Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Bistros -- Mannequin Pis

Roundups of the top 100 restaurants in the DC Metro area regularly include Mannequin Pis, a Belgian bistro unprepossessingly located in Olney, the deepest and darkest part of suburbia, and less than a mile from where we live. I have long wanted to eat there, but while we all know that in Europe a bistro is a place where you can get a three-course meal, often including wine, for less than twenty euros, when a bistro gets translated into American, you're usually talking about a nine-dollar starter, a twenty-dollar entree, and a seven-dollar dessert, which brings you thirty-six dollars before making any provision for the state government, the waiter, or your oenophilia. There are, of course, plenty of people who think nothing of dropping sixty bucks a head for a meal, and without such people, the restaurant industry at the higher end would not exist, and that would be a bad thing. But for reasons that are only partly based on affordability, I require a very special occasion to even consider such a meal. (See related rant here.)

Fortunately, yesterday was V.'s birthday, and while I'd already dropped a fair chunk of change on the trip to the Met, it seemed wrong not to take him out on the actual day (especially since I was at work and couldn't cook myself). I would normally take him to Sol Azteca, where we always get a good meal at a good price, but I decided that I would at least consider Mannequin Pis, and when I checked out their web page, and I discovered that on Mondays, they have a three-course prix fixe menu for only $20.05 ($25.05 if you pay with a credit card; it's a fairly ridiculous surcharge, and much of the non-food section of the menu seems to have been written by someone with a chip on his shoulder, but it was no big deal to stop by the ATM on the way there). So I called for a reservation for three (Monday is one of A.'s nights with us), and they had an opening at 7:45.

The Belgians generally, and Mannequin Bis particularly, are very fond of mussels, and about half of the entrees on the prix fixe menu were some variation or other of steamed mussels. Each mussel entree gives you a full kilo of mussels and is accompanied with pommes frietes, which, the extra e notwithstanding, are remarkably similar to pommes frites. I chose the mussels steamed with horseradish and beer. A. chose the pan-seared rockfish with a potato stoemp, and V. had monkfish. I don't remember exactly how the monkfish was prepared, and the restaurant was a good deal darker than is strictly necessary, so I didn't get a good look at it, but V. reported that it was very good. A. reported that her rockfish was also fine and that the stoemp was especially nice. My mussels were everything that mussels should be, and perhaps a bit more: when I got down towards the bottom of the pot, I ran into a bit of sand. Even though most of the weight of mussels is in the shell, a kilo of mussels is still a lot of edible meat, and I didn't finish mine. The pommes frietes were among the best I've ever had.

The Monday menu (there is only the prix fixe menu on Monday, and it is only available on Monday) includes four appetizers. I had boudin blanc with lentils, which was tasty. A. had a salad of baby lettuce with applewood smoked bacon, and V. had some sort of radicchio salad. Both reported that their salads were "all right." The dessert last night was an unremarkable mango sorbet.

Mannequin Pis has a decent wine list and a very impressive beer list. Belgium is rightfully proud of its breweries. V. and I shared a "grande bier" 750 ml of something called Piraat Ale (I know nothing about Belgian beers; I told the waitress we wanted a pale ale, and that's what she brought us). "Arrrrr," as A. said when I showed her the bottle. I don't know if all Belgium beer shares this characteristic, but Piraat Ale is 10.5% alcohol by volume, so while it's a pale ale, it's not to be taken lightly. It's a very good beer, though, and it gets even better with food. At $18.50 a bottle, it's also the cheapest beer of that size on the beer list. Most of the large bottles are $20, and one or two were $30, which seems like a lot of money for beer. The menu attempts to blame the prices for beer and wine on Montgomery County and says something about lack of delivery. It seems a bit disingenuous to me; on the other hand, it's tough to find a decent bottle of wine on most restaurant menus for less than that.

We very much enjoyed our dinner last night, but I find it difficult to gush about Mannequin Pis. As I explained to V. last night on the way home, the existence of such a restaurant only serves to remind me that a) we don't have home-grown equivalents at reasonable prices and b) we could probably have gotten the same meal in Belgium for a third (or more) less. The three of us ate for $105, and only two of us had beer. If I'd used a credit card, and if we'd each gotten a roll with butter (astonishingly, an extra $2.50 per person), and if A. had felt like having a soda, I'd have been up to $130. Again, I can occasionally afford such meals without feeling a pinch, and it would not be an unreasonable price when compared with other similar meals, and if I have another special occasion on a Monday, I might very well go there again. And I can certainly recommend the restaurant without hesitation.

But mostly, the experience makes me want to seek out a decent source of Belgian beer, learn to make (or buy) my own boudin blanc, and make my own lentils and stoemp.


Anonymous lindy said...

How right you are. But I want some mussels and frites very much indeed. And there is an expensive Belgian restaurant near my home, too. It gets good reviews, but have not been there yet, due to the $$$ issues.

9:14 AM  
Blogger anapestic said...

I suspect that getting the good fri(e)tes is largely a matter of finding the right potato/fat combination. Years ago, I made my own, and they were very good even with something like peanut oil or nonspecific vegetable oil. The mussels are harder, but only because it's not so easy to find a reliable source of high quality mussels for me. As much as anything, my frustration with restaurants is jealousy that they seem to have access to supplies that I don't have. Everyone should have access to top quality meat, poultry, seafood, and produce. But of course, we mostly don't.

2:01 PM  

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