Menu, service uneven at Belgian restaurant

January 04, 2001|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TO ANYONE intent on trying Belgian cuisine, a 70-mile drive round trip isn't terribly daunting. Especially if it leads to the only such restaurant in the area: Le Mannequin Pis in Olney. In order to enjoy the jaunt, however, be prepared for some unpredictable twists, in Route 108 south and the storefront eatery itself.

Named after the famous fountain in Brussels that features a small boy relieving himself, Le Mannequin Pis is tough to find, tucked away in a tiny strip shopping center a few yards from the intersection of routes 108 and 97. Inside, it's a cheerful little place with mango-colored walls, dark wood trim and a cozy bar lined with wine racks.

Owner and chef Bernard Dehaene, a native of Belgium, opened Mannequin in 1999, after he'd worked in Washington's prestigious La Colline and Le Caprice, and CafM-i des Artistes in Mount Washington. He primarily serves the dishes of his native land, which have French and Dutch overtones. But he's also not afraid to try some decidedly untraditional ingredients; kangaroo was the main one in a special entree the night we visited.

The kitchen's diminutive size means that the restaurant can get overwhelmed easily, as it did the night four of us went. Our cheerful server said upfront that things were going to be slow because almost every one of the 44 seats was taken. She then left us in the midst of ordering to check on a dish's availability, then reappeared several minutes later helping someone deliver food to another table.

Our patience paid off, but the overall experience was very uneven. Service swung from being nonexistent to incredibly attentive. And the food was either fabulous or just plain dull. But, because the good was very, very good (and because Le Mannequin is such a funky, good-hearted bistro), it was hard not to have a good time.

To get the fun rolling, Le Mannequin serves about 40 kinds of Belgian beers, which are famous enough in and of themselves to draw a crowd. My friend Vinnie ordered Kasteel, a potent light brew with 11 percent alcohol. "The other guy who ordered one just called a cab," the server gleefully announced. "And he's left his car in the parking lot."

I chose a medium-gold Orval to accompany the Orval onion soup, a delicious dark-brown broth laced with the beer and full of thick slices of onions, topped by melted goat cheese. The other appetizers rated as well as my soup. Vinnie's Belgian endive salad had thin slivers of crunchy tart apples. His wife, Anna, chose a dish of assorted wild mushrooms enveloped in a thick dark-brown sauce atop a brioche, and my husband, Tony, had a salad of curly lettuce loaded with bacon and tomato chunks.

We passed quickly on the kangaroo entree because, as Vinnie said, "Any kangaroo that makes its way to a U.S. restaurant via Belgium has got to be one street-smart, tough kangaroo."

I ordered a Belgian national dish of mussels, called moules in the Walloon (French-speaking) southern portion of the country and mosselen to the north in Flanders. (Dehaene lists each dish on the menu in French, English and Flemish.) It was by far the tastiest main course. Served in a huge black pot, the stack of plump mussels simmering in a fragrant sauce of white wine, tarragon, garlic and cream was enough for two. It came with a hefty side of small, thin pommes frites that also could have fed two people.

Tony's choice, the Flemish staple waterzooi (chicken and vegetables simmered in broth), was as disappointing as mine was delicious. The chicken was stringy and the broth flavorless. Vinnie's roast fillet of pork with figs and spinach served with a Chimay beer sauce had great potential - a beautiful cut of meat stuffed with ripe figs - but the overall taste was bland. Anna's sea bass with fresh figs and red cabbage also lacked flavor.

By the time we were ready to order dessert, we were the last people left in the restaurant and had missed out on Mannequin's specialty dessert, a chocolate terrine. So, we made do with a passable creme brulee, a dense chocolate mousse served in a small glass cup with a rolled cookie and a creamy baked Alaska served in full flame. The charmer of the group was a golden-brown Belgian waffle, which tasted faintly of vanilla and was topped with whipped cream and tart lingonberry sauce.

Mannequin Pis has potential, and Dehaene's staff seems devoted to him and his success. So, check your busy American lifestyle at the door, order a beer and a pot of mussels, and relax. You spent almost an hour getting there, why rush to leave?

Le Mannequin Pis

18064 Georgia Ave., Olney


Hours: Open Tuesdays to Fridays for lunch, Tuesdays to Sundays for dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers $3.50 to $12; entrees $12.50 to $22

Food: * * 1/2

Service: * * 1/2

Atmosphere: * * *

Ratings system: Outstanding * * * *; Good * * *; Fair/uneven * *; Poor *

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