Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

American Mussel

If Stock & Barrel had a literary section like our sister publication, (614), I could have honestly just written this story as a poem: I love mussels with all my heart. Oh, tiny pods of sea.

They magically absorb flavors of seasonings and sauces, then drip out ocean water for us to taste. It’s as if they could talk: “Hey, Ohio people, we know you are so far from the ocean, and we are so sorry about that, but look, this is the sea. I’m bringing a little bit for you to smell, to try, to remember the salty sweetness of a good shiny day at the coast.” And they sacrifice themselves to bring us that edible message, while delivering a delicious bounty from faraway shores. We should be way more grateful.

Well, we’re starting to be. If you look carefully, you will find a good mussel dish on many a restaurant menu in the capital city. There’s a silent, loyal following that continues enjoying them, no matter trend nor time, keeping them on the tables forever.

Mussels are a slow pleasure—a chance to work with your hands, forget the day. You get dirty. It’s not for a first-date dinner. It’s more for the third one or so, when you feel more comfortable with juices and mess—a sign of true love. And, like with most old-fashioned pleasures, it’s preceded by a European technique. The traditional Belgium approach requires using an empty shell that still has both halves attached as pincers to extract the meat from the rest of the mussels. The other option is to use the seafood fork that some places provide when serving the dish. And the last one, messier and less formal, is just to slurp them out of the shell. European or not, this is America, and you have the freedom to choose.

They’re also a sustainable option. Mussel farming is one of the cleanest because bivalves actually filter the water while they grow. They are not endangered at all, and don’t hold heavy minerals. Still doubting? If you care about calories and all that boring stuff, mussels will be on your side—70 per serving, plus they are high in protein and low in carbs. A healthy food that is tasty, environmentally cool, incredible easy/versatile to cook, cheap to buy and fun to eat… a dream come true.

Here, we examine three dishes winning over Columbus:

Thai Mussels

The Table ($15)  |  21 E Fifth Ave.

Winter: that time every year when we turn into an abomination of our former, sunnier selves. So, when even your soul is frosty and you’ve already tried all the possible winter warmers—soups, stouts, sex, electric blankets—and nothing works, you have this last option. It could be the last match in your box. It is spicy as hell, a slap in the face. It’s the convergence of pleasure and pain that we all need once in a while to feel alive again. A dozen or more Prince Edward Island mussels, coconut milk, Thai basil, lemon grass, ginger, and a no-f*cking-around amount of Thai chilies. You could finish this meal with a barefoot sprint in the snow and still keep yourself warm for a week. Ask ahead for more bread. And more beer—preferably a good cold lager. A fire is always better with beer.

Mussels on Spicy Tomato and Cilantro Sauce

Sidebar 122 ($11)  |  122 E Main St.

The mussels from Sidebar come out of the kitchen a little gentler, with a reasonably spicy tomato sauce, loads of garlic and cilantro, sherry wine, and deep, earthy notes of roasted peppers, oregano, and cumin forming an honest, homey plate. Paired with lightly oaked Carménere or any other medium-bodied red wine, it’s divine. The portion isn’t overwhelming, so the dish is flexible as an appetizer or a light and tasty dinner, and it comes with a nice amount of toasted bread. Full disclosure: I went double mussel and had the Parmesan scallops. It’s a phenomenal and hearty dish—big, perfectly cooked scallops in creamy cheese sauce with some heat in it, crusted in Parmesan cheese and cooked au gratin…damn. Seafood and cheese is not a typical combination, but it works in such a delicious way in this dish. Go for it.

Mussels Normandes

Gallerie Bar & Bistro ($16)  |  401 N High St.

The mussels, like the massive Hilton hotel in which Gallerie resides, are an elegant experience: formal and courteous, replete with all the shiny silverware—including an adorable seafood fork—and impeccably ironed cloth napkins, priceless details for old souls. The flavor and quality are outstanding, and the portions more than fair. And coming from Chile, where mussels are the size of a shoe and can be stuffed with cheese and chorizo, well, size matters. At Gallerie, they have three European-inspired options: Mariniere, Basquaise, and Normande. We chose the last one, and a whole pound came in a hot cast-iron skillet, swimming in an addictive broth made of cream, Calvados (apple brandy), abundant chunks of bacon, and some mushrooms. On the side, a big cone of perfect fries makes the portion ideal for munching between two not-yet-starving people. I had it with a CBC Pale Ale, and it worked well, but this dish was really calling for a more robust beer to support all that cream and bacon fat, or a good hard apple cider to enlighten the Calvados. A must for mussel fans.