Renowned Harlem restaurateur Melba Wilson — the chef and owner of Southern restaurant Melba’s — is getting ready to open a new seafood restaurant focussed on mussels. Melba’s Mussels, located at 161 Lenox Avenue, at the corner of West 118th Street, is set to open in March just in time to highlight Women’s History Month and the establishment’s women-led team.
Wilson tapped her friend and chef Mimi Weissenborn — who was previously the executive chef of Vinateria, an Italian and Spanish-influenced Harlem restaurant — to lead the kitchen at the new spot. Together, the duo have created a seafood menu that focusses on mussels prepared in a variety of ways including Thai curry mussels and chimichurri mussels, among others.
Their menu also shines a spotlight on the women that have played important roles in their lives. Wilson and Weissenborn — the former’s family is from South Carolina and the latter grew up Maryland — both recall eating an abundance of seafood prepared by their mothers and grandmothers. They wanted to recreate that nostalgia at the new restaurant, they say, while also recognizing other notable women across the world.
“Food is a common denominator that unites us all,” says Wilson. “This is a great way to salute women from different ethnic backgrounds, a way to realize how we are all one.”
They have also turned to notable women for inspiration. The menu is slated to include an entree of mussels with pancetta and parmesan meant to be a nod to the Italian actress Sophia Loren, and a Mexican-flavored mussels dish is inspired by the painter Frida Kahlo, Wilson says. Details of the menu are still to be finalized, but Wilson says the duo is getting close, adding that it will also feature other seafood items, including fish and chips.
The plan to focus on mussels was also partly inspired by the restaurant’s chief supplier, Ana Shellem, who owns and runs the North Carolina shellfishing company Shell’em Seafood. She previously worked with Wilson at Melba’s before moving to North Carolina and deciding to leave her career working in restaurants and bars to focus on fishing.
Since launching her company four years ago, she’s primarily worked with dozens of local restaurants in the North Carolina area, but this will be her first time working with a restaurant outside of her immediate area, and she says she’s confident the seafood will be fresh when it reaches the restaurant. Shellem’s catch are ribbed mussels and typically range in size from two to six inches, she says, and are saltier than most mussels. “They taste more like an oyster,” she says, before adding that they often come in a variety of colors. “Like rainbow mussels,” adds Weissenborn
A fishing trip Wilson and Weissenborn went on with Shellem back in 2019 convinced them that their plan to open a seafood restaurant focussed on mussels was going to work. “We want to create food that is welcoming and invigorating,” says Weissenborn. “For us, seafood has always been at the forefront of the brain.”
The restaurant will be able seat 40 people inside at full capacity and 30 people outside on a patio. The wine served at the restaurant will also be predominantly sourced from women-owned vineyards. Wilson was initially planning to debut the establishment in March 2020, but the pandemic pushed back plans indefinitely. With restaurant workers now eligible to receive the vaccine, Wilson says she’s feeling a little bit more confident about moving forward with an opening, though she admits that it will be a while before anything starts to feel like normal again.
In addition to the mussels spot, Wilson is planning to open a third restaurant outside of the city, but she’s not yet ready to announce those plans, saying that the opening is more than a year away at this stage.