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Words: Lawrence Hunt
The story of Mussel Men’s founder starts like any good seafaring shanty-tale.
Robin Dunlop spent his youth clambering up and down the Scottish coastal crags of his uncle’s oyster and mussel farms, overcoming his gag reflex and coming to love the salty critters from a young age.
His empire started small – dressed in a kilt, hucking oysters from a basket at the Edinburgh Fringe under the name Oyster Boys. But a series of lively Mussel Men pop ups soon followed, as well as an outfit called Gastronomy Guys specialising in ‘theatrical molecular gastronomy events’.
Now my girlfriend and I sit in the first permanent incarnation of Mussel Men in Dalston, admiring the way the sunshine illuminates the nautical whimsy of the back garden, and wondering what could be next for this modern-day Captain Nemo. Lobster Lords, Mayfair? Whale Wankers Shoreditch, perhaps? The Octopus Octogenarians?
Whatever the case, I’ll be there with whatever novelty headwear is required. Because for all its pop up-derived theatricality, Mussel Men is also a thoroughly pleasing and unpretentious place to enjoy a summer seafood platter. It also boasts a ferociously friendly crew who, aside from the ‘nautical banter’ advertised on the website, are so knowledgable about crustaceans that a protracted debate will often escalate into a thumb wrestle with ‘Captain Bob’ (winners get a T Shirt, according to the menu).
Our waiter’s recommended tropical cocktails line up a great opening salvo: a Ginger Storm for me, mixing sweet dark rum and pineapple with ginger, lime and bitters. For Elisa they conjure the even sweeter Cubano Jardin, with elderflower and crisp prosecco.
From the moment our waiter brings us a plate of smoked butter with the bread it’s clear know who we’re dealing with. Fine seafood might be all about sourcing and freshness, but the chef’s attention to detail is what makes it sing.
For starters we opt for scallops, seared to a satisfying chew and garnished with black pudding and apple. These were the highlight of Elisa’s evening, though £10 for three may raise an eyebrow, so be warned. We also go for the soft shell crab, which is a surprise favourite of mine: spanking fresh and delicious with a drizzle of lemon.
To this we add a plate of three Scottish Cumbrae oysters (£7.50, zipped up with shallot vinegar for an extra 50p). There are also Irish and Jersey variants to choose from – and in retrospect it might have been fun to request one of each and try and guess which was which, but then again perhaps that would have crossed some other invisible thumb war barrier. Truth be told Elisa and I are both yet to be fully converted, but nervous excitement carries us through as our chilled cumbrae deliver a shock of saline freshness and a creamy, coppery flavour on biting into the flesh.
It’s all going rather quickly, so we take our time on the wine list, coming out with a great aromatic Italian pinot grigio called il badalisc. For my main course I challenge the Mussel Men to hit me with their signature dish, the steamy classic Marinière moule frite – £13, served with skinny fries. It hits all the familiar notes from my best holiday experiences at the seafront, in all the right ways.
Elisa goes for the lobster roll, £16, and from the bite I take while she’s marooned on the ‘poop deck’ I can confirm the lobster was delicious (though of course who doesn’t like butter). Elisa isn’t entirely sold in the end on the concept of mixing lobster meat with a big, sweet brioche. Of course she’s perfectly happy to compartmentalise, rounding off the meal with the sweetest thing on the menu: a gooey chocolate brownie, served in a superfluously large jar.
You may have noticed oyster bars springing up all over London for abounding connoisseurs to fret over shell patterns and seasonal algae salinity. But Mussel Men hits the perfect balance between playful and serious – letting you enjoy all the intricacies of great seafood with a flourish, while at the same time reliving your pirate-themed 5th birthday party. In fact, that’s very much the idea behind the restaurant’s ‘Captain’s Quarters’, which are available for hire at £25 a head. There may be cheaper seafood places around, but I doubt they’re anywhere near as fun.
Words: Lawrence Hunt
584 Kingsland Rd
Tel: 020 3490 9040