By Mike Laws - 03/21/12 11:29 PM EDT
Location, location, location. If that repetitive old saw holds true even in this, our digitized era, then you’ve got to figure St. Arnold’s new Cleveland Park location has it made in the shade.
Not only does the restaurant — little sister to the already well-entrenched St. Arnold’s of Dupont Circle — sit at the head of a block that’s quickly becoming a real-deal foodie destination (with Ripple, Ardeo Bardeo, Nam Viet, Tackle Box and Dino), it actually juts out from the Connecticut Avenue strip that houses that venerable lineup, a cantilevering, additional-room-esque, greenhouse-looking prominence. All of which is to say, the place tends to draw the eye.
That’s not a knock on the place. A trip the following morning revealed another side to St. Arnold’s, which proves remarkably versatile considering its diminutive dimensions. With only a couple of other tables to attend to, despite this being prime time for Sunday brunch, our friendly server stopped by on several occasions to chat, top off our coffee and discuss his favorite menu items (the Belgian Mimosa, made irresistible by way of a dose of Framboise raspberry beer, was well-recommended). And so St. Arnold’s went from raucous nighttime hotspot to down-home neighborhood café, all in the space of about 12 hours.
Which is appropriate, given that this is decidedly not just a place to knock a few back. Its namesake notwithstanding (St. Arnold is the patron saint of brewers, apparently), the food on offer at the Cleveland Park location is just as, if not more impressive than its laundry list of boutique Belgian tipples.
And of course, I’d be remiss to begin anywhere other than the mussels. Not content to serve a simple single variety of the briny mollusk, St. Arnold’s features a wall-mounted blackboard bearing the day’s offerings, which might include anything from the ordinary (mussels in a white wine sauce) to the offbeat (mussels with basil in a Thai-curry sauce; mussels with paella; mussels atop spicy Italian sausage, peppers, onions and tomatoes).
An honorable mention goes to the Eastern Shore mussels, served in a thin red corn- and potato-pocked broth that conjures Maryland-style crab chowder, whose heavy hit of Old Bay will make even the stoutest of hearts pine for the Delmarva Peninsula. But it was the signature St. Arnold’s mussels that won the day. Swimming in a sauce the consistency of a bisque, composed of beer, garlic, caramelized shallot, thyme and (crucially) duck fat, these were some seriously irresistible bivalves. (And thankfully, our server wasn’t taken aback to see us spooning out the remaining broth, soup-style; in fact, we were told it wasn’t uncommon for customers to request takeout for the sauce alone.)
Even so, you’ll be rewarded for forcing yourself to stray from the restaurant’s top-line offering. This is particularly true if you’re in the mood for sweet over savory, in which case the Belgian Liege Waffles — served ’round the clock — are a revelation. A far cry indeed from mushy, syrup-sopping Eggos, the consistency of the cake is more akin to that of a soft pretzel — here’s one waffle that necessitates use of a knife. Delicately sweet, and topped liberally by powdered sugar, fruit and whipped cream, or chocolate sauce, honey or Nutella (hey, when in Bruges … ), the waffles are a surprisingly filling choice unto themselves. We might have looked askance at the boat-shaped portion upon its arrival at the table, but it made for a surprisingly ample brunch — not bad for nine bucks.
Still, other entrees featuring the waffle are less successful, the restaurant apparently a touch overeager to include it in items where it doesn’t really belong. For example, the patty in the waffle burger would’ve been satisfying enough housed within a more run-of-the-mill-type bun, but between two slices of sweet Liege waffle, it was … well, for lack of a better description, kind of weird. Ditto the so-called Wafflezooi, which insists on adding the eponymous pastry to the otherwise-delectable Ghentse Waterzooi, a creamy soup of red bliss potatoes, leeks, carrots and celery.
But these are minor miscues, nothing to fuss over too much. Go with the mussels, the waffles (in a sweet setting, that is) or the petite steak — which, like basically everything here, is served alongside some beautifully seasoned frites, making it a worthy competitor to the steak-and-fries-only setup over at Medium Rare, catty-corner from St. Arnold’s — and you’ll leave happy and full in that distinctly Belgian way that only a proper dose of moules-frites can provide.
Note: St. Arnold’s of Cleveland Park is not to be confused with The Underground at St. Arnold’s, a subterranean sister space that shares some labyrinthine passage connecting it to the mussels and Belgian-beer bar upstairs and offers its own (righteous) menu of pub-grub — the fried hot dogs are fast becoming legendary — and where bartender Ken will take good care of you.
St. Arnold’s Mussel Bar of Cleveland Park
3433 Connecticut Ave. NW
Hours: Sunday – Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers range from $5 to $11; mussels and frites are $18; entrees range from $12 to $17.
Ideal Meal: Belgian Mimosa, Waterzooi, St. Arnold’s Mussels