Restaurant Review: Mena at TriBeCa

Not all great chefs cook in a great restaurant. Some do not.

Until she opened Mena in January, Victoria Blamey was probably the top example of a chef in New York City who was better than the restaurants that took her. With Mena, she finally has a nice restaurant. Because he’s an owner and because he doesn’t have to tailor his cooking to anyone’s imagined ideas, as he did in his last two jobs, he makes food that’s real to him-it doesn’t look or taste like of anything in the city.

Made by Ms. Blamey his reputation at Chumley’s, a reconstructed speakeasy dining room whose dining room is decorated with the book jackets of long-dead Greenwich Village writers; to anyone who ate there, it was obvious that Ms. Blamey is more interesting than many of those books; even his cheeseburger is probably the most soigné cheeseburger in the city.

His next job, at Gotham Bar and Grill, is likely to be doomed in the beginning. He went there to replace Alfred Portale, who had been a chef for more than 30 years – with great success and acclaim for most of them, though returns were dwindling for some time when Ms. Blamey. The regulars, a fiercely loyal but dwindling group, clung to her menu like a raft, and rebelled when Ms. retired it. Blamey. At the same time, some younger eateries, attracted by his reputation, were shocked by the formal rituals of service and interior design of the Reagan era. In her 10 months there, eating in Gotham is like going to a wedding where the bride’s family and the groom’s family don’t speak.

At Mena, at TriBeCa, he has the blank slate he needs. That doesn’t mean he starts with nothing. Some dishes are reworkings of earlier ideas, such as the bowl of lentils under the mushroom chips. Coated with chicken fat, it made an intense topping for the Gotham rabbit stew. Now it is alone. Lentils have a unique flavor of shiitake and tomatoes, and far more golden duck skin.

So many thin paper slices of fried king trumpet mushrooms were piled on top that at first it seemed like they were the only ones in the bowl. A whole bowl of Mena’s mushroom chips is something to ask for when you lay your head on the pillow at night. Slightly seasoned with vadouvan, they create flavors that last. This is one of the abilities of Ms. Blamey, provoking tastes that last longer than you expect.

There’s the classic dream about discovering that an apartment has a spare room that no one has ever noticed; Ms. found. Blamey of new rooms over classic dishes. He raised them.

Another high point in Gotham is the scallop ceviche in a leche de tigre made with fresh corn. Taken by Ms. Blamey blamed the idea on Mena and expanded it, with fermented winter squash in place of corn. The summer sweetness of the corn is gone, but the pumpkin broth has a deeper and longer, more complex finish, enhanced by shrimp paste. The scallops, cold and ivory white, were combined with a kind of dust of pickled peppers and seaweed flakes. The flavors come out, shining and converging.

The upbringing of Ms. Blamey in Santiago, Chile, who has informed some of the dishes at his previous restaurants, is more central to Mena’s menu. Steamed Maine mussels are folded under charred Murdoc cabbage in a dark reduction made from caramelized onions and more mussels, this batch is dehydrated as a tribute to the traditional Chilean technique. The dish shows how good Ms. Blamey when he started with underestimated ingredients like cabbage and onion and decided to shoot the works.

Locro, a stew of mostly pre-Columbian vegetables that appears in almost endless permutations up and down the Andes, is prepared in Mena in a form that is both rustic and luxurious at the same time. The stew is rich in potatoes, quinoa and snow crab lumps; The small white peas from the Carolina Sea Islands, almost impossible to creamy, give it great weight.

But there are also dishes that seem to have nothing to do with Chile – for example, a chou farci. It’s not the usual smoky bundle of cabbage and meat but a kind of circular napoleon made by sandwiching cabbage leaves and other vegetables between layers of stunning flavored, lime-scented scallops. mousse that achieves the hairy hardness of panna cotta. Bubbly with vin jaune sauce, it acts like a missing classic of nouvelle cuisine.

Early in her career, Ms. Blamey is a working point for chefs focused on technical innovation, including Wylie Dufresne, Paul Liebrandt and Matthew Lightner. But he’s not obsessed with the technique for its own sake, and he seems to know the value of low-tech home cooking.

In fact, he has the rare ability to combine the two. She mixes a soft, tasty blood sausage with onions and spices, surrounds it with potato purée and finishes it with a creamy au poivre sauce. Flavors may suggest a lace-curtain bistro in Lyon, but the ethereal lightness of the potatoes says Mena, and only Mena.

To get to Mena, head down Canal Street and find Cortlandt Alley. You’ll probably know this when you see it because almost every movie needs the backdrop of old, rough, dangerous New York.

Inside, the restaurant has some disco-era curves and some Central European coffeehouse elegance, and many square yards of windows. Most seats are in midnight-blue banquettes and booths. Framed pictures on a wall show the remains of a house where entire sections were removed. It was the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, the Chilean American artist who altered the buildings using chain saws, at some risk to their structural integrity and to his own safety.

The room is lively and comfortable enough that you may want to sit for hours. But not forever-the fixed-price menu is meant to be a meal, not a marathon. For $ 125 you get three tasty meals and desserts. In my three meals, the menu offers several options for each course except the latter; Dessert is always a Pavlova with a white slab of meringue stacked, like Fallingwater terraces, over passion-fruit pulp, citrus curd-key lime, Meyer lemon, whatever was in season that week-and angel- hair squash cooked in sugar syrup.

Not choosing dessert became a small weakness until I remembered how many tasting menus I had eaten recently costing about $ 125, or more, with almost no options at any point and fewer ones. discovery and adventure along the way.

That last point is where Mena overshadows so many other expensive restaurants that have opened in the city over the past few years. A safe conservatism has entered high-end dining in Manhattan recently. Caviar will appear in the first course, truffles will be released, either sea urchin or lobster is almost guaranteed. The components of Ms. Blamey gives the impression not because of their association with luxury but because he knows how to use them, from the sweet and chewy muscle of Atlantic surf clam to the dense, sweet-sour flesh of grilled Andean oca.

Mena is here to remind us, and not for a minute, that when you’re charging that kind of money for dinner in New York City, originality should be part of the deal.

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