoke ebb and flow, sliced through with sweet, chewy “salami” made of almond and jujube; you could almost feel your synapses firing in the exchange. Then come wild bamboo shoots (Shanghai) poached in bamboo leaf tea (Hangzhou), their mild sharpness tapering off into the sweet richness of noni fruit (Sanya) and a whiff of dill.
Mushroom & jujube charcuterie
Bamboo, noni fruit, Sichuan pepper leaves, dill
A small glass of gazpacho appears as a well-timed intermission, brewed with 4 kinds of melon and infused overnight with Yunnan ham and lemon verbena oil. The respite paves the way for the flickering intricacies of white asparagus (Shandong) and lotus shoot (Hangzhou), their brisk crunch forming a sharp juxtaposition against soft slices of cured sturgeon (Yunnan). The gentle flavors are first sharpened with briny caviar (Yunnan), then soothed with creamy buffalo milk (Guangdong), so full of spirit that they seem to light up from the inside.
Spring melons, lemon verbena, Yunnan ham
Lotus shoots, white asparagus, Kaluga caviar
Bringing the evening to a magnificent crescendo, a globe of sprouted coconut heart (Sanya) is endlessly beguiling, its texture a unique, hypnotic blend of spongy, sturdy, and meaty, enveloped in the thinnest shroud of crust imaginable. It is served in coconut water punched up with a dab of razor clam jus, sprinkled with shavings of coconut meat smoked and roasted over coconut shells, underpinned with earthy black garlic purée, and blasted with an electrifying bolt of sharpness from little wedges of wild garlic (Dongbei). Gram for gram, this bowl packs more impact than anything else I have come across.
Sprouted coconut heart, black garlic, razor clams
There is a lot I can say about this coconut heart, including how it applies the idea of nose-to-tail cooking to a piece of fruit, how plants frequently take center stage at Botanik while animals are relegated to supporting roles, and how Mr. Holland can turn these vegetables into emotional, sometimes even transcendental experiences. But most of all, it makes me question why I have never seen coconut heart elsewhere, why a product from within China could be so utterly unfamiliar until Mr. Holland brought it to our attention.
The only dish that concedes the spotlight to an animal is the roasted goose from Guangdong. (Since my visit, some roasted halibut ribs have found their way onto the menu to share this distinction.) Heralded by the aroma of smoke and flames wafting over from the open-fire grill, the vermillion slices build slowly in flavor and depth, galvanized by a sweet sauce of goose jus and prickly pear (Sanya), as well as firm pearls of green wheat (Henan) that bring an appealingly sharp edge.
Goose, fig leaves, green wheat, prickly pear
A fascinating dichotomy emerges over the evening. For all that its ingredients are grounded firmly in the local terrain, dining at Botanik can feel curiously out of place, the experience so novel that we could just as easily be in Melbourne, or perhaps a breezy new restaurant in Brooklyn.
This is, in fact, already Botanik’s second incarnation, and the garden isn’t the only thing that has grown since the restaurant’s tentative but highly praised debut last summer. This year’s production is more confident, more elaborate, and still full of adventure. And even now, Botanik still feels like a real-time culinary happening, a step on the road towards something greater, in a way that makes us want to fast-forward to two, three years from now and find out how that something has taken shape.
Desserts start with a speckled, jellified mound of peach tree resin (Hangzhou), mixed with basil seeds and vaguely sweetened with strawberry guava. This feels like a litmus test for how much you enjoy gummy textures.
Peach gum, basil seeds, strawberry guava
The rose ice cream that follows, made with two kinds of roses from the garden and buffalo milk from Guangdong, is much less divisive, riding an exquisite balance of creamy sweetness and heady rose perfume. It is cleverly augmented by purple rice chips (Yunnan), sea buckthorn leather (Jiangsu), buffalo milk skin, and candied rose petals for layers of texture. I used to think that a bowl of ice cream does not make dessert; never have I have been so glad to be proven wrong.
Rose, sea buckthorn, mountain rice
Mint pop; Stolen cherries; Melon rind, lemon balm