Winter is officially over. We were greeted by fabulous Spring sunshine and cool but refreshing breezes that felt so good against my skin and suddenly I felt all my winter blues flying away with the breeze, along with the pollen that will now haunt hay fever sufferers in the months to come. I love Spring. Spring means Summer is just around the corner. Spring meals I can put away those heavy thick coats and bring out the light, airy dresses and sandals that haven’t seen daylight for a long time. Spring means the start of beautiful fruits and fresh produce and you all know what that means. Spring also means visiting luscious green gardens and putting away soup bowls. I love gardens, although I will definitely miss those hearty soups…
Talking about soups and gardens, I was fortunate enough to have attended the La Zuppa soup competition judging about 2 weeks ago which was held at The Botanical, a fantastic restaurant right at the edge of the beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens. Yes you read that right, I was part of a judging panel which consisted of 12 people, 6 of which were bloggers and the other 6 professional marketers, at the invitation of La Zuppa and PR Edge. The event was to judge soup flavours for a recent competition La Zuppa held to introduce a new flavour into their big soup family.
For those of you who don’t know, La Zuppa was introduced in 2008 by an Italian company called La Gina (both under Valcorp) that specialises in Italian food products. La Zuppa makes healthy and easy 2 minute microwavable soups that are available in supermarkets. All the soups are 99% fat free, gluten free, dairy free and don’t require refrigeration until they are opened. They are in essence, gourmet instant soups full of hearty goodness.
The competition was run through their Facebook page where fans could enter their own soup ideas or recipes for a chance to win a holiday package for 2 to the Amalfi Coast in Italy along with a cooking masterclass and I helped to judge the winner! How exciting.
A total of over 2000 entries were received and the team at La Zuppa chose 5 of the best for us to taste and judge.
It was a tremendously windy but sunny day but the messy blown hair couldn’t stop us from enjoying ourselves at the event. I was first to arrive amongst the bloggers and was warmly greeted by our lovely hosts at PR Edge and Valcorp. I was offered a beautiful limoncello cocktail to kick start the day.
The first thing I noticed was the large stock of spirits and alcohols at the bar. Many restaurant bars these days hold a very small and uninteresting variety. Although I can’t say The Botanical had unique or special bottles, the range was reasonably comprehensive and there are actually 2 bars on the premise.
With cocktail in hand, I set off on a journey inside this huge restaurant full of beautiful modern decor. There were a few distinct areas in the restaurant including front of house called the Wine Store where you can enjoy a cup of coffee or glass of wine to enjoy with a meal all the while gawking at the Bottle Shop that’s located inside the restaurant. A corkage fee of $15 is charged if you consume the bought wine onsite and can only be consumed at the Wine Store.
We were greeted in the bar area with the fireplace which consisted of high stools and chairs as well as a small but comfortable courtyard through the side doors. I can imagine this restaurant buzzing with people with cocktails and spirits in hand with a few nibbles during summer in the courtyard, or people doing the same thing in winter next to the fireplace. Whatever the season, The Botanical seems to have the area to suit.
The more formal dining room caters for people who are after a proper meal and includes a function room which is where our soup judging event was held. The room was so bright and beautiful that I was mesmerised. The sun poured in through the glass roof and the intricate lighting (although wasn’t necessary at the time) added a touch of sophistication. The table setting was that of fine dining quality and the utensils were oh so shiny.
After being seated at the big table, newly appointed executive chef Luke Brabin came around to talk to us about his experiences and cooking style. Luke worked under the former executive chef Cheong Liew (who is now retired) since the start of his career in 2002 in Adelaide who then later lived and worked in China for 3 years before returning to Melbourne to take on the Sous Chef role at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze. Luke was appointed executive chef in place of Liew just recently and has brought with him a new and exciting menu. His travels and life experiences has formed part of his cooking so some of the dishes at The Botanical has Asian influenced flavours.
I was very excited at the fact that Luke had re-created the soup flavours that were to be judged with a bit of his own twists and each soup was matched with a small dish and glass of wine. I must apologise here about the wine because as some of you might know, I’m terrible at handling alcohol so I barely finished any one of the glasses even though they were quite nice. (I just realised that the skeletal head at the back looks quite scary…not sure why I didn’t notice this earlier!)
We were served with the most delicious bread before the meal but I was trying to save stomach for a jaw-dropping 6 courses plus soups so I didn’t want to eat too much. It was such a shame! The bread was so fluffy and fragrant in the centre and actually had a crunchy crust.
Are you ready for the exciting soups and food?
Course 1: Mexican Corn Soup
This soup was full of flavour, spices and a huge hit of chilli that it created an instant reaction from everyone, including myself. Some were sweating and reaching for water but it was unanimously agreed that it was delicious. The watermelon on top gave it a bit of textural contrast as well as a refreshing element that made the soup even more wonderful.
Accompanied by: Chipotle prawn, watermelon, chilli and corn salsa
The salsa definitely made the chilliness on the tongue fade away. I loved the refreshing and subtle flavours of this dish as well as the colours and presentation. Of course, watermelon just made everyone a whole lot better.
Wine: 2010 Shelmerdine Sauvignon Blanc, Yarra Valley, Vic
Course 2: Carrot, ginger, coriander soup
I really enjoyed this soup even though carrot has never been at the top of the favourite things to eat list. Part of that reason is because the soup didn’t actually taste all that much like carrot but rather could have been pumpkin if someone asked me. I did think that this soup was full of great flavours as provided by the ginger, coriander and other spices, and definitely tickled my Asian taste buds.
Accompanied by: White cooked chicken, sesame, chilli and soy
This dish brought back memories as it’s something that my family would always make when I was a child (with a slight modern twist). It’s also quite similar to Hainanese chicken so it should be a familiar dish to those of you who like to eat at Asian restaurants. The chicken was very well cooked and was still juicy and tender.
Wine: 2010 Te Mata Estate Woodthorpe Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Hawks Bay, NZ
Course 3: Chicken, sweet potato, corn soup
This was a hearty and warming dish that’s not heavy on the palate. It’s a twist to the classic chicken and corn soup so was a natural hit with everyone. I loved the deep but familiar flavours that this soup had as well as the chunky bits of chicken and sweet potatoes which went so well together. Sweet potato for the win!
Accompanied by: Steamed Hapuka, corn and coriander salsa
This was a beautifully cooked and very light fish dish. The fish itself was perfectly cooked as it was moist and still a tiny bit pink. I never like to order fish at restaurants but if it was this standard, I should order it more! I did find it needed a tiny bit more salt but I suppose this way, you get to enjoy the natural flavours of the fish more. The corn on the side was quite flavoured and sweet which tied the dish together very well.
Wine: 2010 Curlewis ‘Bel Sel’ Chardonnay, Geelong, Victoria
Course 4: Tuscan vegetable and bean soup
Another beautiful soup with deep flavours and chunky tomatoes and beans which tasted quite similar to the classic Italian minestrone soup. Although there was nothing wrong with this soup by itself, after tasting such great soups earlier, this soup just didn’t stand out as much. Unfortunate!
Accompanied by: Pork cotoletta, Italian coleslaw
As pork is probably my favourite meat of all time, this dish was an instant like. The meat inside was so so juicy it was glistening and the crumb on the outside was crunchy and flavourful. Just how I like it! Mmmm…I can almost still taste it in my mouth.
Wine: 2011 Red Claw Pinot Noir, Mornington Peninsula, Vic
Course 5: Curried pumpkin soup
Another beautiful soup with wonderfully aromatic spices. I did find this soup to be a bit like regular pumpkin soup with curry paste stirred through so it didn’t leave as big of an impression in my mind or on my palate and probably didn’t compare as well to the first 3 soups of the day. I also found this soup a tad heavier than the rest.
Accompanied by: Lamb Rogan Josh, raita
After drinking that first Mexican corn soup, this lamb rogan josh didn’t seem very spicy at all, although it still had great flavours and went well with the soup. The raita was a perfect contrast to the deep and rich flavours of the rogan josh and helped to break down what would have been a bit heavy as a last dish. I was getting so full by this stage!
Wine: 2010 Giant Steps ‘Sexton Vineyard’ Merlot, Yarra Valley, Vic
Course 6: Lime cheesecake, strawberry essence, kiwi fruit, candied celery
Of course a meal would never be complete without dessert, even if it didn’t come with soup! I already thought the meal was fantastic but the dessert just made my day. I had the choice of ordering this dish or the chocolate mousse but I decided against mousse since all I’ve been having lately was chocolatey desserts. This dish was essentially a deconstructed cheesecake with shards of biscuit scattered around in such a pretty form. I loved the light and refreshing flavours as well as the contracting textures on the plate. I felt like I was in heaven! This is a must order if you ever visit The Botanical.
The dessert I didn’t eat…it also looks so good!
Wine: 2010 Mitchell Nobel Semillon, Clare Valley, South Australia
Of course, I just had to order a coffee to catch up on some much needed caffeine. The cappuccino I had wasn’t the best I’ve tasted but it wasn’t bad at all. Slightly watery but still quite fragrant, I gladly gulped it down in between mouthfuls of the petit four.
The petit four was apparently a coffee flavoured macaron but I couldn’t taste the coffee in it at all, it just tasted quite sweet and chewy. Not the best macaron I’ve ever had although they did look quite pretty.
You wouldn’t believe just how full I was! I could barely walk, but it was definitely a very satisfied kind of full. All the dishes and the soups were so delicious that I could hardly pick out a fault with them. I can see Luke Brabin’s potential so am very keen to come back and try some proper dishes. I do believe though that the dishes he served us were possibly smaller forms of the actual mains you can order from the menu, and the dessert is definitely on the menu as well. As you can imagine, I don’t believe the ratings on Urbanspoon. Judging from this caliber of dishes, The Botanical really deserves a higher rating.
Although I know which soup I liked most, I will refrain from saying anything at this stage as the winning soup needs to be announced formally by La Zuppa, or else there’s just no surprises. So look out for La Zuppa’s announcement of the winning soup flavour and the winner on their Facebook page in the coming days. Also watch out for the new flavour to hit supermarket shelves next year.
Now for the most exciting part. The lovely people at PR Edge, La Zuppa and The Botanical are giving away a $200 voucher from The Botanical to one of Ichigo Shortcake’s lucky readers! The voucher is valid for at least 12 months and you can order anything from the menu up to this value. All you have to do is:
1. Like my Facebook page.
2. Comment below to let me know that you have liked the page.
Of course being a restaurant in Melbourne, you should only enter if you know you will be in Melbourne or have plans to be here.
This competition will run from now until 11:59pm on Monday 10th September Eastern Standard Time where the winner will be chosen randomly the next day. The winner will be announced here and contacted via email so make sure you provide a valid email address. Good luck everyone!
The WINNER has been drawn! Congratulations to YY. PR Edge will get in touch with you shortly at your specified email address. Thanks to everyone who commented, entered and liked my page! For your information, the winner was drawn via http://www.random.org using 18 legitimate entries.
Phone: (03) 9820 7888
169 Domain Rd, South Yarra, VIC (catch the no.8 tram from Flinders or South Yarra Stations)