Barbette vs. Ngon in a battle for the best moules-frites
Moules-frites, or mussels and French fries, is a classic combination in the French-speaking world, what you might call their version of fish and chips. Instead of beer batter, wine sauce, and mollusks in the place of fish. We tested the moules-frites at a few French (influenced) restaurants, Barbette in Minneapolis and Ngon in St. Paul. Read on to find out who offered the tastiest combination (Belgian beer not included).
A.J. Olmscheid Fish(y) and chips at Barbette
Ngon's mixture of French and Vietnamese cuisine produces a mussels dish far more firey than the dainty dish you'd expect mainland Europeans to consume as a pub snack. They charge $12, before tax, for their moules-frites.
Ngon uses New Zealand green-lipped mussels. These mussels, according to Coastal Seafood General Manager Tim Lauer, are popular because of their large size and are usually shipped frozen on the half-shell. There were pluses and minuses to these mussels. Their size meant that a serving of a dozen was enough to stuff one diner, a plus; but these mussels are also not for the seafood-squeamish. Meatier and brinier than other types of mussels, one of them even still had its beard, a tangled mass of fibers mussels produce to anchor themselves. It was an unpleasant surprise to bite into. When we asked the server about it, he nonchalantly said they find beards in one out of every 10-20 of their mussels. It's an experience that might be too visceral for some. Also, the red wine-curry broth will be a pleasure for spice lovers, but overwhelming for mild palates.
Ngon pairs its firey mussels with sweet potato fries, a nice variation on the ordinary French fry.
Barbette serves up mussels two ways: with a green curry or with a white wine, lemon and garlic broth. You can get a half pound for $5, tax not included, during Barbette's mid-afternoon and late-night happy hours, plus a plate of french fries for another $5.
Barbette's mussels were more miniscule than Ngon's New Zealand mussels, and since they're served in their full shell, it's a sign they're fresh and prepared in-house. The green curry, promised to be spicy, was mild and coconut-flavored, letting the briny flavor of the mussels come through. The white wine preparation, on the other hand, had enough garlic to clear the sinuses and distract from any briny flavor from the mussels.
Barbette's fries, er, frites, are something of a city staple, much discussed on foodie forums. They're straightforward fries: slender and salted, served with a saffron aioli. The heaping plateful you'll get for $5 dwarfs a single serving of mussels, though, so you might want to splurge and get a double order of mussels.
The winner: We liked Barbette's moules-frites, especially with the white wine--garlic sauce. Go during happy hour and get a single serving of mussels with Barbette's signature fries, and it's a steal at $10.
Ngon's moules-frites are better for those who already love seafood and have a high spice tolerance.