By Albert Eisele - 05/24/07 06:42 PM EDT
Robert Wiedmaier’s bistro is the latest celebrity chef spin-off on the D.C. culinary scene. Opened only a month ago, it’s already hard to snag a last-minute reservation. Located on the ground floor of a sleek new office building facing Asbury Methodist Church and an international youth hostel in the burgeoning area, where K Street runs into Mount Vernon Square, it sits between the new Washington Convention Center and the vacant site of the old one. Now, should we call the neighborhood WashCon or KSquare?
Whatever, as Bob Dole would say.
The restaurant takes its name from Wiedmaier’s 4-year-old son, just as Marcel’s, the acclaimed French restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue in the West End he opened in 1999, is named for his 8-year-old boy. Based on his track record at Marcel’s, and so far at Brasserie Beck, there’s reason to believe he can hold his own with other local chefs like Roberto Donna, Cathal Armstrong and Michel Richard, who have supplemented their high-end restaurants with more casual and affordable siblings. Wiedmaier grew up in Germany and worked in restaurants in Belgium, the Netherlands and London before moving to D.C. in the 1980s.
After several visits, I can report that Brasserie Beck is off to an impressive start, even though there are some irritating glitches that need to be ironed out.
Once inside the 11th Street entrance, you’ll think you’re in a bistro on the Grand-Place in Brussels. Modeled after the brasseries found in old European train stations, its 22-foot ceilings and large windows overlooking K Street give the 8,500-square-foot, 165-seat restaurant an expansive and airy feeling. Dark wood paneling, tile floors and old-fashioned clocks hanging from the walls add to the distinctive décor. And the high ceilings help keep the noise to a manageable level.
To the right of the entrance is a seafood station and long marble-topped bar that’s been packed every time I’ve been there, and not just because of the free Wi-Fi. Most people were quaffing one of the excellent Belgian beers, 11 of them on draft and 51 by the bottle. There are six other domestic and foreign beers, but why bother when you can drink great beers like Chimay-Cing Cents (produced by Trappist monks), Delerium Tremens (“Look out for the elephant”), or Gulden Draak?
This is the only restaurant I know of where the wine list is relegated to a single printed page while the beer list runs a dozen pages and is enclosed in a leather cover. At the far end of the bar, a high-definition TV is hooked up to a camera trained on the kitchen table where waiters pick up their food orders. Hardly exciting, but it beats watching Lou Dobbs fulminate about illegal immigrants.
There’s a 10-seat chef’s table opposite the showcase open kitchen where I counted at least 10 chefs and cooks at dinner on Saturday, and beyond it, a main dining room with a glassed-in wine display and a private dining room that’s blissfully quiet. Ask to be seated there if nobody’s using it. The bar area and K Street side are lined with tables and semi-private dining nooks as well. Service is friendly and efficient — except for one egregious exception, which I’ll describe later — although some of the more than 25 waiters I counted at dinner were practically tripping over each other.
But it’s the food that is the real draw here. It proves the saying that Belgium serves food with the quantity of Germany and quality of France.
You can’t do better than beginning with the moules frites, steamed mussels with Belgian fries ($17), as I did at a recent lunch. The Nova Scotia mussels are prepared three different ways: with white wine, garlic and parsley; curry and apple; or fennel and chorizo sausage. I chose the curry and apple. They were big and plump and suffused with an ambrosial scent.
The frites — Belgians claim they invented them, not the French — were equally impressive and irresistible, thinly cut fries accompanied by three rich dipping sauces — aioli, curry and tomato — that can add up to instant clogged arteries.
My guest went the seafood route with deep-fried shrimp croquettes ($11) that were bursting with flavor and the pan-seared salmon fillet in curry fennel sauce ($18). I chose the duck Congolese almondine ($19). Both were superb. Next time, I’ll try the Beef Carbonnade, basically beef bourguignon cooked with beer instead of red wine. We finished by sharing one of the seven featured desserts, all $8: a pear tart with cinnamon honey ice cream that was as good as any dessert I’ve eaten.
At dinner with my wife a few days later, we had the good luck to draw Susan as our waitress. A former manager at the Occidental Grill and D.C. Coast, she said she was tired of working 17-hour days. She was one of the best and nicest waitresses I’ve encountered, even sending us home with a baguette.
My wife began with the toasted garlic baguette with poached egg and fricassee of mushrooms ($9) and I opted for the tomato, avocado, shrimp and hearts of palm salad ($12). The perfectly poached egg nicely complemented the rich mushrooms and rustic bread, while my salad was nothing short of sensational, a 6-inch-high tower packed with tasty nuggets of its four ingredients.
I had assured my wife that this was the place to have mussels, which is one of her favorite dishes. She took my advice and ordered the white wine, garlic and parsley version. There were 27 mussels by actual count, which she said were even better than those at Black Salt. My lamb shank ($23), one of 13 entrée choices, was falling-off-the-bone tender and swimming in a pool of tasty white beans.
I was tempted to order the Belgian bread pudding, which our waitress said was her favorite, but decided to save the calories by taking the word of two women seated next to us who raved about it.
After two visits, I was prepared to give Brasserie Beck one of my best ratings, but that was before a third visit on Monday that turned into a small disaster.
When my guest failed to show up, I repaired to the bar to wait for him. It took a full 10 minutes for a harried bartender to notice me, at which point I ordered a beer and decided to lunch alone. Two people next to me were eating the grilled trout in a lemon caper sauce ($18), which looked good, so I ordered it as well. Then I waited and waited, ordering another beer and wondering if they were still trying to catch my trout. Finally, after 30 minutes, I canceled my order. The young woman bartender apologized and didn’t charge me for my two beers.
Chef Wiedmaier, who divides his time between Marcel’s and Brasserie Beck when he isn’t riding his Harley-Davidson or taking his boys fishing on the Chesapeake Bay, wasn’t there or I would have complained to him. I think his new venture needs a little more hands-on attention to smooth out start-up glitches like those I encountered. Marcel’s is old enough to take care of itself, but his fledgling spin-off obviously isn’t.
Nevertheless, Brasserie Beck is an exciting spot with great potential, and a welcome addition to the D.C. dining scene.