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How to Eat the Grape's Mussels

Offering mussels on a menu is a lot like offering a burger. You see both everywhere, and each is highly dependent on the primary ingredient.

Mussels are especially finicky -- they're only as good as they are tonight, and tomorrow they may be a complete disappointment in the same dining room. It's a matter of freshness but also ingredient sourcing, which can vary week-to-week or even day-to-day.

Take the mussels I had at The Grape last summer: perfectly un-remarkable. I even called them small.

Then, just last night, the same dish bordered on transcendence. The mussels were huge, with meaty flesh that filled out their shells almost completely, keeping the promise offered by their onyx exteriors. Sadly, there's no real way to tell what you're going to get until the steaming bowl comes to the table.

At the Grape, though, it helps that they're flanked by not one but both of the great mussel starches: bread, perfect for soaking up as much of the delicious brine liberated from the bivalves as possible, and french fries, which must be served with mayonnaise or nothing at all. Order yours with a Saint Ann's Lawnmower and enjoy them like this:

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Ask for some bread on the side if it's not already at your table. When the mussels arrive, remove enough of the shells from the the top of the bowl to get access to the broth beneath. Grab a piece of bread and let it sit for a second. Be patient and let it soak up that salty brine like a candlewick, and then watch it drip onto your shirt as it's quickly shuttled to your mouth. Now squeeze a little of the lemon that's forked on the side into the brine and repeat the process with your bread. Watch how it wakes up.

Next siphon off a little more broth and add it to the aioli. You can use an empty mussel shell as a scoop, or just carefully pour from the bowl. Stir this up with a french fry and enjoy the greatest fried potato condiment of all time. The Grape's spuds here are worthy of the decadence, with crunchy, salty exteriors and warm, pillowy insides.

When meals get this good you start to wonder if it's just the food or if some other variable must be responsible. And then you quit wondering because you're too busy wiping the aioli from your face.

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