Restaurant Review: Mussel Bar
The latest venture of Robert Wiedmaier and Brian McBride isn’t quite there yet.
The best way to fully appreciate the Ballston outpost of Mussel Bar & Grille is by dropping in for a weekday lunch. At noon, the 244-seat, Belgian-themed gastropub is filled with streaks of natural light from its towering windows, which wrap the prominent northwest corner of North Glebe Road and Wilson Boulevard. All the better to take in the dining room’s industrial blend of exposed pipes, handmade beer-bottle lighting fixtures and polished cement floors, backed by an open stainless-steel kitchen with walls of white subway tiles. (The building’s exterior is just as cool, with its iconic, retro, diamond-patterned awning— a holdover from the Bob Peck Chevrolet dealership that occupied the corner for decades.)
I’m inclined to grab a stool at the zinc-topped bar—inset with mussel shells—and talk brews with one of the bartenders, who guides me through the 100-plus beer menu.
For a light meal, you can’t go wrong with the artful romaine lettuce and kale Caesar salad, boldly dressed and then draped with mild white anchovies. I can also recommend the lobster roll, a buttery bun spilling with luscious claw meat. For crunch, try the crisp, Gruyere-rich mushroom flatbread pizza flecked with bits of oh-so-smoky bacon. (Note to doggybaggers: This pie travels well.)
Did I mention that the owners of this new expansion are regional chef royalty? Founder and empire-building Robert Wiedmaier is best known for his award-winning French comfort-food restaurant, Marcel’s, in Foggy Bottom, as well as Brasserie Beck in downtown D.C. He also draws fans in Alexandria (Brabo) and in Bethesda (Wildwood Kitchen), where he opened the first Mussel Bar in 2010, followed by a second in Atlantic City, N.J., last year. His partner, Brian McBride, commanded Melrose and Blue Duck Tavern, in D.C.’s West End neighborhood, to constant critical acclaim for 25 years.
I have the highest admiration for both of these talented men and know that they work hard, in the long run, to obtain perfection. That said, I had serious issues with the hit-and-miss food, service and unbearable noise level at Mussel Bar in Ballston—especially after dark.
On two consecutive Wednesday evenings at 7:30, I settle into a comfy booth with friends and the pantomime games begin.
“How do you like the Thai mussels?” our server screams, her head cantilevered halfway across our table. In unison, we politely nod and smile. Given the decibel level of the ’90s rock I can feel pounding in my chest, it’s pointless to respond that the dish has no discernible Southeast Asian flavor, save for its spicy heat, and is oddly covered in a blanket of chopped Italian (rather than Thai) basil.
A Mediterranean-style version of the same tender bivalves—which are sourced from Penn Cove in Washington State—proves equally disappointing. This one is overwhelmed with chunks of sausage, blobs of goat cheese and a shine of chili oil that brings the Exxon Valdez spill to mind. Sadly, both dishes have been sold by servers as the “most popular” on the menu.
A request for an appetizer crab cake is lost in translation, and a bowl of crab dip arrives at the table. (Apparently, pointing at the menu didn’t do the trick.) After a wait, a nice lump meat cake replaces the dip, but it’s mired in an unnecessary lake of mustard sauce. Later on, I cut into a generous entrée of short ribs, only to find the meat so dry that it’s not worth the chewing effort. Thankfully, everyone at my table enjoys the flutes of crisp french fries, which arrive with a trio of aioli dipping sauces in flavors of smoked curry, malt vinegar and mustard/Worcestershire. We also receive an ample basket of crusty French bread. All the while, conversation is impossible.
On another occasion, a rib-eye steak mistakenly arrives instead of the “bone in” New York strip I’ve ordered. Frantically but dutifully, the server whisks it back to the kitchen, then returns minutes later with the same rib eye. “This is on the house,” she yells, depositing the dish on the table. “The right steak will be right out.” It’s a nice gesture, although no one at the stove has noticed that this $38 cut of quality protein, even on its return-trip to the table, is accompanied by a heap of greasy, nubby potato dregs from the bottom of the fryer basket.
Better things can be said of the hearty (but not heavy) lamb meatball with bright tomato sauce, and the tender roasted, bacon-scented calamari with smoked tomato aioli. Choose either of these starters over the watery French onion soup.
From the entrée list, I was saddened to see a lovely, perfectly cooked piece of halibut surrounded by an over-the-top cream sauce and edged with an orange lubricant. Will someone please throw away the kitchen’s harissa oil squirt bottle?
A few days later, a seasoned restaurateur pal tells me that an essential way to attract—and keep—both the young professional crowd and older diners alike is to “balance the buzz.” That’s the ethereal hum of happiness, fun and energy that falls in the sweet spot between too quiet (when you can hear every word spoken at the next table) and too loud (when conversation sends you home with laryngitis). “It’s a science,” he says.
At Mussel Bar in Ballston, it’s back to the books.
Mussel Bar & Grille
800 North Glebe Road, Arlington, 703-841-2337, musselbar.com
Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.
Lunch: appetizers $7 to $13; entrées $11 to $22
Dinner: appetizers $7.50 to $14; entrées $15 to $38
BAR AND CELLAR
Specialty cocktails, more than 100 Belgian and craft beers and a French-influenced wine list with more than 20 vintages by the glass.
There is metered street parking and paid self-parking in the building. The Ballston Metro station is two blocks away.