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Obsession 2016: Diego Hernandez review

Obsession 2016: Diego Hernandez review

by Eliot Collins 15 February 2016

Eliot Collins enjoys a taste of Mexico on the thirteenth night of Obsession.

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Eliot is Chef Partnership Manager at Great British Chefs.

I’ve avoided eating Mexican since I left California six years ago, apart from a trip to Tulum in 2013, which was excellent and my first real taste of the country’s local, regional food. But the rise of central and South American cuisine in the UK can’t be ignored – you just have to look at the number of restaurants focused on this part of the world, opening their doors to hungry folk looking for something different.

I was able to put my worries to one side when I had the pleasure of experiencing new Mexican cuisine from one of the chefs changing the country’s dining scene at the moment. Chef Diego Hernandez creates amazing dishes in his restaurant Corazon De Tierra in the winemaking region of Guadalupe Valley. He came over to Northcote during Nigel Haworth’s Obsession festival to show British diners how Mexican food is changing.

Diego’s manner was relaxed, friendly and open; we had a brief chat about the difficulties of creating his vibrant menu in the northwest of England in the cold of winter, which I imagined would be quite the challenge. However, he pulled it off with finesse and the five courses served were light, clean, vibrant and insanely well matched with wines from all over the world.

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Watercress and tomato salad, dashi gelatine, pomegranate and chlorophyll

This was a dish that brought to life the constant blanket of Mexican sunshine that makes the country’s tomatoes so great. This was a brilliant way of brining umami into a dish that had all the flavours of the Mexican climate. The dashi tied everything together, with huge savoury notes bouncing off the sweet acidity of the tomatoes and sticky pomegranate.

The accompanying glass of Grüner had an acidity to match the tomatoes and a grassy note to complement the earthy chlorophyll – it was spot on, and as I looked down the menu I realised every glass on the list was an Old World wine.

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Roasted fennel bulb, roasted chervil root, juiced stems and fresh tops with coal

For me, this was the stand out dish of the evening and silence fell around the room, which was a sure sign that flavour had taken over the conversation. It revealed the rhythm of flavours that Diego likes, particularly the earthy tones of plants and other herbaceous ingredients. This dish was all about the right balance of sweet, aniseed and floral, and the whole thing was a great play on textures.

The white Bordeaux was incredible, floral, tropical and superb with this dish. It had to stand up to some bold, charred flavours, but that’s what the complexity of the wine did so well. The long finish was the cherry on the cake, giving you a hint of summer with each mouthful.

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Celery tamale, dry parsnip, pigeon and mole amarillito

Two great Mexican staples – tamale and mole – were brought together in Diego’s next course. The sauce seasoned everything on the plate, while the tamale was the perfect sponge to hold all the other garnishes together. Not forgetting that pigeon is game, one would expect beetroot, chocolate or even berries, but instead it was tomatillo, tomatoes and chilli that lifted this to the next level.

What wine do you serve with such a complex dish? Craig Bancroft settled on a semi-sweet, sparkling Lambrusco. A small glass was poured to encourage small sips, which were just enough to cleanse and brighten the dish with loads of berries and red fruits. Weird and wonderful on paper, but even better in person.

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Suckling pig, chilmole, burnt aubergine, xcatic emulsion, pickled carrot and tortillas

 

I managed to pop my head in the kitchen when chef Hernandez was portioning the pork and the smell was incredible; wafts of the perfect roast making their way around the kitchen as the 100-plus plates were lined and up garnished. Xcata is a chilli pepper that is very pale yellow in colour, and much like the British have a wide variety of wild winter herbs, the Mexicans have a crazy amount of chillies to really enhance the flavour of a dish; in this case, the spice and sourness of the emulsion cut through the dish very nicely. When roast pork is good it's great, and this was a truly magical fourth course. It had everything you want; stickiness, crunch, a sweet flavour and juicy, tender, moreish meat. The garnish provided plenty of texture to the dish while giving it depth of flavour.

A bunch of grapes that have seen loads of sunshine created a perfect red for this dish and with loads of structure whilst not too much texture, the jammy dark fruits in the Douro were perfect.

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Gingerbread, black radish foam, fennel pollen ice cream, coriander leaf chlorophyll

Another example of very earthy flavours and savoury notes in a dessert, this sweet and final course was something that is very much on trend. It used to be the case that using savoury flavours in a pre-dessert was the done thing, but in a final course? It’s becoming more common and with a dish like this you can see why; the finish is light, refreshing and cleansing and, at the end of a tasting menu, somewhat satisfying. The challenge for the chef to is to win the hearts of the sweet-toothed. I enjoyed the complexity behind this dish, but it didn't have that classic ‘pudding’ feel, which might not please some diners.

Ask any sommelier about challenging ingredients when pairing and ginger is definitely up there. The choice was a Hungarian Tokaji, and why not; with the complex aromas, high acidity and punchy sweetness it stood up to the non-conventional ingredients.

Mexico is a huge country and if chef Diego is creating food of this nature and at such an extremely high standard, I think we should all be booking a trip to Mexico or looking forward to the country’s authentic food arriving in the UK.

 
 

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