What is it that makes a dining-out experience memorable? It's a tricky equation with one part tasty food, a healthy dose of personable service, and a combination of company and conversation that feeds your soul along with your stomach. Your whole body leaves feeling satisfied.
I don't think expensive and extravagant are prerequisites; some of my favorite meals out were over cheap Chinese (going to South China Doll when I was a kid), Chevy's Mexican (Matt and I's first date, when they ran out of tortillas for my fajitas and he was so adorably irritated over the hiccup), or picking up Kentucky Fried Chicken after my family helped me move into my college dorm (we were so hungry, it tasted like the best food ever made). Still, an outstanding restaurant does set the stage for a favorite time. I will never forget the multi-course French-style meal (complete with cloches) my parents invited Matt and I to while they were staying at the Columbia Gorge Hotel, or 7th-grade me and Neely Shingledecker going to the Titanic menu dinner at Seattle's Georgian restaurant at the (then) Four Seasons Hotel. I wadded a huge truffle off my plate because I thought it looked nasty.
So when Matt and I were cruising around Whole Foods on New Year's Eve looking for dinner inspiration, the sale on mussels brought me right back to dinner at Ten Mercer with Brynne and Dan. I was either just over or just under 21, so that one or two cocktails made me totally tipsy. It's one of the restaurants they're frequent enough at to know the owner and sommelier, so we were getting all of the attention and great recommendations and all that good stuff. I felt like such a grown-up, dining with my oh-so-metropolitan friends and finally being twentyish and being able to find the place without too much help from my dad, the living Seattle GPS, on the phone and having my Ford Aerostar minivan valet parked by a guy wearing gloves. I know I ordered lamb and it made me fall in love with the poor roasted dears, and the drinks were great, but what I can't shake are those mussels. They were served bathing in a shallow pool of broth that had... something. Something that made you massacre an entire baguette to lap up every last drop. That friend-manager even brought out more, noting "I know you love that broth!" Buttery, rich, deeply simmered and spiced. I could vaguely feel it exploding on the toothsome bread as I stared at the black beauties inside the case.
Maybe I could make it myself, I thought. I picked up 2 pounds of mussels and went to rummage around in the produce section. I grabbed fennel, leeks, tarragon, garlic... trying to piece together a recipe from the start of Bush's second term was going to be difficult, but I was convinced I could do it. I sauteed the vegetables in butter with garlic, then added pepper flakes, chives, white wine and chicken broth. It smelled good, anyway. When the liquid was at a boil I dumped in the scrubbed mussels, which I've never cooked before, but I knew needed to open up in the steam before you could eat them. As they were busy in the sauna, I presumptuously stuck a big New Seasons French baguette in the oven. No need for butter, I thought.
When we sat down I ripped a healthy chunk of bread and, before even considering a mussel, dunked it deep into the broth. I took a bite.
It was okay.
Let's just say, I've got half of that baguette leftover and wrapped up in the pantry.
What is Ten Mercer's secret?! Saffron? Clarified butter? Heroin? What did I miss? How could I give my innocent mussels the pretty-good treatment? They deserved more!
So maybe I can't crack every recipe. There are some things I'll always want to go out and have: sweet and sour chicken at Rice Time, Chicken Schwarma at Aladdin's, Pad Thai and Thai Princess, that Parmesan Soup at Canby Grand Station. I guess I'll add Ten Mercer's Mussels right up there on the list. If we could have everything perfectly at home, there wouldn't be too much reason to ever leave the house. And I really, really want to leave sometimes. Doing dishes sucks. Not to mention those unique dining out memories that just aren't the same in your own kitchen. The anticipation, surprises and leisure of sitting and enjoying prepared dishes is in a league of its own.
However. If anyone wants to come by for the world's best lasagna, dinner's at 6 tonight.