I was, until yesterday, a mussel virgin. (And, until today, an IFA one as well. Hi friends!) But, I went to Granville Moore’s, the supposed best spot in D.C. for the crustacean, which was cooked in wine, butter, and herbs and served with really stellar frites and Belgian beer.
This trip to the very charming hole-in-the wall on H Street was a culmination of a life-long saga. As a child, an extraordinary distaste for Bumblebee tuna — a favorite of my mother’s and, in my 7-year-old mind, a tinned fish with the texture of softened balsam and the faint smell of garbage — led me to reject all seafood. I ate only, erm, landfood, until middle school, at which point I’d occasionally manage to choke down a few bites of fish that tasted of nothing (e.g. overcooked halibut). But I didn’t like it.
All of which was a bit weird because I was an extraordinary — really, extraordinary — eater as a kid. Frank Bruni-esque — I have the (adorably?) chubby photos to prove it, too. I’d eat mayonnaise sandwiches (very good if the bread is toasted). Sushi. Borscht. On occasion, organ meat. Ambrosia pudding. The food my grandmother, Dolly, who was a delight but a terrible cook, made. In essence, everything — better food preferred, but worse food hardly excluded — consumed in copious amounts.
But, due to that Bumblebee tuna, I considered all fish and crustaceans not just unpalatable, but inedible. I had a sort of literal trouble eating them, and I’d masticate and swallow, but never savor. It was a really good prawn, coated in chili and grilled over an open fire (during the summertime on a beach, no less) when I was in high school that made me realize the aversion was more psychological than culinary. It was tender, it was tasty, and because of it, I started actually liking shrimp and lobster, then fatty fishes, then flaky fishes, then eel. Bumblebee tuna ushered me out, and the perfect prawn ushered me back in.
Still, I never could countenance the gummier and more primordial types of shellfish — oysters, clams, scallops, and mussels. First, I found it discomfiting that one could eat the whole thing. At least with a prawn, you’re only consuming 90 percent, and you get to pull off any exoskeleton or suspect-seeming stringy bits. Second, I distrusted the fact that the first word used to describe them by aficionados was always “briny.” Even a pickle, brined by definition, is not primarily described as “briny” — but “salty” and “peppery” and “dill-ish.” Third, how to determine if one shouldn’t eat it? You know to avoid pink chicken, or meat that smells of anything but blood and is anything but pink. But it seems no such guidelines exist for these shellfish once they’re in your bowl. Finally, the texture. Wet and chewy: an extraordinarily concerning combination.
Every once and a while, I’d try a bit of a scallop, which I’ve come to like — it’s really more fish than creature-in-shell. I’d eat a fried clam, which tastes of whatever it is fried in. It isn’t a preferred option, but I wouldn’t starve if it were the last food on earth. At the epically delectable Komi, in the spring, the best meal I’ve ever had, I tried an oyster. Bad choice. I almost spit it out. It tasted like brackish consommé, and the jelly texture made me squirm.
Another IFAer, though, convinced me to go for mussels. I couldn’t recall ever trying them — so averse was I to clams and oysters. And I agreed. In my negotiated form of vegetarianism, for one, mussels are exempt. (They really do seem closer to a radish than to a fish.) Plus, he promised they were good.
So, to Granville Moore’s. To be honest, before the mussel excursion, I was nervous. I spent all day Googling to figure out what they would taste like, and what kind of mouth-feel I could expect. The best description, the one which made me even a bit excited for them, was that they were like the “mushrooms of the sea,” with a faint, woody, briny taste, a slightly chewy but firm texture, and a delicious propensity to take on the flavor of their cooking liquid.
Confronted with a plate of them in a warm bath of wine and butter, I tried with gusto.
The result? Well, losing your virginity is never as exciting as you think it will be. The experience wasn’t revolting, but was hardly as pleasurable as I’d hoped. They weren’t strange, alien, or fishy-tasting. Indeed, they really don’t taste like much at all. They occasionally had an almost squeaky quality, and sometimes a kind of pleasant saltiness. Mediocre on the mouth-feel. I preferred dipping the frites and baguette into the sauce than to drenching the mussels in it.
That’s about it. So, even if I have no affection for the mussel, I have no fear of it either. That, for me, seems something of an accomplishment.