Address: 19 Khyber Pass Rd, Grafton
Phone: (09) 217 4069
Cost: 3 courses $70; five courses $110

It's a tough life giving a damn about what words mean. I know that most people regard as obsessive-compulsive those who care when a writer uses "miasma" when he means "maelstrom" or "refute" when she means "deny".

So when I decided to try out Lillius, a new restaurant at the top of Khyber Pass, I was curious about the name. It looked Latin, but my Latin dictionary (yes, I do have one; what's wrong with that?) has no entry for it.

I emailed for an explanation the day after we had eaten there and co-owner Shannon Vandy replied — and I paraphrase her here — that it comes from "lily" which comes from Latin "lilium". That's sort of correct, though how you can derive a Latin word from a word derived from Latin is an etymological puzzle so contorted as to verge on existential.

But then things get weird: Lilias (sic) is a family name, and they changed the spelling, including a "-us" to make it "about us as a pair". As private jokes go, that's about as private as you can get, I reckon.


The other half of the "us" is chef Fraser McCarthy: the pair met while working at The Grove and clocked up some serious hospo miles here and in Europe before setting up on their own account.

And what a splendid job they've made of it, stripping back a tired tandoori restaurant to bare concrete walls, adding spare but stylish lighting, opening up an archway to frame the kitchen and fitting the dining room out with blue-upholstered booths and gold chairs. It's a cool rather than casual space, fitting to an establishment that takes its work seriously and wants diners to do the same.

Lillius runs a cross between degustation and a la carte: the three-course menu gives you the choice from four entrees, four mains and two desserts; opt for five courses and the kitchen decides for you. Half-way through, I wondered whether we'd made a mistake choosing for three, because the dishes are quite small, but we finished well satisfied, still savouring the experience rather than feeling in danger of abdominal rupture.

Little amuse bouches included crunchy steamed asparagus dressed with kawakawa cream and cured duck-egg yolk, and there was house-baked bread, which is something all chefs should offer, but so few do.

Juicy morsels of crayfish came with grilled savoy cabbage and kale-like seaweed in a salad fit for the gods, and I loved a piece of trevally charred on the skin side but still raw below, which came with shavings of steamed squid and a crispy tempura tentacle, all dressed in summery fashion with coconut and peach.

I was deeply impressed with a piece of lamb rump, oven-roasted but so fantastically tender and juicy that I thought, wrongly, that sous vide cooking had been involved. Served with yoghurt (also made in-house) and a jus of in-season herbs, it was a treat.

Less successful was the vegetarian option (the Professor, after a month in India, has rediscovered her inner meat-hater). Its main component seemed to be the other half of the baked kumara that had come with my lamb, dressed up with eggplant and savoury yeast that reminded me of my hippie days. McCarthy deserves credit for putting thought into a vegetarian dish, but this one never really cohered.

Still, some superb desserts (one put tomato and basil with strawberries, the other smothered a silky custard with a tangy berry jelly), made a perfect finish and we rode our bicycles down an almost empty Symonds St with a song in our hearts.