In cooking mussels, I have played around with the traditional preparation of steaming in white wine. I have added curry. I have tossed in some tomatoes. But nothing worked so well as the basic dish.
Perhaps the traditional recipe is mussels in their Platonic form. Perhaps no other recipe can beat it. Perhaps one ought not mess around with perfection.
I want to love this pricey Sicilian restaurant in the Galleria area for many reasons. First, the Sicilian part of the menu is utterly unique in Houston. For instance, Arcodoro is the only place I know in Houston that serves dishes with bottarga -- a funky ingredient that consists of a slab of tuna roe that has been compressed, dried and cured in sea salt, and coated in beeswax. Second, the upscale Euro crowd is funky and chic, and I hope some of that might rub off on a food nerd like me.
Yet I am usually a bit disappointed in the food at Arcodoro. The recipes sound great. But the quality of the ingredients does not match the high prices. For instance, I love the idea of Arcodoro's Campesante e Gamberoni Pungenti - large shrimp marinated with bottarga, wrapped in a thin pasta and lightly fried so that the crunchy pasta resembles a shrimp shell, served with pan seared scallops and a citrus, honey sauce. On my last visit, the dish came with four shrimp that had a decent texture, but no shrimp flavor. The two or three scallops were a little limp and not-so-large -- inferior to some of the wonderful diver scallops that you can get in many of Houston's best restaurants. At $34.50, I was left wondering whether this dish was worth it.
Which brings me to Arcodoro's mussels. A $14.50 appetizer, Vongole e Cozze al Vermentino di Gallura, is a plate of steamed mussels and clams sauteed with white Vermentino whine, garlic, and tomatoes. The recipe is Sicilian. When I arrived in the restaurant, the uncooked mussels were out on the counter next to the kitchen, opening their shells, beckoning to me. After the waiter told us that the mussels came from the Mediterranean, I had to try the intriguing dish. Unfortunately, the meat inside the mussels was small, and a few had hard material inside that nearly broke a tooth filling. I liked the flavor of the tomato garlic broth, but it was so light that I lost interest. I prefer the traditional French recipe.
I recommend at least trying Arcodoro for a very different kind of Italian food. But compared to other restaurants in the same price range, my experience has been that the ingredients tend to be average at best.
I recently raved about the food at this Montrose bistro. Since that post, I returned to Mockingbird and tried a lunch entree of mussels.
Finally, this is what I have been hunting -- Houston's best non-traditional mussel dish -- heck, even Houston's best mussel dish, period.
Like Arcodoro, Mockingbird uses mussels from the Mediterranean. I thought it was impossible to beat mussels from Prince Edward Island. I was wrong. Unlike Arcodoro, these mussels were large and round and plump and juicy and completely clean inside.
I know it is hard for a restaurant to know what it is getting when it buys mussels. It is hard to get perfect-sized mussels all the time. Plus it is all to easy to get a batch that has swallowed sand or baby crabs. There is no way to identify the problem by just looking at the shell. Still, qualitatively, Mockingbrid's mussels were just about the best I have found in Houston.
The real revelation, though, was the preparation. These mussels were served in a wide bowl with a thick tomato spinach sauce, garlic, shallots, white wine and andouille sausage. I was fascinated by the flavor combination -- the strong salty, meaty flavors of the sausage contrasted with the spicy, acidic tomatoes, which played with the earthy alliums and the sea essence of the mussel broth.
Even better, Mockingbird solves the architecture problem by spreading the mussels out in a bowl, giving you room to dip crunchy, toasted French bread in the sauce. Then again, the sauce is so thick, you can eat it with a fork, which I did after I ran out of bread. The thick sauce also works to keep the mussels warm -- something I never could accomplish with the traditional recipe served on a platter.
As a lagniappe, these mussels were served with French fries and a tasty aioli. Yet I only tried a few fries because the mussels attracted all my attention.
A truly, great dish requires great ingredients. But it requires more. True greatness comes from food's ability to engage the intellect throughout the course of a meal and beyond. This was not just a tasty plate of mussels. It was a flavor combination that fascinated me from the first bite to the last. It has left me pondering the dish for the past four days.
It is dishes like Mockingbird Bistro's mussels that compel me to keep writing about food.