Not all great chefs cook in a great restaurant. Some never do.
Until she opens Mena in January, Victoria Blamey was probably New York’s best example of a chef who was better than the restaurants that hired her. With Mena, she finally has a great restaurant. Because she’s the owner and because she doesn’t have to adapt her cooking to anyone’s preconceptions, as she did in her last two jobs, she cooks dishes that are truly her own – they don’t look or taste like anything else in the city.
Ms. Blamey made a name for herself at Chumley’s, a reconstructed speakeasy whose dining room was decorated with book jackets by long-dead Greenwich Village writers; to all who ate there, it was obvious that Madame Blamey’s cooking was more interesting than many of those books; even his cheeseburger was probably the neatest cheeseburger in town.
His next job, at the Gotham Bar and Grill, was likely doomed from the start. She went there to replace Alfred Portale, who had been chef for over 30 years – to great acclaim and much acclaim for most of them, although returns had been dwindling for some time when Ms Blamey arrived. The regulars, a fiercely loyal but dwindling bunch, clung to her menu like a life raft and rebelled when Ms Blamey pulled it out. At the same time, some younger diners, drawn by its reputation, were mystified by the formal serving rituals and Reagan-era interior design. During his 10 months there, eating in Gotham was like going to a wedding where the bride’s family and the groom’s family don’t talk to each other.
In Mena, TriBeCa, she has the blank slate she needs. This does not mean that it starts from scratch. Several dishes are reworkings of earlier ideas, such as the bowl of lentils under mushroom crisps. Browned with chicken fat, this made an intense garnish for Braised Rabbit in Gotham. Now it’s all alone. The lentils have a distinct taste of shiitake and tomato, and more distantly of crackling golden duck.
So many paper thin slices of fried King Trumpet mushrooms are piled on top that at first they look like they’re the only thing in the bowl. A whole bowl of Mena Mushroom Crisps is something to wish for when you lay your head on the pillow at night. Lightly seasoned with vadouvan, they create flavors that linger. It’s one of Madame Blamey’s skills, causing tastes that play on the palate for longer than expected.
There’s that classic dream of finding out that an apartment has a free bedroom that no one has ever noticed; Ms. Blamey finds new pieces in classic dishes. She enlarges them.
Another highlight in Gotham was the scallop ceviche in a tiger leche made with fresh corn. Ms. Blamey takes the idea from Mena and develops it, with fermented winter squash instead of corn. It loses the summer sweetness of corn, but the squash broth has more depth and a longer, more complex finish, which is amplified by the shrimp paste. The scallops, cold and ivory white, are rolled in a sort of dust of pickled peppers and seaweed flakes. Flavors emancipate, radiate and converge.
Ms. Blamey’s upbringing in Santiago, Chile, which inspired a few dishes at her previous restaurants, is more central to Mena’s menu. Steamed Maine mussels are tucked under charred Murdoc cabbage in a dark reduction made with caramelized onions and more mussels, this dehydrated batch in homage to a traditional chilean technique. The dish shows just how good Mrs. Blamey can be when she starts with underrated ingredients like cabbage and onion and decides to spin the works.
Locro, a mostly pre-Columbian vegetable stew that appears in almost endless permutations along the Andes, is prepared in Mena in a form that is both rustic and luxurious. The stew is rich with potatoes, quinoa and chunks of snow crab; tiny white peas from the islands of the Carolina Sea, almost unbelievably creamy, give it substantial weight.
But there are also dishes that seem to have nothing to do with Chile, for example a stuffed cabbage. It’s not the usual steaming cabbage and meat packet, but a kind of circular napoleon made by sandwiching cabbage leaves and other greens between layers of incredibly flavorful, lime-scented scallop mousse. which has achieved the feathery solidity of panna cotta. Surrounded by a mousse of yellow wine sauce, it plays like a lost classic of nouvelle cuisine.
Early in her career, Ms. Blamey made a point of working for chefs dedicated to technical innovation, including Wylie Dufresne, Paul Liebrandt and Matthew Lightner. But she’s not fond of the technique for herself and seems to know the value of low-tech home cooking.
In fact, she has a rare ability to bring the two together. She seasons a sweet and savory blood sausage with onions and spices, wraps it in mashed potatoes and finishes it with a creamy peppercorn sauce. The flavors may evoke a bistro with lace curtains in Lyon, but the ethereal lightness of the potatoes says Mena, and only Mena.
To get to Mena, you head under Canal Street and look for Cortlandt Alley. You’ll probably know it when you see it, because it’s been in almost every movie that needed an old, gritty, dangerous New York backdrop.
Inside, the restaurant has disco-era curves and a certain Central European cafe elegance, as well as plenty of square feet of windows. Much of the seating is in midnight blue banquettes and cabins. Framed photographs on a wall show the remains of a house with entire sections removed. It’s the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, the Chilean-American artist who altered buildings with chainsaws, risking their structural integrity and his own safety.
The piece is energetic and cozy enough to make you want to sit for hours. But not forever – the prix fixe menu is meant to be a meal, not a marathon. For $125 you get three savory dishes and a dessert. Over my three meals, the menu offered several options for each course except the last; dessert was always a Pavlova with stacked slabs of white meringue, like the terraces of Waterfallover passion fruit pulp, citrus curd – lime, Meyer lemon, whatever was in season that week – and angel hair squash cooked in sugar syrup.
Not having a choice of dessert seemed like a minor weakness until I remembered how many tasting menus I’ve eaten recently that cost around $125 or more with virtually no options at any point. and far fewer discoveries and adventures along the way.
This last point is where Mena eclipses so many other expensive restaurants that have opened in the city in recent years. A safe conservatism has crept into Manhattan’s high-end restaurants lately. Caviar will appear in the first course, truffles will be rolled, either sea urchin or lobster is almost guaranteed. Ms. Blamey’s ingredients impress not because of their association with luxury, but because she knows how to use them, from the sweet, chewy muscle of the Atlantic clam to the dense, sweet-and-tart flesh of the roasted andean oca.
Mena is here to remind us, and not a minute too soon, that when you charge that kind of money for a dinner party in New York, originality is supposed to be part of the deal.