The final stop on my tour of New Zealand’s three hat restaurants concluded with a lovely drive from Christchurch to the port town of Lyttelton to visit Roots. Including an exciting journey through a long road tunnel coupled with some spectacular hill and bay scenery, I reached my destination full of awe and ready for an evening of joyful food.
I’d arrived a few minutes early so had the opportunity for a quick beer at nearby Eruption brewery’s tap room. I had an excellent pale ale in very enjoyable surroundings with a lovely view out towards Whakaraupo.
I toddled along to Roots where I was warmly greeted by the front of house team. Previous reading had set out the place’s commitment to local sourcing, growing and foraging much of their own produce and generally having a strong focus on sustainability. This was outlined to me again upon arrival.
It was suggested that I might like a pre-dinner drink in their bar area. I was happy to go with this. My pisco sour was made with a few wobbles which didn’t entirely fill me with confidence. The cocktail menu felt pretty incongruous, particularly with the very meticulous approach to presentation that followed.
I was brought a couple of snacks while I sipped. First up was a parsnip cornetto. The texture of the little cone lacked crispness, so it badly stuck to my teeth. This added more jitters to the wobbly start. A further snack of storm clam was more successful.
The move to the dining room got things onto a much surer footing. Service settled into a level of friendly assurance.
There were a couple of further snacks. A little warm cheese bread called pan de yuca – a feature of chef patron Giulio Sturla’s Chilean heritage – was texturally unusual. A dish of daikon, onionweed, and pine nut butter was elegantly presented but a little too subtle for my palate.
With the arrival of paired wines, carefully curated by Christy Sturla, things finally hit their stride.
A dish of crayfish with house-made wasabi oil and turnip pieces in a turnip broth was accomplished stuff with a well-treated central element and fresh, innovative accompaniments.
The next dish of line-caught hapuka, spinach leaves, Jerusalem artichoke sauce, and local olive oil featured an excellent sauce that was one of the standout items of the whole meal.
The next dish featured rashers of slow-cooked pork belly, kumara cooked in coffee, and a kumara foam and cracker topped with sorrel leaves. This was a dish of subtle elements in careful balance.
We then had a barbecued yam with yam crisps and kombu. The yam had been cooked low and slow for a very long time. This gave it a good subtle smokiness but it was texturally a touch leathery.
The main course was an absolute triumph with locally shot red deer served with a blood and butter sauce and cos lettuce brushed with plums aged in Pegasus Bay lees. The cooking of the venison was top notch and the sauce packed an excellent meaty punch. It was comfortably the best dish of the evening.
We then had a good showcase of local cheeses with the Mt. Eliza cheddar particularly good. A palate cleanser of fennel granita, fennel vinegar and goat’s cheese covered in wattleseed was suitably zingy.
The first dessert was a complex multi-element dish of textures of kiwi and kawakawa, with house-made yoghurt. This was bright and energetic. The second sweet dish featured grapefruit segments and little pumpkin sponge cakes. It was very pleasant.
Refreshing elderflower tea was the final liquid item. This came with petit fours featuring the house honey which were a strong note to end on.
So overall, Roots has hugely commendable principles at its heart and has a commitment to local and sustainable approaches that many could learn from. I’m not sure I caught them on their best night and in particular I struggled with some unusual textural elements in dishes. Under different circumstances I would have filed this under a place I need to give a second chance, but my current schedule doesn’t allow for such luxuries. When next you’re in this part of the world, I’d recommend you give it a visit and make your own mind up about it, being sure to set your expectations to “thought provoking” rather than “palate dazzling”.
Blythe scores Roots
4/5 for food
4.5/5 for presentation
3.5/5 for setting
4/5 for service
giving an overall 16/20
I ate: eight course tasting menu
I drank: pisco sour, McCorkingdale blanc de blanc, John Forrest white blend, Pyramid Valley chardonnay, Kevin Judd riesling, Malborough pinot noir, Elqui carmenere blend, tawny port, Greystone riesling, Malborough riesling, elderflower tea, water
I wore: cow socks
Total bill: $275
Address: 8 London Street, Lyttelton, 8082