ADDRESS: 19 Khyber Pass Road, Auckland
DINNER: Wed – Sun
MAINS: Wed – Sun 3 course $70 or 5 course $110, Sunday lunch $100
SCORE: 14 / 20
There is much to like at Lillius. The setting is exquisitely sophisticated, a mix of hard and soft surfaces, elegant in its spareness and simplicity. The gorgeous royal blue booths and banquettes with contrasting mustard chairs are both comfortable and striking. The simple arch through to the open bar and kitchen highlights the graphic form of the dried flowers. Lighting is subtle and warming.
Lillius is in a curious location perched at the top of Khyber Pass Road. There is little in the way of foot traffic, and definitely no parking outside. Which is fine for Zoomy and Uber users, but a little awkward for drivers. So clearly, like The French Cafe around the corner, it’s aiming to be destination dining.
Co-owner/manager Shannon Vandy runs a quietly efficient floor. Water and a wine list appear quickly and service throughout the night is never anything less than attentive. That wine list is small, tight and perfectly formed, a curious mix of natural and classics priced at the $16-$20 end for a glass. And now for a bugbear: when I’m spending that amount of money on a glass of wine in a fine-dining situation, I would like the courtesy of the bottle being brought to the table, to be shown the label, possibly a chat about it and then, please yes, pour me a glass.
Eating here is committing to either a three-course ($70) or five-course meal ($110) which makes it one of the best-value dining experiences you’ll gain for the price. Chef Fraser Mccarthy takes a considered approach to his food. The menu changes constantly and within each menu there are four options for each course. A couple of delectable appetisers get the meal off to a great start – melt-in-the-mouth brawn croquette with plum sauce and an exquisite duck-liver parfait on toast with some thin slices of the last of the cherries. Still-warm house-made sourdough with buffalo butter is a delight. First courses of kingfish with crunchy buckwheat cracker, some bitter melon and radishes is light and delicate. My companion ordered an impressive-looking soft-shell crab and butternut that did not quite deliver on crunch, however the rich smoky pork broth that accompanied the dish almost made up for it.
A kawakawa sauce that paired with smoked eel was a highlight. The sharpness of the sauce and the garnish of small ice plant leaves tempering the beautifully cooked fish made for some delightful eating. A dish of beetroots with liquorice, chrysanthemum and buffalo curd felt like it needed a foil for the earthy deliciousness of the dish.
Desserts, too, were hit and miss. A fudgy chocolate brownie will win many hearts with its crisp edges and gooey centre and the accompanying burnt pineapple and banana ice creams were excellent. The tart of buffalo curd looked like a winner with damson sauce and fresh figs. The circle of pastry was crisp, buttery and perfectly cooked, the piped curd rich and barely sweetened. The green figs were peeled and cut into thin wedges. It made for an exceedingly pretty dish with the sauce poured over at the table. But the figs were flavourless, the curd overwhelmingly heavy, the sourdough ice cream added to the richness and with only a dribble of the excellent damson sauce there was no relief. That glorious blood-red sauce deserved to be a highlight and it should have bathed the tart in its glory.
Am I being overly harsh? Quite possibly. My expectations of Lillius were exceedingly high and this was a meal I was genuinely excited about. All the right attributes are in place, and there are plenty of clever and thoughtful combinations in the food. Mccarthy shows considerable talent and a lot of restraint, however I almost felt that a little more care in the composition of the dishes would make for a more joyful dining experience. It is perhaps unfortunate that my meal at Lillius coincided with a meal the next night at one of Auckland’s 3-hat restaurants. While I enjoyed the evening and the setting at Lillius, I had some lingering doubts about the experience that were brought into stark contrast when considered next to one of the country’s finest.