The unofficial dish of Washington: A steaming bowl of mussels

Bart Vandaele of Belga Cafe in Washington, D.C., teaches us to enjoy eating mussels the Belgian way.
By Kristen Hinman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; 11:34 AM

Mussel culture is a funny thing.

The little mollusks will cling to buoys and branches, jetties and ropes, rafts, rods, even the hulls of ships, which is how the ubiquitous blue mussel has spread its seed for centuries. They flourish in saltwater and fresh. No matter the hitching post, as any waterman worth his salt will point out, mussels are known to cluster.

You could make the same claim about mussel acculturation on the Washington dining scene. From the Palisades to Southeast, the H Street to K Street corridors and beyond, restaurants hawking hot pots of the blue-black bivalve have proliferated. "It does seem to be all the rage these days, doesn't it?" observes Granville Moore's chef Teddy Folkman, who once beat Food Network star Bobby Flay in a mussel cook-off.

And why not?

Mussels are low-maintenance (done in about five minutes), healthful (all those omega-3 fatty acids) and cheap ($2 to $4 a pound retail). Chefs love their versatility (so many potential complements), not to mention the hearty pleasure they provide for diners looking to end the day on a casual beat (is there a food that goes down better with beer?). Given that they also merit "best choice" and "super green" ratings from the Seafood Watch guide published by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, it's a wonder the mollusks never break onto lists of the nation's most-consumed seafoods.

It's a different story in Belgium, where moules et frites - mussels and fries - long ago become the de facto national dish. "It was tradition that Belgians would always go to the North Sea coast to pick mussels," explains Ruth Van Waerebeek, author of "Everybody Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook" (Workman, 1996). "When those days of wild mussels were over, the farmed ones remained very inexpensive, and I think that contributed to their popularity." Van Waerebeek adds: "It was definitely never something that kings would serve. Mussels were a humble, rustic seafood; of the people."

It was the Belgians who cracked open the trend here in 1999, when chef Bernard Dehaene began dispatching one-kilo servings of steamed mussels at Le Mannequin Pis in Olney. Although the restaurant has changed hands, current owners Loren and Peter Gomes have retained the mussel-heavy menu and replicated it at Sur la Place in the Palisades, 18 miles away.

Next came Bart Vandaele's Belga Cafe, on Barracks Row, in 2004. The bivalves have always been a bestseller at Brasserie Beck, which Robert Wiedmaier, who is half-Belgian, opened on K Street in 2007. Et Voila! chef-owner Claudio Pirollo, also Belgian-bred, imported mussels to MacArthur Boulevard in 2008. Last month - not long after his staff won the first Belgian Embassy-sponsored "mussel throwdown" - Wiedmaier proceeded to open Mussel Bar by RW in Bethesda.

And Folkman? Call him the token American. He arrived at Granville Moore's in mid-course in 2007, took one look at the tiny kitchen's paltry four burners and realized that quick-cooking mussels would have to become the mainstay of the Belgian pub's pan-fired entrees. Even so, the logistics of banging out 1,200 pounds of mussels a week "is still a game of Tetris," says the chef.

The mollusk of choice for these chefs (and, statistics show, the vast majority of Americans) comes from "farms" off Prince Edward Island, a.k.a. PEI, a Canadian province whose cold eastern waters and swirling currents furnish ideal growing conditions for the filter-feeding creatures. The growers there practice "rope culture." They attach eight-foot-long, thin nets to long lines of rope in shallow water and populate the nets with naturally occurring blue mussel seed. Suspended in the water column, the mollusks feast on passing plankton and other nutrients until they reach market size, about 21/2 inches.

The mussels aren't genetically engineered. Nor are they fed supplements or dosed with antibiotics. "There's a lot of good regulation wherever mussels are being farmed," says Ken Peterson, a spokesman for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. "Since nobody wants to sell contaminated seafood, you have to raise them in waters that are very clean."

Many District chefs favor Prince Edward Island's blue mussel for its sweet flavor profile and high meat-to-shell ratio. Consistency and cleanliness are further selling points, they say.

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