Taking the hex off Mex
Mexico restaurant's executive chef, Javier Carmona, is on a mission to restore the reputation of the Latin American nation's cuisine.
From the street it looks as if little has changed at the Brougham St location of New Plymouth's much- loved Andre's L'Escargot Restaurant.
The historic colonial building is still daubed in rich, red paintwork and wrought-iron grilles and black awnings frame the windows, but a neon sign spelling out the word "Mexico" hints all is not as it once was.
Inside, gone is the impossibly starched white linen and trappings of French fine dining, replaced by a riot of colour and a vibe that screams fiesta.
The walls are crammed with images of matadors, Zapata revolutionaries, masked wrestlers and religious iconography, with the odd Frida Kahlo reference thrown in.
Executive chef Javier Carmona says the Mexico group, which has six restaurants in New Zealand, was attracted to the location because it was an established food hub, but are mindful of being respectful to the history of the building and previous owner, Andre Teissonniere who died last year.
"We are not going to try and replace Andre's in the hearts and minds of the people of New Plymouth, but we are going to be just as dedicated to what we are doing and offer a fantastic experience."
Mexico is in for the long haul and has paid out about $400,000 getting the business off the ground, holds a 20-year lease on the building and has hired about 40 staff.
Carmona, a Spanish-born Australian with more than 20 years experience in kitchens around the globe, has a clear idea of Mexico's mission.
"I think for the last 10 or 20 years Mexican food has had a really bad rap, effectively people's perception has been of the style of food you get at Tex-Mex which is not what you get in Mexico at all.
"We don't call ourselves authentic, our ideal is akin to street food and the whole idea with street food is that it's fast paced, it's vibrant, it's got really dynamic flavours and it's quick, and we've immersed ourselves in that."
The 42-year-old once owned The Codfather fish restaurant in inner- city Sydney and counts among his achievements working at the acclaimed Livebait restaurant in London's Waterloo.
He's married to a Kiwi, Lissa, and the couple, who have two children, decided to move back Down Under for lifestyle reasons, opening the door for Carmona to get involved in Mexico.
"There were a couple of options there for me and Mexico came up continuously in the conversation, and for me it was more interesting taking Mexican food to a new level in New Zealand.
"I think essentially Mexican food has so many more layers and more depth than what people give it credit for."
While on the surface the menu of primarily tacos and quesadillas might come across as familiar, Carmona promises diners plenty of surprises.
"We are really trying to get that palate activated and get people excited. You'll have a mouthful or a morsel of something and it will be really powerful, really vibrant, really punchy it will have layers, that second and third flavour coming through, a bit of heat."
Hawke's Bay company Orcona, supplies the restaurant with five varieties of fresh chillies - there's not a dried paste or powder to be found onsite - and cayenne is the kitchen's base chilli.
"It is a little more eclectic than the standard long red chilli. It's also got a different heat profile, is a little hotter and allows us to give a little more authenticity when it comes to heat," says Carmona.
"We are certainly not looking to blast everyone on every meal option because that would be ludicrous, people would run a mile. What we are saying is that Mexican food is endemically spicy and we have a range of chillies that can show you that concept."
Carmona says the Mexico experience is perfect for communal dining and he recommends sampling four or five dishes from the menu - all in the $6-$15 price range - and getting a range of taste encounters.
"What it lends itself to is experiencing quite a bit out of the menu as opposed to the conventional one or two courses, and you can try a lot of different Mexican styles.
"You could easily have one or two tacos, have a snack and share a quesadilla and that wouldn't be overkill at all."
A personal favourite of the chef's are the tacos which he swears are a far cry from the "soggy braised meat topped with a thatch of cabbage" variety experienced at the poorer fast-food outlets.
"The one I like is the Picadillo of Chicken. We have this coarsely cut chicken and we pan fry it with a really fragrant floral adobo rub and that alone is really expansive and got so many flavours and layers, and we match it with Jitomate which is almost like a green tomato jam."
This is served with a coarse Pico de Gallo or "rooster's beak" salsa with cactus, cucumber, granny smith apples, onion, garlic, coriander, fresh ginger and lime juice.
"There's a lot of textures, a lot of flavours and a lot of depth. It's the sort of dish which personifies what we are trying to do at Mexico."
Carmona says after a period in the wilderness Mexican cuisine has turned the corner, in Australia at least, and there are some wonderful dishes and fantastic restaurants.
"When people are considering going out for a meal, Mexican is now one of the options that they have.
"It's a legitimate cuisine now and it is in that conversation."
Charred Asparagus With achiote butter, mint and white radish chimichurri
4 bunches of asparagus, trimmed
Olive oil and sea salt
125g unsalted butter, softened
2 Tbsp achiote marinade (see recipe)
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 large bunch of parsley
120ml extra virgin olive oil
1/2 onion, peeled and chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 lime, juiced
50ml cider vinegar
2 tsp ground cumin
1 cup thinly shaved white radish (daikon)
A few sprigs of mint, leaves
picked and roughly chopped
To make the dressing, blend the parsley and olive oil together.
Add the onion, garlic, lime juice, cider vinegar, cumin and salt. Blend to a smooth dressing. Check seasoning.
Heat the BBQ or place a grill plate over a high heat. Meanwhile, prepare the achiote butter by placing the softened butter, achiote marinade and salt in a bowl. Mix well with a stick blender or whisk until light and fluffy. Set aside.
Lightly oil the asparagus and lay in a single layer on your BBQ or grill plate. Season and griddle the asparagus spears until tender and nicely charred. Remove from the heat and place in a bowl. Add some of the achiote butter and toss until well coated. Check seasoning.
In another bowl, toss the shaved radish with the chimichurri dressing. Arrange the asparagus on a platter. Lay the radish on top. Sprinkle with chopped mint leaves.
Tips from chef
You can pan fry asparagus instead of grilling. Try adding some candied nuts and finish with a fresh squeeze of lime.
Lamb Adobo in coffee maple marinade
Marinade: (makes 4 cups)
4 dried ancho chillies
3 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
5 garlic cloves, peeled
1 1/2 Tbsp chipotle puree
125ml maple syrup
2 Tbsp lime juice
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground white pepper
6 Tbsp instant coffee
1.5kg lamb shoulder, de-boned
Heat a large pan over a high heat and toast the dried chillies on each side until they puff up and are fragrant.
Cover the toasted chillies with boiling water and leave to rehydrate for about 30 minutes. Reserve the chilli water.
Place chillies in a blender with all other ingredients. Puree until smooth, adding some of the chilli water to loosen if it looks too thick. Check seasoning.
In a large bowl, rub the de-boned lamb shoulder with the marinade. You may not need all the marinade. Cover with cling film and refrigerate for minimum of 2 hours, or preferably overnight.
Pre-heat the BBQ on a high heat.
Place the lamb on the heated BBQ plate. Cook on one side until lamb is nicely scorched, about 15 minutes. Turn over and continue cooking for about another 15 minutes. Close the lid if your BBQ has one or cover the meat with tinfoil.
When the lamb is medium, season well and set aside to rest for 10-15 minutes.
Tips from chef
To make chipotle puree, blend contents of a tin of chipotle en adobo till smooth. Chipotle en adobo is available in most supermarkets.
Taranaki Daily News