Address: 19 Khyber Pass Rd, Grafton
Phone: (09) 217 4069
Cost: $295 for two
Rating: 18 — great.

It is a clue to the calibre of this restaurant that when the waitperson brought me a spoon, I was excited.

Soup? Pudding? Hard-boiled eggs and toast? Two courses into a five-course "kitchen's choice" experience, I was ready for anything.

"New season's perla potatoes," said the waitperson. "With a wholemeal pikelet for mopping up."

My nose tasted it first. Those waxy little spuds had been doused in a sticky, stinky cheese sauce. Tiny circles of green bean added crunch; the pikelet had a tangy, fermented funk. Sometimes I buy perlas at Countdown, but when I cook them they just taste like potatoes.


Lillius has strong kitchen form — Shannon Vandy (now in a front-of-house role) and Fraser McCarthy met at The Grove, and cite two years working as private chefs in France as the catalyst for this room of their own. They've taken over a former tandoori restaurant and the refit is 18th century French royalty meets refurbished concrete factory. It's really beautiful. Plush but modern; a sensorial assurance you are going to be taken care of by people who have thought hard about what they are doing.

Disappointment, in fact, is not an option. I'd read that declaration earlier on the Lillius website and rolled my eyes because even the best restaurant is capable of serving a carrot macaron, but then the waitperson brought a cool slab of slightly pickled watermelon with a sprinkling of salty-sweet cumin and a crisp wafer of chicken skin with silky liver parfait and Kate Moss-thin slices of beetroot, and I was sold.

Lillius at 19 Khyber Pass Road, Grafton. Photo / Babiche Martens
Lillius at 19 Khyber Pass Road, Grafton. Photo / Babiche Martens

Lillius' fine-dining pedigree is obvious — napkins laid over your lap, small morsels of kitchen cleverness before the main event, glassware with stems that curve just so. They bake their own sourdough, whip their own buffalo milk butter and the perfectly balanced knives and forks make you actually notice the knives and forks.

It's early days, but during my visit the service bordered on over-attentive. I recently lunched with a longtime critic who told the waitperson he was in danger of drowning if she didn't slow down with the water. At Lillius, the same complaint would apply (at least the water was free — wine starts at $16 a glass).

Dinner sans wine will cost you $70 for three courses (you choose) or $110 for five (the chef chooses). The menu is as minimalistic as the concrete walls. Our first plate was described as king salmon, soft-shell crab, heirloom tomato and smoked ricotta. What about that green stuff? Tomato leaf-infused oil. That yellow stuff? Dashi jelly. And the tomatoes were sliced and layered like an extremely pretty terrine and there was a spicy kasundi to tie it all together. The salmon was so delectable, the entirety so delicious, that the little architectural spike of black sesame and tempura-crusted crab off to the side was superfluous to requirement.

The next course was cabbage and hapuku. It was one of the best things I've ever eaten. Every single component — chewy tapioca, tingly coastal herbs, faint traces of mussel and a rich background note of bone marrow — combined to elevate the superbly cooked fish in its humble coat of cabbage. Rustic and elegant, the land meeting the sea, I wanted to take it out into the street, stop a tourist and say: "This. This is what Aotearoa tastes like."

All of which meant the kitchen had given itself an extremely hard act to follow. The spoonable spuds were yum; courgette with wagyu lamb was refined and tasty, if not quite as cohesive as what had gone before. A stone fruit dessert with buffalo milk sorbet was refreshing, albeit punctuated with strange stabs of bitter (maybe the bee pollen?) and the cheese — Candy Goddess and Tania Smoked — was laudably local.

In short: disappointment is certainly not an option; small moments of astonishment are quite high on the cards.