Lillius Doesn't Disappoint With Its Relaxed Menu
Jesse Mulligan pays a well-deserved revisit to the fine dining restaurant
Cuisine: Fine dining
Phone: (09) 217 4069
Address: 19 Khyber Pass Rd, Newton
Drinks: Fully licensed
From the menu: Asparagus $25; octopus $25; lamb $45; market fish $45; chocolate and kūmara pudding $22; cheese terrine $22
Last week I spoke to the incredible Marion Nestle, a New York professor who thinks and writes about food and, importantly, the connections between food and politics and climate change and poverty and health. To encourage positive change in this area we have to vote with our forks — give our money to producers doing the right thing — but, she says, we also have to vote with our votes.
So vote with your vote in October but until then, consider which businesses you choose to support with your money too. On that basis, I’d be surprised if you can do better than eating at Lillius, a small but perfect restaurant owned by a small but perfect couple who have poured their savings and dreams into a fine-dining eatery at the top of Khyber Pass.
I visited just after they opened and reported that it would be a slow road to success and, though this year that road has probably felt more like the Kuwait-Iraqi highway in early 91, Lillius seems to have survived it. There are always a few full tables when I pass, word-of-mouth endorsements seem to be growing (that’s how I ended up back here so quickly) and the operation is apparently lean enough that a quiet night here or there won’t be fatal.
That’s part intention and part accident I think. It was just the restaurant manager on the floor when I visited — “we were about to hire somebody to help me and then Covid happened” — and a couple of guys in the kitchen. It’s not possible for three people to serve multiple courses of fine food and wine to a half-full restaurant without a few gaps in service but overall they manage remarkably well.
Lillius used to force diners to choose between a three- and a five-course set menu but now you can order just one or two if you prefer. Either way they’ll begin by serving you “snacks”, a purposefully casual term that hides the hours that must go into, in this case, an incredible clam croquette and a delicate saucer of custard with bright green “spring allium” oil, a tiny dollop of miso and puffed rice.
An octopus entree was a masterclass in timing — no beating the tentacles against a wall or sous vide or other tenderising tricks; just a talented chef - Fraser McCarthy - who knew when to take the meat out of the braise. He served it with roast pumpkin, drizzled in a “fermented coffee sauce” — a great innovation delivering light bitterness and acidity, creating new flavours in the process of waste reduction (another dish featured crackers made from their excess sourdough starter).
My wife saw lamb racks on special the other day and bought so many of them that it’s become a staple food in our house: we’ve been eating them like cows eat grass. So I don’t know how I ended up ordering the same cut at Lillius but it was great, enhanced with a slow piece of shoulder concealed under thin petals of crimson beetroot.
The chef likes this little trick of “hiding” things on the plate — he also places a piece of fish under a sheet of crayfish — but (and I realise this sounds basic) my favourite thing all night was a simple side order: a layered-up dish of potato slices, cut into wedges like a cake then roasted and served with parmigiano, parsley and truffle sauce.
Now that they’ve loosened up the a la carte options, I wonder if I could drop in just for that?