Biota – the animal and plant life of a particular region, habitat, or geological period.
Such is the motto, the philosophy behind two-toqued Biota Dining, located in Bowral, of the beautiful Souther Highlands. Chef de cuisine James Viles has taken on one of the most onerous culinary challenges possible – to create groundbreaking modern Australian cuisine, but while remaining true to locally-found ingredients and traditional cooking styles.
When done half-heartedly, the results can be…disappointing. But do it well, and you end up getting into the World’s 50 Best list.
Then again, Biota Dining isn’t just talking the talk – that they are NSW’s regional restaurant of the year gives much credence to their potential. It was therefore no surprise when I had to make a trip to let my own taste buds decide. Read on!
Date Last Visited: 26/4/14
Address: 18 Kangaloon Rd Bowral, NSW
Recommended Dish(es): Veal & tuna, gathered local weeds
The Anzac long weekend provided the perfect opportunity to visit Biota. My parents had just went through an exhaustive period of work, which ended on the Thursday before the long weekend began. The timing was perfect – a getaway for the parents, and some fine food for all.
Like many smaller towns in regional NSW, Bowral exudes a bucolic charm. The fact that many of its trees have already turned bright autumn red or yellow, ahead of Sydney only adds to the relaxing atmosphere. And so it would be with Biota Dining as well – a late, chill lunch. Nobody visits for a rushed meal.
The restaurant’s calm vibes is reflected in their seating arrangements. Tables are spaced amply apart, giving plenty of breathing room, so you won’t have to hear the conversations of the table next to you.
You can go a la carte at Biota, or you can go for a 9-course degustation for $150pp or a 5-course for $98.
Readers, you already know what I went for, right?
Coming in on chunks of halite salt, the trout jerky w/native peppers is our amuse bouche. Eye-catching presentation aside, it is at once so fantastic, yet so expected of Biota to do this. Jerky? Yeah that’s rustic, but do it with trout and you’ve got me talking about it.
The texture is not some shocking devilish amalgam of well-known structures, but rather tastes exactly like a good jerky does. Teeth action is totally required. Every bite yields sharp, delicious and racy flavours which is undeniably trout, yet so…tough, like jerky is wont to be.
It’s great, a very tasty foray into the dishes that follow.
At this point, we receive a package that raises eyebrows.
But of course, it would be their style to present bread in this “straight out of the oven from under the covers” kind of style.
The sourdough makes no apologies for its homely make – it’s liberally covered in bread flour, and is one heck of a rough number to chow through.
You can get more loaves later if you wish, but one was enough for my parents and I – don’t want to fill up before half the meal is done!
The oyster, cucumber, feijoa, flax dish marks our first entry into the meal. The dish elicits a “fancy bush tucker” kind of vibe. I never knew feijoa was so delicious; so sweet, so soft. The oysters themselves seemed a bit out of place, with a flavour profile that repeatedly cut through the sensitivity of the rest of the ingredients, given their subtle flavours.
Then again, oysters aren’t usually the first foodstuff to come to mind when thinking about bush tucker, so there’s an attempt at bridging the gap.
Up next, the egg yolk, cooked curds, rye, chickpea dish begs for an eggporn shot. Well, I actually bothered this time, so try not to hear me berating my parents for not cutting it correctly 😛
The pasta in this dish is quite lacking in flavour, while the fried rye crumbs on the other hand, are really delicious and moreish. The egg yolk is heavenly, of course. The curds are soft and mushy, more there for texture than the flavour.
Strangely enough, despite the fact that this dish lacked a dominating “good” flavour, I want to go back and eat it over and over again. Secret sauce I say, secret sauce. One of the better dishes in the menu.
Oddly enough, roe was the last thing I could taste in the John Dory roe, jerusalem artichoke, crab dish. Then again, I was somewhat distracted by the look of the dish. What lies beneath?
The snow crab is easily the best part. Tender flesh, delightful umami flavours.
One downside are these unknown seeds in the dish – they were really salty and really hard. I still cleaned the bowl, as I do, but I’d have been happy leaving them in there. Threw off the balance of the otherwise very delicate dish.
This dish is somewhat akin to a veal carpaccio, but with the primo combination of tuna in the mix. In hindsight, it’s a brilliant idea in combining these two meats for a very appetising morsel. This is really, really good; I would say the best dish of the meal for me.
The chewiness of the veal, partnered with the tenderness and umami flavours of the tuna is as resplendent as the sheen of the dish itself. Crunchiness from local weeds and chopped onion give it that little bit of colour and crackle.
If the last dish is the best, the potato, onions, buttermilk, pig skin dish comes close. The star element is egg yolk that’s salt-cured for 24 hours, soaking up all of the salinity, becoming deliciously salty, with a hardened texture. This forms the flavour base for the entire dish. I’ll have to note that if you eat the yolk by itself, it’s way too salty. Beware.
The potato skin is cut so finely, it’s almost translucent. The onions are once again crucial to delivering that crunch, and it does a great job of imparting a complementary charred flavour which I totally dig.
If that wasn’t enough, the pig skin rounds out the guilt trip. This dish is a sensory delight!
Upon first bite I thought “hey what, burnt flavour.” But after a few bites, the beef, molasses, native berries, beach mustard dish really grew on me. The beef is tender, but takes a bit of knifing to get through – rare is the theme here.
The little yellow bites on top are actually potatoes from taste, with a texture so soft it’s almost like mash. Rye berries deliver sweet bursts of flavour, while overall, the mustard coupled with the char of the beef’s sides emanates an almost rural feel.
Guess that’s the point though, isn’t it?
My enjoyment of this dish is chiefly mellow – there was a lot I didn’t like about it, but I did like how it managed to grow on me. That said, wouldn’t be in a hurry to come back to this one.
That said, I have to give points to the lovely presentation!
Pre-dessert is a yoghurt dish based on persimmons. This could be a normal dessert though, given that it’s listed on the menu. The distinction is moot, really.
This was really good, and I actually preferred it to the actual dessert. I loooooooove persimmons, and it just gets better when paired with a fragrant, and not-too-sweet yoghurt. So refreshing, I really wanted another one. The waitress joked about asking for another one from the chef. I wish it weren’t a joke.
fig leafe ice cream w/olives & elderflower jelly. This fanciful dessert, whilst lux in appearance, pulls off the humble nature of Biota’s cooking through contrast and gritty texture. The olive powder provides a salty and chalky element, which when eaten with the fruity sweet, creamy ice cream gives a sensation of eating ice cream that is deliberately made poorer in texture.
There is an actual fig portion in this dessert – it’s under the ice cream. The blunder in this move is that by the time you reach the fig, it’s tasteless. Have you ever eaten chocolate and then drunk a sweet drink? Doesn’t taste so sweet does it.
Unfortunately, the natural sugars of the fig is way too easily overpowered by the ice cream.
Petit fours (which again, are counted as a course number) comes in the form of mulched pine caramels. I actually choked a little on the pine as I inhaled while eating it (bad idea guys!). Other than that, this is a delicious petit four, and one of the best I’ve had.
Or maybe I’m just in love with anything caramel-related. Can’t help what you can’t help.
Like most fine dining restaurants, there is a more accessible bar menu (and area) where you can sit down for some more casual eats.
Given we’re in Bowral, it would be remiss not to have an outdoor area.
Possibly the least surprising aspect of the restaurant, and the most expected – they’ve got their own produce garden. I wasn’t sure whether I could saunter in so I erred on the side of caution. Distanced admiration will do for now.
Biota Dining is an experience that is mandatory if you’re visiting Bowral, or even if you’re passing through. That much is for certain.
What about as the sole reason for a trip? Perhaps, perhaps not. The fare is decent, with genuinely pleasant twists, but also a number of flavour combinations I can’t quite attune myself to.
As usual, feel free to leave a comment or three 😀
- Rustic cooking style appeals to those who seek it
- Some dishes are a pleasant departure from the norm
Not so Awesome:
- Some dishes just don’t taste all that good
- Certain elements of dishes detracted, rather than complemented