I don’t know if it was good planning or good luck, but when Flex Mussels arrived on the Upper East Side in late 2008, it was just in time to salve the wounds of a recession-scarred city.
With scarce exceptions, the neighborhood has never been known for culinary adventure. But the last eighteen months have been a particularly good time for focused restaurants that fill a narrowly defined, inexpensive niche. Hence, we’ve got places dedicated to sausages, mac ’n’ cheese, meatballs, and of course, pizza.
Flex Mussels does that admirably. No need to guess what to order, except for which variety of mussels you want—and in that regard, the restaurant is very, um, flexible. I know, bad joke. Couldn’t resist.
Anyhow, they come in nearly two dozen variations, such as the Maine (lobster, smoked bacon, corn, white chowder, parsley) and the Bisque (lobster, brandy, tomato, garlic cream), both of which we had.
Another, called “The Number 23” on the menu, varies daily. I believe it had sweet corn and ham when I tried it. Whichever version you choose, you get a stainless steel bowl full of plump, steamed mussels, and a deep, nearly inexhaustible broth that you’ll want to drink like soup or sop up with bread.
The mussel dishes are priced between $18.50 and $20.50. There’s a handful of other entrées priced from $21–29, and a steak for $32. If you’re tempted to order them, I’d have to ask why you came to a place called Flex Mussels.
The appetizers, all competently executed, are more routine. You can’t go too far wrong with a goat cheese salad ($13; above left) with yellow beets, candied walnuts, and apples. Nor with a very good chowder ($10; above center), made not with clams, but with mussels and bacon.
A dish called Burnt Fingers ($16; above right) offers fried calamari, shrimp, oysters, and shallot rings, with a spiced aioli dip. The point of serving it on a square of butcher paper somewhat eluded me.
The mussel dishes look mostly the same and are somewhat immune to photography—at least with my amateur equipment. The fries ($6) are wonderful.
The space is deceptively large, as the storefront is narrow, but it goes back a long way. You enter into a cramped bar area, with a separate dining counter lined with stools for walk-ins. If you sit there, you won’t have much elbow room. Then you go back, and you realize there is a lot more space. The decor isn’t fancy, but it suits the restaurant’s nautical theme. It works on the Upper East Side, and it would work on Martha’s Vinyard, or on Prince Edward Island, where the first Flex Mussels opened.
The wine list is wallet-friendly, with most of the whites less than $65 a bottle. An enjoyable 2005 white Burgundy, “Les Coeres,” was $52.
Frank Bruni gave Flex Mussels one star last year, generally agreeing with our assessment of the food, but complaining about several service issues. We experienced none of that; if anything, service was better than it had to be, especially on a lovely Saturday evening with the restaurant nearly packed to the gills.
Flex Mussels (124 E. 82nd Street between Third & Lexington Avenues, Upper East Side)