Can we please hear it for mussels – those inexpensive, scrumptious, highly adaptable and relatively unsung heroes of the shellfish world?
While they might make an appearance on many a menu in many a city, they often seem to do well at being overlooked or under-ordered. Is it the size of their shells that belies the amount of flesh within? Or could it be because they require actual physical contact and dexterous assistance? Or maybe that their classic preparation (white wine, leeks and cream) fails to put the lust back into lackluster?
Thanks to Bobby & Laura Shapiro, the Canadian duo who are somehow able to haul in an endless catch of the most perfectly sized, beardless, Prince Edward Island farm raised bi-valves that snap open as they soak up flavors from all around the world at Flex Mussels.
The menu offers 23 different options that are as delicious as they are audacious. From simple, low-key ingredients you might expect to see in a pot of mussels: Dijon mustard, orange zest, fennel and tomatoes, to some you’d be surprised to see: curry coconut broth, pesto, spinach or Kalamata olives, to some you’d be outright flabbergasted to see: bacon, ham, chipotle adobo, prosciutto or blue cheese. The kitchen goes even further to include lobster, calamari, shrimp, crab and an entire sausage gumbo into some of their most memorable concoctions. My favorite is the Bisque, with hearty chunks of succulent lobster tail, sweet San Marzano tomatoes and a generous hint of brandy in the bread-dippingly delectable garlic cream.
The scene at both of their strictly informal Manhattan-based bistros (West Village and Upper East Side) is equal parts young, noisy, popular and energetic, with not much room for décor beyond a few enlargements of the Prince Edward Island setting sun, allowing the punch-line-printed (“Mussel-tov”), black T-shirt-wearing staff to deliver pot after steaming pot to the dozen or so crowded tables.
Curiously enough and contrary to the laws of nature and physics, the longer these pots sit on the table, and the deeper you dig to extract your harvest of delight, the hotter they get! Hmm.
The menu also offers a sizable Not Mussels section, including a wonderfully light and crispy, mixed seafood plate called Burnt Fingers, a very affordable selection of California and European White and Red wines (including a rarely-seen-in-these-parts Turley Old Vines Zinfandel) culminating in the Flex Donut Collection, where 4 or 6 (or more) tennis-ball sized donuts are served with a vanilla dipping sauce on a wooden rack, practically exploding with your choice of sinful fillings, from Salted Caramel and Wild Blueberry to Meyer Lemon…but it’s still all about the mussels!