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.
Having sampled, and been wowed by, the mussels at Wiedmaier’s restaurant Brabo in Alexandria, Virginia, we set out to test as many mollusks as we could. Mussel Bar’s flagship bivalves are harvested from Washington state and they’re decadent, but beware: They’re enormous, bordering on pornographic, with each one at least the size of a thumb.
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.
Hoping for a dazzling white-wine preparation, we were disappointed to find that the white-wine mussel fell short of the oomph we expect from this traditional mussel dish. The cloves of roasted garlic were few and far between and the sauce lacked the tang expected from acidic white wine. It offered a bland experience that was overshadowed by the strong flavor and texture of the giant mollusks. For our money, we’ll order the chef’s bolder translations. Of note: Regardless of the preparation, half orders ($14, full $20) are substantial; large orders are absolutely enormous.
For a bargain $1, diners can add fries to complete their Belgian bar experience. The fries hit all the right notes for the classic pairing with their creamy insides and crispy outsides. We couldn’t resist mopping them in the various broths. We were, however, let down when half the fries we ordered during our visits never made it to our table. We had run into this problem on our first visit, in which half of our french fry orders and the lobster macaroni and cheese didn’t arrive—but that visit had been during curfew week and service had felt rushed as closing approached, so we had blamed the mistake on Baltimore’s temporarily militarized state. Regardless, staff graciously, and apologetically, removed these dishes from the bill. When we returned under more normal circumstances, the service felt more relaxed and on point, and while all of our main dishes arrived at our table, unfortunately the fries still didn’t make it. Having overordered, we let it slide, but if you want those fries you should double-check to make sure they arrive.
For good measure, we sampled a half-dozen oysters ($15) which were pleasantly sweet and briny, but the real treat was their lime apple mignonette that was at once fragrant, crunchy, and sour.
Though we enjoyed the mussels and oysters, the true highlights of our visits weren’t shellfish. We’d never before encountered a house-made tater tot that beats the Ore Ida staple, but Mussel Bar’s tots ($7), served dusted in Parmesan with a side of spicy ketchup, read like creamy beignets. If we didn’t know better, we’d swear Café Du Monde was making savory doughnuts in Mussel Bar’s kitchen.
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.
The crispy Berkshire pork belly ($13) delivered salty-oily bites nestled in a shallow pool of lightly sweet maple baked beans. Crispy and lightly smoky, hot pepper jelly glaze elevated lowly pork and beans to a delightful indulgence that was offset by an apple salad with refreshing greens and radishes, keeping this small plate from being too heavy.
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.
We’re not ones to pass up dessert, and spying Smith Island Cake ($7), we couldn’t resist. The cake came across less like the traditional fluffy confection and more like a dense tartlet. We suspended our expectations for the classic dessert and worked our way through the ganachelike icing, mixing and matching bites of thin yellow cake and caramel drizzle. The hero on the plate, however, was the espresso ice cream with its multidimensional bittersweet, nutty undercurrents and honeyed texture. We may have left a few bites of cake behind, but we mopped up all traces of the dairy accompaniment.
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.
Mussel Bar and Grille is open Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-Midnight and Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-1 am.