Is there a way to tell a good mussel from a bad one without tasting it? I haven’t found a reliable one yet – except the sense of smell.
I once decided to try a restaurant in the just-getting-trendy neighborhood known as Tremont in Cleveland, where I owned a rental property at the time and dreamed I might one day retire. The community charmed me because it was the only place in Cleveland–my home for 33 years – that reminded me of Chicago. A bar or restaurant or pizza/takeout place on virtually every corner of its delightfully walkable streets. I didn’t imagine at the time that I would joyfully end up back in my beloved home town.
Anyway, there was a restaurant a block down from my property that I’d heard good things about. So I went in one night and was thrilled to see they had mussels on the menu. Now I like mine in a simple wine broth with garlic and lots of butter and good bread. I was hungry, so I was eager for them to arrive. When they finally did, an overwhelming smell greeted me before the plate even hit the table – it was awful.
I pointed this out to the waitress and she actually tried to tell me I was mistaken. That’s how mussels are supposed to smell, she insisted. Hey, have you ever smelled a bad mussel? There’s a rotten odor about them. Sometimes the smell isn’t immediately noticeable and if you bite into one like that, you’ll immediately spit it out. It’s unmistakeably not something you want to eat. And they don’t have to look bad at all to have this smell.
If the first time I’d ever eaten mussels they tasted like that, I’d never have ordered them again, no matter how much people assured me. The waitress finally agreed haughtily to take them back. After that appalling customer service, I was seriously disinclined to take her up on her reluctant offer to substitute another dish.
So it’s time for mussels to be in season. And some Chicago restaurants are making special deals on these tasty little seafood treats served in their black shiny shells. Go out and enjoy yourself at one of these – and don’t take any guff if you get a bad one.
And I’d love to hear if you run into one that meets their marketing claim to include “the best mussel dishes in town.”