Seafood lovers have a new reason to dine at the Hemingways Nairobi hotel, which recently introduced Mussels Fridays to their menu.
“A Couples Dinner” is what Executive Chef Archie Athanasius calls their Mussels Fridays. It refers to the aphrodisiac qualities that mussels are said to have. These shells are rich in zinc, a nutrient known to boost libido.
Mussels are the national dish of Belgium and Hemingways imports them from this country because they are said to be the best in the world. Sous chef John Njoroge gave us a demonstration of how he prepares them, following the classic method of steamed mussels in their shells.
The recipe calls for melted butter and sautéed garlic in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. The mussels are covered with a lid and cooked over high heat. Then a generous drizzle of white wine is added which brings complexity to the flavors.
Mr. Njoroge explained that only tightly closed mussels should be used as this is a sign of freshness. The steam from cooking opens the shells, that’s how you know they’re done. Unopened shells should be discarded as they are probably unfit for consumption.
Then the mussels were tossed in a simple garlic butter sauce flavored with salt and pepper. Although they are seafood, mussels have a mild taste that is enhanced by the sauce or other ingredients cooked with them.
The plating was not left to chance. The mussels were brought to the table served in black cast iron mussel pots with lids, preheated to keep the food warm. They were beautifully garnished with microgreens and purple pansies, edible flowers the Hemingways grow themselves.
Paying homage to the Belgian origins of the shellfish, the mussels were served with thin fries (fries) in a basket and a garlic sourdough baguette with garlic mayonnaise. This is the typical way they are eaten in Belgium.
As an accompaniment was a side salad with avocados and black olives. The whole thing was placed on a wooden serving board, essentially a thick slice of tree trunk. The result was a rustic yet elegant look.
Mussels are best eaten by hand. Hemingways provides small forks to extract the ocher meat from the shells. The mussels had a subtle, slightly salty taste and a slightly chewy texture which was well complemented by the creamy sauce.
At the bottom of the pan was extra sauce, which is where the sourdough baguette comes in. You tear off pieces of bread and use it to mop up the savory sauce.
Although presented as a romantic dinner, I think the mussels really lend themselves to a group meal like the one we had where everyone was digging into their pans of mussels and eating fries with their fingers. For those new to the seafood world, mussels are a gentle introduction to shellfish due to their mild taste.
Being a seafood, steamed mussels are usually accompanied by dry white wine which does not overwhelm the flavors. We accompanied our meal with a chardonnay, a suave and convivial wine on the palate.
If you prefer something crispier or fruitier, try a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. A pilsner or pale-ale is the recommended beer to drink with mussels and for a non-alcoholic option, take a low-sweetened citrus juice.
For dessert, we enjoyed ice cream. There’s a new sundae menu with a delicious selection, all artfully assembled in stemmed glass bowls. The double vanilla ice cream was drizzled with chocolate, strawberry or caramel sauce, and topped with Oreo cookies, ginger cookies or kiwi fruit.
The Chocolate Ice Cream Sundae was particularly decadent with chunks of brownies, yogurt, raspberries, nuts and chocolate shavings. My favorite was the Strawberry and Vanilla Snickers Sundae with fresh strawberries and a Snickers chocolate bar.