It will surprise no one to learn that Shai and Stasie Bitton have plans. Already owners of Cafe Smitten and Smitten Grand Island, the couple recently opened their latest venture, The Botanist, across the street from their flagship business.
"Shai and I always have a lot of dreams and ideas," Stasie Bitton said. "We opened Grand Island right before (the) COVID (shutdown). We rode the waves of COVID and after we felt we were in a secure spot, we moved forward."
They knew the next project was going to be a restaurant and cocktail bar and locating it downtown was always the goal "for the environment we want to create."
"We love these older downtown buildings that you don't necessarily find on the west side."
As chance would have it, a building opened up on 18th Street when Dot x Ott closed its doors last September.
Bitton said, "It was a perfect opportunity across the street from Cafe Smitten, along with the synergy from the apartments that are being built, creating this urban environment."
In addition to 17th Place Townhomes, the area, often called Eastchester, will soon welcome The Cue, a 53-unit rental development at Q and 18th streets near completion, and the planned rental project Cleo at the parking lot next to Cafe Smitten, expected in 2024. All projects, as well as the planned 918 at Eastchester, at 20th and P streets, are being developed by Sage Equities.
"This helps us continue to bring life to 18th Street," Bitton said.
Work on the restaurant began last December to design and build their concept, which is intended to transport guests to another time and era.
"It's Old World, a little bit 1920s but with a modern twist," she said of the concept. "The name The Botanist refers to a person who is traveling through experiences, bringing back different herbs and plants."
That's reflected in the design, with ornate tropical wallpaper behind the bar and framed paintings throughout the main dining area, and the menu, which Bitton said is global with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences, offering elevated bar food and unique vegan options.
"We wanted to create a new experience for our customers without replicating anything from Smitten. You wouldn't know Smitten was a part of it" just by looking at it.
"It's the same level of (Smitten) quality and customer service reflected in The Botanist, but in terms of design and menu it's totally different."
The menu is split into "small bites," "the garden" (salads) and main dishes. Making sure there's something for everyone, they included entrees of steak ($40) as well as Atlantic salmon ($36) but with special touches.
Bitton said, "Salmon and steak we learned are two very Bakersfield favorites but with the salmon we have hominy, pomegranate and seasonal vegetables. We're adding different elements to the dishes, reflecting lots of different cultures."
That touch is evident in appetizers such as the vegetable crisps ($10), fried zucchini and eggplant spiced with za'atar and served atop tzatziki, and yellowfin tuna tartar ($18), with a spiced honey garlic sauce, veggie confetti and crispy wonton.
Za'atar also appears in The Botanist salad ($14), a mix of arugula, herbs, seasonal vegetables, crispy onions and miso ginger dressing.
Entrees include beer-battered fish and chips ($22), The Botanist smash and vegan smash burgers (both $17) and the crunchy shrimp burger ($18) with hand-breaded shrimp, spicy garlic aioli, arugula and cilantro.
Brunch is served on the weekends, with items including challah French toast ($16) with berries, citrus sugar, spiced butter and maple syrup; and The Botanist grilled cheese ($15) with halloumi, charred tomatoes. arugula, garlic confit and a fried egg.
An herbaceous bar program — developed by Bobby Hooper, a friend of the Bittons, and maintained by bartender lead Nora Gonzalez — boasts unique offerings like the seasonal cranberry sour ($14) with Buffalo Trace, cranberry syrup, lemon and cranberry foam; 9:30 Tea Time ($22, serves two), a libation of gin, green tea, mango-peach juice, mint, citrus, and angostura and plum bitters, served in a teapot; and Gigi's Lovers ($14), made with Plymouth gin, St. Germain, basil, pineapple, citrus and "lovers mix" (muddled blackberries and cucumber).
That last cocktail's name is a nod to restaurant neighbor Moderngigi Gallery, run by artist Johnny Ramos.
"We wanted to include the neighborhood into the experience," Bitton said. "These residents are our customers."
(That's definitely the case as Ramos was in attendance for one of the preview nights and shared his experience on social media to promote the fellow business owner.)
With fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables as ingredients and premium spirits available, the bar will also appeal to a variety of tastes.
"We want you to feel when you're at the bar you recognize your favorites and to introduce you to new tastes and explorations."
For dessert, The Botanist offers vanilla or chocolate soft serve, made with a machine that Shai Bitton is experimenting with in advance of the upcoming Gelato Smitten, which will open next year at the new Belcourt Village shopping center at southwest corner of White Lane and Buena Vista Road.
Yes, the Bittons are continuing to develop their local empire, aided by a dedicated crew, many of whom have been with them since opening the cafe in 2017.
At The Botanist, the couple brought on Drew Kirk, the former general manager at Smitten Grand Island, as partner.
"He's our new partner in this venture and an employee who has been with us since the beginning," Bitton said. "He has helped us grow our businesses."
The Botanist, 930 18th St., is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Visit @botanist.ca on Instagram for more information.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the originator of the bar program.