Check Out Those Mussels
A restaurant called Mussel Bar better know its bivalves. And boy, does it ever.
Mussel Bar, which opened in July, is the latest hit from big-name chef Robert Wiedmaier, a Kensington resident who says he always wanted a place on his home turf. This is the first suburban Maryland outpost for Wiedmaier, who owns Marcel’s and Brasserie Beck in downtown Washington, D.C., and Brabo Restaurant, Brabo Tasting Room and The Butcher’s Block, A Market by RW, all in Alexandria, Va. These eateries reflect the more refined side of the area’s king of Belgian cuisine.
Now with Mussel Bar, the most casual of them all, the culture has caught up with him. The bluish-black mollusks, inexpensive and farmed using environmentally responsible methods, are a hot, steamy trend in area restaurants, served with frites (french fries) and all number of broths.
With Chef de Cuisine Robert Gadsby heading up the kitchen, Mussel Bar goes through about 700 pounds of them a day, all from Prince Edward Island, Canada’s top producer. The restaurant serves them in cast-iron skillets, with glass lids removed at tableside to unleash a dramatic puff of steam.
I could go for a mussel facial any day, especially one with spicy, multilayered Thai curry sauce, or a seaside-tasting Provençal broth with tomatoes, capers, garlic and basil. Mussel Bar offers nine different preparations, and I’m fairly confident that if you like the listed ingredients, you’ll enjoy sopping up the generous broth with fries or bread. (A word about the fries: They’re a frozen product. Nonetheless, they’re thin and super crisp. I had hand-cut frites at another restaurant recently, and they were limp and soggy.) In my mind, mussels—carefully cooked here and fun to pluck from their shells—are just a vehicle for everything else.
One mussel dish that doesn’t deserve a repeat order, however, is the mussels gratin. (And it looks as if that will be impossible anyway; at press time, it was off the menu.) The large, New Zealand green lip mollusks were served open faced and covered with a heavy jacket of melted Parmesan. My friend Katie said it was a good dish for people who don’t like mussels, since it was hard to distinguish them beneath the overpowering cheese.
The wood-fired tarts, oval-shaped pizzas with crackly thin crusts, are a must-try, though. The wild mushroom with bacon, Gruyère, arugula and essence of truffle was a woodsy, earthy mix. And the richness of the pork belly, mussel and Gruyère tart was expertly cut with fresh chopped tomatoes and greens. It helps that the tart ingredients are top-notch and scattered in the right proportions.
The two salads I tried were different from the prissy, sparsely adorned mixes at many restaurants. These are serious salads, chock full of high-quality additions, but not likely to be low-cal. Belgian endive was generously endowed with caramelized walnuts, goat cheese and pears—a great combination, but a tad too heavy in my book. The beet salad didn’t click for me either, with its grapefruit sections and golden raisins, and its heavy cap of herbed yogurt.
Beyond mussels and tarts, a handful of sandwiches and entrées are available. If you like strong-tasting lamb, the thinly shaved Shenandoah leg of lamb sandwich may be for you; to me, its flavor was so overwhelming that the goat cheese, red peppers, cumin dressing and onions were reduced to anonymity. The Maine lobster roll had admirable chunks of lobster, but the vanilla sweet potato frites accompanying it were just weird, tasting more like pie filling than a savory side.
Speaking of desserts, they were unexpectedly fabulous. The vanilla crème brûlée was soft and silken; a bite with a candied ginger strip put me in a swoon. A special of chocolate-cherry bread pudding, served with amaretto whipped cream, was similarly transporting.
As for the wait staff, they’re as smooth as that crème brûlée. Dressed in black Mussel Bar T-shirts, they are efficient and just attentive enough. It’s a tough job, catering to the hordes that descend on the place. On busy days, Mussel Bar has been serving 600 to 700 people; if you don’t get there by 6 p.m. on the weekend, expect to wait. The atmosphere and décor truly give the place an Old World Belgian roadhouse feel, and the concrete floors and pressed tin ceiling create acoustics for outside voices or ear plugs. If you’re a card-carrying AARP member, this no-frills beer hall will make you feel young and trendy again, so just soak it up along with all the delicious mussel broth.
Wiedmaier has been living quietly among us for almost 25 years. As it turns out, he’s a really good neighbor.
7262 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda
Open 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday
11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday
11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday
11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Sunday
Breakfast served from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
All-day menu: oysters ($12, half dozen; $22, dozen); salads ($11 to $15); mussels (most $16); tarts ($15); sandwiches ($12 to $16); entrées ($11 to $28). Breakfast tarts, omelets and crepes, $12.
Beer and Wine List
A beer aficionado’s paradise, with an extensive list of pilsner, porter and ale (blond, dubbel, dark, pale, golden, wheat, amber), many from Belgium. A wide range of prices, but most upwards of $10. Wine list is considerably smaller, with a serviceable selection of international glasses and bottles.
Spicy Thai with green curry mussels, Provencal mussels, wild mushroom tart, pork belly and mussel tart.
Vanilla crème brûlée, chocolate-cherry bread pudding (special)
Good Place to Go For
The closest thing Bethesda will ever get to a Belgian beer hall, with a lively bar scene and terrific beer, mussels and tarts.
Public lots, Bethesda Metro
Carole Sugarman is the magazine’s food editor.