Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

Mannequin Pis flexes its mussels in Olney

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Chilean sea bass is prepared with a black truffle and portobello mushroom sauce at Mannequin Pis in Olney.
Mannequin Pis

18064 Georgia Ave., Olney


Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 5-9:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-10:30 p.m. Sunday brunch from 11a.m.

Style of cuisine: Belgian

Credit cards: All major cards

In Brussels, mannekin pis, the famous fountain statue of a small boy urinating, stands in close proximity to some of the finest Belgian cafes and restaurants. In Olney, Mannequin Pis is the name and logo of a compact and delightful Belgian restaurant, opened nine years ago by Chef Bernard Dehaene. Undeterred by Chef Dehaene’s departure last year to open Restaurant Zot in Philadelphia, the resident management and kitchen talent keep the mussels coming and the tables full.

After making a reservation, you’d better know how to find it, wedged into a little strip of shops hidden behind another string of shops. Heading west on Georgia Avenue, keep your eyes on the left as you approach Route 108; you’ll miss it if you blink. It’s the quirky window front with little white lights strung in fronds of curly willow.

Part of the dining room charm is how close you are to your neighbors. Tables are so close it’s almost a banquet. In fact, the Chef’s Table must be the best party of eight in Montgomery County. Back at our deuce top, our neighbors, Mannequin regulars Jack and Vicky offered their unsolicited advice. An order of mussels with frites makes an excellent shared appetizer. Otherwise, there is nothing to dodge on the menu because it’s all good.

Classic Belgian cuisine is somewhere between rustic and elegant. The signature kilo of Prince Edward Island rope-grown mussels is served in a nifty little pot in which they are steamed. Its lid becomes a receptacle for empty shells. The restaurant serves 14 variations of steamed mussels, with names ranging from the classic mariniere, dijonaise, provancale to the playful Pop-Eye (with spinach), Red Devil (with Harissa and tomato) and Hawaiian (with pineapple coconut milk and mint). We ordered the ‘‘snob” mussels, steamed with a ladle of the house lobster bisque. Jack and Vicky taught us the technique of using the empty shell of the first mussel as pincers to extract the meat from the rest of the mussels. People all around us were slurping up the savory broth after their mussels were gone. The dregs of the ‘‘snob” pot were better than the cauliflower and crab soup, and that is saying a lot.

Apparently, french fries were invented in Belgium. The pommes frites that accompanied our mussels were among the best I’ve ever had. Crisp on the outside, steamy on the inside and lightly salted, they are served in a snazzy spiral wire cone along with a ramekin of tasty house made mayonnaise, which works, despite John Travolta’s lament in ‘‘Pulp Fiction.”

Sausages were next up: six varieties to chose from, with a half dozen different ‘‘sides” to accompany. From Strasbourg to Brussels, sauerkraut is peasant food elevated to elegance. The sauerkraut with the chipolata sausage was just right, simmered to perfection with a tiny lardon of bacon, white wine, herbs and stock.

Waterzooi, Flesmish for ‘‘watery mess” is a classic Belgian seafood stew, and Mannequin Pis tops theirs with half a broiled lobster. Carbonnade flamande is the classic beef stew made with beer. There are two varieties of Stoemp, carrot or leek cooked with bacon and herbs and pureed. Babanconne is not only the Belgian national anthem, it is also the technique for preparing Belgian Endive at Mannequin Pis, so you know pride is involved. Needless to say, Brussels sprouts are first among side dishes.

The entrée special of the day was veal rib chop with chanterelles and the mother of all tater tots: potatoes croquettes, which are bite-sized lozenges of rich mashed potatoes deep fried at the order. While all the elements of the dish were wonderful, the croquettes stole the show.

Dessert is primarily a study in varying degrees of bittersweet chocolate. The wine list is respectable, but the array of Belgian beers steals the show. Service is quick and efficient. Our server caught two mistakes before we did — wrong mussels, and later, weak espresso — and corrected them promptly before we could ask.

The kitschy obsession with the little boy peeing is tantamount to our fascination with all things Elvis. An image of the iconic statue indicates the men’s room, while a photo of ‘‘sister” statue Jeanneke Pis indicates the ladies’. I’m going back for the Monday night three-course meal for $25. And no doubt, Jack and Vicky will be at the beer and food pairing dinner next week.