For the first time in three years, the French Room’s kitchen is open for dinner on a regular basis. And for the first time in decades, it has a strong individual personality at the helm. But you’ll have to act fast to catch it: her residency lasts just one more month.
The Adolphus Hotel’s iconic restaurant has been almost completely silent since coronavirus reached America three years ago. After hotel functions returned to normalcy, the French Room was reopened only for afternoon tea service.
A few dinners took place this fall, when the Adolphus devised a “Be Our Guest” series featuring guest chefs from other cities. The first two guests appeared for a combined three weekends. But the third chef, Victoria Blamey, is here for an 11-week residency. She arrived on January 20 and departs April 1, to be replaced by another, hopefully equally impressive short-term guest.
Blamey grew up in Chile, has cooked around the world, and seemed poised for stardom in 2022, following the debut of her New York restaurant, Mena, and a glowing review in the New York Times. (“She is making food that’s truly her own — it doesn’t look or taste like anything else in the city.”)
Less than three months after that review, and less than six months after the restaurant had opened, Mena’s owners pulled the plug and shut the doors. Now Blamey finds herself in Dallas.
Based on a dinner I had at the French Room in mid-February, we should be in disbelief at our luck. Any Dallasite with an interest in great food—or nostalgia for this dining room—should book a table before Blamey leaves.
Texas flavors map surprisingly well onto the career of a chef who brings flavors of Chile to the United States. Tasting her cooking, I wondered if Blamey was commenting on the Southwestern food movement that once blossomed in Dallas and propelled chefs like Stephan Pyles to national renown. She tells D that is not the case, more of a coincidence, but that she was excited to work with Texas meats unlike those she has access to in New York.
Although she employs many favored Texan ingredients (poblanos, tomatillos, beef, smoke), her hand is subtler and steadier. Peppers and other produce are felt even when they are invisible, or have been strained out of a sauce.
Blamey is also keenly interested in nixtamalization, and the mid-February menu offered two nixtamalized vegetable courses featuring corn and sweet potatoes.
First, Japanese sweet potato underwent the cooking process, stuffed with a tiny morsel of plantain for extra sweetness and drizzled with a chili-garlic condiment. It was a little bit like the Japanese-Mexican fusion cuisine that has developed in Ensenada and has been served at a few other Dallas restaurants. After the sweet potatoes, Blamey’s menu moved on to more traditional nixtamalized corn—but rather than being ground and turned into masa, the kernels stayed whole and firm-textured, served with a wintry mix of chanterelles and parsnips.
Then came two tributes to Texas beef. The smaller of the two meat courses found a couple chewy but richly seasoned slices of beef heart set into a Madeira gelée. To those intensely savory, gently spicy flavors, Blamey’s team added one more generous touch: long, crackly beef crackers. As my dining companion put it: “they’re fancier pork rinds.”
The savory finale was a big cut of ribeye from A Bar N Ranch, cooked a rosy red. Alongside, a shallot got stuffed with tender beef shin.
The menu has already changed over significantly since I visited, in part because my dinner was during Valentine’s week. When I asked Blamey to describe her style, she highlighted two points, one of them her love of ingredients that don’t often get served on tasting menus like these. “I like bringing legumes, because people think they’re a little lowbrow, something you eat out of a can,” she told me. “I like doing fine dining work with that.” Every meal at the French Room during her residency starts with another of her favorite things: a cup of tea.
The other point was her global travel as a Chilean chef who has worked in England, France, and Australia. Because of her heritage and training, she hates labels and pigeonholes.
“I don’t do French, I don’t do Italian, I don’t do one thing,” she said. “A lot of people are like that, especially immigrants. Obviously, the training I had was fine dining, with French cooking and English cooking, but I’m trying to express who I am as a person, a recollection of everywhere I’ve been and what I’ve been through.”
(What she’s been through, by the way, includes the recent heartbreak of the closure of her solo restaurant Mena. “I underestimated the pain,” she added. “Being really embarrassed, being so upset, and then being sad. The last week I was perfectly fine getting the job done. But after that week, I was such an idiot thinking everything was going to be OK.” The stress brought on migraines, one of which lasted for seven days and two hospital visits. Blamey hopes to reopen Mena someday and has looked at some New York spaces. She says a particular point of pride was the diversity of its clientele, that she had created a place that appealed to all ages, genders, and races.)
The experience of dining in the French Room has not gotten worse since the pandemic, but it has gotten weirder. The staff is a mix of established veterans from before covid and inexperienced newcomers, who sometimes need a few corrections or forget to explain the dishes being served. They’re shaking off some rust, and the dining room itself is now unsubtly redecorated by a gigantic AT&T video board that blasts imagery through the windows. If you already have a surreal feeling returning to the French Room after so many years, the video board will only heighten it.
In her final month at the French Room, Blamey plans to keep revising the menu, and may even add a longer nine-course tasting for customers who want to try even more new things. She wants to keep pushing more and more ambitious food out of the kitchen, without sacrificing fan favorites like the caviar and cheese courses. (“I’ve never seen so many people order so much cheese,” she told me. “80 percent of the dining room wants the cheese!”)
Although we enjoyed each dish, one of them stands out as perfect. It is Blamey’s signature, and when she packs her knives, she’ll pack the recipe, too.
“She takes this wherever she goes,” our server told us while setting down the “chou farci,” quite possibly America’s most elaborate rendition of stuffed cabbage. Tucked inside the vivid green leaves were layers of scallop mousse, more cabbage, and sea lettuce. This elaborate creation floated like an island in a sea of foamy vin jaune sauce, dotted with more sea vegetables and topped with a scoop of caviar. Amid all the dark brown colors of nixtamalized veggies and seared steak, this island of green was like a vision from another universe.
Looking at that chou farci—probably the single most exciting plate in Dallas until April 1—I thought of two quotes. One was from the New York Times’ Pete Wells, reviewing the same dish: “It plays like a lost classic of nouvelle cuisine.” (The French Room’s plating is better than in the Times photo. Sorry, New York!)
The other quote was from 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon. If there is a parallel universe where the French Room is open for dinner every night and serving dishes as stunning and original as this one, “I want to go to there.”
The French Room, 1321 Commerce St. Chef Victoria Blamey residency through April 1; “Be Our Guest” series to resume with additional chefs to be determined after Blamey departs.