The long-awaited Mussel Bar in Bethesda, Chef Robert Wiedmaier's latest venture, has been hopping from the start. A few weeks after opening, at 7 pm on a Friday night, there was an hour-long wait for a four-top, and they're not taking reservations.
Last Thursday at noon, however, there was no wait for a table. The gastropub's decor is dark and comfortable, with simple wooden booths, black and white photographs on the walls, and a sculptural metal light fixture adorned with beer bottles.
I was surprised to see Chef Wiedmaier himself -- at a weekday lunch service? -- intently surveying the dining room, occasionally stopping a waiter to examine a plate or alter his serving technique.
I don't normally drink beer at lunch, but I couldn't resist a citrusy, spicy Blanche de Bruxelles Belgian wheat beer. Just reading the Mussel Bar's beer menu is entertaining: Delirium Tremens, Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor, Ommegang Hennepin, Corsendonk Agnus Dei, Allagash Curieux, Unibroue La Terrible.
The mussels were so fresh, sweet and briny that I ate more than I intended. The "classic" broth of roasted garlic, shallots and sauvignon blanc was worthy of sopping with bread or frites.
The frites were good, not great. They arrived wrapped in a paper cone, in the same specialized metal server that I remembered from Brasserie Beck. There were holders for three types of mayonnaise for dipping, but our server contained only one. (By the time I noticed this, there were too few frites left to make it worth mentioning.)
The most eye-opening dish was this salad of roasted beets with grapefruit, cumin-spiced yogurt, preserved lemon and golden raisins. The mingling of earthy, tart and sweet flavors was incredible, first bite to last.
I'd happily return to have that salad all to myself and try another Belgian witbeer. I'd also have another go at the mussels; imagine red Indonesian curry with peanut essence, or grilled pineapple with sweet chili garlic. The pizzas coming out of the wood-fired oven also looked like fitting accompaniment to a good beer.