Restaurants put extra effort into mussels

February 16, 2011 1:43:11 PM PST
As mussels gain popularity in America, two new restaurants are creating dishes that are reminiscent of Belgium and Amsterdam.

The most popular mussels seem to come from Prince Edward Island, the smallest province in Canada, on the East Coast. But they also come from the West Coast, as well as New Zealand. They're incredibly easy to steam open, but the real creativity comes in the form of what is added to the pot just before the steaming takes place.

The mussels are as much a part of the Belgian dining experience as are the frites, or fries. And at the new Leopold in West Town, they promise to always have at least two versions on the menu.

"I had always thought that I wanted to do two preparations, just because I had so many different preparations or saw so many different preparations just traveling around there," said Jeffrey Hedin, the chef at Leopold.

One version is steamed with white wine, a touch of madras curry and heavy cream. The other begins with hearty leeks and garlic sauteed in rendered pork cheek fat. After the mussels go in, some Belgian beer is added -- in this case, a Tripel Karmeliet. It takes just a few minutes to steam the shells open.

"I think that the ham goes really well with them, it adds that little bit of an extra depth of flavor and the onions anyway you can put them in there is a nice sweetness to them. I don't want to overshadow the flavor of the mussels. I still want to be able to taste the mussels in there," Hedin said.

The mood and menu are decidedly more Dutch at Vincent in Andersonville where chef and owner Joncarl Lachman is recreating the food from his childhood, including at least five different mussel dishes. His mollusks are enormous, and they get some unusual companions, such as a spicy Indonesian chili sauce laced with coconut milk and cilantro.

"Kind of like Indian food to London, Indonesian has become kind of what Amsterdammers go out for when they want to celebrate with friends and kind of put their feet up and have some fun," said Lachman.

Lachman's Amsterdam-style mussels are more straightforward. There's local beer, of course, but it's seasoned with a number of other spices typically used in Holland.

"That I based on the basics of Dutch cooking... so we're doing star-anise in there, licorice and anise is a big flavor in Holland, with star anise dried basil, beer, roasted garlic and fennel seed... and butter, of course, it's Dutch," Lachman said.

There are also great mussels at the Hopleaf in Andersonville, which utilize any number of Belgian beers they have on hand.

Leopold (Belgian style mussels)
1450 W Chicago Ave

Vincent (Dutch style)
1475 W Balmoral Ave

5148 N. Clark St.