I recently made a trip to Flex Mussels, a recently opened Upper East Side (E.82nd St. b/w 3rd and Lex) outpost of a popular Prince Edward Island restaurant that specializes in what else but Prince Edward Island mussels. Being a Floridian, I am somewhat of a seafood snob and am all too often unimpressed by the seafood options in the Northeast. Nonetheless, Flex Mussels won me over on my visit.
The restaurant was packed when my girlfriend and I visited on a recent Saturday night. The the main room was booked for those with reservations, but the hostess sat us at the ledge in the bar room. The bar room is not particularly conducive to conversation as it is a fairly awkward arrangement in a loud room. Imagine being surrounded by other diners eating large pots of steaming mussels on a fairly narrow ledge, and you get the idea. It does not help that a mirror lines the wall behind the ledge, forcing you to stare at yourself during your meal. Not a particularly bad thing if you are a narcissist, but a little creepy if you're not.
Fortunately, the meal that my girlfriend and I shared was better than the surroundings. As a starter, we shared the "Burnt Fingers," a plate of fried calamari, shrimp, and oysters served with a spicy aioli for dipping. Being the fried oyster fiend that I am, I would have preferred a few more oysters than the two that were served and not so much calamari, but seafood proportions aside, this dish was an excellent execution of fried seafood. Each piece was perfectly cooked and the breading was crispy and well-seasoned. The fried seafood could have stood on its own without the spicy aioli which was still a nice complement.
As good as the fried seafood platter was, we were at the restaurant to try its mussels, the various preparations of which made up most of the menu. The menu reads like a global tour of the mussel industry, with preparations ranging from "Geisha Girl" (sake, green onions, pickled ginger, garlic, bird's eye peppers) to "Dubliner" (Guinness, toasted walnuts, caramelized onions). My girlfriend and I chose the Thai mussels (curry coconut broth, lemongrass, coriander, lime, garlic, ginger). The mussels were very meaty for PEI mussels, which I find can sometimes be so small that they are not worth the mess of eating them. The broth was well seasoned, although slightly too sweet; we would have preferred slightly less coconut milk and more spices. Sweetness aside, my girlfriend and I were still sopping up every last drop of the sauce with the crusty bread that came with our meal.
With the exception of the rare excellent key lime pie at a Florida seafood shack, dessert tends to be an afterthought at seafood restaurants. At Flex Mussels, at least one dessert is not to be missed: the fried dougnuts, which come in several flavors. My girlfriend and I ordered the chocolate doughnuts and meyer lemon doughnuts, and four hot doughnuts (two of each flavor) soon arrived. The doughnuts were superb: perfectly golden on the outside and light and doughy (in a good way) on the inside. The fillings were great, with the chocolate being our favorite. They were served with a vanilla bean custard sauce, which paired much better with the chocolate doughnut than with the vanilla. Our only complaint was that one of the chocolate doughnuts had very little chocolate filling, but the doughnut dough was so delicious that this was a minor issue.
Flex Mussels has a nice beer list comprised of bottles of domestic microbrews and Belgian beers. I would have preferred a selection of draft beers, but I was quite pleased with my choice of the Rogue Mocha Porter, a creamy beer with a nice hint of coffee. I will definitely seek out this beer for home consumption.
My only other complaint about the restaurant is an issue that every restaurant that specializes in steaming seafood dishes faces: the stinkyness factor. The restaurant itself does not smell bad, but after leaving, my girlfriend and I both noticed that our clothes smelled heavily of the onions, garlic, and spices that were in the mussel broth steam that was surely circulating throughout the restaurant. While Flex Mussels is not a very expensive restaurant, you must factor in the additional cost of dry cleaning your outfit when calculating the overall cost of the meal.
Overall, this Floridian was impressed with the seafood at Flex Mussels. It is not only a welcome addition to my neighborhood, but a welcome addition to the New York City restaurant arena.