After a decade of being chic, mussels have settled into a comfortable groove in New Orleans restaurants. You now expect to find them wherever even a whiff of the French bistro aroma is in the air, where those who like them (I love them) will put away large numbers of the bivalves.
Mussels were almost unheard of in New Orleans restaurants until around 1990, when air shipping from their best habitats (more or less the same waters where lobsters live). The best of them come from Prince Edward Island in Canada, but good mussels come from all along the Atlantic Coast. The colder the water, the better.
Mussels are very inexpensive and very quick to cook–another pair of reasons why restaurants like them. The classic method is to steam them in a pan with some white wine, onions, and herbs sloshing around in and out of the shells. The sauce almost assembles itself from those ingredients and the mussel juices. But other ingredients can be added. A common one is tomatoes, usually accompanied by red pepper flakes. Another version adds cream to the pan. A Creole touch has emerged, as a few places scatter hot sausage among the mussels.
Again, mussels are cheap. Never accept less than a dozen as an appetizer, or less than two dozen for an entree. Four dozen sounds even better.
1. Rue 127. Mid-City: 127 N Carrollton Ave. 504-483-1571. I have to force myself not to order these every time, with the sauce of wine, garlic, tomato, capers, lemon aioli, and parmesan-encrusted pommes frites.
2. Lilette. Uptown 2: Washington To Napoleon: 3637 Magazine. 504-895-1636. Highly original and wonderful, steamed mussels with pickled onions, saffron cream, chorizo and cream.
3. Cafe Granada. Uptown 4: Riverbend, Carrollton & Broadmoor: 1506 S Carrollton Ave. 504-865-1612. Spanish style, with a good bit of pepper heat and tomatoes.
4. Pardo’s. Covington: 69305 Hwy 21. 985-893-3603. The best mussels on the North Shore, hailing from Price Edward Island, with garlic, fennel, shallots, chorizo, garlic fries.
5. Cafe Degas. Mid-City: 3127 Esplanade Ave. 504-945-5635. A traditional French bistro with traditionally fine mussels mariniere: oilive oil, butter, white wine, shallots, parsley.
6. Chateau Du Lac. Metairie 1: Old Metairie: 2037 Metairie Rd. 504-831-3773. The recipe is always changing, but Chef Jacques is from Brittany, where mussels live, and he understands the concept deeply.
7. Flaming Torch. Uptown 3: Napoleon To Audubon: 737 Octavia. 504-895-0900. A hard appetizer to pass up here, the mussels are in a sauce richer than typical with cream and a little eggs, as well as some curry-like spices.
8. La Thai Cuisine. Uptown 3: Napoleon To Audubon: 4938 Prytania. 504-899-8886 . Most mussels found in Asian restaurants are the big, less good green-lipped mussels from the antipodes. La Thai is exceptional in serving black mussels in its spicy green curry broth. They even send out the fries.
9. Martinique. Uptown 3: Napoleon To Audubon: 5908 Magazine. 504-891-8495. Mussels du jour. I get them every time, and they’re always the best dish in the house no matter what the kitchen has done today.
10. Orleans Grapevine. French Quarter: 720 Orleans. 504-523-1930. Large pile of steamed mussels with a saffron tomato broth, jumbo lump crabmeat, bacon, basil aioli.
11. Ciro’s Cote Sud. Uptown 4: Riverbend, Carrollton & Broadmoor: 7918 Maple. 504-866-9551. They make them three ways: with blue cheese (good), classic French mariniere (better), and with curry (best).
12. Toups’ Meatery. Mid-City: 845 N Carrollton Ave. 504-252-4999. A little Cajun, a little Asian. White wine chili broth with grilled bread to help you get it all. (I use a spoon.)