He’s a master of Mexican flavours and now Shaun Hurrell has opened La Mesa in Durham, offering diners a truly tantalising tasting menu experience. Savour’s founding editor Georga Spottiswood tries out the new venue.
A white neon sign hangs against gritty grey walls and features the words ‘La Mesa’ with an arrow pointing down a set of stairs. I spotted this sign a few months back while sipping on Margaritas in Durham’s popular Barrio Comida, a Mexican taqueria by chef patron Shaun Hurrell and his partner Victoria Soulsby, inspired by the neighbourhood taquerias dotted across Mexico and North America.
I didn’t question the sign at the time, probably because I’d quaffed far too many of the blood-orange Margheritas this lovely little gem of place was offering on their specials that evening.
News spread and the talk was that Shaun and Victoria were opening a new tasting menu restaurant downstairs to Barrio Comida, something they had planned to do previously, but then covid hit.
Step downstairs and you’ll find an industrial-style venue with dark grey walls, blue curtains – there are no windows with views of the city here – and an open-plan kitchen, where the theatre of service is in full view. A large, stainless-steel table entices all the diners to mingle – as if you were at a dinner party – and a chef’s counter means those seated there can watch Shaun and his team sprinkle their magic.
There’s an underground vibe at La Mesa where you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported to some cool London restaurant where the hip people hang out. Even the music has been carefully selected to add to the ambience. Durham has nothing like it. Come to think of it, the North East has nothing on a par with what Shaun and Victoria have created here.
Yes, there are great Mexican restaurants in the region, but what Shaun has up his sleeve is a career spanning years of working in high-end kitchens with the likes of Marcus Wareing, James Knappett at Bubbledogs and Kitchen Table and Fergus Henderson at St John.
Dishes at La Mesa are inspired by the variety, intricacies and innovation of Mexico’s vast culinary repertoire, created utilising highly specialised ingredients imported directly from Mexico, alongside the finest hyper-seasonal British and European produce.
There’s no better chef than Shaun to bring this concept to the city, having spent many years in California, frequently crossing the Mexican border discovering the markets and taquerias and falling in love with Mexican cuisine.
Shaun certainly knows his Mexican flavours but add to that his background in high-end French cuisine – and his attention to detail when it comes to quality (even the menu paper is luxurious) – and the result is a restaurant and menu that delivers an experience that is truly sensational.
We start with Aguachile (Mexican style ceviche) and Shaun’s take on this northwest Mexican dish is a Lindisfarne oyster with rhubarb aguachile and geranium. It’s fresh and delicious and I could easily have had at least four more.
A tostada (toasted tortilla) features tuna crudo, peanut and pasilla mixe – one of the rarest chiles in the world which is exclusively grown in the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca. Shaun’s seriously passionate about produce and works with small-scale Mexican suppliers who are true artisans in their field. The dish is sublime, with a good crunch from the peanut and a smokiness from the pasilla mixe.
The taco course features a tortilla made from two different styles of corn: a pink corn from Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, and blue corn from the State of Mexico. The quail is charcoal grilled, there are black beans and a habanero salsa.
Ceviche of wild red prawns is served with charred tomatillo (a Mexican husk tomato), jalapeño, olive oil and avocado. It’s light and delicate with a punchy hit from the jalapeño.
Cornish pollock is served with mole Blanco, and while this dish might look the simplest of them all – the complex Mexican sauce is packed full of ingredients and is deliciously creamy.
Next up is lamb barbacoa, and my previous experience with this dish was at a wonderful restaurant named Animalón in Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico. Animalón is in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants and when I visited, the lamb barbacoa was slow-cooked in clay parcels, which were smashed open at the table, and served with handmade flour tortillas and a traditional salsa flight.
Shaun’s take on this dish features spring lamb which has been slowly cooked in avocado leaves and then stuffed with pipián verde – a sauce made with tomatillos, jalapeños and pumpkin seeds. It’s finished with nasturtium and a salsa Macha made with chillies, garlic, and nasturtium leaf oil.
It tops Animalón’s dish and is not only a crowd-pleaser amongst the other guests but is a real testament to Shaun’s finesse when it comes to executing his food.
Raspado, or shaved ice, is served with Alfonso mango, Mexican vanilla and chamoy. It’s like a sexy Mexican sorbet that cleanses the palate and the Tres Leches sponge cake comes with Scottish strawberries and elderflower. My dinner partner isn’t usually one for desserts but even she succumbed to this dish which is topped with buffalo ricotta ice cream.
Chocolate from Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico which is known for producing some of the best coca in the world, is served as a petit four (only much better) with café de olla spices.
The tasting menu at La Mesa is £59 per person and a wine flight, with five wines (550ml in total) is £39.
Our flight included Blanquette de Limoux to start, a fruit-forward sparkling with spicy flavours; Monterrei Candea Blanco, Quinta da Muradella with subtle peach, fennel and eucalyptus notes. There was a well-rounded Viognier bursting with apricot notes, too. Each wine paired well with the dishes but the crème de la crème was the smoky mezcal we opted for to end the night, served with salt and a wedge of orange.
La Mesa has a vast selection of Mezcal and Tequila and a fantastic menu which gives a nod to the traditions, terroir and techniques of the producers.
For more information or to book, visit: lamesadurham.com