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Jul 27, 2010 07:49 PM

Robert Weidmaier's Mussel Bar

This evening I went to Mussel Bar, the just-opened Bethesda venture by Chef Robert Weidmaier of Brasserie Beck. Mussel Bar opened last Thursday in the heart of Bethesda, virtually guaranteeing an instant moneyed clientele. Walking in, you are immediately greeted by the bar right in front of you, splitting the space in two; roughly 25 tables to the right, and several cocktail tables and booths along the left. All the tables and chairs, along with the bar, are dark-stained wood, putting the "pub" feel in this gastropub. The ceiling is pressed tin, and the bar has a backdrop of rows of refrigerated beer bottles.

Perhaps foolishly, I'd neglected to make a reservation; this is not only the first week Mussel Bar is open, but also Bethesda Restaurant Week (which MB is not participating in). Upon speaking to the hostess, I was told that the three of us would be facing a 45-50 minute wait. We chose to stand at one of the cocktail tables, and decided we'd order drinks and appetizers.

Looking at the beer menu, I was both pleased and disappointed. As I'd hoped, Mussel Bar had Chimay Blue in 11.2 oz bottles; however, each bottle was priced at $16; 33% more than at Granville Moore. Admittedly, MB is in Montgomery County, and therefore is subject to a 25% tax, however, I was still put off enough that I decided to order something else (Allagash Dubbel for $9 a bottle). Scanning the beer menu, there wasn't much either on draft or in a bottle that was less than $10, and MB had unfortunately run out of the Brabo Pils ($7/draft).

I knew that once we were seated at a real table we were going to order entrees, so I decided that we should just go for a light appetizer. We ordered the vanilla sweet potato fries with a trio of mayonnaise. The fries came out reasonably quickly; our drinks came quicker. The sweet potato fries were sweet and tasty, though they only came with one small pot of mayo (the frites basket had room for three pots). After only about 15 minutes, instead of the 45-50 we were quoted, we were ushered to our table -- a booth along the left-hand side of the bar.

It did take some time for our waiter to come over to us, though as the restaurant is less than a week old, that kind of thing is understandable and forgivable. Once he did attend to us, he was very helpful and welcoming, telling us that MB is Chef Weidmaier's version of a Belgian gastropub (a gastropub is basically a pub where the food has taken center stage). We knew we were going to order the mussels, and quickly decided to share the Classic (with Roasted Garlic, Shallots and Sauvignon Blanc) and the Spicy Thai with Green Curry. Each mussel dish comes with a side of frites, again with mayo as a condiment.

Brasserie Beck completed my conversion to a mussel-lover, and the mussels here didn't disappoint. The Classic mussels were tasty, but lacked flavor compared to the Spicy Thai mussels. The Spicy Thai mussels weren't actually that spicy, but were just more flavorful than the Classics, and they were the ones I kept going back to for that extra oomph.

Two of us were craving a little extra after the mussels, so we ordered one of the wood-fired tarts (Belgian pizzas, as the menu explains). This felt like it took a while to come out, but fortunately I had good company to make the time go by. The Mediterranean tart came out, topped with grilled eggplant, radicchio, peppers, artichoke and basil pesto. I'd heard good things about this tart, and it was decent but not amazing. We decided to not take home the leftovers, though that was partly because our power was still out from the storm two days earlier.

It did take a while to get the check; our server had seated a table of 7 or 8 right next to us, and was occupied with them for a while. Fortunately, at some point he looked over at me and I mouthed "check please". Again, this place is new, so I imagine that the kinks like this will be worked out shortly, and the service will become as smooth as at Beck.

Overall, I thought this was a solid dining experience. Even if a little slow, the service was very friendly and helpful, and the food itself was quite tasty. Mussel Bar is definitely a welcome addition to the formerly mussel-less Bethesda, and I look forward to seeing it develop.

Brasserie Beck
1101 K Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005

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  1. Thanks for the report! I heard they won't be taking reservations.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Doh

      I went for lunch- no wait. I liked it. The food was good, service excellent, attractive decor. Only complaint is that there was only mayo for the frites (I asked for ketchup, also.) The frites come in a cone with a tray for 3 condiments, and they only supplied one. It looked awkward-especially for a place that specializes in mussels and frites- sort of a no-brainer to have options of condiments that come with the meal. I tried the provencal and classic mussles and liked them both-frites were good, too. Not the best I have ever had-but good.

      1. re: chicken kabob

        Nice review, kallisti!

        I had lunch at Mussel Bar yesterday after much anticipation. Being a solo diner, I sat at the bar; the service was wonderful and incredibly fast. I ordered the Classic mussels, which were tasty as described above, served in a cast-iron pan with a whole head of roast garlic and a nice panful of lovely sauce. Contrary to chicken_kabob's experience, I was given three sauces with my frites, though I'll admit that I don't remember what they were since I'm not a big frites fan... I must remember next time to just ask for bread.

        Re the beer prices, a colleague who went in last week remarked to me today that she was floored by the high price of a lambic, so your experience with the pricey Chimay Blue sounds consistent with her report. I can't contribute to this at the moment since I had an iced tea (I know, a waste of a Belgian restaurant but I had work to do). They serve the less-sweet flavors of Honest Tea as their iced tea, so although a nice Trippel Karmeliet would have been better, it was a good accompaniment to the mussels.

    2. Just what I would expect from a Beck place. Only extremely overpriced beer available and an emphasis on one of the easiest and cheapest dishes in the world to prepare at home - steamed mussels. Instead of real good homemade tea, they sell the bottled stuff. Sounds like they mark up the beer about 400% over wholesale. (BTW: Beck seems to have a habit of running out of the lowest priced beer, even if it is $7+.)
      The profit margin on this place must be through the roof.
      Do they require solo diners to eat at the bar, or just make it uncomfortable for them not to?
      Maybe the "Belgian pizza" is worthwhile?
      PS: You can get mussels many places in Bethesda, and a lot cheaper beer.

      7 Replies
      1. re: a1234

        Don't blame the restaurant for the price of the beer. In Montgomery County they have to buy all their beer/wine/liquor through the county, which adds a 25% mark up to selections on their "standard list" and a 35% mark up on anything they have to "special order".

        You seem to have some type of personal problem with Weidmaier's restaurants; even though you've obviously never gone to this one you seem to feel it necessary to comment.

        1. re: reiflame

          I haven't been to his Mussel Bar but I have been to his Tasting Room and Brabo and second the high beer prices at his establishments, and the dearth of sub $8 beer options that are worth drinking. I've found the food and service decent overall at both. What I find bewildering is that they call their pizzas "tarts" for some reason. To me, flatbread with cheese and toppings doesn't equal a tart.

        2. re: a1234

          The only other place I know in Bethesda that even serves EDIBLE mussels is Black's, and for about $15 you get a lot less than the kilo at Mussel Bar.

          Congratulations on being prescient enough to review a restaurant that has been open 5 days without even entering the door.

          1. re: DanielK

            My prescience is only surpassed by your omniscience in saying that there are no edible mussels in Bethesda. I am basing my opinion on my experience at Brasserie Beck, of which it appears to be a dumbed-down version. Sounds like the owner has found a formula - overcharge for beer and simple but trendy food, then get the "foodies" all a-tweeting. (His Marcels is in another league - it is a high quality restaurant with a reasonably varied menu, though it does take itself a little more seriously than warranted, which is seems to be a common theme with the owner's places.) I am not saying the food at the Bar is good or bad or that it is not worth spending a few bucks there when you want a simple meal - just that you can go only so far specializing in cheap shellfish and overpriced beer, so I don't get what all the fuss is about.

            If you couldn't find edible mussels in Bethesda, it would truly be a culinary desert. Steamed mussels and fries is the one of the world's easiest and most inexpensive dishes to make. Mussels are indeed tasty, but it is really really hard to screw them up. (Well, unless you add grilled pineapple to them, like they do in one dish at this palace of gastronomy.) Throw them in a pot, add wine and a few simple ingredients (not pineapple) and let them steam in their own juices - big deal! (Why this is suddenly considered the height of gastronomy in the DC area I will never know.)
            But you claim there is only one other place for edible mussels (Blacks) and it is more expensive. Untrue. If you live in Bethesda, you might want to try Nest Cafe, Rarely Legal, Jaleo, Steamers, or Mon Ami, to name just a few off the top of my head. They might not all be equally good, but despite your high culinary standards chances are you would be able to choke the mussels down at one or two of them. You can also go to Addies (Rockville) or Mannquin Pis (Olney).
            (Though according to your post, you tried them all and found them all "inedible", right?)

            The Bar apparently has the same prices at lunch as at dinner and has no happy hour, so despite the claim in your post, you can indeed get a much better deal at Black's, which has a very good happy hour, including mussels ($6.50). Otherwise, any half-competent cook can make mussels at home for less than $5 a serving, including the beer, without all the noise and overcrowded yuppie bars that supposedly adds "ambience" to places like Becks.

            Brasserie Beck
            1101 K Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005

            Mannequin Pis Restaurant
            18064 Georgia Ave, Olney, MD 20832

            1. re: a1234

              Rarely Legal has been closed for years.

              Steamers is terrible.

              Mon Ami Gabi is ok for a chain faux-bistro, but their mussels did not impress.

              Jaleo probably has a mussel dish on their menu, and I love Jaleo, but it's certainly not going to be 2kilo pot - a different experience. But props for that one.

              I have not yet made it to the new Nest Cafe, but I haven't heard great things, so it hasn't been on my "must list". Should it be?

              Addie's and Mannequin Pis are excellent, simply not in Bethesda, which is a fairly arbitrary criteria, but nevertheless the one I stated.

              1. re: DanielK

                I think Nest in Bethesda does have very good good mussels and frites. There have been a couple misses, but I have had other good things there, too- the brownie w/ ice cream when it was fresh- one time it was not and I returned it, and the lamb chops and appetizer salad were very good.

                1. re: chicken kabob

                  Hadn't heard of Nest previously, though now I'll look into it. I find mussels just aren't something I cook at home, though perhaps they should be, but then I wouldn't have the tasty frites as an accompaniment cause no way am I making those. I find that Granville Moore's frites are the best I've had around, along with their dipping sauces, but I like Beck's mussels better.

                  I've had Mon Ami Gabi's mussels, and they aren't as good as Beck's or MB's. I am not sure if I've tried Jaleo's mussels, but regardless, it'll be a different kind of preparation there, so not quite what I'm looking for.

                  I don't mind paying that kind of price for mussels, but like I mentioned in the OP, I balked at the beer prices, and mentioned it specifically to the waitress. I do understand about the MoCo tax, but I'm sure that prices are jacked up anyway (something that irritates me in general about alcohol, not specifically directed at MB).

                  Not sure what Marty L's talking about below re mussel places on Macarthur; I'll have to check those out too.

                  Maybe once it gets farther from the opening, there won't be an hour plus wait?

                  Mon Ami Gabi
                  7239 Woodmont Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20814

        3. It would be a very nice respite in Bethesda to pop in, particularly in light of the dearth of non-Jaleo alternatives nearby, if . . .

          1. There weren't a one-hour-plus wait (not remotely worth it)

          2. It weren't ridiculously overpriced (but then, so are most of the new mussel places, e.g., those on Macarthur Blvd.)


          3. It weren't ear-splittingly loud.

          1. I just had breakfast/brunch at Mussel Bar.

            My dish was initially described as poached eggs over spinach, red peppers, shallots, and spicy pork belly confit on a tortilla. My first thought upon hearing "pork" was "sold!"

            $12 for this dish, which was presented to us as "huevos rancheros" when actually delivered to our table (by a different server), and it was deeeelicious. I have no idea what they put in there other than garlic and pepper, but the combination of all the elements was really quite tasty. And there was also fresh squeezed orange (or grapefruit) juice for $4 for a old-fashioned-size glass..

            Good service, and I felt like the price point for this delicious dish was totally reasonable. Happy stomach.

            1 Reply
            1. re: kallisti

              Ate at Mussel Bar on Friday night. Won't go back. I accepted the 40-45 minute wait (it was 6pm) but was surprised when they asked us to check back after the first 20 minutes. I did. They said the wait would be 20-25 minutes. Duh. I asked her why they wanted us to check back. She said that it was so they could see if we were still interested. Strange. Not too user friendly. I would have gone someplace else to have a drink if I hadn't needed to check back. took forever to get our drinks. (The restaurant is half bar.) The waiter was so rushed that he thought we only ordered one order of mussels/fries. They brought that and said it would only take 3 minutes to get the second order. About 10 minutes later, the second order came. The place was incredibly noisy. The mussels were good but at $16, I will likely get mussels at other places - Black's or Et Voila or Cafe du Parc. Bethesda may not have the best restaurants but there are other decent choices. I tried...

            2. Finally got to MB for dinner. I'd say our experience was a mixed bag-- I'll probably go back but I won't rush back.

              I liked the room, except for the huge tv in the dining room showing CNN the whole time we were there. I'm sure there are people in DC who want to watch CNN while they are out for a nice dinner, but I am definitely not among them.

              I thought the beers were just over-priced, and I don't mind paying for good beer. I think only one draft beer was under $9. I looked at the bottled beer list and the ones I was interested were even more expensive. I ended up ordered a $12 draft and I swear I did not even get 33 cl (which would be less than 12 oz). The beer was good, but otherwise the price/draft left a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

              The service was pretty spotty but the food was pretty good. They had a lobster chowder special that was good (note to Elyssa-- they have a lobster roll on the menu although we were hesitant to try it). We got the classic mussels and a tart/pizza, both of which we enjoyed.

              It was a nice place to go on a cold-ish night, but there were enough off-putting things that I'll probably be indifferent if friends suggest it.