Entries in Flex Mussels (3)


Flex Mussels

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)

Food: *½
Service: *½
Ambiance: *
Overall: *


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.


Review Preview: Flex Mussels and Harbour

Record to date: 0–2

I used to think I had a feel for what Frank Bruni was going to do, but we’re oh-fer-two since Review Preview launched a fortnight ago. With a double-review coming up, we’ve got the chance either to level-up or to dig ourselves an even deeper hole. Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Flex Mussels on the Upper East Side and Harbour in Hudson Square.

The Skinny: The general rule with double-reviews of new restaurants (not before reviewed in the Times), is that Bruni must not think either one is especially important. He has never given three stars in a double-review, unless he was upgrading a restaurant previously reviewed. That’s not the case here, so we start with two stars as a ceiling for both of these places.

Flex Mussels hasn’t been on our radar. It has been open for at least six months, but none of the other star-bestowing critics have reviewed it. We’d entirely forgotten (or never noticed) reviews in the New Yorker, Village Voice, and the Insatiable Critic until we looked them up just moments ago.

Bruni doesn’t usually review restaurants in out-of-the-way places only to trash them, and for him Flex Mussels, at 82nd and Lex, is a major detour. At the same time, most of his two-star awards go to places that are already very well known, which Flex Mussels is not. That leaves one star as the most likely case here.

With Harbour, we have a bit more to go on, as we had dinner there just this past weekend. Although we gave two stars to our meal, some of the dishes seemed over-wrought. Frank Bruni is liable to call them “fussy,” a word we abhor in this context, because of his over-use of it. My girlfriend said, “Frank Bruni is not going to like this food.” In Harbour’s favor, Adam Platt awarded two stars in New York and Restaurant Girl three in the Daily News. Platt’s rating is often a good predictor of what Bruni will do.

The folks at Flex Mussels probably won’t mind a one-star review—they could probably use the exposure—but for Harbour one star could be devastating. That has never stopped Bruni before, but Harbour is one of those places he could have skipped reviewing altogether. We’re not at all sure about this, but our guess is that if he’s bothering to review Harbour, he finds it at least modestly promising.

The Prediction: We predict that Frank Bruni will award one star to Flex Mussels and two stars to Harbour.