Flex Mussels gets pretty good reviews. It has four stars on Google, four stars on Yelp, four stars on Menupages. So when my boyfriend insisted that I eat a steaming pot of mollusk in exchange for getting to try some of Executive Pastry Chef Zac Young‘s famed creations, I thought I was probably safe.
We showed up at 7:55 for our 8 p.m. reservation and were asked to wait. Not a big deal. A couple came in after us and were seated immediately. Fine. Then another. And another. Even though we were standing right beside her, my boyfriend thought maybe he needed to mention to the hostess that we were still waiting to be seated. She said we were next. And then seated some more couples. I had read reviews that mentioned the aloofness/disorganization of the service, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected, but I also kind of felt like saying, “Um, you DO know that the Upper East Side is the middle of nowhere to me, right? I could be at any one of the Momofukus right now.”
Finally, after fifteen minutes, we were given a table, and the guy who seated us said, “I’m so sorry that happened.” And I asked, “What DID happen?” And he said there had been a problem in the kitchen and gave us a beer and a glass of wine to make up for it. I appreciated the gesture and will try not to automatically deduct two donuts from my rating from the start because of it.
iceberg wedge, crispy bacon, shaved radish, chunky blue cheese dressing, grapes
I basically think salad is a waste of space, but I’ve been known to eat my words when I come across a truly delicious one. For some reason, I’m more likely to like a wedge salad than any other kind (especially the ones at Docks Oyster Bar and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que); maybe because they’re usually heaped with all sorts of nasty, fatty goodies? This one was clearly no different with its loads of crunchy bacon to contrast the freshness of the grapes and radish. I found that the sharp blue cheese dressing just really overpowered everything else on the plate, though.
The Number 23: mussels, lobster, clams (2!), saffron, some other not-memorable stuff
My boyfriend got the 23rd mussel iteration on the menu, which changes daily. He had wanted multiple types of seameat in his pot, so that night’s special seemed like the perfect choice for him. Firstly, there were exactly two clams mixed in with his mussels. Secondly, his lobster was one giant chunk that was nearly impossible to eat with the spoon provided. He said it “wasn’t much of a to-do, flavor-wise”. And this was from the person who really loves and craves seafood.
Maine: mussels, lobster, smoked bacon, corn, white chowder, parsley
From the description of this, I maybe-foolishly pictured it being thick and creamy. New England Clam Chowder was one of the first seafoody dishes I had when my boyfriend was trying to get me acclimated to fish after eating a diet of only land-based foods during my twenty-five years in Ohio, and there was nothing not-delicious about it. I guess my broth was a little thicker than his, but at the end of the day, it was still broth.
The mussels were actually better than I expected. I didn’t like how chewy they were right out of the shell, but when I extracted them all using my tiny fork and left them to soak in the steaming broth a while longer, they fell apart in my mouth. I liked the firmer texture of the lobster and the familiar comforts of the bacon slivers and corn kernels, and as far as taste goes, I think I got the right combination for me.
It’s just that . . . mussels are weird! Some of them had sand in their bulging, black digestive systems still, which was unpleasant enough to begin with, but that got me thinking about the fact that I was eating the digestive system, and I developed this mind block that just wouldn’t let me enjoy my heaping portion of bivalves.
My boyfriend said, “Just slurp ‘em down. Don’t look at them too much.” But that’s kind of a problem for me. Half of the fun of eating is the looking! So while I usually say, “I thought this [any other kind of seafood] was going to be icky, but it was actually awesome!”, I won’t be saying that about mussels.
Flex Famous Hand-Cut Fries
The reviews on these are either “way overrated” or “OMGbestfriesever!” They were fine, but they weren’t $6 fine, especially when Pommes Frites is serving better and more fries for $4.50 with interesting sauces to boot. The only reason I’m glad we ordered them is that it gave me something else to fill up on when the mussel flavor got monotonous.
Flex Donuts: meyer lemon, salted caramel, chocolate, cinnamon sugar
Finally, dessert time! The warm, sugar-dusted donuts lived up to their hype. So soft they deflated under the slightest touch, their pure bleached carbiness was only intensified by the vanilla crème anglaise served on the side. The gooey, flavored sauces nestled inside each one were too delicious to exist in such small quantities.
The Original Deep Fried Whoopie Pie: dark chocolate cake, cream cheese filling, espresso ice cream, caramelized white chocolate cream, caramel mousse
We thought we’d saved the best for last. Before starting in on the donuts, we’d each scooped a little of the ribbon of caramel onto our forks and nearly died from the shock of how good it was. But . . . the whoopie pie was not delicious.
I almost feel bad saying it, because how could it not be good? I’m a total glutton. I make fun of frou-frou desserts that favor fruit over chocolate. But this was just overindulgence for the sake of it. It wasn’t thoughtful. It was complex but not sensical. It was just deep-fried cake with some mismatched accoutrements.
The cake was nice and warm, but that was part of the problem. See, where I’m from, this is a whoopie pie. My mom was known for her whoopie cake. Every year in Ohio, at the neighboring town’s pumpkin festival, I gorge on whoopie pies. I’m something of an expert when it comes to whoopie.
Whoopie pies are two pieces of cookie-shaped cake with a big schmear of icing between them. And since this was just one giant hunk of deep-friedness, the filling in the middle had melted into the cake. Oh, and by the way–the stuff in the middle? It was just cream cheese. Not cream cheese icing. So it was unpleasantly not-sweet.
On the other hand, the non-whoopie-pie portion of the dish was absolutely decadent in a good way. The caramel mousse was rich and thick and salty and nicely contrasted the less-sugary ice cream. The white chocolate piece was iridescent, which we hoped was thanks to the pastry chef’s famed “disco dust”. I would order the caramel and ice cream on their own again but couldn’t even begin to finish the whoopie pie the first time.
Flex Mussels was just disappointment after disappointment for me. I liked our actual server quite a bit, but between the wait for a table when we had reservations, the too-pungent blue cheese, the un-chowdery chowder, the two clams, and the throwaway ball of cake, it ranks with some of the least-impressive dining experiences I’ve had for $100. I’ll give one star for the mussels that were tender and not undigested-food-filled, one star for the donuts and amazing caramel, and a half star for the idea of the whoopie pie.
174 East 82nd Street
New York, NY 10028