At least in my movie-centric Brain, a meal of moules frites (aka mussels and fries) conjures images of those classic French films of the 1930s, with their cobblestone streets shiny with rain and a mournful Jean Gabin—the iconic French movie star and working-class hero—stalking his lost love. In those paeans to the downtrodden, a smoky corner bar always beckons with its tattered sign hawking moules frites, the poor man’s favorite repast and, along with a pint of bière, the perfect remedy for a terminal case of l’amour fou (crazy love).
But if a shabby glamour still clings to the traditional Belgian dish (yes, it’s Belgian, including the “French” fries), its proletarian image has been overhauled recently by the same culinary gods who transformed bad British food into gastro pub cuisine. Moules frites is a thing, people. It’s a hot late-night snack, so hip it’s haute. It’s even the title of a racy song by Belgian rap artist Stromae. And, thanks to D.C. celebrity chef and mega-entrepreneur Robert Wiedmaier, it’s available seven days a week in five iterations at Baltimore’s first chain moules frites restaurant, Mussel Bar and Grille.
The Belgian-American Wiedmaier, best known for Brasserie Beck and Marcel’s, opened his first Baltimore restaurant and third Mussel Bar in March. (The other two are in Bethesda and Arlington, VA.)
Inspired by the roadhouse bars of his youth in Belgium (where moules frites are considered a humble food and a source of national pride), Wiedmaier serves up the bivalves along with some serious Belgian beer and a classic rock-and-roll soundtrack: During a recent visit, we bounced along to the Bee Gees and David Bowie, making for a boisterous and fun dinnertime vibe.
Other than the music, there’s nothing grungy or roadhouse-y about this Harbor East venue. The interior is a sleek, open playground of industrial chic, where the deep red walls provide a backdrop to polished steel fittings and darkly burnished wood tables—mostly booths and high tops—and where TV screens abound, giving the place a bit of an upscale sports bar feel, for better or worse. There’s a raw bar and a roster of casually New American food that strays far from European working-class cuisine—everything from beet salad to Maryland grilled chicken and Maine scallops. In fact, you could come here, order a perfectly lovely burger and fries or a sloppy Joe, and never know you’ve crossed the border into Belgium.
The mussels, sourced from Prince Edward Island and Washington state, were just about perfect.
But why would you? Let’s talk about those moules frites. The mussels are sourced from Prince Edward Island and Washington state, and over two visits—one at lunch, one at dinner—they were just about perfect. Arriving in a traditional cast iron pot, they were sweet, plump, medium-sized beauties with nary a closed shell in the bunch.
My lunchtime companion and I enjoyed a traditional preparation with white wine, garlic, a touch of cream, a squeeze of lemon, and a smattering of parsley. The broth was properly perfumed with the liquor from the mussels and we wanted to spoon it all up. At dinner, I tried a very untraditional variation, a spicy Thai green curry preparation with peanuts, cilantro, and basil floating in the creamy, not-too-spicy broth. Superlative. Next time, I look forward to trying the Mediterranean brew with merguez sausage, harissa aioli, and smoky tomato broth.
At dinner, my companions and I ordered the frites and the house-made tater tots for comparison’s sake. The frites won hands down over the fairly bland little tot barrels. Those fries are what frites lovers dream about, and biting into them I finally understood why some culinary savant came up with this crazy combination: juicy, briny mussels and crispy, starchy fries? Yes, it makes perfect sense when the frites in question are so crunchy and flavorful they can stand up to the pot liquor. Textural contrast is all, and it is heavenly.
Having ascertained that the raison d’être for Mussel Bar is all it should be, what else is worthy? At lunch, I loved the deviled hen eggs with their goats milk feta and enlivening bits of prosciutto, pepperoncini, and chili flakes, though my companion deemed the filling a bit too runny. A poached and chilled Maine lobster was exquisitely prepared, and that same ingredient found its way—in bounteous quantities—into a dinner entree of lobster mac and cheese. What made this perhaps the best version of this dish we’ve tasted anywhere in town, and how did it make its way into a mussel bar? No need to ponder—just order it. Likewise, Antigoon, Wiedmaier’s private-label Belgian beer, and the stunningly rich, warm Berger cookie bread pudding for dessert. You’ll never see a French (or Belgian) movie star chowing down on that to assuage whatever ails him, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.
MUSSEL BAR AND GRILLE 1350 Lancaster St., 410-946-6726.
HOURS Mon.-Sun. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
CUISINE Upscale bar food.
PRICE Sides and raw bar: $3-30; entrees: $14-30; desserts: $2.50–7.
ATMOSPHERE Industrial chic.