Food of the Day: Fried Octopus, Smoked Chilled Mussels

Staff Writer
A creative spin on calamari at Alta Bistro in Whistler, British Columbia
Elsa Saatela

Today’s food of the day is a delicious bowl of crispy fried octopus and smoked mussels at Whistler’s Alta Bistro.

I have been eating fried calamari since my first trip to Greece, at the age of 7. My sister and I have always been open to new foods, and in our home, foods considered "weird" in Finland back then — like couscous, hummus, or ramen noodles (yes, it took a while before these became widely known in our neck of the woods) — were common at the dinner table. Our parents also loved traveling, and for many years, a family trip was planned almost every late spring, just before school was done for the semester and our summer vacation could start. Greece became one of our go-to spots, and I believe we visited a different Greek island for six years in a row.

Ever since that first visit to Greece at the age of 7, there is one dish I ordered every time we returned to this Mediterranean country: calamares Kyklos, or fried calamari. For me, this salty-crispy new favorite of mine was a Greek dish, until I later realized that fried calamari probably is more Italian, or actually universal, and that basically every Italian place in America serves them as appetizers.

When visiting Whistler over a weekend for the Cornucopia food and wine festival, I had the chance to dine at the cozy restaurant Alta Bistro. While browsing the seven-course menu that would be served for their Altitude Australia prix fixe dinner, my eyes stopped at the third course: fried octopus, smoked chilled mussels with cilantro and celery salad, semi-dried mango, ginger, puffed quinoa, finger lime, and jalapeño. My early liking of calamari has led me to try seafood of all kinds, and octopus, though often tougher than calamari or squid if not perfectly prepared, is another favorite. And fried — how can it be wrong?

The dish came out served in a small bowl, beautifully presented, with thin strips of the semi-dried mango and finger lime topping pieces of the lightly battered and fried octopus and puffed quinoa. The mussels, not yet visible to the eye, were revealed on the bottom of the bowl as I started to dig into the dish. The octopus was perfectly fried, salty, not chewy, and crisp. Combined with the texture and smokiness of the mussels, as well as the interesting contrast of hot and cold, the dish was truly a joy to eat. Every bite was a little different, depending on what ingredients you could fit on your fork. Though it looked nothing like it, and the combination of several ingredients actually made it taste very different, this dish still brought me back to those beachside family dinners in Greece, where I, Elsa-age-7, happily picked on my ring-shaped calamari.

Though flavor and presentation clearly makes for a good dish, this was a moment when I realized that there is one even greater thing that a truly good dish can do: evoke good memories and feelings. And Alta’s fried octopus and smoked chilled mussels did exactly that.

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