Cuisine award makes Roots restaurant a drawcard for Lyttelton

Cuisine Magazine article by Ewan Sargent

Some things change but some stay exactly the same when you get national recognition. Ewan Sargent visits Roots - last year's Cuisine Good Food Guide restaurant of the year.

At 10am, an apron-wearing Giulio Sturla is hunched over a twin sink tucked into the corner of the tiny Roots restaurant kitchen in Lyttelton. He's making careful cuts into a huge, mottled green turbot. The fish is on a chopping board balanced on the sink edge, which makes a tricky operation even trickier. More huge turbot await their turn in a chilly bin.

"A beautiful fish, a very underrated fish," Sturla says admiringly. On benches around him, four young chefs are working hard to prepare for the evening service in eight hours' time. They make a careful dance of twists and turns to avoid bumping each other.

Roots' kitchen must be the busiest place in sleepy London St at this time of morning. From across the road, it might have a slightly newer-looking paint job, but there's little that makes it stand out from the rest of the shambling line-up of small-town shops.

The understated look only adds to the aura. This is the South Island's best restaurant. It's the only one across Cook Strait to have two hats, and last year it was Cuisine's Restaurant of the Year. It's almost like our version of the little French village restaurant at the end of a farmtrack that serves Michelin-star dishes.

Back inside and the turbot's story is a good example of how things work at Roots. A local fisherman rang yesterday at 6.30pm to say, "I've got turbot, I'm in the harbour now, come and pick it up." It took a chef 10 minutes to get down to the wharf and back with the fish.

"We got lucky," says Sturla. He needed a thick, flat fish for what he had planned, not round gurnard or too-thick groper. Turbot was perfect. It will be cured for three or four hours by being pressed hard up against local seaweed. Sturla says salty seaweed takes it to another level than plain old salt.

For diners tonight, it will arrive beautifully presented in a decorative bowl as four rolled-up sashimi slices in a broth of soy sauce, umeboshi and dashi. Possibly some sea lettuce and celery will be the garnish. And some kelp will be in there, says Sturla. He hasn't served this dish before, but Roots' track record suggests it will be yet another stunning little flavour vignette of fish and the sea from Lyttelton's doorstep.

At mystery-menu, degustation-only Roots, the diners will know only that they are eating cured turbot when the dish is presented. And it will be only one of 12 courses for some diners who are splashing out tonight.

Much has changed since Sturla, born in Chile and raised in Ecuador, and his wife Christy Martin, an American, opened Roots at the end of 2012. It was a restaurant run by just three – Giulio and a sous chef cooking, and Christy running front of house.

But that was a big step up from post-quake 2011, when they sold things like gourmet cookies, grissini, puff pastry treats, preserves and vegetable chips from a footpath table to passersby who had drifted beyond the weekly Lyttelton farmers' market.

Why on the footpath? Because they couldn't afford a stall at the market. That humble pavement spot is just a few metres from their restaurant.

Right from the start they had an intense focus on cooking with local, ethical, seasonal and sustainable produce, and having genuine relationships with local suppliers.

Some people liked what they were doing, others didn't get what seemed to be expensive small dishes. In battered post-quake Lyttelton, Sturla and Martin often came up against insular Kiwi ideas on what a meal should cost and how big it should be.

But slowly the people who wanted that kind of food and understood the philosophy began to find them. That accelerated when Cuisine reviewed the restaurant favourably in 2013. In 2014, Roots won a hat and was named runner-up best new restaurant in the Good Food Awards. Last year it won two hats and was named restaurant of the year.

Sturla says the recognition has meant more diners, but also a different kind of diner – people who appreciate the effort they put into following their philosophy. Locals use Roots to celebrate special occasions, food lovers come from around the country and tourists hunt them out after researching where to eat online.

Sturla was startled to find out that as a destination restaurant, he's creating business for other Lyttelton places. Bed and breakfasts say they fill up thanks to people who come to dine at Roots.
In the early days there were few takers for the 12-course option ($185 or $305 with wine pairings). Now many more want that, and it's interest in the entry level five courses ($90 or $140) that is fading.

Now, says Sturla, "maybe one in a 1000 diners go, 'Huh, all this money for these tiny dishes'." Once it would have been 500 in a 1000, he laughs. "People understand that what we are serving is pretty special.

"You are eating something that is not available in many countries. Honestly, to get koura, paua, fish, clams, venison – and we are just talking about proteins – in one menu as fresh as it is, that's serious stuff."

What has changed is the size of the operation, even though big-city restaurants would scoff at a place that still stores its ice in Sturla's Rapaki home a few kilometres away because there's no room for a freezer. But now they have nine staff in summer, and seven over winter. Last year they took over the shop next door to create room for 10 more diners (taking the maximum to 35, but Sturla considers 28-30 is full), and also created a place for diners to relax and where drinks can be prepared.The philosophy of celebrating and promoting good New Zealand food has been taken nationally with Sturla launching the ConversatioNZ movement and hosting a conference in Christchurch last year.

One more glimpse of Roots' genius. Sturla shows me a plastic container of beige-coloured salt. It has an amazing taste with a surprise, almost-umami background flavour.

It's our salt, he says. A local forager brings them 50 litres of fresh clean seawater from north of Pegagus Bay. It's slowly reduced, a touch of seaweed is added and there you have half a kilo of salt unlike any you will taste anywhere else.

The online article is available here.
The original article was published in the July issue of Cuisine Magazine.


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