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Too many unopened mussels in restaurants...

I've had a few unsatisfactory experiences lately ordering mussels in restaurants, and am wondering if I'm just being too picky -- what is an "acceptable" percentage, in your opinion, of unopened mussels to have in a serving?

The other night, for example, I went to a nice restaurant where I had a "small plate" of mussels, and out of about 12, 4 were unopened (and another 1 was questionable)... I thought this wasn't quite right, and pointed it out to the waitress, who seemed to think I was being a pain, although she did bring me out some more. Was I out of line?

I guess I don't understand why this often happens, because when I make mussels at home, I rarely ever get one that doesn't open -- maybe I overcook them? I mean, do the restaurants need to give them another minute or two so more open? Or are 1/4 of this restaurant's mussels already dead?

I'm just really confused. Please enlighten me!

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  1. 4 out of 12 unopened is unacceptable. I rarely even get 2 unopened out of a pound when I order them in restaurants.

    1. Impossible to know whether they were dead, undercooked or a mixture of both.

      Certainly seems a high ratio of closed to open. I buy them in 1 kilo bags ( enough to feed the two of us for dinner). I'd expect to find a couple already open and obviously dead and a couple or so more that don't open when cooked.

      Knowing it's something that a kitchen needs to take particular care over, I rarely order mussels at a restaurant and only ever do so when it's soemwhere that 's likely to turn over the stock quickly.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Harters

        Here I find it is usually because they cook too many together in the same wok at the same time.

      2. I agree. 4 out of 12 (which is 1/3 of the Mussels you paid your good money for) is definitely unacceptable. The cook/chef should be checking them when he is plating and replace any that do not open. Period! I would have brought it up to the manager just so he knows and can retrain the kitchen help.

        3 Replies
        1. re: PotatoHouse

          Agreed. 1/3 of the order? Should never have made it onto the plate. 1 of 12 - maybe it could slip by but 4 of 12? No way.

          1. re: bobbert

            + 1!

            They should never have been plated.

            1. re: DoobieWah

              + 100 Should never be plated. I used to work in a restaurant, and that was the standard practice. If it didn't open, it went in the trash and was replaced.

        2. 4 out of 12? That's completely unacceptable. I wonder if the waitress didn't understand that you can't eat those, that it's not a matter of being picky?

          I guess I'm lucky; I often order mussels and have never had more than a couple remain unopened. (Which frankly, shouldn't happen either, the chef should be checking.)

          1. No good! Agree with others that it's way too high a percentage to be acceptable. If you were only served a dozen, the kitchen should have been able to pick this up *if* there's a chef in there to make sure the dishes are going out well prepared.
            You deserved more mussels!
            I recently shared a bowl of my favorite mussel dish in one of my favorite restaurants. A big bowl of over 2 dozen and not one stinker in there!

            1. Other night in Manhattan was blessed with over half still closed. On the other hand, very big portion for a very good price. Did not send back or complain. In a situation where that would not be OK. Was with good, good people who are anti-foodies and are amazed at what things, good and bad, l have done in past, so let this one go.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                I once had this happen at a Hilton (or was it Marriott?) in Salzburg. We were eating there "late" (after 8pm) and the kitchen was on the verge of closing. After a heated argument with the server/manager about why a plateful of closed mussels was unacceptable (in German, no less), we only ended up being charged for one of the two orders.


                1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                  Better part of valor... wise choice to just leave it.

                2. Mussels (and clams) that don't open shouldn't be served. I think any cook worth his salt should know that. I also would have sent the dish back right away.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: iluvcookies

                    I'm willing to overlook a few unopened mussels, I can't expect the chef to pick through dozens - would take forever in a big bowl of moules frites!

                    1. re: iluvcookies

                      That was my thought, and I was really confused at the early responses that hinted at there being an acceptable number other than 0. At home, we all toss unopened mussels, don't we? If we do, how is it acceptable for professionals to serve us things that's literally garbage to us?

                    2. with only 12, to miss 4,1/3 unopenned is not OK

                      If the chef or even line cook missed them cooking more than four orders at once,the pass or wait staff should fix the problem.12 mussels just isn't that many to look at and correct .If it was a single order it is just not excusable.

                      1. Anthony Bourdain says never to order the mussels in restaurants. Mine always open at home, rarely have one that doesn't. He says they're often not fresh, and not stored properly...

                        7 Replies
                        1. re: mcf

                          I think that could be said of many food items. I'd have more caution ordering sushi or sashimi than something that's cooked. Bourdain paints with a very large brush sometimes ;-)

                          1. re: monavano

                            This is true. He says they're usually stored improperly and not in good shape, went into some detail. I very rarely have unopened ones when I buy fresh and cook at home, but always have some in restaurants, sometimes too many, so I kind of believe him on this one.

                          2. re: mcf

                            I think that might depend on the restaurant. Restaurants that turn over a lot of mussels should be OK. There's a place in my neighborhood that serves mussels, steak, and salad. The serve so many bowls of mussels each night, I can't imagine they have problems with storage and freshness. The last time I ate there, we had three orders of mussels at the table, and only one unopened shell.

                            1. re: mcf

                              He says a lot of things I disagree with or find fairly ridiculous, so I'll add this one to the pile.

                              1. re: LeoLioness

                                I agreed LeoLionness, this is up there with very ridiculous - wonder if he has told all those moules frites restaurants in Brussels not to serve mussels, or the entire northern coast of Normandy and Brittany?!!

                                1. re: LeoLioness

                                  Maybe read what he actually says (KC p. 66) before dismissing it. He does not say "never to order the mussels in restaurants".

                                  1. re: DeppityDawg

                                    True, he says he never orders mussels in restaurants unless he knows the chef or has seen with his own eyes how they're stored and held. In practical terms, for me, anyhoo, that means I never order mussels in restaurants.

                              2. Thanks, everyone - I feel justified now. If it would have been a big bowl of mussels, I would have most likely just ignored the problem, but with only 12, I was surprised someone in the kitchen didn't notice! Unfortunately, I'm your classic Upper Midwesterner who has been brought up to just overlook things rather than raise a "fuss" by complaining, so I always feel guilty complaining about a dish! :)

                                I think I'm going to stop ordering mussels in restaurants, unless they are places that are known for them (e.g. no more of them at tapas restaurants, wine bars, etc). It seems like it's just too darn likely I'm going to be annoyed when I get them!

                                1. Question??

                                  I know enough not to eat the unopened or very partially opened up mussels, because they may have bacterial spoilage. But couldn't such spoiled mussels possibly contaminate the rest of the mussel dish as some of their contents could seep out?? Even when 'closed' they aren't completely sealed. I've always wondered about that.

                                  1. Yes, I think that's too much. I generally have 1 or 2 not open when I order mussels. But my order is definitely larger than 12.

                                    The only time I had so many closed mussels was at a lobster supper in Prince Edward Island. But it didn't matter because they were AYCE.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Miss Needle

                                      Unopened mussels are dead, not necessarily through bacterial spoilage so I don't think the rest of the bowl would be contaminated. I would say it would very irresponsible for a restaurant to serve mussels from a source they know has bacterial contamination in the water.

                                    2. Fortunately, I've never gone to a place with unopened mussels - I guess it depends on the restaurant. My biggest issue with mussels in restaurants is that several still have their beards- it's easy to tear them off, but still kind of nasty.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Samaida124

                                        That's totally disgusting. Kind of suggests they never scrubbed them, either. Bleah.

                                      2. Like everyone else, I agree that 4 out of 12 is far too high a percentage. If the other 8 seemed just barely cooked, then it's possible those other four just needed another minute or two. But perhaps more distressingly, if it wasn't a matter of being undercooked, then a 33% spoilage rate of mussels indicates a potential problem in the kitchen with storage and handling.

                                        One possibility that may exonerate the restaurant: if they're wild mussels, their "attrition" rate may be higher than farm raised mussels. In a large order of mussels, I certainly don't expect the kitchen to sort through 30-40 pieces. With only 12 though, it shouldn't be too hard to eyeball the plate and see if a lot of them are closed.

                                        Last question: How "closed" were they? A lot of people see a mussel that's only open a 1/4 inch and say "it didn't open." You may be squeamish about eating it, but if it opened that much, it's safe. It's the ones that are totally sealed shut that you shouldn't consider eating.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: egit

                                          Egit, that's a good point about just how "closed" they were -- because I've wondered about this myself. In this case, three were completely shut and the fourth was ever so slightly ajar -- but I couldn't force it open far enough to pull anything out of it, so, for all purposes, it was inedible (unless someone had given me a toolbox, perhaps).

                                          There were one or two more shells that were just slightly opened, but I was able to pry those open and pull the mussel out (and wondered at the time if that was safe to do, so now that you've told me, I know it was :)

                                          Overall, I'd say the mussels seemed softer and a bit slimier than I'm used to when I cook them -- so perhaps they all just needed another minute or so. To be honest, I'm not really sure how soft and slimy mussels are "supposed" to be, when cooked properly. Perhaps I tend to overcook them at home.

                                          1. re: anakalia

                                            "...softer and slimier..." sounds like they were undercooked.

                                            Most recipes you'll read say cook them until they "just open," which is about 4-5 minutes. In my opinion, that's not quite done enough. Maybe I too am used to overcooked mussels, but I usually go about 6-7 minutes (putting them in when the base/broth is simmering) when I cook them; that's usually how they are in restaurants.

                                        2. One interesting thought: if the kitchen allowed 4/12 of the mussels to be served closed, how many did they not see were open before cooking?

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: Lixer

                                            That's my question, too. I'd be afraid that a significant number of the open ones were open BEFORE cooking.

                                          2. Then again...

                                            And loads of other websites say the same - having to throw away unopened mussels is a myth.

                                            3 Replies
                                            1. re: Peg

                                              The real issue is don't cook mussels that are not alive. Dead ones tend not to be tightly closed and don't shut tight when handled. If you don't take the time to check, then it's safer to throw out the ones that are still closed after cooking. If you did, then a few that didn't open are still safe to eat if you're prepared to take the effort of prying them open.

                                              1. re: hsk

                                                I agree with hsk - there should be no unopened mussels in a serving of mussels unless they aren't cooked enough. You sort all the dead ones out when you debeard them prior to cooking.

                                                1. re: Billy33

                                                  No, you sort *some* of the dead ones out prior to cooking - the ones that are already open and don't close when you handle them. The rest of the dead ones get sorted out AFTER cooking, when they don't open.

                                            2. My dh is not American and the rule of thumb "over there" is that you just don't eat bi-valves in the months that do not contain an "r". This is because it's not the "season" for them (warmer waters) and they don't thrive. Without fail, if we've ordered mussels at these times of the year, we've been disappointed. Once, on a trip to the UK in late summer, I even ended up seriously sick the night before the return flight. I learned my lesson. Order mussels in January and leave the summer months to fresh vegetables. ;)

                                              The service of an unacceptable dish of mussels is something else altogether. Not cool.

                                              1. I usually don't order mussels in a restaurant unless its a restaurant I think pretty highly of, for precisely this sort of issue. Additionally, when I put mussels on my menu's at work, to avoid situations like this, I prefer not serving them in the shell. Instead of that, we pick out the busted and obviously dead ones, then cook the mussels we have left, discard any that don't open, then pick the meat out. Contextually, we can't do the typical bowl of steamed mussels, but its really nice for something like a mussel veloute, or as part of a salmon(or other fish) dish for an added flavor component. We'll just heat them gently in a little bit of beurre fondue, and they come out nice. This also helps us reduce our waste, since we may pick out the bad ones today, some more will be bad by tomorrow. A tad labor intensive, though.

                                                1. Usually when I see a dead clam or mussel it is open shelled. When in doubt tap it with another clam/mussel and if it closes it is ok.

                                                  Those who get closed shell mussells are getting undercooked mussels as opposed to dead ones,more than likely. And that is a shame, for the diner and the poor mussel that died because somebody doesn't know how to cook a mussel properly. I am serious.

                                                  1. I have worked in the shellfish business for years and now run my own shellfish company. I have eaten lots of unopened mussels and here is why...


                                                    There are lots of myths around shellfish that are no longer relevant due to the harvesting/cleaning and purifying methods see here