Restaurateurs in search of a challenge could do worse than the 8,000 square feet at Harbor East’s 1350 Lancaster St.
Just ask Restaurants America, the Chicago-based operations group whose Townhouse Kitchen & Bar lasted less than two years before it unceremoniously closed in January 2014.
In March, after more than a year of inactivity, it was the turn of Robert Wiedmaier (famous for Marcel’s and Brasserie Beck in Washington, D.C.) to try and turn the space into a winner with Mussel Bar and Grille, his first restaurant in Baltimore. (It is Wiedmaier’s third Mussel Bar location, with others in Bethesda and Arlington, Va.)
A recent Friday evening visit to Mussel Bar proved Wiedmaier’s vision makes for a more natural fit than its predecessor, from the bar program to the decor.
While Townhouse and its half-hearted, upscale sports-bar approach failed to give locals a discernible reason to visit, Mussel Bar’s main draw lies in its name. While The Baltimore Sun has already praised these mussels, it should be noted how well they lend themselves to a bar setting. Mussels are one of the most bar-friendly foods — easily shareable with little mess — and they work as a clever hook to explore Mussel Bar’s bar program. There’s nothing like a pot full of mussels to promote a leisurely approach to eating and drinking, without filling you up in the process.
A couple of friends and I were more interested in drinks than food — it was Friday, after all — but our plate of spicy Thai green curry mussels and frites ($21) perfectly sustained us without draining our abilities to enjoy a cocktail or two.
The cocktail list offered six options of familiar cocktails made with little twists, like a Kraken Stormy (a Black & Stormy made with Kraken spiced rum for $8) and a Mule’s Kick ($9). Served in a champagne flute, the short-lived Fancy Schmancy (Maestro Dobel tequila, St. Elder elderflower liqueur, grapefruit juice, sparkling wine and edible hibiscus flower for $12) lived up to its name but didn’t seem worth the price, despite tasting quite good. We simply wanted more.
The Pig in a Blanket ($11) was the best combination of ingredients and flavors, which surprised us given the use of Pig’s Nose scotch, Shiner’s Ruby Redbird beer, sugar and lemon. It was bright and acidic in a way that felt ideal on one of the first chilly nights after summer. There was too much mint for garnish, but we would have missed the aromatic qualities had it been missing.
Another winner was the Perfectly Aged ($10). For Mussel Bar’s take on the Manhattan, they barrel-age the cocktail (Filibuster Rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, Maraschino liqueur) for up to four weeks before serving. The woodsy notes melded nicely with the flavors, but still allowed the rye to shine through most.
Like Townhouse, Mussel Bar also features an impressive, rotating list of beers — 43 on draft and more than 80 in bottles. Many of the options are familiar, but Mussel Bar also offers three beers brewed by Weidmaier, who was inducted into Belgium’s Knighthood of the Brewers’ Mash Staff a few years ago. Some high-end retailers sell these beers — whose names include the Belgian pale ale Antigoon, the ale Cry Baby and the pilsner Brabo — but Mussel Bar is the only place in Baltimore to taste them on tap.
We left on a fun note, the type you remember to tell friends about excitedly. For many months now, the debate in our inner circle has only intensified: Has Fireball cinnamon whiskey jumped the shark? Some have no issue still throwing back the syrupy sweet concoction while others have placed it firmly on their do-not-order list.
Mussel Bar adds a fun wrinkle to the conversation by selling a “housemade Fireball” shot ($4). They infuse silver rum with agave syrup, cinnamon sticks and crushed red pepper for spice, the latter of which left us sweating long after the shot was finished to the bemusement of our consistently attentive bartender.
Sitting at the huge main bar in the middle of the dining room, it was obvious Mussel Bar was more interested in shifting the space’s reputation through the menus than the layout. There was still a room lined with couches for parties that I had rarely seen used during Townhouse’s time. Still, the updated design reflected a comfortable setting with an emphasis on natural woods and burgundy walls. The oddly industrial feel of Townhouse had been replaced with a much needed warmth.
We wondered what the atmosphere would have felt like with more people. There were roughly 60 people there on Friday evening, and inside a room this massive, it felt like less. We hoped it was merely a light night, because Mussel Bar and its thoughtful approach deserve an audience, and the time to find it.