I've heard this from a few friends about the new Harbor East restaurant called Mussel Bar & Grille: "Well, I hope the mussels are good. That's the name of the place."
I have good news for them. The mussels, which arrive at the table gleaming and smiling in the cast-iron pots they're steamed in, are among the best I've had in Baltimore. I think someone must be watching over every order of mussels lovingly, making sure each mussel has been steamed fully open and even ensuring that they've been evenly distributed in the pot with the other ingredients.
That kind of attention to detail is characteristic of a dinner at Mussel Bar & Grille, whose opening this spring marks the happy Baltimore debut of noted Washington-based restaurateur Robert Wiedmaier.
Mussel Bar is the friskiest of Wiedmaier's several restaurant concepts. It's inspired, the chef has said, by the kind of "rough-and-tumble" roadside Belgian bars where folks would go for hard drinking and great food, like steak frites and mussels.
The space is large, bright and brassy and about as rough-and-tumble as a dude ranch. Wiedmaier, who was born in Germany, has said that Mussel Bar is not meant to replicate his old beloved Brussels bars. The menu is much bigger, and more diverse, than any you'd have found at those old spots. And the setting is much different.
Taking over the space formerly occupied by the negligible Townhouse Kitchen + Bar, the restaurant accommodates about 250 souls in its dining areas, bar and lounge. It's huge, but it's laid out smartly and appointed handsomely. Seating is mostly in booths, which line the back and side walls, or at high "community tables," where you might end up seated next to unrelated diners.
The restaurant offers five preparations of mussels, in full- and half-pot sizes. There is a basic version with white wine, roasted garlic, cream and parsley, and more fanciful ones like veal Bolognese, with crispy capers and Parmesan cheese, and a Mediterranean take with merguez, harissa oil and goat cheese.
Our waiter wanted us to try the spicy Thai curry preparation, which was wonderfully aromatic with cilantro and basil, and the Kennett Square mushrooms preparation, a light cream sauce robustly flavored with bacon, chives and thyme. These were insanely good.
The steak frites, which made great use of a cut of tender coulotte steak, are outstanding, too. Served with a bordelaise sauce and the just-crispy house fries, the steak had good natural flavor enhanced by confident seasoning.
Beyond the Belgian stapes, Mussel Bar offers a raw bar with Middle Neck clams, Gulf shrimp and Maine lobster, and a full menu of regional American food, the kind of fare you see in big brassy urban bistros —appetizers of tuna tartare, lamb meatballs and grilled calamari; entrees of lobster mac-and-cheese and grilled Maine scallops.
The good news is Mussel Bar is serving this fare with skill and panache. The tuna tartare is beautiful and sublimely fresh, spiked with a sesame-citrus reduction and served with a pleasantly bitter cilantro-herb salad. A dose of peppery harissa oil perked up a tasty, slow-roasted lamb meatball. Only an appetizer of char-grilled calamari was disappointing; the tender squid were outmatched by a smoked tomato aioli and the shreds of smoked pork.
The biggest surprise was Mussel Bar's exceptional take on that old tavern standard, the lobster mac-and-cheese, which was rich with fully melted Gruyere and Fontina cheese and brimming with big chunks of tender poached lobster meat. Also terrific was a special entree of sweet pan-fried tilefish with a Parmesan-and-bacon polenta cake, a smoked tomato vinaigrette and sauteed fresh garbanzo beans.
There are more than 40 draft beers and more than a 100 bottled beers, including a couple dozen from Belgium, and a simple and straightforward wine list. Cocktails, like the Mule's Kick, made with citrus vodka, ginger-honey syrup and grapefruit-flavored ale, are fun, not crazily expensive and pack a wallop.
Desserts are sweet, smart and delicious, like the in-house version of the classic Smith Island cake, 11-layers of good chocolate frosting and moist yellow cake, and — get ready — a Berger cookie bread pudding, which was, against all odds, almost dainty.
Nearby reviews: Dish Baltimore - Harbor East