Friday, December 14, 2007
The odd social niche of mussels
Traveling in Gaul, the Roman poet Ausonius discovered the double pleasure of mussels: "a food delightful to the taste of lords and cheap enough for poor folks' tables."
Mussels fit a similar niche in the U.S. On one hand, mussels are seen as a slightly exotic, Euro dish. You won't find them on the menu at Chili's. Instead, in Houston mussels usually appear on fairly haute menus. On the other hand, they are plentiful and relatively cheap. You can buy mussels in a fish market for less than $4 a pound.
For the past month, I have been exploring mussels in Houston. I have discovered that a restaurant's approach to mussels says a lot about the restaurant's soul. So my next two posts will be about mussels. But they also will attempt to encapsulate the food at four restaurants -- Cafe Montrose, Cafe Laurier, Arcodoro, and Mockingbird Bistro.
The photograph is a plate of mussels I made. It is the traditional recipe, and it is the best way to start talking about mussels. The recipe is as simple as it is perfect:
1. In a large pot, bring to simmer 1 cup dry white wine with a 1/4 cup of minced shallots or onion, several sliced garlic cloves, and a bay leaf.
2. After 3 minutes, add about 2 pounds of mussels and increase the heat to high. Cover and cook until the mussels open -- usually within 4 - 5 minutes.
3. (Optional) Remove the mussels and swirl 2 tablespoons of butter into the broth.
4. Add some chopped parsley.
I get PEI (Prince Edward Island) mussels at Central Market and they are always good.
This dish is almost always served with a lot of crusty French bread. The taste of crusty bread made soggy by the wine/sea/allium-flavored sauce is one of life's great pleasures.
Cafe Montrose is a funky Belgian restaurant on lower Westheimer. It has authentic European service (a bit slow) and a good selection of Belgian beers. It may the best known place in town to get traditional mussels.
Cafe Montrose has seven different recipes for mussels. It also serves two sizes: small ($8) and large ($18). The large serving is enormous and comes with a large side of fries and mayonnaise -- traditional accompaniments for mussels in Belgium.
The only version of mussels I have tried at Cafe Montrose is the traditional one: "Moules Marinniere." As far as I can tell, it follows the recipe above. At Cafe Montrose, the mussels are good quality, the broth is tasty, the fries are crispy, and the mayo is so much better than what usually passes for mayonnaise in America. If you order this dish and a Belgian ale, you will think you are sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Europe.
My only complaint about this dish is its architecture. The broth is hidden deep below a huge pot of mussels. To get to it, you have to move the mussels to the discard plate. I prefer to serve the mussels as in the photo above, on a platter with the broth spooned into each mussel. But arguably, with my approach, the mussels get cold a little more quickly.
Cafe Laurier is a neighborhood bistro in the Greenway Plaza area. Although the restaurant has a modern decor and plays downtempo club music, almost all the customers are over 50. That generation has a real fetish for French bistro food.
Cafe Laurier's food is minimalist French. Most dishes include no more than 4 ingredients. For instance, a wonderfully simple arugula salad has just argugula, olive oil, and parmesan. Laurier uses high quality ingredients, so the food usually withstands the sharp focus created by using a few ingredients. But for some folks, Laurier may not be very interesting.
Cafe Laurier's mussels typify the restaurant's minimalism. The recipe is like the traditional recipe, but I detect no onion, just a little parsley, and possibly no butter or oil. The mussels are good quality, but the dish is a little too austere. Unless of course you pay $2 more and get a pile of mayonnaise and French fries on top. Mayo and fries are traditionally paired with mussels and provide two different contrasting textures with the slimy, slightly chewy texture of the mussels. Laurier makes great fries and great mayo, and the combination is very good.
Laurier's mussel dish suffers from the same architecture problem as Montrose. You have to move a lot of mussels to get to the broth. It does not ruin the dish, but it makes it a technical challenge to eat the mussels, bread, broth, and fries at the same time.
If I had to choose between mussels prepared traditionally at Laurier or Montrose, it would depend on whether I am in the mood for beer or wine. Cafe Montrose has one of the best beer lists in town, but not a good wine list. Laurier has a mid-sized, slightly quirky list with a lot of good values. If you go for wine, get a crisp sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley or New Zealand. It is great with mussels.
NEXT: Breaking with Tradition