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Restaurant Review: Roots Restaurant, Lyttelton

Stuff.co.nz article by Ewan Sargent

On November 18, Lyttelton chef Giulio Sturla will be at the Taste of Auckland event. He's one of a lineup of big names taking part in the "chef's secrets" section where festival goers can pay for an intimate cooking demonstration by a top chef.

I mention this because it shows that Auckland is taking notice of what the Roots team is achieving in Lyttelton - the only restaurant outside Auckland to achieve the ultimate three-hat status in the Cuisine Good Food Awards.

I've been told that Aucklanders have even booked a trip south solely to try Sturla's food, staying in Lyttelton the night then heading home.

I suspect there are many people that don't really get Roots. They don't get the cost, the loss of control in not knowing what you will be served, and the tiny intricate servings. I suspect they mildly panic that they will leave hungry.

But Roots has never been a place to get a feed. The price should make that clear if nothing else. And why not have some adventure out dining, rather than the same old head-scratching over whether it should be the steak or the lamb rack this time. (Roots had neither this night by the way, nor salmon, nor pork belly - but we did get venison loin).

We chose the minimum five-course set menu for $105 each without matching wines.

But you don't really get five tiny courses. You also get a stream of little "tastes" from the kitchen, a palate cleanser and petit fours to end. I lost count, but in the end I think the waiters and chefs brought us more than 10 exquisite things to eat.

I first visited Roots in 2013 when it was much smaller and less sophisticated. But the core approach remains of a detailed and highly tuned way of presenting the flavours and textures of in-season, local, ethical, sustainable produce. It does all this with delightful surprises.

I don't have space to go through all the dishes but they all had their little self-contained story to tell. They were presented by either the excellent restaurant manager Manuel Hesse, or one of the chefs, including Sturla, with a tale of what they were about.

Hesse teased that the first course was "breakfast for dinner". What appeared was Dippy Egg and Soldiers. On a warmed pedestal was presented what seemed like a fried egg. But really it was the whole yet runny yolk of an egg in the middle of a sweetish buttery creamy sauces made with a koji culture. Crunchy polenta fries revved up with porcini salt were perfect for dipping in the yolk and some bread helped mop everything up.

A cooked red freshwater koura sat on vivid mossy stones and among seaweed. However the tiny green rocks turned out to be smoked eel and potato rolled in parsley dust. You slipped the barbecued tail meat out and dipped it back into the head where a pool of koura mustard (the cooked liver mixture) awaited. Other blobs and gels added flavour and intrigue.

Meanwhile, a white sudsy mound dotted with flowers turned out to be asparagus foam covering more Motukarara asparagus that had been cooked in bone marrow, there was local horseradish, nuts, lemon and amazing flavour bursts from wild onion flowers. "Like a savoury fresh spring garden" I wrote in my notes, not sure what that means, but I really liked it.

Once again it was a great evening of exciting and challenging food. The service was wonderful because the staff get that this is a big event for diners and they bring energy to make it so. The enthusiasm of the young chefs presenting their dishes is also a nice touch.

We didn't leave hungry. We didn't leave thinking 'I could have cooked that myself' like with some other places. Perhaps other Roots visits have been slightly more memorable, because I missed the really intense broth-based dishes they sometimes do.

But this visit underlined why Sturla is off to Auckland to show his skills and why so many people around New Zealand and overseas are also heading for Lyttelton.

Read the original article here.