Restaurant review: Ilex Cafe, Christchurch
From a distance the all-white Ilex Cafe in the middle of the Botanic Gardens looks like a bunch of yacht sails at the start of a race.
It really does look gorgeous. And how strange you can't park near it, or even cycle up to it. It's a walker's destination but being forced to stroll along wide paths beside green lawns surrounded by glorious gardens and trees is hardly a burden.
We knew how popular Ilex is so we booked for lunchtime on Saturday. The reception area here is a bit chaotic. It's hard to tell where you queue for a table - along with the people buying a coffee and slice, or somewhere else?
But events overturned all this when we were told, 'sorry, you can't book at the weekends'. Fair enough, except we did, and we pointed to a metal "reserved" table tag with our name and time written on it in felt pen spotted on a counter. Luckily a table was free anyway and we were taken there and the reserved tag was placed oddly on the table as we sat. It was funny more than anything.
On the plus side, Ilex has a small beer and wine list and a very nice way to take in the spectacular design is to do it while sipping a cold, sweetly luscious, generously poured Main Divide riesling. The lovely views, polished concrete floors and an airy lightness makes you happy.
About that odd name. The evergreen holm oak is also known as the Quercus Ilex, and so someone clever plucked it to name the complex that also includes an info centre and other garden-type activities.
Perhaps that's why the small menu has a who's who of trendy plant ingredients among the dishes. I spotted quinoa, freekah, lentils, edamame, and the sauces include the green heroes salsa verde and chimichurri. It makes the menu lineup look sophisticated and on-trend.
Ironically then, the first thing to really impress were the fries. These shoestrings were delivered hot, crunchy and salty in a big bowl with aioli. McDonald's long ago understood that shoestring fries crank up the crunch-to-bite ratio and that brings smiles all around. These are great fries.
Also very good was a "local beef and Kapiti cheddar pie". It had a great pastry, an intense decently meaty filling and the cheddar bite was authentic and nicley balanced. I think one of these pies, a bowl of fries, maybe a salad and a wine and you have the perfect weekend lunch.
But we tried some of the flasher items with mixed results. A free range chicken breast appeared which had been brined and smoked. This tasted like it had an in-house, genuine smoke flavour. Despite the brining, the chicken was still toughish. It arrived submerged in and under a variety of sauces that included a cauliflower puree, aioli and salsa verde with almonds and lentils scattered on top.
"Confit lamb shoulder with pickled beets, radish, edamame beans, toasted freekah and chimichurri" was a pretty dish, arranged as artfully as any top restaurant might with a shouting celeb chef at the pass sending it out. The lamb was tender but needed more seasoning, though that was easy to fix with the table condiments. But the tiny dabs of green chimichurri couldn't rescue it from being a bit dry, especially compared to the chicken which could swim laps in its sauces.
Ilex is a busy place and we got a glimpse of that when we were told it had sold out of a roasted pumpkin and quinoa wrap, and it was also out of the ice cream used in iced coffee, so no iced coffee. But a pulled beef baguette with a red onion relish was a good replacement for the wrap. I like how we are told it's shorthorn beef.
The only dessert is a beauty. It's a tall-glass version of Eton Mess and here the generous serving of raspberries, a quality fig and honey icecream, plus honey comb, impressed, though at $15 it should be good.
Open: Daily 8.30am-5pm
Price range: Small plates up tio $15; mains up to $24; dessert $15.
Cost: $90.50 for four (excluding drinks)
Wine list ★★