Pan-roasted mussels with saffron, tomato and garlic

When a chef opens a restaurant and develops a “signature” menu item, that dish can be a blessing and, sometimes, a curse. Signature dishes are menu items that become symbolic, and are used by the public and/or media to describe the restaurant's style of food and cooking. When I opened Wildwood Restaurant and Bar, I put a mussel dish on the menu with red wine, heavy cream, black pepper and thyme. The sauté station was in charge of preparing that item, and it sold well. So well, in fact, that it made it difficult for the sauté cook to put out the other dishes from the station at the same rate as the rest of the cooks were preparing their menu items.  The popularity of these mussels bogged down not only the sauté cook, but the speed with which other menu items were delivered to the dining room.

I quickly moved the mussel dish to the wood oven, where it cooked in half the time, and revised the recipe by adding tomatoes, saffron, garlic, olive oil and white wine vinegar. It was an instant success and the dish remained on the menu for 20 years. It wasn't a calculated decision to make these mussels a signature dish--signature dishes aren't always planned or anticipated. The new preparation was inspired by classic Mediterranean flavors frequently paired with seafood, that could be prepared in a wood-fired oven, out of necessity. Given the restaurant's name, Wildwood, it made sense to showcase a dish from the wood oven. We used sun-dried tomatoes in the winter months, allowing the mussel dish to remain on the menu throughout the calendar year.  (A signature item must be available consistently.)  If  the mussels spawned in the March, we switched to clams, which work well too.

Earlier this month, as I walked through the farmers market, I stopped to talk to Linda, from Linda Brand Crab. She offered me a Penn Cove mussel, which transported me back to this trusted and well-tested recipe. I hope you try at this dish at home and find it as gratifying as Wildwood customers did for all those years.

Before you purchase them, ask your fishmonger when the mussels were harvested. If they have been out of the water for more than 3 days, submerge them in lightly salted water for 5 to 8 minutes to rehydrate them before cooking, and add more liquid to the sauce. Notice in the photograph below that the mussel beards are intact; remove the beard before cooking and, if any remains after cooking, before serving. 

Makes 4 appetizer-size servings


3 pounds mussels (or clams)

1-cup cherry tomatoes, halved, or 1/2-cup sun-dried tomatoes, coarsely chopped

2 shallots, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon minced garlic

Saffron vinaigrette (see recipe below)

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Four 1/2-inch-thick slices hard crusted bread, toasted and rubbed with garlic cloves and olive oil if desired


Put the mussels in a large skillet. Add the tomatoes, shallots and garlic. Pour the vinaigrette over the mussel mixture. Cover the skillet. Place over medium heat and cook the mussels for 5-6 minutes. Uncover the skillet and continue to cook the mussels until they open, transferring them as they open, to a covered container to keep warm. If the mussels do not open, you can attempt to pry them open using a butter knife and wiggling the shells apart between the opening. If you encounter one that smells off, then discard it. 

Add the lemon juice to the vinaigrette and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in the parsley.

Divide the mussels among 4 bowls and pour the remaining vinaigrette from the pan over them. Serve with the toasted bread.


Saffron Vinaigrette

1/2-cup Chardonnay vinegar or other white wine vinegar

6-7 saffron threads

1/3-cup extra virgin olive oil

1/3-cup vegetable or safflower oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium nonreactive saucepan, combine the vinegar and saffron threads. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat and let cool. Whisk in the oils, salt and pepper; set aside.