At St. Arnold's, mussels make strong option
By Alex Baldinger
Friday, June 22, 2012
With au courant sandwich chains Pret a Manger and Paul multiplying in this grab-and-go city, the thought of a steaming pot of mussels for lunch can seem especially foreign. But a visit to St. Arnold’s Mussel Bar shows the Franco-Belgian indulgence is within the lunch hour’s grasp.
The subterranean space on quiet Jefferson Place NW south of Dupont Circle features 20 mussels preparations, from a classic mariniere version to a Mexican iteration served in a sauce spiked with jalapeno peppers, onions and cilantro.
The house specialty, Mussels St. Arnold’s, arrives in a house-made beer broth laced with caramelized shallots, garlic, thyme and duck fat. Each order comes with a side of Belgian frites and bread for dipping. It’s a hearty entree that’s well worth the $18.
So where did the idea for a Belgian-themed basement bar, named for St. Arnold of Soissons, the patron saint of hop-pickers, originate? “We were looking for something different than a jukebox on the wall and wings,” said Mark Moore, one of the restaurant’s four operating partners, who opened the space in late 2010. “So what would be better than having people surrounded by mussel pots and having some really good beers?”
No establishment named for the abbot quoted as saying, “From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world,” would make sense without a predominantly Belgian beer list. Labels like Kasteel Rouge, Houblon Chouffe and Affligem Blonde pre-dominate (you might want to save these 6.7- to 9-percent ABV beers for after work). You won’t find the ubiquitous Stella Artois or Hoegaarden.
“We want to be able to educate [patrons] about beer, and I want to be educated by the guest,” Moore said. “I feel that Belgian beer is where red wine was 15 years ago. The curve is rising.”
The same could be said of St. Arnold’s, which added its Connecticut Avenue location in Cleveland Park a little more than a year after the Jefferson Place restaurant opened. The feel of the airy, sidewalk space (formerly Sabores) is a sharp contrast with the admittedly undersized quality of its sub-sidewalk predecessor.
At both locations, the menu features more than mussels. Fans of Belgian cuisine will be especially pleased to find Flemish waterzooi -- a cream-based stew of chicken and vegetables -- served either in a large bowl or atop a freshly pressed waffle ($13). “It’s like a Belgian version of chicken and waffles,” my server explained.
The Peter and Paul sandwich ($10), with ham, sweet butter and cornichons on a baguette, is a take on the working-class jambon-beurre sandwich.
Although Moore downplayed his desire to specialize in burgers, the one served here ($11) is commendable, stuffed with cheese (go for Gruyere) and topped with a choice of bacon, prosciutto, mushrooms, peppers and onions.
A meal ends with a fluffy waffle topped with fruit, powdered sugar and whipped cream ($7-$9).
As if opening two restaurants in eight months wasn’t enough, Moore and his partners also opened the Underground at St. Arnold’s, an English pub-style bar with a London-transit system theme below the Cleveland Park location. But don’t grow too attached: Moore said he’s planning to reformat the space as St. Arnold’s the Abbey, to unify the operation’s total focus on Belgian beers, by mid-August.
The buzz: Washington has a soft spot for Belgian beer bars, from the upscale Brasserie Beck to the simple moules-frites vibe at Granville Moore. The vibe at St. Arnold's, named for the patron saint of Belgian brewers, is far closer to the latter. The low-ceilinged basement space has a casual vibe, with the logos of European beers chalked on boards close to the ceiling. (Just don't attempt to order from these as it's not a list that's updated.) Tables fill most of the room, though there's a small bar with a dozen seats and a few flatscreen TVs near the front door. Unfortunately, a narrow aisle between the bar and a dividing wall means that it's not conducive to gathering with a group.
In your glass: As you'd expect, the choices are predominantly Belgian, though much more mainstream than the rare trappist ales found at Beck or Granville's. The rich Palm and Duvel green and the sharp, fruity St. Louis Framboise are the standout taps, alongside the familiar Stella Artois, Hoegaarden and Leffe. (As for Blue Moon and Budweiser's Shock Top Belgian White -- don't even go there.) There are couple of German beers from Munich's Hofbrau Brewery on the menu, which are served in traditional dimpled one-liter or half-liter mugs.
The bottle list is actually more interesting, with three different styles from Maredsous, Blanche de Bruxelles, and a pair of Grimbergens. American beers include multiple offerings from Maine's Allagash brewery, New York's Ommegang and California's North Coast, all of which are known for their Belgian-style beers.
On your plate: It's a fairly traditional menu, from the Flemish onion soup (with brie cheese and croutons on top), mussels in white wine or beer sauces, even Belgian waffles with fruit and whipped cream on top. The mussels are fine for a night of hanging out at the bar, but aren't the most memorable I've had.
Price points: Beers are on the pricey side: a half-liter (16.9 ounces) of Stella, Palm or Leffe costs $9. The same amount of Ommegang is $10. An 8-ounce pour of Duvel is $10. Those massive German beer mugs are the best value, at $14 for 33 ounces. Mussels and frites seem expensive at $18 for a large plate.
-- Fritz Hahn (December 2010)