Shell Games

From mussels steeped in vindaloo sauce to a classic marinière, there’s a prep for every palate. We scoured the area for unusually good ones, and found five places that dazzled—including one we liked best of all.


Mussels in vindaloo sauce at The Gage


RESTAURANT
DISH
EXTRA CREDIT
VERDICT
Erba
4520 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-989-4200
Mussels steamed in Moretti beer with garlic, thyme, shallots, and mascarpone; $9 Terrific bread—fresh, crusty, just sliced; teensy spriglets of fresh thyme are also very nice. Loved how the mascarpone gave the broth a delicate tang, as well as creamy texture.
BEST
The Gage

24 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-372-4243
Mussels cooked with garlic and white wine, then steeped and cooked in vindaloo sauce; $10  Foot-long buttery crouton. Fresh cilantro on top. Millennium Park across the street—great food on the most tourist-intensive stretch of Michigan Avenue The best in town. Talk about a seductive sauce—it’s creamy, bold and subtle at once, with curry heat that sneaks up on you.
Hopleaf
5148 N. Clark St.; 773-334-9851
Mussels for two with frites, $20. Steamed in Belgian Wittekerke white ale with  celery, shallots, and herbs. Steamed in white wine with garlic, tomatoes, mushrooms, lemon zest, chives, and herbs.  Superb skinny, skin-on, just-fried frites served with aïoli Ale treatment was mellow, herby, and had lots of big, pretty shards of celery. The mussels in wine broth were pleasingly garlicky and generous with the wild mushrooms.
Koda Bistro
10352 S. Western Ave.; 773-445-5632
Mussels steamed with harissa, white wine, merguez (sausage), garlic, shallots, parsley, and tomato; $8.75  Garlic crouton comes with the dish; warm, crusty bread on the table. Our plate heaped with empty shells was replaced with a clean one before the pile got unwieldy. This is some seriously spicy merguez, but the sauce is deeply tasty as well as hot.
Tin Fish
18201 S. Harlem Ave., Tinley Park; 708-532-0200
Mussels steamed with garlic, shallots, butter, white wine, and parsley; $8  Three buttery croutons jabbed into the mussel pile. Lemon wedges ac-companied mussels; more lemons, later, with extra cloth napkins for freshening our hands (which needed it). Classic marinière treatment, impeccable, right on the money

 

 

Aw, Shucks

The best advice you will ever get about the quality and quirkiness of mussels

THE LOWDOWN Mussels are raised and harvested all over the world. Some of the tiniest are only an inch and a half long; New Zealand is known for its much larger green-lipped variety. On this continent, the West Coast mussel season is traditionally November through April, while East Coast mussels are safe to eat year-round. That may be why all the dishes we encountered used mussels from Prince Edward Island. No matter the source, great mussel dishes have three things in common: the mussels are perfectly fresh, they’re not gritty, and they’re not overcooked.

HOW TO EAT THEM Use a small fork to pull cooked mussels out of their shells. If a shell hasn’t opened, discard it. Casual Europeans liberate the first mussel from its shell with a fork, then use that shell to pinch subsequent mussels out of their shells.

ABOUT BROTH AND BREAD We cannot overstate our interest here. A tasty, well-seasoned braising liquid can be enjoyed like soup—with a spoon, or mopped up with bread. Or, you know, with the mussels.

Photograph: Tyllie Barbosa

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