Mussel Mania Hits Downtown
One Bethesda resident goes on a culinary journey to discovery why Bethesda has gone mad for Robert Wiedmaier's marvelous mollusks.
Before the opening of Robert Wiedmaier's new restaurant Mussel Bar, I felt delicious anticipation. As a fan of Brasserie Beck and Marcel's, I knew the chef's reputation for innovative Belgian cuisine was well deserved. I read the reviews, saw the crowds and peeked inside the darkly lit bistro with stained paneling and sleek beer display.
Now I would be able to learn what the buzz was about.
Arriving early on a weekend night, my daughter and I were easily directed to a comfortable leather booth with a view of the bar and enormous television angled for a perfect view of CNN. I embraced the 70s rock and roll but wondered whether these 20-something servers were familiar with Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Hendrix.
The staff is friendly. They all looked surprised and delighted to be working at what might be the hottest restaurant in Bethesda. Our greeter said waits at Mussel Bar had been as long as two and a half hours.
"We're killing the other restaurants in the neighborhood," he said.
Our server arrived promptly, and she graciously explained why mussels receive top billing here: The chef spent a lot of time in Belgium and France where mussel bars are the rage. She said Wiedmaier introduced the concept, confident that diners in his own neighborhood would appreciate the culinary cutting edge.
Part of Mussel Bar's attraction is feeling like an event is taking place. After choosing from 10 different mussel preparations, your server places a large, round wooden trivet in front of you, along with a metal bowl for shells, large soup spoon and a small fork for extracting mussels from their shells.
But Mussel Bar isn't only about the mussels. It's worth trying the many Belgian and U.S. micro brews on the menu. I ordered a wheat beer by Allagash, a favorite brewer of mine from Portland, Maine. Allagash had several beers on the menu, including their Dubble and Tripel. Beer really is the perfect accompaniment to mussels, as one server explained. For that reason, there are few wines listed. There are seven beers on draft, including Wiedmaier's own brew — Brabo Pils Pilsner — the best bargain on the menu.
When the mussels arrive, they are steaming hot and soaking in an iron frying pan. I jokingly asked if I should wear a bib, and the server smiled saying, "I would." She dramatically removed the lid and the steaming mussels sat simmering in a golden-colored broth, the essence of coconut milk, green curry and chilies wafting from them.
I chose the spicy Thai mussels on the recommendation of my server. Other servers offered suggestions, too, but since I love spicy food, I decided to go with that. It was a good choice and good recommendation.
My server mentioned that "the purists" prefer to order mussels prepared in a traditional Belgian way with a garlic broth, but the new flavors were popular. After eating the mussels, you can scoop up the broth with freshly baked French loaves they provide.
So let's talk about the experience of eating mussels. I haven't touched a mussel in almost two decades. I cut back on seafood during my pregnancies, and then never had a hankering for mussels again. I actually thought I didn't like mussels. I was so wrong.
Out of the heap of mussels in my pot, only one had the tiniest bit of sand and crunch. I remember finding mussels gritty, but these weren't. And some mussels taste fishy, but these mussels absorbed the powerful soupy Thai broth and became delicate pillows of flavor. They weren't chewy or mealy.
The broth adds to their flavor, but they were truly delicious in their own right. I felt like celebrating, the way you feel when you eat lobster or a bushel of steamed crabs. It's fun eating with your hands.
The server also reminded me that the chef never uses butter or cream in his dishes, making the mussels relatively healthy and lower in fat. That definitely adds to the party feeling.
Frites are included with an order of mussels. They arrive in a paper cone garnished with fresh parsley and a side of garlic mayonnaise. Thin and crispy, my daughter proclaimed them addictive. I was so focused on slurping up my sauce and eating my mussels, I didn't have room for the frites. She, however, dipped the frites in my broth and almost finished this hearty portion. Teenagers can afford to eat a huge cone of fries, but most diners can share an order.
For diners who don't want mussels, Mussel Bar offers options. My daughter enjoyed her lamb and goat cheese sandwich, and my friends raved about the wood-fired tarts — actually delicate Belgian pizzas.
So, now I understand why Bethesda's new Mussel Bar is such a sensation. Part of the success lies in its ideal location by the Landmark Movie Theatre and Barnes & Noble. But even location can't guarantee triumph. Mussel Bar has even drawn die-hard Raku fans inside. It's a welcome addition to the neighborhood, and I recommend you give those mussels a try. Just get there early.