Negroni, espresso coffee and pizza. Herb garden, spa and swimming pool. Cafe, bar and restaurant. It’s extremely tempting to book myself into the multimillion-dollar Mark Moran retirement and aged-care development in Vaucluse immediately.
I know – way too early, right? Like, waaaaay too early. But at least for now, I can book myself into their open-to-the-public restaurant, SOL Botanica, and get a glimpse of what life will be like within the wellness and lifestyle precinct of the future.
OK, so it will be like flipping your life savings into an overdecorated apartment on a luxury residential cruise ship. The restaurant has curved glass walls that soar skywards, with well-spaced tables and comfy chairs under a bewildering array of lighting systems and (real) hanging ivy, and floor staff, under manager Marianne Poirey, who seem hand-picked for their cheeriness.
But SOL Botanica is a completely gluten-free lockdown zone, which could be a sticking point. Do I want to live out my days gluten-free? Will I live longer if my days are gluten-free, or will they just seem longer? Must one retire from gluten, as well as from work? And in the meantime, can I enjoy an entire meal that is gluten-free?
Yes, almost. Founding chef Perry Hill, who was there in the early Luke Mangan days of Salt, Moorish and Bistro Lulu, is committed to using minimal dairy, as well as organic fruit and veg and unrefined whole foods and sugars. He’s also clever enough to filter it all through a sunny menu of button-pressing comfort-food favourites from the Mediterranean and Asia.
Warm, steamy bread rolls are made with teff flour, sesame and celery seeds and black quinoa. An entree of risotto ($22) is old-school good, studded with sensitively cooked coral trout, sliced pine mushrooms and saffron. Asian dumplings in a warm broth are handled well if underseasoned, their scallop and spanner crab filling encased in silky rice-flour skins ($19).
There’s a focus on gluten-free pizza, although the nutty, snappy-crisp bases made of brown teff, buckwheat and tapioca flour would give an Italian a heart attack, while preventing one at the same time. If you don’t mind eating your Napoli of tomato, very nice buffalo mozzarella and basil ($18.50) on something akin to Scandinavian crispbread, it’s very enjoyable.
Then comes a dish that makes me long for gluten: a “fish pie” that isn’t a pie. Instead, it’s a generous fillet of crusty crumble-topped blue-eye trevalla ($32) sitting in a sweet and mushy puree of sweetcorn and coconut milk, with potato in there somewhere as well. When I finally get old enough to live here, I think I’d prefer a fish pie, thank you.
The wine list is tight, practical and accessibly priced with just enough by the glass (we don’t want grandma hitting the bottle), including Craggy Range’s 2015 Temuna Road sauvignon blanc ($13/$52).
For dessert, there’s a pretty cool pav (pressing those buttons again) that’s a deconstruction of green tea meringue with cucumber sorbet, thyme semifreddo, kiwi fruit, tapioca and yoghurt.
I’m not convinced the 100 per cent commitment to gluten-free is entirely necessary, but what is essential is getting real, nourishing food into more aged-care facilities and hospitals. And hey: Negroni. Coffee. Pizza. Our oldies need this to roll out across the country, not just Vaucluse.
2 Laguna Street, Vaucluse
Phone 02 9366 7011 solbotanica.com.au
Open Breakfast Fri-Sun; lunch and dinner Wed-Sun
Cost About $150 for two, plus drinks
Best bit: A brave attempt to rethink institutional food service.
Worst bit: Not being the youngest person in the restaurant.
Go-to dish: Coral trout and pine mushroom risotto, $22
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.