Saturday, January 17, 2009

Flexing My Mussels

On the train to meet my friend for Friday Night Lights, or whatever you want to call it, I flipped to the 'Tables for Two' section in my most recent (ahem, unread) New Yorker.  The week's review was, somewhat surprisingly, for the very restaurant I was meeting my friend to explore, a newly opened seafood joint on the upper east side by the name of Flex Mussels. 

The name sucks, it really does.  It may be one of the worst names and best concepts currently operational in the City.  Flex is actually a Canadian import, eh.  The original Flex Mussels calls Prince Edward Island, the source of the restaurant's ample mussel selection, home.  

If you are truly a mussel lover--the kind that even eats the half-opened ones, the kind who drinks the broth with the mussel's shell, the kind that's in it for the seafood and not the butter--you will like (nay, love) Flex Mussels.  The conceit is successful because it is focused and because it does not veer off into the territory of other bivalves.  Flex offers six oysters on the half-shell, hailing from both the east and west coasts.  They offer a crab cake, a "fish of the day," a steak, and a few nondescript appetizers.  They offer one very good plate of smoked salmon that comes with dressed arugula, chivey sour cream, and a caper tapenade.  

And then there's the mussels. 

I lost count of how many mussels Flex actually offers, but they come in three or four separately priced categories, from about $16 to $20 per pound of mussels.  They range from simple to sublime (the most elaborate and opulent dish we sampled was the Champagne and black truffle variety), but the offerings never trick you into believing that the dish is about anything more than the mussels.  

My friend preferred the obvious luxury of shaved black truffles in our pricier mussel dish, while I gravitated to the rich southern-style suckers, which swam in a broth of ham, grilled corn, butter, and cream.  The night's special was a miso-based broth with sliced duck and ginger, a tempting alternative to my pork-based option, but my friend felt uninspired by the Asian influence, so we stayed more local with our choices.  

Of course, the best part of mussel-eating is the leftover broth and Flex does justice to this byproduct by providing perfect bread with charred edges and a chewy interior, great for absorbing all that butter and wine and who-knows-what-else at the bottom of the pan.  

Desserts were classic, indulgent, and tasty.  I could easily have eschewed restraint and ordered all four, the blueberry-stuffed doughnuts, the red velvet cake stuffed with cream cheese frosting, the caramel apple brioche, and the chocolate float with salty caramel.  But that would have been kind of gross.  So we settled on doughnuts and red velvet cake.  The doughnuts were soft like beignets, piped full of warm blueberry jam, and floating in a pool of vanilla cream.  Red velvet cake arrived looking more like a jelly roll.  The ice cream at its side, butter-and-sugar flavored and topped with salty-sweet pecans, couldn't have been more perfect for my particular palate. 

The restaurant's greatest failure was its wine by the glass program.  Sure, they ordered Muscadet by the glass; not to would have been a criminal offense.  But where were the off-dry rieslings, the chenin blancs?  By the glass, they were nowhere to be found, leaving me and my bivalves to slurp through adequate domestic pinot gris.  

But judging by the line and bar-crowd that had accumulated during the course of a meal, such menial quibbles do not make or break a restaurant.  

Flex Mussels
174 E. 82nd Street
New York, NY 10028

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