The Botanist, 13 St Werburgh Street, Chester CH1 2DY and locations nationwide. Starters £6.95-£9.50, mains £13.75-£23.95, desserts £7.75, wines from £24.95
Being an insufferable snob is exhausting. It’s not the volume of stuff that warrants the eye-rolling or the weary sighs that take it out of you. That’s figurative and sometimes literal meat and potatoes to the restaurant critic. It’s the deep, abiding sense of impotence. For here I sit in the Chester branch of the Botanist, amid the carefully selected vintage farm implements and the distressed picture frames, staring at one of their hanging kebabs. According to the menu these are “famous”. They are certainly popular. Almost every table has ordered one.
It’s quite the thing. There’s around 30cm of curving vertical rod in pewter-effect metal. At the top it’s connected to a scallop shell saucer holding a dish of dipping sauce. At the base the rod curls around to hold a wooden bowl of your chosen side dish. In between, attached to a hook, is a long, dangling skewer, in this case filled with chunks of “salt and pepper pork belly”. I’m meant to be thrilled. I should say, “Wow!” in celebration of the much sought-after Wow Effect. Instead, being that insufferable snob, I think it’s both utterly naff and utterly impractical. If you want someone’s dinner to get cold, bring it to the table swinging in the air from a hook.
I was drawn to come here by an online image of a star Botanist dessert, a chocolate mousse topped with a chocolate crumb. That crumb could, if you squinted at it, be mistaken for soil. Which presumably was why it was served in a garden trowel. I looked up the Botanist. There are two dozen of them across the country, with more to come. For years I’ve ranted about food being served on things that aren’t plates. I’ve banged on about steaks on scratchy slates, whined about bread in flat caps, full English breakfasts in dog bowls, and mini chip pan fryers. My rants have been received with rapturous applause both virtual and actual; enough to make me assume I am on the side of the angels. And yet here’s the Botanist, doing a roaring trade in hanging kebabs and desserts served on trowels.
I conclude that I should stop sneering from afar. I should check one out. This will give me the chance to sneer closeup. Or not, as the case may be. The Botanist is part of New World Trading, which in turn is owned by the investment company Graphite Capital. They have also invested in the Hawksmoor steakhouse group and were the company that took Wagamama from just two branches in 1996 to 70 by 2005. They are involved in companies running the likes of care homes, foster-care services and dental payment plans. It’s big business.
On this Monday night, Chester’s Botanist is doing solid trade, including a party of around 30 people at two long tables. I can see why. The menu has something for everyone, even the ones dragged here against their will. There are pasta dishes and burgers, there’s a bit of Japanese, a salad or two. And famous hanging kebabs. Is it all dreadful? No, it isn’t. Gambas pil pil for £9.50 is as good as any I’ve ever had, the prawns squeakily fresh, the hot chilli and garlic oil endlessly moppable with the thick wedges of grilled bread. Curls of calamari are tender. A large fillet of skin-on sea bass is expertly cooked. And the service is a true joy.
Our young waiter, Charlie, handles our every question with grace and humour, even as she has to list all the things that aren’t available. There are, deep breath, no chicken wings, no beef burgers, no steaks, no scotch eggs. Sadly, you can’t order the giant chicken piri piri kebab, or the sharing kebab. We order the prawn cocktail with “a Botanist twist”. We never find out what that twist might be. She returns to tell us that, too, is off.
It’s genuinely annoying to say that so much of what we do get to try really is underwhelming. The kitchen is as devoted to sweet chilli sauce as any gospel singer is to Jesus. That belly pork kebab is meant to come with bang bang sauce. Instead, it comes with sweet chilli sauce. It makes dense, dry cold meat taste mostly of sugar. The calamari comes with crème fraîche under a lake of sweet chilli sauce, which makes the marsh of dairy look like it’s suppurating. The chips come with sweet chilli sauce, as do the chicken wings, the chicken kebab and the crispy halloumi kebab.
The lovely sea bass fillet slouches over unlovely, undressed rocket leaves and desiccated half new potatoes. There’s a smear of something orange underneath, which the menu says is Romesco sauce. I’ll let the Spanish foreign ministry deal with that one. Wine is delivered in a waterlogged ice bucket, the glasses upended in it so they arrive wet. The ice bucket cannot disguise the fact that the bottle is warm, having just come off a shelf. We request ice cubes.
Tragically, the dessert trowel has gone. No matter. There’s a new menu section dedicated to their “famous cookie dough”, which isn’t dough because it comes in a scorching cast-iron pan and is therefore half-cooked and weirdly grainy. You can have it many ways including as “Pornstar cookie dough”, with white chocolate and vodka passion fruit curd. I’m sure porn stars talk of nothing else. Or for £13.95, you can have the sharing cookie dough. Half a vertical birdcage arrives. At the bottom is the skillet of weird dough under insipid chocolate sauce. Above is a plate of cheap, shop-bought marshmallows on sticks, alongside more of that crap chocolate sauce. Above that are scoops of a passable vanilla ice-cream alongside a plant pot filled with what’s called Biscoff crumb, but which tastes mostly of crushed digestives.
We upend a veritable K2 of crumbs on to a plate. What in God’s name are you meant to do with it? At some point, this bizarre collection of sugary detritus was given a big thumbs up by a bunch of executives and slapped on the menu. The thought depresses me. It’s not even cheap. Our bill for two for all this, including the lukewarm wine, is £120. Or am I just being pious? Later, I show a photo of the hanging kebab to my youngest, expecting her to laugh. She says, “Oh cool.” I protest. She says: “You’re just a food purist.” Shockingly, it turns out that not everybody agrees with me. Not even members of my own family.
Customers failing to honour restaurant bookings, or so-called no-shows, are a growing existential threat to hospitality businesses according to a new survey by Barclaycard Payments. Restaurants surveyed estimate they lose almost £90 for every person who fails to turn up without cancelling. Of the 200 businesses who took part in the survey, 18% said no-shows or last-minute cancellations had made them consider closing for good.
And evidence of the pressures on the industry: chef Brian Maule has announced the closure of his Glasgow restaurant Le Chardon d’Or after 22 years. ‘Surviving through Covid, then spiralling into a cost-of-living crisis, increased home working, plunging property values, lack of support for the hospitality sector. All these damaging factors, plus many more, have weighed heavily on us,’ Maule said on Facebook. ‘We have tried so hard to see it through, for our fantastic team, for whom we feel so sorry, but also for the city that we have been part of for the last 22 years. Our business simply can no longer be sustained under all these pressures.’
But let’s end with positive news. Following last week’s report that Jeremy King is to launch a new restaurant next year in Bayswater, come reports of further ventures. According to a story in the FT King, formerly of the group behind the Wolseley and Delaunay among others, is eyeing sites for two more restaurants. One is directly across the road from the Wolseley on Piccadilly. In an email to former customers last week, he described his exit from parent company Corbin & King in 2022 as ‘more of a beginning.’ He is, he said, ‘determined to be a better restaurateur, employer and friend.’
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