I feel like every few years there’s a shift in countries that start influencing the flavor profiles in high-end restaurant. There was the stripped down Nordic wave that proliferated in the early aughts, and recently Korean food has been having a moment. But now I think Latin America might be due for its moment. I’ve seen the potential in the cuisine at Mena, a new restaurant in Tribeca run by Victoria Blamey, who draws from her Chilean background, as well as from her experience working in different kitchens around the world.
Let’s first talk about the location of Mena. It is hard to find, and you’ll probably spend several minutes walking right past it. It’s on Cortlandt Alley, a stretch in Tribeca / Chinatown that is, frankly, a little dodgy. It reminds me of some sort of scene out of Gangs of New York, where mobsters will be waiting for you in the alley. The restaurant itself is attached to the Walker Hotel Tribeca, one of those modern, boutique-y hotels that has a nice lobby with lots of tastefully arranged coffee books. Basically, to save yourself time, when you see the Walker Hotel Tribeca, that’s when you know you’ve arrived at Mena.
But once you’re inside, life is good. The restaurant is extremely beautiful and has this modern European bistro type of feel. It’s not too big, and the atmosphere is warm and intimate. I also loved how the staff members were wearing these matching colorful sneakers. Definitely order some cocktails before the start of your meal. I forgot exactly what I had, there were definitely egg whites and this liquor called cachaça in there, and it was quite good.
The dinner menu is in a 3-course prix fixe format. I would say the progression of courses is driven more by the flavor profile, and things taste a little deeper and heavier as time passes. For the first course, we ordered the Japanese sardines and the Massachusetts scallops. I was struck by how brazenly “fishy” the sardines were. Blamey does not try to mellow out the anchovy with lots of neutralizing sauces, which is bold and admirable. There is something very sashimi like about the sardines, which again, is different from the cooked or grilled preparations that are more common. The scallops were cold but served in a smoky sauce. Smoke is a theme that would permeate throughout the rest of our meal.
The second course dishes were some of my favorites. The verona radicchio featured grilled radicchio that reminded me of the grilled cabbage that I loved so much at Manfreds in Denmark (sadly, Manfreds is now closed). The difference here is that there was even more going on with flavors–hazelnuts were spinkled for texture, molasses were added for some hints of sweetness, and butter added for a very necessary umami. I was a big fan of this one. But I may have liked the Spanish lentils even more. At first glance, the dish arrives, and you think you are being served a big plate of fancy potato chips. Those chips in fact are mushrooms, but they taste like fantastic potatoes. Underneath the mushroom chip forest is a wonderful stew of lentils. It’s just something you feel very happy eating on a winter’s day.
The third courses both involved broth, but very different ones. The seafood locro had a lot of pepper and seaweed, with nori being a very prominent flavor. I’ve really tasted nothing like it before. Maybe the best way of describing it is a roasted red pepper soup with seafood. But even that doesn’t describe it that well, because there’s something Latin American and Asian about it. The other option, the pantrucas, was a play on a Chilean dumpling dish. I’ve never had a traditionally prepared pantrucas, but what I did taste that day reminded me a lot of an earthy Taiwanese noodle soup. A gigantic chicharron chip arrived on top, allowing you another opportunity to sop up the broth in a delightful way. I don’t know if that was the intention, but there is something very global about Blamey’s cooking, and there are so many references that seem to come up as you’re eating.
Dessert was Blamey’s signature milk cloud dessert. It looks like a harmless pot de creme, except there are actual kelp pieces on top. Again, the seaweed flavor is very prominent, so you really notice that it’s there. It was certainly a memorable dessert, but I think I would have been fine if the kelp had been left out. But overall, there’s no denying that the cooking at Mena is extremely distinctive, and you won’t find this kind of smoke and earth in another kitchen. It’s definitely worth a visit, even if you have to risk your life going down Cortlandt Alley.
28 Cortlandt Alley
(between Walker and White St. In the Walker Hotel Tribeca)
New York, NY 10013
Reservations on Resy.