It’s been more than 2 years now since The Mussel Men pop-up settled in Dalston, sea legs earned with residencies at Dead Doll’s Club and Hackney’s Brew for Two. At their permanent site on Kingsland Road they do a slightly expanded menu along the same fish, shellfish and chips line, and the nautical theme overlaps with your standard indicators of being in Hackney – raw brick, wooden beams, inky murals, a lot of tattoos – in a way that makes it feel less gimmicky than it would in a less body-arted and bearded part of town.
Because it’s not actually raining the precise second we arrive at Mussel Men we head for a table in the garden, a wooden-decking corner that’s about as far away from street noise as you’ll ever be in Dalston, and hit the menu much harder, as it turns out, than you need to here. Assuming the mussels portions are the size of your average main dish that your average human can eat, we order starters as well and find ourselves thoroughly defeated by halfway through the mountain of shellfish that arrives in round 2.
If the Belgo chain is leaping to mind when you think of moules-frites, it’s a world away from that. The menu’s more international than Belgian and changes regularly, but when we visit there’s the cod main course, a British-Italo-Middle Eastern mash-up that comes with gnocchi and shakshuka. Cassava chips, guacamole, haggis and Asian carrot salad are all featured in the starters – not all together, though, Jesus. This is Dalston, not Gomorrah – and the takes on mussels range from the Belgian white wine standards to the more Persian saffron-turmeric one we share.
The beers are good – Innis & Gunn on draught, Anchor Steam by the bottle, and a range of pretty great wine by the glass, and one of those feels like the rightest thing to have with mussels. But if you had time to stray towards the cocktail list for a pre-drink it’s worth trying the Catholic Guilt, a whisky, lemon and fernet branca sluice of bitterness against the richness of the cured salmon and guacamole starter.
In a big reveal that will surprise precisely no people, the mussels are what they’re really good at here. Everything else is decent to good – although the non-mussel main courses start to look pricier than they’re worth when they arrive next to the cheaper, flashier bowls of shellfish. But the mussels are brilliant, come in generous to borderline ridiculous portion sizes, incredibly messy and worth the sacrifice of your t-shirt and dignity that the turmeric-laced broth will demand of you. Mussels are a harsh master.
For a formula that I’ll be following on repeat visits, and you can plagiarise for your own – sit in the garden if you can, because it’s lovely, or at the bar if it’s too cold. Order mussels, multiple side dishes and share it all; the mussels arrive like a mountain and you’ll be more than covered for food, also maybe able to hit the dessert menu where we failed to. A couple of cold ales and a plate of crusty bread to soak up the sauce and you will have won at Mussel Men.
Oh, and this is crucial. Don’t, we learned the hard way, wear a white t-shirt.
Mussel Men, 584, Kingsland Road, E8 4AH.
For more information please visit www.musselmen.com/