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Review Recap: Flex Mussels and (not) Harbour

Yesterday, the food section editors led us to expect a double-review of Flex Mussels and Harbour. We weren’t the only ones misled: Eater.com’s Ballpark Frank featured a poll on the predicted star rating for both restaurants.

It turns out lame-duck Frank reviewed only the lesser restaurant, Flex Mussels, awarding the expected one star:

Restaurants benefit from having a clear identity and making a claim that dozens of other restaurants aren’t already making. In Flex’s case, that’s mussel mania.

And restaurants do well to give diners a clear path to a meal that’s relatively economical while also filling. That’s where Flex and its spotlighted fare really deliver, in that a hillock of the mussels, coupled with plenty of broth-soaked bread, makes for a sizable dinner without a sizable check…

You can drink relatively affordably at Flex, too. The succinct but appealing wine list, which supplements a terrific international array of beers, has few bottles over $75 and many under $50.

In the usual “yes, but…” style, Frank goes on to list Flex Mussels’ faults:

The rest of the menu isn’t priced quite as gently or coherently…appetizers of $16 (a mix of fried calamari, shrimp and oysters) and $17 (two crab cakes) seem just a tad exorbitant…

I also wish this Flex were as orderly, with service as smooth. At its busiest, the bottleneck of human traffic around the host station is impenetrable, and your table can become a lonely colony to which food is exported fitfully.

* * * *

Almost as soon as we posted our two-star prediction for Harbour, we were buffeted by misgivings. Frank bailed us out by relegating the restaurant to Dining Briefs, a treatment usually accorded restaurants not deemed worthy of a starred review. Surprisingly, he seemed to like the place. As we expected, he found one dish “overworked and busy,” but in its favor:

There’s nonetheless some arresting food and impressive cooking at Harbour, and on that night it included an appetizer of thick, smoky, intense clam chowder ($9); a gorgeously textured, dreamily rich entree of Arctic char ($24); and a broad, shallow plate of butterscotch pudding ($8) with — a kooky touch — popcorn scattered across, and embedded in, its surface

The prices, including a four-course prix fixe of $45, are reasonable, considering the formality of the service, the generous breadbasket, the amuse-bouche. And that mindfulness of tough times extends to an affordable, respectable wine list. You can sail these seas on the winds of a fine white Burgundy.

So why no full review? We suspect he harbours doubts [pun intended] about the restaurant’s future and didn’t want to invest three visits in a place that might not last. As almost every critic has done (including us), he mentions Harbour’s “strangely desolate location.”

That should be no obstacle to success, though. Someone had to be the first to open a fine-dining restaurant in TriBeCa, on the Lower East Side, or in the Meatpacking District. I’m not saying Harbour will be it, but sooner or later some restaurant will turn Hudson Square into a destination.

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