Last summer we took you on a journey through the French back country, by way of St. Jack. Today we transport you back across the pond, but this time to Belgium, by way of La Moule.
Back to his old stomping ground, mere blocks from where the original St. Jack stood, Portland chef and restaurateur Aaron Barnett has capably – pun intended – “musseled” La Moule onto the Portland food scene.
In what could very well be considered a homecoming of sorts, La Moule provides a welcome addition to a stretch of Southeast Clinton Street blooming with growth and dotted with hopping establishments. Replacing Savoy Tavern, La Moule has turned what was a quaint space into a modern interpretation of a classy idea.
From Brussels to Portland
On the outside, La Moule speaks softly, a non-descript brownstone with a lettered blue hat. On the inside, La Moule is as bivalved as the crustaceans it serves up for dinner.
You may sit in the brightly lit café near the open kitchen. Spend your time watching comedy on your phone, or the maestros of the mussel do their work from tables set beside large windows that open out onto the street. For a different experience, sit on the other side of the “valve,” where dark leather booths and tables form a single-file line to the large bar at the rear of the room.
Overall, the effect is warm, with a welcoming design layered over swaths of darkness. La Moule presents itself as a subdued guffaw quietly flaunting its exuberance.
But La Moule’s real difference lies in its calling cards. Although Portlanders might not be readily used it, mussels and cocktails are like a match made in heaven.
Stroll down a random street in the heart of Brussels and you may encounter any number of mussel bars, but it wasn’t until he was in Washington D.C. that Barnett stumbled upon one in America.
“They had a million different styles of mussels and flavors and Belgian beers,” he says. “So the idea was to bring something like this back to Portland.”
While Portland had its fair share of Belgian-style bars, none had mussels on the menu. Though he knew he was going out on a limb, Barnett admits that he was “shocked as to how many mussels you could actually sell.”
In fact, they sell so many mussels that he can’t source from the only two farmers licensed to harvest mussels in Oregon. Still, La Moule remains true to its Pacific Northwestern roots. “For the volume that we do, we need to use Washington suppliers,” he says.
Rest assured discerning Portland diner, those mussels you are eating come from the regionally acceptable Puget Sound – Penn Cove, specifically.
Unlike oysters, which come in any number of varieties, mussels are much more uniform, separated on the East Coast by the PEI, or Prince Edward Island variety, while California Mussels make their home on the West Coast, from Baja California all the way up to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.
Since mussels have little range in type, their consumption is all about the preparation. At La Moule, tradition is respected. After all, Barnett wants to pay homage to the idea that bore fruit to La Moule. “We stick to the classics and don’t mess with them too much,” he says.
Classic Themes Reinterpreted
One such classic is the Mariniere Mussels. Fresh Penn Cove mussels arrive swimming in fragrant white wine broth with butter, capers, herbs and chili flakes. Use a slender baguette to soak up the delectable base. It provides an excellent foundation for the mussels, themselves succulent and cooked to perfection.
Of course, if you aren’t the biggest fan of fine shellfish, there are other items on the menu to satiate your appetite. Keep it in the ocean with the Redbanded Rockfish. The rockfish falls apart under your fork’s assault, giving way to a bed of smashed fingerling potatoes and fiddlehead ferns. A creamy base of fava leaf aioli makes the perfect foundation for a fish and potato smear.
For those who find it hard to stomach seafood, worry not! La Moule caters to the most American of palates with hearty burgers and even a New York steak. But wait, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before you reach the ultimate conclusion, you must start with appetizers and libations.
The perfect starter for an evening of scintillating seafood comes out fanned across a wooden plank. A single over easy quail egg quivers atop a heaping of steak tartare, itself cascading down the sides of a large bone. Smoothed out bone marrow provides the foundation for the presentation and provides a savory contrast to the sharp tartare.
Although serving up mussels and marrow as the main attraction makes for a unique draw, Barnett knew he wanted to go further. His coup de grâce came in the form of cocktail connoisseur Tommy Klus, who helped open such names as Kask, Multnomah Whiskey Library, and – imagine this – St. Jack.
Klus has taken great pains to ensure the drinks he serves add to, rather than take away from, the star of the show. “Balance is always the most important part of the cocktails,” he explains.
But don’t think his desire for balance takes away from his sense of adventure. Barnett laughs as he explains how Klus likes to complete a steak tartare. “He takes a small glass of sherry and pours it down the bone after the marrow has been cleared out. It brings all the salt and fat with it and is just really tasty,” he says.
Another obvious adventure arrives in the form of absinthe. True to form, a sugar cube is placed at the midpoint above a glass filled about a fifth of the way with the cloudy substance. As ice water melts the sugar cube into the glass, and the transformation is complete. While this absinthe won’t send you off on a trip, it’s best not to drink it too fast, or on an empty stomach.
Whether it be the starter, the drink or the dinner, La Moule has made its mark in Southeast Portland. Take a trip to Brussels, American-style, and do it without breaking your bank. Enjoy a satisfied appetite without having to flex your wallet. Flex some mussels instead.
Go Check Out La Moule
La Moule is located at 2500 SE Clinton Street in Portland, Oregon. For menu information visit their website. They are open daily from 5:00pm – 12:00am and can be reached at 971.339.2822.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is longtime journalist and blogger with over twelve years of professional writing experience. After a long career as an entertainment and political columnist, William now spends his time expounding on Portland restaurants, Portland plays and Android smartphone apps. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.