The Botanist Sunderland launches new summer menu - here's what we thought of it

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The bar and restaurant has proved a Sunderland success story.

Hard to believe that it’s just under a decade since Keel Square dropped anchor.

A new public square aimed at being a much-needed focal point for Sunderland as it undergoes huge regeneration, it looks to the future whilst also honouring Wearside’s maritime past in its name and its Keel Line artwork which runs the length of the square etched with the names of shipyard workers.

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As well as being a base for a whole range of events, from markets to City Runs, it’s now home to the Holiday Inn hotel and four hospitality units below.

The Botanist was the second to open its doors in January, following hot on the heels of Keel Tavern.

The Botanist arrived in Sunderland at the end of January The Botanist arrived in Sunderland at the end of January
The Botanist arrived in Sunderland at the end of January | Sunderland Echo

“Do we need any new bars?,” said the naysayers when news broke that the popular chain was investing in the city.

The answer? Seemingly so.

The wave of new bar and restaurant openings has proved a shot in the arm for the city’s hospitality offering, which is aimed at keeping Mackem money in the city whilst also attracting more visitors, with the latest figures showing that numbers for the latter are already on the rise.

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They’re also a jigsaw piece in the larger regeneration picture: if we are to have more offices, businesses and homes in the city centre (1000 homes alone on the new Riverside development), you need the infrastructure of bars, restaurants and, yes, car parks, to cater for their needs.

Demand is already rising, its seems. At The Botanist alone, it welcomed 32,000 people through the doors in its first eight weeks of business, selling more than 14,000 cocktails and becoming one of the best-performing Botanists in the country.

Judging by our visit on Friday night, its popularity hasn’t waned as it approaches its sixth month in the city.

The beer garden, a great people watching spot with views over the cranes which once more dominate the skyline, a sure sign of progress, was packed with people enjoying the cloudless evening.

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For the duration of June it also neighbours the stunningly-imposing Knife Angel sculpture, which has to be seen up close to really appreciate.

The Knife Angel sculpture is in Keel Square throughout JuneThe Knife Angel sculpture is in Keel Square throughout June
The Knife Angel sculpture is in Keel Square throughout June | Sunderland Echo

Inside, the restaurant area was full, with its size (136 covers) meaning it’s as well-equipped to cater for couples to larger groups and there was a real buzz about the place.

There’s a new summer to tuck into too, featuring lighter dishes and a wider range of small plates if you’re not up for taking on one its signature kebabs. (They sell three of those a minute across the country, in fact). Price-wise, it’s as you’d expect from a brand of this ilk, with dishes starting from £6.75 for small plates, £14.50 for mains and £5.95 for desserts.

The restaurant area at The Botanist, SunderlandThe restaurant area at The Botanist, Sunderland
The restaurant area at The Botanist, Sunderland | Sunderland Echo

I had the roasted harissa cauliflower to start, which is one of the vegan options - there’s also a dedicated vegan and gluten-free menu available. 

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It was a really well-executed dish: the humble cauli elevated with a kick of harissa on a bed of houmous that had plenty of texture and depth.

Roasted harissa cauliflower starter / small plateRoasted harissa cauliflower starter / small plate
Roasted harissa cauliflower starter / small plate | Sunderland Echo

Extra layers of flavour came from a hint of sweetness with pomegranate molasses, the distinctive umami of picked red onion, crispy shallots and mint.

For mains, I had the chicken Asian noodle salad.

Again, it was a great example of flavour layering, and had the complexity of taste you’d expect from a good Asian dish.

Chicken Asian noodle salad at The Botanist Sunderland Chicken Asian noodle salad at The Botanist Sunderland
Chicken Asian noodle salad at The Botanist Sunderland | Sunderland Echo

A bit light on the yakisoba noodles perhaps, but they were padded out with mangetout, coriander, mint and kimchi slaw in a moreish sweet chill and sesame oil dressing.

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On top, three great-sized chunks of boneless and gloriously-sticky Korean fried chicken.

Our server was great, too: really personable and efficient when juggling multiple covers in a full restaurant.

Cocktails are big business at The Botanist and it has one of the widest range of cocktails in the city, from classics like Mai Tai and Espresso Martinis to more unusual options like the excellently-named Pomme De Replay (Avallen Calvados, rhubarb liqueur and grapefruit juice topped with soda) and their signature Plant Pot (Maker’s Mark bourbon, Lazzaroni Amaretto, kiwi purée, lemon juice and honey syrup).

You’ll not get much change from a tenner for a cocktail but it’s a comparative price for bars of this standard these days. If you want to dine outside, you can do so, but you’ll need to order at the bar from a scaled down bar menu.

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Plus if you sit in, you get the bonus of the live music which plays every Friday and Saturday from 8pm to late from some really great bands.

There’s a great route blossoming at that end of the city centre now, with newcomers like The Botanist and Keel Tavern joining existing businesses like The Peacock and The Fire Station.

A new pavilion arriving in the square this summer is also set to be a further attraction.

Thought to be one of the largest in the UK, it will be a fully immersive screen which will appear 3D, replacing the existing screen in the square.

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The pavilion will also house exhibitions and showcase local talent and innovation, a viewing platform to allow people to watch the city’s new Culture House take shape, and areas for large installations and displays. This year will also see the arrival of The Muddler to the corner unit beneath Holiday Inn, serving pan-Asian food, including sushi platters and more.

No official announcement as yet on the occupier of the fourth unit, which faces on to High Street West, but I’ve heard its a brand that’s also established in Newcastle, which will complement the burgeoning offering in Keel Square. Cheers to that.

*The Botanist Sunderland is open daily from 10am to late, with food served all day from brunch through to evening meals and Sunday lunches. The venue is dog and family-friendly.

Coming to Keel Square in 2025

Culture House is taking shape in Keel SquareCulture House is taking shape in Keel Square
Culture House is taking shape in Keel Square | Sunderland Echo
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The building will house a new city centre library, as well as offering immersive exhibitions and creative space. It has also been mooted as a potential new home for the National Glass Centre collection after it was announced that the current NGC building would close.

It’s due to open in 2025.

The Propellor artwork, which was installed when Keel Square was regenerated but suffered vandalism more recently, will be repaired in anticipation of the building opening, and surrounding landscaping works undertaken. 

 

 

 

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