Mussels in vindaloo sauce at The Gage
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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|
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