- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Robert Wiedmaier named his first restaurant Marcel’s for his first born. Now, eight years later, Brasserie Beck, a French-Belgian bistro named for son No. 2, has arrived at the corner of 11th and K streets Northwest.

Mr. Wiedmaier envisioned his new restaurant as a contemporary version of a European railroad brasserie, and it does indeed evoke a certain old-fashioned train station. Only the coal smoke and whistles are missing.

Brasserie Beck looks great: high ceilings, space divided into dining compartments, clocks galore (none with the correct time), paper place mats, lots of glass and tile, dark wood with touches of blue throughout the restaurant, traditional large napkins, and lacelike curtains on the windows.

To the right as you enter from the 11th Street side is a long bar, crowded nightly with the hip and hustling. To get to the dining areas, you walk past the open kitchen and the service bar. You can watch the process on closed circuit television.

Unlike its European counterparts, however, Brasserie Beck is super noisy. There’s nothing to mute the sounds, which can be deafening when the 165 seats are occupied. On a recent evening, when the large private dining room at the rear of the restaurant was occupied by a wedding rehearsal dinner, it was impossible to hear the person sitting next to you. Machine shops are more restful. Lunch is less crowded and not as noisy.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot of good things going on at Beck, beginning with the terrific baguettes, baked on the premises and served with sweet whipped butter. You see the loaves on a kitchen table as you walk past: slim, crusty, hot. It’s the best French bread in town.

Salads and starters are excellent. Salads are composed of combinations of different greens with appropriate ingredients, such as frisee with bits of bacon and a poached egg; spinach with bacon, blue cheese and caramelized shallots; or bibb lettuce on thin slices of red beets. There’s also a small tower of chopped tomato, avocado, hearts of palm with small shrimp and a Marie-Rose sauce (a mix of ketchup and mayonnaise, very much like oft-maligned Thousand Island dressing).

There’s a long list of traditional brasserie starters: a charcuterie plate to be shared, quiche Lorraine, country pate, mussels gratin, brandade of codfish, and leak and potato soup, among numerous others. Pea soup with veal cheek meatballs is wonderful. The soup has a lovely smoky undertone and the three small meatballs are beautifully spiced. Garnished with chopped parsley, the pretty green soup is a delight.

House-made pate is more like a terrine than a smooth pate. It’s an authentic preparation of meats and pistachios, served with two tiny cornichons and a spoonful of delicious onion jam.

The quiche Lorraine is a satisfying lunchtime main course. The slice of quiche is browned on the sides, giving it the appearance of being individually baked. It’s sprinkled with pieces of good ham and onions, slightly creamy, not too salty and very tasty. The quiche comes with a serving of watercress salad sprinkled with chopped egg.

Crisp and crusty shrimp croquettes make another delicious starter, and it could be a light main course. Two plump croquettes of ground shrimp are deep fried and served with a chili mayonnaise with a little watercress on the side.

Roast pork tenderloin was superb. The meat was fork-tender, delicious and cooked so as to remain a little rosy. The meat was accompanied by a creamy confit of cabbage and a mustard sauce. Both enhanced the meat, especially the cabbage, which had acquired a lovely mellow, creamy quality.

A grilled sirloin in a peppercorn and cognac sauce — at $24 the most expensive entree on Beck’s menu, which is identical noon and night — was well prepared and cooked as ordered.

Unfortunately, not everything turned out as well as the pork and beef. Coq au vin was merely adequate, served in a thick and unattractive brown onion sauce. A dish of mussels was disappointing. The mussels were oversized and mealy; the classic brew in which they were cooked and served, a combination of white wine, garlic and parsley, was oversalted. (Do all chefs have an interest in a salt mine?) Belgian fries (“french” fries being a misnomer) accompanying the mussels are good. Thin and nicely spiced, they are served with three mayonnaises in the Belgian style: regular, curry and tomato. They’re good even when not piping hot (as they should be).

Brasserie Beck prepares several Belgian main courses: beef carbonnade; chicken waterzooi; and choucroute en croute, sauerkraut with sausages in a pastry shell. Lamb shank with white beans; rabbit loin roasted in kriek (one of Belgium’s many specialty beers, this one with cherries added during the brewing process); and duck breast with couscous round out the meat menu. Skate, salmon, trout and monkfish are choices from sea and stream.

A dessert not to be missed is Beck’s Belgian bread pudding, a rich and fragrant concoction laced with chocolate and served on a bed of vanilla sauce. A small round caramel cheesecake is delicious, too.

Service is uneven, but always pleasant and eager to please without being obsequious. Several of the waiters are familiar with the dishes and wines and give good advice; others are not. Waiting time between courses can be long, even when the restaurant is not full.

Brasserie Beck’s prices for food and wine are unusually reasonable, with several bottles of wine on the extensive and interesting wine list available for under $20, a genuine rarity in Washington restaurants. Truly extraordinary is the list of Belgian beers, including Delirium Tremens — a blond beer with pink elephants on the label on a bottle painted to look like it is ceramic. The menu for the eight-seat chef’s table can be paired with wines or Belgian beers.

Brasserie Beck’s food isn’t always perfect, and the place is noisy. But noise or not, the pea soup, pork tenderloin, bread pudding and, of course, the bread, butter and Belgian brews are worth return trips.

RESTAURANT: Brasserie Beck, 1101 K St. NW, 202/408-1717

HOURS: Lunch 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5 to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday and to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Starters $8 to $24; main courses $16 to $24; desserts $8

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Some street parking; dinner valet parking, $7

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Metro Center or McPherson Square

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