First Bite: The Mussel Bar in Bethesda

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; 4:02 PM

As a young chef working in Brussels in the early 1980s, Robert Wiedmaier used to spend his after-hours at a joint off the Grand Place that specialized in "mussels and frites and rock-and-roll."

The chef, who went on to acclaim at Marcel's in Washington, remembers La Poubelle ("The Trash Can'') as a fun place to go; he vowed back then to open a similar bar someday.

It took him a few decades, but that time has come. The Mussel Bar by RW in Bethesda is Wiedmaier's most casual concept to date. Its floors are concrete. The tables are pine. Giant chalkboards surrounding the bar trumpet the day's liquid specials, while a refrigerated wall of beer emphasizes suds. (There are 40 or so Belgian brews, including nine drafts.)

The place is also as loud as a train station, although the tall wooden booths that hug the walls offer some shield from the blast. Bits of some of the chef's other restaurants find their way onto his new menu. As at Brasserie Beck downtown, there are, obviously, steamed mussels in different guises. And the flatbreads at the Mussel Bar are reminiscent of the wood-fired ovals served at Wiedmaier's Tasting Room in Alexandria.

Robert Gadsby, whose cooking ignited the dining scenes in Houston and Los Angeles over the years, is serving as the head chef at Mussel Bar but is expected to move on to a yet-to-be-announced concept with his friend Wiedmaier in the next few months.

When the glass cover is removed from my order of Thai curry mussels, presented in a big cast-iron skillet, a burst of fragrant steam envelops the table. The seafood is plump with flavor, and we're glad to have extra bread to sop up the pan juices. We have a problem with the paper cone of french fries, however: They're not hand-cut. Wiedmaier calls his use of a commercial product, from Simplot of Canada, "the hardest decision of my life." But when a kitchen goes through as many fries as this one does - 1,350 pounds a week, says the chef - fresh is hard to do. (Beck opened with fries made on-site, Wiedmaier says, but he "tired of the inconsistency: They were either beautiful or soggy.")

Roaming oyster carts are more to our liking. Wiedmaier is expecting two wrought-iron designs any day now, and with them will come some performance art: oysters shucked tableside.

7262 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda. 301-215-7817. musselbar.com. Entrees, $15 to $28.


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