Biota has perfected casual fine dining for families with kids in their natural habitat.
Chef James Viles is a leader; some might say a visionary. Certainly, he is a multitalented two hatted chef who has arguably done more to put the Southern Highlands and some of his favoured local producers on the dining destination map than any cook before him.
A former Chevalier College boy who left school to join Milton Park’s kitchen, Viles is presumably now living the culmination of his food dreams with his Zen-like restaurant, Biota Dining in Bowral. The word ‘biota’ refers to the plant and animal life of a region, and since Biota opened in 2010, Viles has taken paddock to plate and foraging for wild foods to a new level.
But Viles has not left it there. He recently launched Biota’s Gather + Cook Adventures, where punters go out with his chefs to find plants and fruits growing wildly, and then cook and eat them. He has hosted Jamie Oliver, written cook books, collaborated with any number of fellow brilliant young chefs far and wide, including MKR’s Colin Fassnidge, and last year Biota was once again named one of Australia’s Top 50 restaurants nationally by highly respected food critic John Lethlean.
Although increasingly in demand, James remains a hands on owner/chef who seems to have no intention of hiding the reality of where food actually comes from to his 15,000 Insta followers. A freshly dead sheep with its throat cut lies beside a bloody knife in one recent post, with ‘In between services on a Friday’ as the caption. In another, a kangaroo tail destined for a ragu ‘served with warrigal greens in our jaffles’.
Nothing is off the menu because everything is on the menu.
Which is what brings us (me, my husband, and our three kids aged 13, 11 and six) to Biota Dining recently. James introduced Biota’s lounge menu last year to help encourage more local families to come along and enjoy some fine, kicked back, casual dining in the lovely gardens, maintained by his mum, Cath. One of Biota’s avid social media followers recently described the setting as ‘parklands’, which might be pushing it a bit, but it’s a very inviting scene with tables and umbrellas next to a water fountain in the courtyard, and comfy lounge chairs under umbrellas on the front lawns.
Viles is not there when we visit for lunch (Sunday is his away day with his wife and their small son and daughter), but people, including the folk at Good Food, which awards the esteemed Hats, only have great things to say about his second in command, chef Riley Aitken. So I inspect the menu with the hubby while my kids run off to the play area, which sommelier Ben Shephard says is a new addition that Viles had a hand in building. Even my 13-year-old is lured by the cubbyhouse, slide, swings and rope ladders.
We have foodie neighbours in our street in Moss Vale who are devoted regulars at Biota’s lounge lunch. With three kids a little older than ours, their Mum told me this is always her kids’ first choice when asked where they’d like to eat out.
When my kids return noisy, hot and hungry to the table, all eyes are on the menu, which advises ‘our lounge menu, like all food, is best shared among friends and family’. And as we order, our waitress, Freddy (who it turns out is one of our old babysitters and eats here often with her own family), is a wonderful help advising on the menu.
The kids are soon sipping on delicious looking mocktails as we await tantalising sounding dishes, including cheese and mortadella croquettes, beef burger with gorgonzola and sweetened onions, fried potato scraps with whipped fresh trout roe, corn tortilla with pork belly and wild leaves, and southern style chicken and house ranch.
When it comes, the food is a revelation. The croquettes are pop in the mouth balls of tasty moreishness, the zingy fall apart pork a tasty combination with the corn tortilla, and the beef burgers (with the sweetness of the onions cutting through the picante of the gorgonzola) are cut in half and quickly demolished. Making much of local produce as well as using Biota’s own from its vegie gardens (they also keep bees ehre,) the butter lettuce with apple and creamed seaweed ‘vinegarette’ cuts through the unseasonably hot 38 degree temperature that accompanies our lunch.
There is an extensive wine list that supports many local wineries, including Cherry Tree Hill, Tertini and Far Ago Hill, as well as the option to experience the lounge menu in a tasting menu format. For us, eating as a family at Biota was a fun, memorable and relaxed experience. When she said Biota was an exciting restaurant that encourages connection and great eating, my neighbour was dead right.