18 Aug 2014

The Mussel Power of Guard and Grace

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At once sensuous and unshakable, tender and meaty, rough-hewn and delicate, Bangs Island mussels, hand-harvested bivalve mollusks that are locally raised in the clean, clear waters of Casco Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Maine that’s renowned for its captivating coastline, are the prized possessions of chefs across the country — chefs who have deep gratitude for the commitment to sustainable fishing practiced by Gary Moretti and his son Matt, the owners of Bangs Island Mussels.

“Our business is based on a profound respect for the ocean,” says Matt, who graduated with a B.A. in biology from Bates College and has a master’s degree in marine biology from Northeastern University. “We call ourselves farmers, but really we’re facilitators, working with nature to create an ideal place for mussels to grow,” he adds. The mussels, which are born of naturally occurring seeds produced by the spawning of mature mussels, spend their entire life in the water column. “They’re positioned away from sandy, silty tidal zones, so they mature rapidly and accumulate almost no grit on their way to your plate,” explains Matt, noting that the “result at harvest day is a vastly superior product” that yields “only the sweetest, plumpest and most tender mussels with an unmatched meat-to-shell ratio.”

Earlier this week, Brian Murphy, the chef de cuisine of Guard and Grace, Troy Guard’s modern steakhouse in downtown Denver, tasted, for the first time, a Bangs Island mussel. And since Murphy, who moved to Denver in May, originally hails from Vienna, Virginia, where the locals have a strong affinity for Blue Bay Prince Edward Island mussels, he was eager to open the smooth, shiny shells and delve inside. Murphy’s verdict? “They’re super-tender and sweet like the sea, and I love how the meat is perfectly uniform to the shell.” Another Bangs Island mussel proponent.

Bangs Island mussels are new to the glistening raw bar at Guard and Grace, where the splashy display of East and West Coast oysters, crab legs, whole Maine lobsters, black tiger shrimp, clams and tins of caviar – and now, Bangs Island mussels — anchor the chef’s counter.

“The raw bar is an amazing focal point for our guests, because it’s so beautiful to look at,” says Murphy, pointing out that 100 percent of the fish and shellfish that Guard and Grace serves to its guests is procured from Seattle Fish Co. “I’m still getting familiar with the ordering system, but I’ve been down to Seattle Fish quite a bit, and the quality of their fish is really solid, plus every order I’ve received is super-fresh and cold; everything we’ve gotten from Seattle Fish has had a great shelf life, and when I’m looking for things to feature on the menu, everyone there has been really helpful when it comes to giving me ideas,” Murphy adds.

Extolled for their portly, sweet flesh, Bangs Island mussels are conducive to just about any preparation, and at Guard and Grace, Murphy is highlighting them in a Thai-inspired coconut curry broth fragrant with lemongrass, lime leaves, garlic and ginger, the recipe of which he’s exclusively sharing with Seattle Fish Co. readers.

And Guard and Grace is just one of many restaurant in Denver that serves — and sings the praises — of Bangs Island Mussels. Paul C. Reilly, the chef-owner of Beast + Bottle, a charming farmhouse restaurant in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood, became a lover of the lauded mussels in 2012, the same year he received a Jean-Louis Palladin Work Study Grant that took him to Portland, Maine to study responsibly-harvested fishing practices, spend some time with Matt on his fishing boat and satiate his belly with mussels. “I bought two pounds of Bangs Island mussels and steamed them up back at my hotel with some white wine, tomatoes, jalapeños and scallions,” remembers Reilly, adding that “the meat was bigger, plumper and more succulent than any shellfish I had every tasted.”

It’s no wonder he couldn’t wait to put the mussels on his menu, and Reilly worked closely with Seattle Fish Co. to ensure that came to fruition. “We wouldn’t have Bangs Island mussels if it weren’t for Paul,” admits Derek Figueroa, chief operating officer of Seattle Fish Co. “It’s because of him – and his great partnership with Matt — that we now have a market for these amazing mussels,” he adds.

Reilly’s menu at Beast + Bottle currently highlights the Bangs Island mussels in all their naked glory, shells removed, bobbing in a chilled tomato water with lemon balm and ribbons of white cucumber.

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