You want a 72-drawer octagonal revolving cabinet, made in Dayton, Ohio, by the American Bolt & Screw Company? How about a turn-of-the-century piano-tuning kit? A wall-mounted Alaskan grizzly bear? Bowral's the place. Not a lot more than 90 minutes' drive south of central Sydney on a good day, the town of 11,000 (and its equally vintage-enthralled near-neighbour, Mittagong) is a place rich in first editions, stud farms, Bradman lore and stuffed badgers. It's not short of a golf course, you're never far from a lithograph, and the tulip festival remains a highlight of the local calendar. It's also the birthplace of fictional nanny and umbrella-fancier Mary Poppins.
It hasn't been the place you hit for exciting food, though. Not until Biota Dining sprouted onto the scene in autumn, that is. The name might suggest a lactobacillus supplement, but it refers to the living creatures of a particular region - in this case the ones you can eat. Quite a few of the plants the kitchen uses are grown on the premises, either in the kitchen garden out the back of the restaurant, or in the greenhouse you can see past the pond from the lounge. Others still are foraged in the region or taken from its farms.
Biota is a restaurant in two sizeable parts. There's the more formal dining room and the less pricey lounge bar, which spills onto the lawn-fringed verandah. They've covered their bases here: you can even take breakfast in the lounge on the weekends. A Gruyère and (real) truffle toastie, churros with hot chocolate, and eggs with your choice of everything from homemade blood sausage to avocado with avocado oil are highlights of a morning menu that would be welcome on any Fitzroy or Paddington street corner.
The lounge's lunch and dinner offerings fall into "larger" and "smaller" offerings, and "slow-cooked meats". The last means roast local lamb with aïoli, agrodolce suckling pig or free-range chicken. Almonds smoked over vine clippings, whopping great big hand-cut chips and an excellent salad of peas, pea shoots and ribbons of snow pea all qualify as smaller; the outstanding miniature wagyu burgers are the pick of the larger bunch (and, at $12 the pair, great value). All this food comes from the same kitchen as the restaurant, and is complemented by the same whip-smart drinks list. It's served in a comfortable room over a jumble of couches and tables communal and otherwise, and is made all the warmer by its central fireplace and a striking series of rooster portraits by artist Craig Waddell lining the length of one wall. It's an impressive eatery in its own right.
The restaurant is larger still and more formal, but still far from hushed. The tables are unclothed and reasonably well spaced, and the Scandinavian-looking timber chairs are as friendly to the rump as they are to the eye. The flooring is an attractively knotty sisal weave, and the waiters' station, a large table of riveted zinc in the centre of the room, is adorned with a centrepiece of a substantial mossy branch crusted with lichen in a vast glass vase. A comfortable, attractive design, it's nonetheless not without its faults. But for each misstep - the too-loud music in a mostly empty restaurant, the frankly ridiculous flat-screen TV showing the kitchen goings-on in the private room - there's a saving grace such as the little boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl tiles that carry the coffee and tea, or the neat-o aprons on the lovely waiters. Thought has been given to the little things: the apt amuse-bouche of lardo, crisp apple and chamomile gel rests on a thick chock of timber. Aesop pumps, inexplicable taps and other trappings of contemporary ablutions distinguish the bathrooms, and there's not a doily, a scrap of flock or a framed etching in sight. The general effect says "horticultural chic" without bunging it on too heavily.
It's a big restaurant, and its ambitions would be bold anywhere, but in the sleepy, moneyed Southern Highlands it seems all the more out-there still. It might be something of a stretch to call it the Royal Mail of New South Wales, but the comparison isn't entirely unwarranted either. Shaun Quade, head chef under executive chef and co-owner James Viles, has worked with Dan Hunter and the Royal Mail team at Dunkeld, in country Victoria, and there's a certain modern European sensibility here, a familiarity with the aesthetics of Noma and Mugaritz, that locates Biota somewhere along the same axis as Loam, Attica and Garagistes.
It's there in the obsessive way produce is curated and celebrated, but there are echoes of the aesthetic elsewhere, too. The particular contrast of squishy things and crumbly things, for instance. The sublime contrast between the richness of a slow-cooked duck egg and the toasty crunch of grains at the heart of the excellent entrée of duck pressed in juniper sugar owes something of a debt to Dan Hunter, and the effect Hunter nailed so well at the Royal Mail with his now widely imitated "egg yolk, toasted rye, legumes, yeast" dish. But this is no mere slavish rip-off. The livid, ham-like strips of duck play merry with the firm duck egg (from the Viles family farm, our waitress tells us), daubs of cauliflower foam, swatches of raw celeriac, feathery chickpea sprouts, corn shoots, and roasted puffed rice, buckwheat and quinoa. It's a bona fide winner.
I like meat slow-cooked in a bag as much as the next man, but I don't think it's the answer to everything. I'm not convinced, for one thing, that long-cooking in the sous-vide style (vacuum-bagged and poached over hours at a constant low temperature in a water bath and then seared) gives the best results for lamb rump. The satisfaction of the diner at times seems to take a back-seat to notions of kitchen efficiency, and textural appeal is often a casualty. In the lamb main course at Biota there's a squishy sameness to the big lump of meat on the plate that conventional roasting at the hands of an observant chef trumps. The olive and black garlic caramel it's glazed in is an interesting idea, introducing a salt-sweet element to the meat, but it comes off a little bit like a sea of undifferentiated brown. What's more successful here is the choice of accompaniments: oat milk, a sort of set savoury blob of oat pudding rolled in hazelnut and olive crumbs, sharply dressed garden leaves, and carrots of varying hues specked with poppy seeds. The crisped shards of lamb belly are an inspired touch.
The pork main course is in some ways oddly similar: a big piece of neck (a cut rich enough in connective tissue to better warrant very slow cooking), likewise coated in glossy maltose "crackling", again more impressive in its plate mates (blackened onions, licorice and amaranth). The sides are more interesting still: bitter greens from the garden on one plate, a well made salad on another, and a bright combination of wet polenta and popcorn on a third. It works.
Quade nabbed a nomination as Best New Talent in the GT Restaurant Awards this time last year for his work in the pastry section at Urbane in Brisbane, so expectations for the sweet finish run high. Of course, given that he's a pastry chef of the new school, there's much more (and sometimes much less) to Quade's creations than sweetness. Envelope-pushing grooviness takes the fore in the silken honey and pumpkin cream. It arrives as a bowl of foam; underneath, the menu tells us, lurk pumpkin seed shortbread, curds and whey, but they're obscured from both palate and eye by the masses of creamy foam. The ginger juice sorbet stands distinct, but this is not necessarily a plus.
The closest thing I can liken the next dessert to is the honeydew melon soup the very talented Katrina Kanetani used to do at Pier. That dish was all about fruit-fragrance and musky tropical sweetness. The Biota version turns the idea on its head, combining the (judiciously used) tastes of eucalyptus, tart rhubarb, borage flowers and stems, swollen soaked chia seeds, bubbles of finger lime, quince, strawberry and cucumber seeds and skin in a minty celebration of winter that's by turns sweet, dry and sharp and ultimately refreshing.
The hands-down winner is the roast coconut number. It vaguely resembles a three-dimensional map of the local ranges, albeit one rendered in unsweet crumbs of green tea cake, coconut and fennel pollen over fennel and pineapple logs, topped with a ball of coconut rolled in threads of carrot and sprayed with Valrhona. One Woody Allen sneeze like the cocaine scene from Annie Hall and it'd be all over table five.
With Biota Dining, Viles and his green-thumbed family and fellows have taken an honest stab at creating a big-deal restaurant in territory that hasn't really played host to its like in recent memory. The gamble is paying off: the restaurant, even with its teething issues, leaves just about every other country New South Wales contender for dead. In fact, with a solid service team and drinks of note, the lounge alone would raise the eating stakes of most neighbourhoods, city or sticks. Make the detour. Come back for breakfast, and make plans to come back again. For the 72-drawer octagonal cabinet, if nothing else.