Chef Robert Wiedmaier is building a small empire across the mid-Atlantic with, at our last count, 11 restaurants ranging from fine dining to casual fare. Modeled after the moules-frites bars of Western Europe, his Mussel Bar and Grille chain is making inroads north of D.C. with his latest location (1350 Lancaster St.,  946-6726, musselbar.com) setting up shop in the Harbor East area.
Inside, Mussel Bar comes across like the cooler, more successful older brother of your neighborhood sports bar. With large windows, repurposed industrial fixtures, and a high ceiling, the space feels sleek and unpretentious. Settling in, we took our time with the gargantuan beer list that boasts offerings from $3 Bohs to a $38 Trappist oak-aged ale. We'd expect nothing less than a healthy, well-rounded beer menu from Wiedmaier, a Knight of the Brewers' Mash staff, a Belgian brewers' guild.
Following management's recommendation, we ordered the Mediterranean mussels, which feature a piquant combination of smoky tomato broth, merguez sausage, goat cheese, and harissa aioli. Each gamey sausage nibble was like a point-counterpoint to the bivalves and the slow heat of the harissa aioli ebbed and flowed, making us crave one bite after another. The spicy Thai green curry version delivered a vivid foundation of heat, richness, and grassy flavors that kept the mussels from overpowering the rest of the dish. Slurping silky broth and crunching on peanuts, we made quick work of the pot.
Also at the top of our list, the slow-roasted lamb meatballs ($10) may fall among the elite in Charm City. Tender and bursting with spicy, herbaceous notes, the meatballs' mildly gamey undertones were balanced with sweet tomato sauce; if anything we were disappointed they come only two to a plate and aren't offered as an entree. Sadly, these alluring little snacks sat atop gummy potato puree. Fix the potatoes and this dish will be a legend.
Now that we had worked our way through a cornucopia of dishes, we (re)ordered the Maine lobster macaroni and cheese ($23), and we're thrilled we did. Arriving in a cauldron of bubbling cheese and brimming with crustaceans and broccolini, the pasta descended to the table sealed with a crispy crust. Richly flavored with fontina and Gruyere, it offers more than enough to share, and we put a serious dent in the pot, scraping out velvety sauce and al dente shells.
It'll be no easy feat for Mussel Bar to make a name for itself along the Harbor, but with a stylish, warm atmosphere paired with elevated comfort food, Wiedmaier's newest location is well on its way. We wouldn't turn down the mollusks, but you can bet we'll go out of our way for the tots and meatballs in a heartbeat.