Victoria Blamey never wanted to be the spokesperson for seaweed. Or Chilean food for that matter. But here she is, on the eve of opening her first solo restaurant, attempting to translate both for New York diners, who have quite a few questions for the Santiago-born chef. “I grew up eating seaweed in Chile,” she said. “I’m never going to claim I’m a seaweed scientist or an expert on the culinary community of Chile. There are other people way more qualified to talk about this than me. I just say, I’m cooking the food that I’m interested in; I was surprised that it became a topic of conversation with people.”
Blamey, whose creative uses of seaweed, an integral component of classic Chilean cuisine, went viral during a few high-profile chef-in-residencies she completed in 2021, is opening her first independent project, Mena, in Tribeca (28 Cortlandt Alley) on Jan. 27. The menu highlights responsibly harvested shellfish, vegetables, grains, game birds, chiles and, of course, seaweed—even in the desserts.
Two of the dishes on Mena’s small menu recall her most buzzed-about bites.
“If I’m going to open my first solo project and I’m going to bring the greatest hits straight away on a menu, I feel like I’m cheating,” she said. “[The two dishes I’m bringing back] were interesting to me and people really enjoyed them. They resonate a lot with the restaurant, resonate a lot with me, resonate a lot with the times, resonate with how I feel about my cooking. So, that’s also why they’re on the menu.”
She’s bringing back her seaweed milk cloud, which was a hit during a stint she did at Fulgurances Laundromat this summer. For this dish, she infuses chocolate ganache with Irish Moss seaweed, pairs that with kombu toffee and tops it with a milk foam, candied dulse seaweed and hazelnuts.
She’s also bringing back her cholgas secas, popularized during a residency she did at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns this spring. Using traditional Chilean techniques, she preserves mussels by smoking them, then rehydrates them in a black garlic-chile broth. She serves that with freshly steamed mussels brushed with an onion glaze.
But everything else on the prix fixe menu is new. She’s serving oysters topped with a seaweed gremolata, clams with yuzu sauerkraut, squab with buckwheat honey, pheasant with mole and monkfish marinated in adobo mezcal.
Everything else about Blamey’s experience in the kitchen is new too, which is in stark contrast with the “traumatic” environments she’s worked in in the past. Prior to her recent residencies—where she was free to hone her culinary voice, build her confidence and “enjoy the ride”—she was the executive chef of Chumley’s, which was named one of Esquire’s Best New Restaurants in America in 2017, and the executive chef of Gotham Bar & Grill. She was the first woman in that role in 35 years and was tasked with revamping the entire institution. She had a lot of people to please and a lot of constraints to work within.
“I had the pressure of satisfying a certain clientele,” she said. “And right now [at Mena] we’re trying to build our own. There’s something much more organic about that and very sort of, I don’t know, comforting.”
At the 50-seat Mena, which is named after Blamey’s great-aunt, she doesn’t have to have a giant menu. She can have 12 dishes. At Mena, she doesn’t have to serve burgers and steaks just because they’re tied to the history of that location. She can make wholly unique things like squash pavlova and wild rice empanadas. At Mena, working with management doesn’t involve “trying to have a combative conversation with people who really don’t understand what I’m talking about.” She can have collaborative conversations with her team and come to mutual decisions with them.
Even the design of the restaurant better suits Blamey, who aims to host cultural and educational events there soon.
“It’s very feminine,” she said. “The best way to describe it is airy, with beautiful lines and curves. It’s not very manly like other restaurants I’ve worked.”
The chef, who left Chile at 18 and trained in the UK, Australia, Mugaritz in Spain and at WD-50, Corton and Atera in New York, took the opportunity during her recent residencies to delve into South American culinary history and cooking techniques. She combed through 16th-century cookbooks, talked to librarians and questioned why some methods like pit-smoking mussels are not more commonly known today, even to native Chileans.
“We’re trying to kind of like rescue things rather than say we’re the first ones to make it, because we’re not,” she said. “It’s easy to categorize something that is French or Italian. It’s time for other cuisines to have the platform and for people to understand what we’re doing.”
Mena is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Reservations are now available on Resy.