What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been
“Ever since I worked at Aux Beaux Champs at Washington D.C.’s Four Seasons, I have always had mussels on my menus. At that point, I was taking them out of the shell and serving them as a gratin, which incidentally remains a classic dish on the Marcel’s menu today.” —Chef Robert Wiedmaier
Mussels have always been appreciated in Europe, and I knew that if we were able to present them in a simple and flavorful way to Americans, they’d love them. That’s where the idea for Mussel Bar started, and now it’s full steam
ahead. I also knew that mussels are good for you, relatively inexpensive, and, with excellent beer pairings, sound like the perfect recipe for a festive time. I originally wanted to call the place Poubelle—“trash can” in French—with the idea of having a bag attached to a hole in the middle of each table into which you could toss the empty shells!
Even now, mussels are somewhat of an anomaly to most people. The first location we opened in 2010 in Bethesda was simply called the Mussel Bar. We quickly realized that even though we featured more on the menu than just mussels, the name was a turnoff for a lot of people, because they simply weren’t sold on the mussels. So we added “and Grille” to make that crystal clear: yes, we specialize in mussels and Belgian beer, but we also serve all kinds of different steaks, grilled fish, and wood-fired pizzas because this is a chef-driven as well as concept-driven restaurant. It’s still my recipes that we take very seriously, but it’s a lot more too. And it has also evolved spatially since that first opening.
The original Mussel Bar was exactly what I had always envisioned: dark and cavernous, with wooden tables and loud rock and roll. The second location, in Atlantic City, is quite different, with a beautiful open kitchen and big bar area. The latest location, in Arlington, is closest to the perfect model based on what we have learned from experience.
One of the smartest things we did in Arlington was install CookTeks in each of the kitchens. I can throw on these large, flat pans with glass tops filled with mussels and all the garnishes and broths, and watch them cook in four minutes. From there, they go straight to the table, where all you have to do is take off the top. And voilà!
And, of course, to be truly successful when it comes to food, you have to start off with really great ingredients. I love Penn Cove Mussels. The waters there, in Coupeville, Washington, are so fresh and untouched. I really think that the colder temperatures and the higher levels of salinity in the water create cleaner, smoother, silkier mussels. They tend to be a little smaller but so much sweeter. And when you cook them, that flavor comes out in the sauce and you can really taste the difference.