When a group of friends got together for lunch recently in Greenwich, we grew silent as we looked at the menu. None of us wanted to spend a lot of money. What to order? My friends chose pizzas and salads. But when my mussels arrived, everyone let out an envious breath.
Mussels are a dramatic dish, their shiny blue-black shells heaped in a bowl. Amenable to a range of seasonings, they're also usually one of the least expensive, and most filling (they're rich in protein), dishes on the menu. I always feel restored by mussels. I attribute this to their high zinc, vitamin C and omega-3 content. Although mussel season officially runs autumn through winter, area chefs say they've been getting nice plump mussels lately from Prince Edward Island (PEI) in Canada. What are PEI mussels? They're farmed black mussels, grown on ropes (which leaves them less gritty).
I also feel good eating mussels because they are a "best choice" in sustainable seafood, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Mussels feed on plankton. When farmed, they don't need food, additives or medicine.
At Mediterraneo in Greenwich, PEI mussels are simmered in red curry cream with fava beans ($11). It seemed to have a Thai flavor, and indeed, the spice paste they use has kaffir lime, lemon-grass and galangal, but executive sous Chef Ethan Morse says the dish is more Middle Eastern or North African. The paste also has cumin, coriander, cardamom, and fresh cilantro. Call it what you will, it was a winner, spicy and aromatic, rich with cream. The fava beans added bright green color, fresh flavor and light starchiness.
The next day, I raved to a friend about Mediterraneo's mussels. "Those are the mussels I've been telling you about," she said, "I get them at the bar at Aqua in Westport on half-price wine night." In fact, this dish is a signature in all of the Z Hospitality Group's restaurants, including Sole in New Canaan, and the new Mediterraneo of Norwalk in the recently opened Zero Degrees Hotel, a boutique hotel. The restaurant group's executive chef Albert DeAngelis created the dish.
At Caseus in New Haven recently, Moules Frites (which does not mean the mussels are fried; they're served with fries!) were not the least expensive item on the lunch menu ($18), but they were excellent — and the portion was huge. The pile of mussels arrived strewn with onions and long stemmed herbs they'd cooked with — tarragon, cilantro, and parsley. The mussels were plump and tender. The sea-flavored liquid was light and clean-tasting, flavored with white wine, garlic, a hint of licorice from the tarragon and a touch — not too much — of butter. The fries were well-season and golden brown. The waiter brought us a plate of grilled country bread to dip into the broth. The portion was so big, I took home about half. The next day I warmed them gently in a pan and enjoyed them all over again.
You can eat mussels overlooking the Saugatuck River in the new Rive Bistro in Westport (the former River Tavern). Chef-owner Eric Sierra steams them with fresh basil and a touch of Pernod, the licorice-flavored liqueur. We had a salad too, and it was an interesting expression of what's becoming the standard roasted beet, goat cheese and walnut salad. At Rive Bistro, the beets were sliced paper-thin and looked like carpaccio, the Italian raw beef dish. They were was scattered with mâche, the fragrant lettuce, and mild goat cheese, and drizzled with walnut oil vinaigrette.
Osianna Mediterranean Tavera in Fairfield does mussels "Basque-style," with chorizo, caper berries and white beans. This is a substantial dish, and a big hit when I shared it with a group of friends. At Liana's in Fairfield, chef-owner Liana DiMeglio makes them the way it's done in Naples, with black pepper and lemon. Sal e Pepe cooks them in gorgonzola sauce, a rich, creamy, slightly sharp preparation that I find masks the mussels's flavor. But it's one of the most popular dishes. Tinto in Norwalk has mussels in green sauce on their menu, but the day I ordered it at happy hour, the plump mussels came in a tomato sauce liberally showered with slices of garlic. I sipped the flavorful sauce right from the shells.
Oak Hills, the public golf course and tennis club in Norwalk, has a restaurant with a wide porch overlooking the rolling green course. It's a pleasant place to sit outdoors, beneath spinning ceiling fans. Under new ownership, it's now called Oak Hills on the Green. The description of the mussels is straight-forward. Mussels and clams, steamed, with butter. This place doesn't cater to customers who want the sourcing listed on the menu. The other night, much of the mussel meat was tiny within the shell and the broth was salty and buttery. But you know what? The atmosphere, service, and conversation was wonderful, and I enjoyed these mussels too.
Get Your Mussels
366 Greenwich Ave., Greenwich, (203) 629-4747, zhospitalitygroup.com
353 Main Ave, Norwalk, (203) 229-0000, zhospitalitygroup.com
43 Main St., Westport, (203-222-8899, zhospitalitygroup.com
105 Elm St., New Canaan, (203) 972-8887, zhospitalitygroup.com
70 Reef Road., Fairfield, (203) 254-2070, osianna.com
93 Whitney Ave., New Haven, (203) 624-3373, caseusnewhaven.com
299 Riverside Ave., Westport, (203) 557-8049, rivebistro.com
Sal e Pepe
97 South Main St., Newtown, (203) 426-0805, salepeperestaurant.com
Tinto Tapas Bar
10 Wall St., Norwalk, 203-866-8800, tintobartapas.com
Oak Hills on the Green Restaurant
165 Fillow St., Norwalk, 203-855-1800, oakhillsrestaurant.com