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Mussel roulette in restaurants?

I just ordered mussels in a restaurant that I've been going to a lot recently -- have had no prior bad experiences there... When they set the mussels in front of me, I thought something smelled a little off. But smell is so subjective; I had just been reading Kitchen Confidential and figured I was just on heightened Mussel Alert from Bourdain's dire comments about restaurant mussels... so I forked one, took a careful sniff, and ate it.

The next one that my eye settled on had a broken shell. Normally my rule is, if a mussel has a broken shell, I assume it's bad, since I have no way of knowing whether it broke before cooking or during. (Unless the restaurant has an unusually violent cooking method for mussels, "before" would surely be the more likely scenario.) Am I right in assuming that a mussel with a broken shell is probably a dead mussel?

I sent them back -- the restaurant was gracious about it, although I did notice another order of mussels go out about fifteen minutes later. Did I overreact? (Am not sick yet, but it's only been an hour and I only ate one mussel.)

Do you order restaurant mussels, and how do you know whether to trust them?

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  1. In my hometown of Montreal the solution is simple and effective. News of bad food spreads like wildfire. Restaurants have closed down for less.

    Being served "off' seafood in a restaurant is unforgivable. This is a deliberate "mistake" made by the kitchen. Contempt should be met with same in this case.

    6 Replies
    1. re: mrbozo

      What do you mean it's a deliberate mistake? You're suggesting someone in the kitchen is trying to harm the diner? Why?

      1. re: tatamagouche

        Deliberate in that it shows a lack of concern for quality control, which can quite easily result in harming the diner. Someone made the decision to send spoiled food out of the kitchen to a table. Why?

        1. re: mrbozo

          I guess I'm not necessarily assuming the cook was paying close enough attention to notice there were some bad mussels in the batch. I'm not saying negligence is okay, I'm just saying negligence is not the same thing as conspiracy to cause harm.

          That said, it does seem mussels are among the worst offenders when it comes to restaurant food poisoning, along with deli cold cuts.

          1. re: tatamagouche

            I remember reading Bourdain's comment that, to the harried line cook, mussels are like a gift -- scoop a bunch of them into a pan, cook for 1-2 minutes, done.

            Then I think of the process I personally go through when cooking them -- scrubbing each one, and if it's open: tapping it on the counter if it's open, setting it aside, coming back to it and seeing if it's closed, tapping it again... and finally throwing out anything I have doubts about. And then cooking. It's a hassle, so I don't make mussels often.

            I assumed Bourdain was exaggerating. It makes me wonder what other areas restaurants are less careful about than I am as a home cook.

            1. re: fendel

              I used to go through that routine when wild mussels were all that was available, but farmed musses have improved a lot, and they seem to be clean enough to use with a simple rinse or soaking, and a check-through for bad ones. If I had to scrub and tap each one, I wouldn't buy very many. The sacks of mussels from P.E.I. are especially good quality, although once in awhile they can be less than good, too.
              Wild musses are still available, and while more prep is needed, they are preferred by many people.

              1. re: fendel

                It's called "prep".

                All the food-stuffs a line cook reaches for have been prepped that afternoon to be ready for the dinner rush. No line cook preps his food as he cooks it, it's already there for the final cooking process, whatever that might be.

      2. The mussels should have been picked over before cooking, and if they smelled off, the problem fixed before cooking, or serving. They missed on two counts, and left the server to face the customer. It's not a good sign, for a simple dish. What happens when they have a real challenge?

        1. If this had been my first visit to the place, this would have scared me off. But I go there a lot. I like the staff, I like the food, so I'm trying to cut them a little slack -- it's human to make a mistake (it's just unfortunate that this particular kind of mistake has the potential to cause serious food poisoning).

          I saw an interesting point somewhere: a mussel with a broken shell is the most obvious, visible kind of bad mussel; if they miss one of those, you have to wonder how many of the "slightly open, won't close when tapped" dead ones they are missing. But the last batch I had a few weeks ago was perfectly fine.

          I wonder, can one bad mussel taint (a) the mussels it is cooked with, and/or (b) the mussels it is stored with?

          1 Reply
          1. re: fendel

            When I pick out the open or broken ones from a fresh sack of mussels, the remaining ones definitely smell better, like the sea. And they have not made me sick. Another safeguard is a government inspection tag and harvest date, plus best before date, on farmed mussels, especially those from Prince Edward Island, via Costco, though there may be other good sources where you are located.

          2. I've given up ordering mussels in Toronto. Very seldom do I get a batch that doesn't include at least one that tastes like the floor of a stable. I haven't reacted to them like I'm being poisoned, but the taste is definitely off. I just don't have confidence in Toronto cooks any more.

            The worst was about a month ago. Went to a billiards bar on Queen W. called Rhino and had their seafood pasta. Every single mussel tasted like horse droppings smell.

            I miss my parents having a cottage in NS near a point covered in mussels *sigh*.

            5 Replies
            1. re: digiteyes

              If I can get good mussels to prepare in Toronto, and fendel, deep in the midwest, can too, then there is no reason you can't find good mussels in stores or restaurants. You can even ask some fishmongers to prepare them while you shop.

              1. re: jayt90

                What's fendel? I just Googled it and got nothing food related.

                1. re: tatamagouche

                  Nothing in particular... years ago I signed up for a free Tripod account and wanted to come up with a nickname that was anonymous, pronounceable, and easy to type.

                  1. re: fendel

                    Ha, actually, when I wrote that, I hadn't read jayt90's response carefully enough, and I thought he was saying he could get "good mussels and fendel" in Toronto. So I thought it was a dish.

                    If it were, what would it be? It sounds like Jewish-style fennel.

              2. re: digiteyes

                >>>that tastes like the floor of a stable<<<

                Funny you say that...I've noticed it too, but have never heard anyone else make that comparison. I assume the off taste is a result of a mussel that "passed away" at some point before cooking. Never affected me, though, digestively speaking...

              3. Thanks for your replies. I haven't had a problem when cooking mussels at home, since I'm fanatical about throwing out the dodgy ones. And as I think about it, the rest of the batch isn't affected by the fact that there were a couple dead ones in the bag, so I probably needn't have questioned their decision to continue serving mussels -- assuming they were examining them closely before putting them in the pan.

                Having a bad one in the pan, though, can ruin the sauce (IMO) at the very least, so sending them back was the right thing to do.

                I wouldn't call the mistake deliberate, but careless. (Perhaps mrbozo's point was that a restaurant can choose to be careful about seafood, or choose to be careless -- to rush through the process of picking over mussels, or assign someone inexperienced or inattentive to the job... deliberate in the sense that it's a wholly preventable mistake? Just my interpretation.)

                1 Reply
                1. re: fendel

                  I always volunteered for "shellfish duty" at the restaurant I worked in, something my coworkers avoided. I would happily sit at the sink scrubbing, tapping, sorting oysters and clams and shelling shrimp. It meant that I could sit for a large part of the afternoon prep and be fresh on my feet for dinner. My chef knew that the shellfish were properly prepped and ready to go unlike when others who hated the job did it. Actually, I ended up becoming the "livestock wrangler/farmer" taking care of anything live that came into the kitchen (lobsters, soft shell crabs, oysters, clams, growing sprouts, yeast starters, potted herbs, etc).