Roots Restaurant

FRESH ROOTS: Lyttelton residents Giulio Sturla and Christy Martin have opened a restaurant that sticks to no menu.
FRESH ROOTS: Lyttelton residents Giulio Sturla and Christy Martin have opened a restaurant that sticks to no menu.

There's no menu at Roots, so expect the unexpected.

Mystery dining

I'm forever banging on about Christchurch needing quirky and original eateries to stretch our palates, so an opportunity to try Roots Restaurant in Lyttelton is a dream come true.

A glimpse at Roots' website tells me it isn't about Bob Marley, Jamaica or American black culture, but the restaurant's logo of extending plant roots kind of makes sense.

Everything is made from scratch, foraged and sourced locally, with much of the produce being organic or grown in someone's backyard. Dishes change with the season and colours of the environment.

There is no online menu to peruse - just the option of three, five, seven or 10 courses. When phoning to make a reservation, I am surprised to be asked how many courses I would like, so bravely opt for seven. Later, I wonder what happens if, in two days' time, I only fancy three courses. Pressure.

In the London St site once occupied by Satchmo's, Roots now sits, tucked into a cosy space between narrow shops and cafés. In contrast to Satchmo's dark, smoky and wooden interior, Roots is white, clean and minimalist. A small restaurant with 15 to 20 seats, a large open kitchen and a picture window overlooking the twinkling lights of a working port, it's almost like walking into owners Giulio Sturla and Christy Martin's living room.

Warmly greeted by Christy, and the soft dulcet tones of Johnny Cash, my partner, Heidi, and I are invited to sit where we want, as there are only two others dining. As it is a freezing night, we choose a table close to the only heater in the room.

Christy promptly takes our coats and offers us an extensive wine list. However, only three reds and three whites are sold by the glass. For those who do not drink alcohol, the options are fruit juice, Roots' specialty tea or mineral water.

I wait for the menu, but - surprise - there isn't one. I've never gone out for dinner and had no idea what I was about to eat; how exciting. Once we declare we have no weird or wonderful dietary requirements, we are left to read the drinks list. 

About 15 minutes later, Christy arrives with a hot little cheese bread, a delicacy from Ecuador. It is light, delicious and very cheesy; a pleasure on the palate and a great starter. I am expecting some explanation as to why it is served, a little history, or a hint of what's to follow, but none is offered.

On to the first course, Winter Garden, homemade ricotta, black-bean puree, garnished with fresh, edible flowers and a whiff of fragrant thyme spray. On the plate, it actually looks like a miniature garden. Again, there's no explanation about the ingredients and the seasonal choices. I'm not feeling the passion, and anxiety starts to creep in, especially over portion sizes.

Fortunately, one of the two standout dishes of the night arrives shortly after - a beautiful pumpkin gnocchi, with homemade sour cream and onion sprouts. The gnocchi is light as a feather and melts in the mouth. We can certainly taste the expertise in this dish and both wish we had a larger portion. The other favourite, which is course five, is three tender slices of merino lamb neck, mushroom dust, linseed and spring onion. The flavours, delectable and subtle, are a sensational dance on the palate.

Other dishes emerge from the kitchen: parsnip and vanilla with carrots and Jerusalem artichokes, and a fish dish of fresh red cod, onion soup and crispy kale. Frustratingly, dishes are being presented without explanation, so when course six - pheasant, chlorophyll and egg yolk - arrives, I take matters into my own hands. Inquiring about the dish's origins, I'm told the pheasant comes from a farm in North Canterbury!

On one of the coldest nights on record, we finish our meal with a combination of sorbet and icecream.

Roots is a wonderful idea; no doubt a dream that became a reality fuelled with immense passion. But a little more understanding is imperative for the diner to feel the concept.

A menu on arrival creates anticipation, conversation and a story, and it allows the diner to share the chef's vision. Instead, we're offered the menu at the end of the evening. By then, the mystic factor is lost, and so are we.

We leave feeling deflated, but, worse still, a little hungry. At $100 a person for seven courses (without wine), Roots, for us, does not represent the best value for money.

If I could order from an à la carte menu a decent-sized portion of the pumpkin gnocchi as an entrée, and the lamb (which I still dream of) for main, then Roots would become my top place to eat. However, on the basis of only a blind degustation and no regular dishes, Roots is a one-off specialist destination.

Where: 8 London St, Lyttelton.

Service: Slow, but attentive.

Prices: Expect $50-plus per person for dinner.

Ambience: Lots of potential.