* * 1/2 Brasserie Beck
1101 K St. NW
Open: Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Saturday 5 to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sundays. All major credit cards. No smoking. Metro: Metro Center. Valet parking at dinner. Prices: appetizers $9 to $16, entrees $16 to $24.
Some restaurants introduce themselves to you slowly, doling out their charms and quirks only over time. Other places want you to know everything about them, and right away, because why be shy when you've got a marquee chef serving some youthful memories for less than you'd expect, and in a really cool space?
Brasserie Beck, the fresh Belgian accent from chef Robert Wiedmaier of Marcel's, is the eager puppy of this season's litter of new restaurants.
Your eyes won't know where to focus. On the radiant hostess, who rushes to open the door for you? On the shellfish display beckoning from the mahogany bar, which is three people deep at prime time? Beck's endless ceilings are met halfway with big, orange-glowing clocks that give you the times in Quebec, Antwerp, Casablanca and some of the chef's other favorite cities. And to get to most tables, diners first pass a long, glass-walled kitchen that makes it feel as if you're watching the Food Network with the volume turned off. Across from the hanging copper pans and the dancing flames -- and intense-looking chef de cuisine David Ashwell -- servers in blue shirts line up like soldiers awaiting inspection, murmuring, "Good evening" and, "Welcome," as patrons pass in front of them. By the time you sit down, you've been fed a full show.
Except that the fun is just beginning. "The beer list," announces the waiter as he sets a thick black book on the table. If you ask, you can have a consultation with the house specialist, Bill Catron. Take advantage of his service. Catron has assembled 80 or so first-class brews, and he and his staff talk them up with a reverence typically associated with sommeliers. If you don't usually drink beer, chances are you'll be a convert when you leave. If you're a devotee, you'll be in brew heaven. Among the inspired food and suds pairings I've enjoyed here are oysters on the half shell with the pleasantly sour and effervescent Geuze, and peppery rabbit loin with the lush Binchoise Reserve, which smells of apricots and hints of caramel on the palate. And some day I hope to return for a taste of the cave-aged DeuS -- the "Champagne of Flanders" -- to find out what makes a $60 beer.
Belgian food tends not to call a lot of attention to itself. The sauces are mostly subtle; the flavors are mostly agreeable; the building blocks are pretty basic. Perhaps the most familiar of the country's exports are steamed mussels, typically served in a double-decker pot, accompanied by french fries. At Beck, the shellfish show up in a large flat pan (Wiedmaier says it makes sopping up the juices easier) whose lid is lifted at the table, unleashing a fragrant blast of steam. The bivalves are big and fat but not particularly flavorful on their own, so the bolder the enhancers, the better; fennel and spicy chorizo impart more savor than wine, garlic and parsley. The only problem I have with the accompanying french fries, hot and crisp, is that I can't stop munching on them. Twice-fried and speckled with chopped parsley, they're enriched with every dunk into a trio of mayonnaise dips (plain; curry; and tomato, or what Wiedmaier likes to call "European catsup"). An order of mussels goes for $17 and could easily be shared by three as an appetizer.
If you've been to Brussels, you'll recognize many of the dishes on Beck's menu. Shrimp croquettes look like spring rolls, only they're nubbier on the outside and filled with a semi-firm mousseline; the mild appetizer gets a jolt of heat when you dip it into spicy mayonnaise. Waterzooi translates as a buttery, vegetable-sweetened wine sauce supporting slices of seared chicken. And here's a kitchen that knows its steak tartare, which it chops by hand, spikes with hot pepper sauce, mustard and lemon juice and delivers with a fried quail egg on top.
It took a few tries to warm up to the main courses. Early on, some of them (salmon, duck) tasted like afterthoughts. One idea is particularly ill-conceived: Dry pork, dull cabbage and a whole egg packed into an armor of puff pastry try but fail to achieve the glory of choucroute. The dish more closely resembles a wayward beef Wellington.
The best plates remind you of Beck's lineage: the silken liver "parfait" (two pink slabs of chicken and duck livers marinated in cognac and pureed with clarified butter), perked up with sea salt, is an appetizer I could easily imagine coming out of the kitchen at the French-themed Marcel's. It's sensational. So is the firm, sweet grilled trout with its lush piped potatoes and tangy caper sauce. Beer plays a starring role in my favorite entree, a thick and slightly sweet beef stew that gets some backbone from Chimay (and a dollop of sharp mustard). Pieces of the tender meat form a mountain in the middle of the bowl, colored brightly with an orange, ultrafine puree of root vegetables. The recipe is a bit heavy for summer, but I'd love to revisit it come fall.
Beck is a big space carved into cozy sections and made more intimate with lace curtains in the windows. The best seats in the house are probably those at the chef's table, which look onto that exposed kitchen, followed by anywhere in the center room, with its wall of wine. You want to avoid the glass-walled boxes in the rear, known as Waterloo and Brabo, which feel cut off from the action, save for two monitors that broadcast what's going on in the kitchen. And a warning to peace seekers: Beck can get uncomfortably loud.
The pastry chef has my sympathy. The portions at Beck tend to be abundant, and if you've splurged on a beer or three to wash back the savory courses -- trust me, you'll be tempted -- you might be inclined to shake your head "no" when the waiter appears with dessert menus. Yet the beignets, which come with caramel and custard sauces for dipping, make a fun group activity, and the decadent chocolate gateau hits all the right buttons for the dedicated chocoholic. The dessert that appeals to me most is a wisp of pastry arranged with warm fruit (pear when I tried it) and a scoop of honey-cinnamon ice cream that slowly melts into the round to form a lovely sauce.
As he did with Marcel's, Wiedmaier named his second restaurant after a son. Beck is both another chip off the old block and a fizzy addition to the city.
To chat with Tom Sietsema online, go to washingtonpost.com on Wednesdays at 11 a.m.