Dining: Hustle to sample Bethesda's new Mussel Bar
Pommes frites are an ephemeral treat. It is imperative that the thick julienne of potatoes is fried at the order, finished with a dash of salt and delivered promptly to the table while each fry's surface is crisp and dry, yet steamy and hot inside. It is erroneous to call pommes frites french fries since they originated in Belgium and are inextricably paired there with dishes of steamed mussels. So it comes as no surprise that Robert Wiedemeir pairs traditional as well as unconventional mussel dishes with wonderful frites at his new bistro-style restaurant, Mussel Bar.
Mussels Provençal are prepared and served with panache in a white wine broth finished with parmesan cheese, tomatoes, capers and cream. These would be the best mussels on the menu if it were not for the Thai mussels that are served in an expertly blended green curry broth rife with the flavors of kaffir lime leaf, chilies, cilantro, briny fish sauce, lemon grass and coconut milk; the balance of exotic flavors and spicy heat is wonderful. The mussels, sourced from Blue Bay in Prince Edward Island, Canada, are cooked to perfection, steamed just until the shells open, and the meats are moist and plump.
Mussel dishes are served at the table in the pot in which they are cooked, and the waiters synchronize the removing of the lids, causing heady aromas to waft around the customer. Bowls are provided for empty shells, and while slices of bread are provided for dipping, diners need not be embarrassed to drink from the pot after consuming the mussels.
Wood-fired tarts are Mussel Bar's version of thin-crust pizzas. The Erwin wild mushroom tart is topped with gruyère cheese, chunks of bacon, fresh baby arugula and a hint of truffle oil. Pork belly and mussels as well as sopressata salami and roasted peppers top other tarts.
Oyster fans can choose oysters from the east or west coast, served over ice, as well as whether they are accompanied by a mignonette sauce made with raspberry vinegar, cracked pepper and finely diced apples, or a globular blend of sweet vinegar and Sriracha Asian-style hot sauce, which is more delightful than it sounds.
One vegetable of the day is a smallish eggplant, split and roasted, then served with a mild yet tasty tomato sauce and fresh leaves of baby arugula. Hot sandwiches, house soups (often featuring mussels), entrée salads as well as a cheese and ham plate keep the ever-changing menu interesting. And there is barely enough room on the back of the menu to list all the beers and ales.
As if all that were not enough, breakfast is served from 9 a.m. to noon on weekends. The Huevos Rancheros is very cool: two eggs poached so the whites are firm and the yolks, runny yet warm, served over a pile of braised pork belly and wilted greens, all atop a grilled soft tortilla and finished with a spicy ranchero sauce. Eggs are also available in most of the traditional ways, from omelets to over easy. Orange juice is freshly pressed at the order, and good coffee comes in a big mug; the waiter even offered to reheat it when it cooled. Filtered water is available by the bottle, which can get a little pricy.
Dessert on a particular summer day was soft-serve ice cream garnished with crushed roasted peanuts, shaved chocolate and a compote of summer bing cherries.
Mussel Bar does not take reservations, and the tall, loud space fills quickly at lunch and dinner. Bistro lovers should dive into the space, while milder-mannered customers or families with small children should arrive early or between lunch and dinner to dine a bit more peacefully. Table service is polished and responsive. And even dogs on a leash may sip from bowls served on the sidewalk outside.
7262 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda
Hours: Breakfast: 9 a.m.-noon Sat.-Sun.; Lunch/Dinner: 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Tues.-Sun.
Style of cuisine: Belgian bistro
Soups, Sides, Salads: $6-$15
Mussel Dishes: $16
Hot Sandwiches, Entrees: $12-$28
Credit cards: All major cards