Restaurant review: Cartel Mexican Bar and Grill in Blenheim

Delicious options.

Delicious options.

A new option for dining in Blenheim has hit the right note with Marlburians and those working behind the scenes couldn't be happier. Toni Gillan was lucky enough to get a table at Cartel.

Mexican cuisine is an important aspect of the culture, social structure and popular traditions of Mexico. It is primarily a fusion of food originating from the indigenous Americas. The native food staples are corn, beans, avocados, tomatoes and chilli peppers.

Europeans, especially the Spanish, introduced meats, dairy products and various herbs and spices. African and Asian influences followed which stimulated specific regional cuisines. An example of this is mole (sauce) - a spicy, rich sauce containing nuts, seeds, spices, chilies, and sometimes a small amount of chocolate. When it comes to popular Mexican food, people often only know the hybridized version, Tex-mex which omits many of the traditional Mexican ingredients and techniques.

Restaurateur Joe Johnson.

Restaurateur Joe Johnson.

Restaurateur Joe Johnstone and executive chef Craig Macgregor opened Cartel Mexican Bar and Grill in Blenheim's Scott St last year. Working with chef Ben Heaton, they pride themselves on serving authentic traditional Mexican cuisine.

From the bar, 27 types of tequila are available for all of us to appreciate and learn more about. On immediate offer, suggested by their upbeat Irish/Japanese bar manager, was a tequila tasting tray ($35) with a choice of three tequilas respectively from their Blanco/Plata/Silver, Reposado, and Anejo selections.

He compares tequila to whisky with its developing characters - depending on how long it was aged for.

I take a sip. WOW. Anaesthetised mouth. Then second impressions develop "that the soul of the spirit is not erased … rather it gets along in a harmonious way" (well I referenced that somewhere today and its says it all).

To be fair, I had asked to taste the most expensive on the menu first – the peaty Don Julio 1942. Muchas gracias mi amigo, there's a lot more to be said about this tequila tasting. To think this distilled beverage is made from a succulent, the blue agave plant.

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The bar also serves an impressive list of cocktails (16 - but think Margaritas says Joe), stocks nine different Mexican beers, as well as craft beers from New Zealand breweries such as Garage Project, and international and New Zealand wines. 

The place is rapidly filling up. I've heard they're often booked out here so we're ready steady set. We order up a Mexican mojito for me – the photographer David, a virgin bloody Maria.

They then follow with Small plates and Quesadillas (tortillas – flat bread), tacos and then grandes/large plates, burritos (filled tortillas), and enchilada.

Rolled or filled it can be confusing when it comes to tortillas and I warn you, very filling. Just ask the staff to help you order. They understand the food. Think guacamole, roasted tomatilla salsa, refried beans, street corn, marinated fish and chipotle prawns. Tacos with pulled beef, grilled chicken, braised goat with green chilli and red rice, Mexican paella not to mention sirloin and rib eye hot from the grill.

Their kitchen is relatively small. The staff well trained and highly organised. They have to be in that food is pretty much prepped fresh everyday.

Ben Heaton tells me Mexican cuisine is not as simple as people think and provisioning and running the compact kitchen is challenging. Behind the scenes, he is assisted by Craig MacGregor who also chefs at The Yard Bar.

Just as a matter of interest they order kilos of fresh limes every day and go through 12 litres of organic lime juice every week. With Italian roots and a tapas and Mexican cooking background, Ben loves food diversity and has built the menu around readily available local ingredients (clams, fish, meats, fruits, herbs, vegetables, greens etc.) as well as from their Mexican food supplier. He also loves diner interaction and comment.

Spoilt for choice we order a grapefruit salad, which comes with cos lettuce, grapefruit, feta, orange segments, toasted pumpkin seeds and chef's own flavour burst, chilli and lime vinaigrette. Chef adds fuel - chicken and avocado - to it.

We follow with, and fight over, the Ceviche Tostada with lime-marinated fish and Cloudy Bay clams. As I sit there taking notes I realise this place is crazy-amaze-y.

I really wanted to try chef's local expression of Mole Padrone - chargrilled chicken; peppers and red rice served with traditional mole sauce which to be clear (see above) I believe you have to understand to appreciate.

There are three desserts; we choose Chimichanga (not usually a dessert and you need to discover that chocolate treat for yourself) but chef Ben says he loves serving the Coconut and Saffron Flan with caramel sauce and popcorn. Next time.

Cartel is open seven nights and welcomes all age groups.

For specials and notices, their Facebook page is updated daily.

Joe Johnstone says he and his business partner Craig are grateful for such resounding local support. El respeto.

From the kitchen - Ben's Chilli and Lime Vinaigrette

1 tablespoon mustard
2 cups fresh lime juice
2 fresh red chilies
2 teaspoons smoked paprika.

Slowly blend in ½ cup olive oil and ½ cup canola oil. Picante.

Cartel Mexican Bar and Grill
28 Scott St, Blenheim
Phone 03 579 1778

 - The Marlborough Express

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