Thursday, March 10, 2011

Mussel Bar

Sometimes we do silly things to save money. We live next to Brasserie Beck and love their mussels and frites. So when Robert Wiedmaier opened the more casual Mussel Bar in Bethesda, we were intrigued but couldn't see a reason to schlep out to Bethesda to try the food we can get about 50 paces from our door. However, when an offer for a 50% off Groupon hit my inbox, I took it as a sign that we needed to go to Bethesda.

Mussel Bar is like Brasserie Beck's younger, tattooed, rocker brother. The servers wear t-shirts, they don't take reservations, and they blast different concert DVDs during dinner service. We were treated to U2's 360 tour. If you don't want a side of Bono (or similar rock icon) with your mussels, it's probably better to come during lunch.

On a Friday evening, I metroed up to Bethesda to meet B after work. I knew we'd be in for a wait but I still was a bit taken aback by the 1 hour and 20 minute prediction. Who says people aren't eating out in this economy?

We found some chairs near the bar and waited while sipping on a beer from Mussel Bar's impressive collection. After about an hour and 10 minutes, we were directed to our table beneath Bono and The Edge.

We started off the meal with a salad listed on the daily specials chalkboard. The citrus salad with romaine, orange, and grapefruit supremes sounded light and refreshing. Unfortunately, the salad was a little lighter than we'd anticipated as it was brought to the table completely undressed. After several bites of tasting nothing but watery romaine with fruit, we asked the waiter for some dressing. The dressing helped but I wouldn't go running to Bethesda for this salad.

At an emphatic suggestion (or three) from our waiter, we tried the mushroom Belgian pizza with wild mushrooms, gruyere, bacon, arugula, and "essence of truffle" (Does that mean it is channeling the wisdom of the wise truffle king?) So many times flatbreads resemble packing material, but Mussel Bar has figured out how to make them pleasantly chewy with a crackly crust. The flavors were bold and it was a creamy contrast to the spicy mussel dish that was to come.

We were anxious to see how the mussels at Mussel Bar would stack up to our favorites at Beck. Though served in the same pan and presented with the same flourish (as the waiter removes the glass lid and allows the delicious-smelling steam to escape), we found the mussels here to be more plump and more flavorful than their cousins at Beck. Sticking to the daily specials, we tried the grilled shrimp mussels with cilantro, scallions, and a spicy tomato fondue. The broth was rich and packed a punch without being overwhelming. As promised by the waiter, the cilantro flavor was subtle and did not overpower the dish the way that that silly soapy weed can. Our only complaint about the dish? There were three measly shrimp! Three! This reminds me of a classic nursery rhyme:

Three grilled shrimp. Three grilled shrimp
See them in there? See them in there?
You better savor each bite carefully,
Because there aren't enough for your tummy,
For $16 we'd expect a few more,
Than three grilled shrimp.

Kidding aside, we were impressed by the complexity of flavors in the mussels and, as always, I swooned over the frites.

So was it worth it to trek to Bethesda and wait over an hour for food very similar to what's served in our hood? Yes, because we loved the mussels and, more importantly, because we had a coupon! Would we go again without a coupon? Perhaps, if we happened to be in Bethesda. In the meantime, I think we'll stick to the older, more buttoned up brother Mr. Brasserie Beck. He takes reservations.

Second Thoughts from B

I don't know how much reader overlap there is between our little local blog that mostly talks about food and ESPN, but I'll give this analogy a shot anyway. ESPN's most read columnist, Bill Simmons, a.k.a. the Sports Guy, has a theory about NBA players. To put it simply, as long as you excel at one thing - be it defense, outside shooting, rebounding, waving a towel and cheering for your teammates, etc. - there is a place for you in the NBA. Teams will overlook holes in all other aspects of your game so long as you are outstanding at that one thing.

And that leads me from muscles to Mussel Bar. You see, the wait was long, the room was loud (which would have been a problem if I didn't love U2), the salad was undressed, the pizza was good but rather generic (which makes it forgettable in my book), and the shrimp were mostly missing. But the thing I'll remember is the plump, tender, and juicy mussels.

As with all of the different mussel preparations at Brasserie Beck (and we've tried them all), the spicy tomato fondue was wonderfully bold and complex. But at Mussel Bar, the mussels were not just a vehicle by which we would enjoy the sauce. Simply put, they surpassed Beck on my personal best ever list, and despite any other flaws, that alone will make me want to come back.
Mussel Bar on Urbanspoon


Alexandra said...

It's interesting that they would be different quality mussels. I had Beck's recently and, while good, they didn't totally wow me like I remembered (I still love Marcel's the best). I'll have to try Mussel Bar. I also got the Groupon, but when I tried to go a few weeks ago, there was no parking to be had, so I got frustrated and went to Rockville.

J said...

Yeah we were surprised we noticed any difference in the mussels as we assume they probably use the same supplier for both restaurants. Maybe we got an especially good batch? We've been told to try the mussels and fries at Granville Moore's and we've got a groupon ready to go!

sean said...

Have you tried Mannequin Pis in Olney yet? I'd be interested to see what you think of them. They are my go to for mussels and frites. GM is next on my list to try too.

J said...

Thanks for the tip! We hadn't heard of Mannequin Pis before you mentioned it. Very tempted by the long list of mussel preparations on their website.

sean said...

I got to try MB last night with some friends. We tried the Thai, Old Bay, and Mushroom mussels. They were definitely good, however I wasn't the only one that thought the moules and frites at Mannequin Pis are on a slightly higher level. The sauces are a bit more robust and unique, and the mussels themselves seemed to be bigger.

As another bonus MP does take reservations, but every time I've been they weren't crowded enough to need them. If they aren't on your to do list, I really think they should be.

RuninDC said...

Thanks B & J for venturing out to MB. Love your pics and would like to use some of your dishes: