Flexing Their Mussels

Area bars and restaurants are combining this mollusk with craft beer for the perfect summer combo

Back in the day, mussels were a poor man’s food, abundant and reasonably priced. They have remained so, even as their bivalve mollusk cousin, the oyster, has climbed to $4 apiece, says Stone Balloon Ale House General Manager Philip DiFebo. Farming on both North American coasts has kept the price down, the quality up (bays where they are cultivated are the most pristine around), curbed over-fishing, and improved the ecosystem—because they clean the water like trees clean the air.

It’s the top echelon of farm seafood, and a great success story in aquaculture, DiFebo says. And even though the harsh winter has hampered this summer’s supply, driving wholesale prices up, mussels remain a staple of many area bars and restaurants, especially where craft brews are front and center.

Craft beer and mussels have always been comfortable bar food companions, DiFebo says. That’s because whenever you drink a beer with food, its flavor responds and opens up. It’s especially true with tender, flavorful mussels.

Savory Surprises

Mussels are versatile. They can be smoked, steamed, sautéed, marinated, infused with any manner of herbs, or prepared “drunken” with wine or beer. This often leads to a variety of savory preparations and playful chef experimentation.

If you’re a mussel lover looking for something new, try the Blue Bay Mussels (1/2 lb. for $11) at the Stone Balloon Ale House in Newark. Sautéed with bacon in a mustard ale broth, the punchy dish is served with hearty grilled pretzel bread. For a summertime brew pairing, Old Dominion Brewing Company’s citrusy-malty Double D IPA is the way to go, DiFebo says, because it’s already in the sauce. Come autumn, watch for the recipe to switch to Holy Crap, by Mispillion River Brewing Co., a malty-lemony amber-red beer rated an “Outstanding” 90 by Beeradvocate.com.

Two Stones Pub in North Wilmington offers two unique preparations for its P.E.I. Mussels (appetizer, $11.95): a Thai red curry in a lemongrass, coconut milk, basil, lime, scallion and cilantro sauce with potatoes, and a Belgian Witbier sauce featuring lemon, onion, garlic, blue cheese, bacon, herbs and butter. Witbier is the obvious pairing choice for the latter, says Chef Chris Meyer. For the former, he recommends Brooklyn Brewery’s Brooklyn Sorachi Ace, or any IPA on tap, to balance the full-bodied spice of the dish.

Harry’s Seafood on Wilmington’s Riverfront has a long tradition of exceptional dishes, and the mix and match mussels and clam appetizer (a dozen for $13.25) is no exception. Each of four preparations start with Mediterranean style mussels grown in British Columbia, chosen for their flavor and exceptional meat-to-shell ratio, says Chef Kate Applebaum. The Spicy Ginger Drunken preparation features garlic, ginger, shallots, white onions, cracked black pepper and red chili flakes with an Asian flair of clam paste and Worcestershire sauce, served over a mix of greens. The Portuguese features white wine and chicken stock with a more generous portion of sautéed tomato and chorizo. Bartender Pat Taski recommends pairing any of the appetizers with an IPA, especially the Dogfish 60 Minute or the Sixpoint Brewery Bengali. The menu also includes the classic garlic and white wine preparation, and a Grand Seafood Plateau (Entrée | $25.50) with oysters, mussels, clams, shrimp and crab.

Take a culinary tour of the Old Country without leaving Delaware at Bistro Jacques, on North Lincoln Street in Wilmington. Featuring four preparations in two generous sizes (1/2 kilo, $12; kilo, $19), the dish comes with bread and frites or mixed salad. The Provençale is prepared with tomatoes, garlic, basil and white wine sauce. The España features chorizo, roasted red pepper, olives, garlic and red wine, while the Bruxelloise is made with Stella Artois Beer, celery, leeks and cream. Finally, the Diable is immersed in tomato sauce, spicy red pepper flakes, garlic, oregano and parsley.

Comfort & Fun

For a more traditional preparation, try the Belgian Mussels (1 lb., $15.50) at Chelsea Tavern on North Market Street in Wilmington. Prepared with wheat beer, lemon, herbs, shallots and garlic, the dish is served – true to Chelsea’s “gastro-comfort cuisine with a twist” philosophy – with chili horseradish aioli and trio fries. This summer, try it with a light, bright, citrusy wheat beer, or any of the restaurant’s 31 tapped handcrafted beers.

Chelsea Bar Manager Tim Lyons says craft beer and mussels are a great first date plate because they’re communal, interactive, and just messy enough to be fun. If you’d rather minimize the finger-licking ritual, he recommends taking all the mussels out of the shells at once, so you don’t have to clean your hands after each bite. Note: Lyons says it’s perfectly kosher to drink the broth using empty shells as a spoon.

Other places to find mussels with a classic preparation:

Piccolina Toscana, an Italian tapas restaurant in Wilmington’s Trolley Square, serves steamed White Water Maine mussels (12-14 pieces, $12) in a white wine, shallot, and chive cream sauce, with crostini. Catering and Events Manager Kevin Molholm recommends pairing it with Allagash Brewing Company’s Allagash White beer. Rated a perfect 100 by “the Bros” at Beeradvocate.com, this Belgian-style ale has just enough spice to cut through the cream but not overpower it, he says.

With locations on Main Street in Newark and Wilmington’s Riverfront, Iron Hill Brewery offers the classic P.E.I mussels preparation in two sizes (½ lb., $10.95; 1 lb.; $18.95). Prince Edward Island mussels have a rich, sweet flavor that some describe as quite bold for a mussel, says Assistant Culinary Director Dan Bethard. He recommends trying the dish with the craft brewery’s own White Iron Wit, a pale, unfiltered Belgian-style wheat beer, light-bodied and very refreshing, with complex orange and spice flavors. “The beer is light, and the spice and citrus notes really complement the mussels and sauce,” says Bethard.

Value Added

Looking for a generous portion of P.E.I steamed mussels at an attractive price? Bella Coast Casual Italian Kitchen & Market in North Wilmington and Feby’s Fishery on Lancaster Pike in Wilmington are the places to go.

Bella Coast has P.E.I steamed mussels (1 lb., $9) in a classic white wine and garlic sauce with fennel and leek, served with focaccia bread. General Manager Janine L’Italien recommends pairing the dish with a crisp, light draft beer from the Philadelphia-based Yards Brewing Co., or any of the white house wines ($6 – $8 by the glass) from the Sterling Vintner’s Collection. An aromatic white, its crisp finish nicely complements the sauce.

Bella Coast also offers a seafood lover’s pasta dish: fruiti di Mare (entrée, $18), featuring mussels, clams, shrimp and calamari over spaghetti with a sauce of fresh, crushed stewed tomatoes, house seasoning and homemade seafood broth. The brew L’Italien recommends is Peroni by Birra Peroni Industriale. Or, try a Bogle Vineyards chardonnay, an oak-aged wine that pairs well with mussels.

Feby’s Fishery Maine mussels (50 count, $17; Happy Hour Dozen, $5) are served with a sautéed garlic red pepper and olive oil. Bartender Julie Belford recommends pairing it with any of the bar’s six Delaware brews on tap. For wine drinkers, she recommends Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc by the glass, or by the bottle try Francis Ford Coppola Winery Director’s Cut chardonnay, or Bollini’s pinot grigio. The menu also includes seafood and spaghetti, with clams, mussels, shrimp and crab meat, in a red sauce (Entree, $24).

Try it, You Might Like it

If you’ve never eaten shellfish, a beer-mussel pairing is a great place to start, says DiFebo, who was raised around seafood in the family business, Feby’s. First of all, the texture is tender, soft and more familiar than clams (which are chewier) and oysters (which are more slippery). And you’re going to get a bunch for a good price. Another reason beginners may feel comfortable trying mussels: unlike the clam and oyster, which can be consumed raw, mussels are always cooked.

Wherever you go for mussels or food this summer, please take Molholm’s advice:
“I always see people get the same thing over and over, and with shellfish, there isn’t a lot of gray area: people either eat them or they don’t. But if something about it on the menu grabs you, even if you’ve never tried it, don’t over-intellectualize, go with your gut and try it.”