Kitchen Contenders: Moules marinieres
Belgium and France have long been culinary rivals. Both claim to have invented French fries and both point to historical documentation to support their case. The origins of the dish moules frites (mussels and fries) is also a contentious issue between the countries, intensifying in towns close to the border.
Food historians support Belgium as the first to marry the two ingredients, and it is considered a national dish. Nonetheless, the rivalry for the best moules frites continues.
On a friendly level it is present in Hong Kong with European restaurant, Frites, and northern French eatery, Brasserie de L'ile, both specialising in the dish.
Situated in a corner spot of Brim 28, the Wan Chai outlet of Frites affords plenty of people-watching from inside and outdoor seating. Inside, the ambience is part sports bar (a large screen dominates the room), part bustling restaurant, with a similar look to the other branches, including a long wooden bar and high ceilings. Green leather banquette-style seating and long wooden tables fill the room.
Boston Bay blue mussels are on offer in two sizes (500 grams and 1kg) with six choices, including Frites house mussels (diced tomato, garlic, onion, light cream and fresh chives) and the popular Hoegaarden (coriander, fennel, lemon zest, and Hoegaarden beer), all of which are served with fries and mayonnaise.
The pot of moules marinière (white wine, celery, garlic and mixed herbs) arrived within five minutes. The largish mussels looked appealing and smelled of wine, garlic, parsley and the sea. The predominant taste came from the delicious mussels, supported by fruity wine notes, with the small pieces of celery providing contrast.
The fries were excellent to start: hot and salty, with a crunchy exterior and soft centre. But they cooled quickly, becoming less appealing. However, dunking the fries in the mayonnaise and then in the flavour-layered broth was a highly recommended culinary discovery and something that has since been repeated with equal success. The recommended pairing was Hoegaarden beer. In terms of a match it was less than perfect.
Brasserie de L'ile does a good job of trying to create the ambience of a typical French brasserie, from the black and white tiled floor and wicker furniture in the front section (which is open to the street), to the large mirrors, ornate metal light fixtures and the Belle Epoque posters on the walls. The music selection of modern tunes by famous American and Irish artists detracts from the French feel. Red velvet banquettes line two walls. Mussels are definitely a feature, with a prominent box of mussel choices taking up centre position on the menu. The restaurant uses moules de Bouchot Mont Saint Michel AOC, the only mussels with an AOC ("controlled designation of origin") distinction.
There are eight styles to select from, including Provencal (garlic, tomato, parsley, herbs and white wine); Iberique (chorizo, saffron, garlic, onion, white wine); Thai (green curry, eggplant, onion, coconut milk); and the option put to the taste test - the signature marinière (onion, celery, thyme, bay leaf, white wine). There is a choice of two sizes (350 grams and 700 grams) and with an all-you-can-eat order of hand-cut French fries.
Arriving at the table in an earthenware pot, the dish gave off a fantastic aroma of mussels and thyme when the top was removed. The mussels were smaller than those served at Frites, which may explain why they were a tad overcooked. It may have been just a fraction but the overcooking was enough to detract from the delicate taste. The broth was not as complex in flavour as the Frites version, and while the large pieces of celery were a welcome textural contrast, the big pieces of bay leaf and onion were less so. Towards the end, thyme became the most pronounced flavour.
We tried both the skinny fries from the sides menu and the hand-cut fat fries, with the latter far superior, even if the lack of a crunchy exterior made them a slight disappointment. The house-made mayonnaise, on the other hand, was outstanding and two servings were quickly devoured. The friendly staff recommended a glass of Italian pinot grigio, which worked well.
The mussels at both restaurants were enjoyable and all were eaten, but those at Frites were better cooked and the fries were also superior. If the mussels at Brasserie de L'ile had not been overdone then the verdict would have been different - in terms of a complete experience that includes ambience and service the French brasserie was a clear winner.
Shop 6, 1/F Causeway Centre, 28 Harbour Road, Wan Chai
Tel: 2877 2422
Brasserie de L'ile
4 Arbuthnot Road, Central
Tel: 2147 2389