Remember Belgo? The international restaurant chain swept into town 10 years ago, riding a tidal wave of hype, and set down in a cavernous space on Lafayette Street, serving up Belgian mussels and Belgian brews and spinning off a glossy cookbook. Within two years, it croaked unceremoniously, posing the question: Can a restaurant get by on mainly serving mussels?
Perhaps oblivious to Belgo’s sad history, along comes Flex Mussels, obscurely located mid-block on the Upper East Side, the first branch of a restaurant in Prince Edward Island, Canada. The name’s bad pun made me cringe, since I don’t normally associate fine dining with a sweaty afternoon of pumping iron in the gym. Nevertheless, the falling snow made a pretty picture along tree-lined East 82nd Street as a companion and I entered the quasi-subterranean space to find a bar, done in gray-blue with copious mirrorage, and three dining rooms unfolding beyond it, the last decorated with generic maritime color photos. “This looks like a café in some government building,” my date sneered, as we prepared to be nonplussed by the food.
Really, there’s nothing wrong with an eatery that focuses on mussels, and some of my happiest dining experiences in Normandy involved sitting in seaside spots, sucking up moules and poking them down with frites. Flex Mussels offers nearly two dozen choices in one-pound portions ($16 to $19), which come cradled in stainless-steel steamers. The waiter doffs the lid, and it turns into a receptacle for the empty shells.
Although I’ve prohibited myself from ever using the word “plump” again in a food context, I can’t think of a better word to describe the mussels, which are pink, pendulous, and sexy. Carefully cleansed of the “beard,” the most basic preparation of these bivalves (the “Classic”) deploys herbs, garlic, and white wine—which instantly clues you in to the French bent of the menu, even when it’s in an experimental mode.
“There’s not enough white wine in the broth,” my companion groused, and, indeed, the flavorings of all the versions we tried, on that and subsequent visits, were kept to a whisper, the better to highlight the excellent mussels. Flavor lovers are well-advised to drink the remaining broth like a soup—or mop it up with the bread that the waiter doles out like ration coupons (and resists replenishing).
The version called “Negril” retains the scent of Scotch bonnets, but not the heat, while the “Spaniard” regales you with chunks of chorizo at the bottom of the pot. Some of the stranger mussels offerings include the “Southern” (bourbon, mustard, corn, ham, and cream) and the “Geisha Girl” (sake, green onions, and pickled ginger). The only one we didn’t like was the “Perigord,” which suffused the room with a truffle-oil stink that had patrons around me reaching for their hankies.
If you don’t like mussels and fries, you might as well shoot yourself. But, sadly, fries don’t come with the mussels at Flex (it’s an additional $5 for a modest serving). Happily, the fries are excellent: thin, slightly brown, and wobbly, delivered in a metal cup lined with filter paper—once again, channeling France.
Selection 23 on the mussels menu is always a wild card. On a recent occasion, it was “Peking Duck.” Thinking it couldn’t possibly be good, I ordered it with the expectation of tripping the restaurant up. What arrived was the usual pound (three dozen or so) festooned with cilantro and shreds of lacquered roast duck. It was delicious, reminding me of the mouthwatering odor one encounters when passing a Chinatown duck shop.
While the Prince Edward Island branch of the restaurant boasts that they once confined their menu to mussels and lobster rolls, the Upper East Side branch now fills out its menu with lots of other seafood. There’s a lobster roll, too, diminished by the use of lemon vinaigrette as a lubricant instead of butter or mayo, and a host of other seagoing standards that include crab cake, fish and chips, king salmon steaks, seafood chowder, and a half-hearted stab at bouillabaisse.
As I exited on that first visit, I asked the chef, who was hanging out at the bar, about the source of the mussels. “They’re all farm-raised,” was his reply. “You want to do what’s right for the environment, don’t you?” I later learned, after consulting the Monterey Bay Aquarium website, that he was right: Prince Edward Island mussels are one of the rare sustainable farmed seafood operations, even though some of the restaurant’s other selections (such as the halibut) are probably not sustainable. My advice: Stick with the mussels.