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Mussel mass on Eighth Street SE

Tough call, picking a winner among these three: Mussels o’ the day prepared by Belga Café, Et Voila! and Brasserie Beck. (Bonnie S. Benwick/The Washington Post)

Anybody with a pot and a pantry can cook mussels. But the white wine-garlic-parsley treatment is so quinze minutes ago. That’s why it was great to get ideas for new flavor combinations from the pros at Saturday’s inaugural mussels three-way throwdown among Brasserie Beck, Et Voila! and Belga Café, where it was held out back in the steamy heat.

The three restaurants consider themselves the authentic vanguard of Washington’s Belgian takeover, which seems not at all hostile and very beer-friendly. They came up with the From Belgium With Love 2010 Tour (July 15-21), which began with dinner at the Belgian ambassador’s residence last Thursday and ends with the special menus and dishes at the three restaurants on Wednesday, Belgium National Day.

For Saturday's competition, Beck sous-chefs experimented for a few weeks and came up with a combo of preserved lemon (made in-house and cut into small dice), braised and diced fennel, white wine, goat cheese and fines herbes. Executive sous-chef Brian Klein steamed Blue Bay mussels from Rhode Island in a sauté pan on an induction burner.

Et Voila! chef-owner Claudio Pirollo and chef Bertrand Morpain used Blue Bays (and an induction burner) as well, but treated them to a lobster-bisque broth, minced shallots, concasse of fresh tomatoes, white wine, olive oil, garlic and a heap of frizzled vegetables used in waterzooi – a classic Belgian stew that Pirollo’s restaurant does so well.

Home-turf advantage gave Vandaele the edge he thought would make the difference: a kettle grill, which lent a slight smokiness to his “beerbecue” mussels in small cast-iron pots. He and chef Martino Castillo added basil oil, shallots, lemon thyme, chives, garlic, basil, parsley and a St. Feuillien Saison to plump Prince Edward Island beauties, served with grilled scallions and grilled slices of country bread.

The seafood was ready in minutes; the judging (The ListAreYouOnIt’s Nycci Nellis, Urban Daddy editor Jeff Dufour and myself) was quick, dispatched with frites and refreshing alcoholic beverages. None of us would turn down any of those three dishes had they been plopped in front of us individually. But Beck’s dish won the day. The goat cheese made the broth a little creamy; the fennel and preserved lemon gave it texture. Klein pledges it will appear on Beck’s menu and may even share the recipe. Stay tuned.

-- Bonnie S. Benwick

From left: Brasserie Beck executive sous-chef Brian Klein; Belga Café chef-owner Bart Vandaele; Et Voila! chef Bertrand Morpain; Belga Café chef Martino Castillo; Et Voila! Chef-owner Claudio Pirollo. (Bonnie S. Benwick/The Washington Post)

By The Food Section  |  July 19, 2010; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Chefs  | Tags: Bonnie S. Benwick, chefs  
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