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Brian McBride is frying up some severed shrimp heads, part of an ambitious recipe for a new pasta dish.
For a veteran of the restaurant scene in Washington, with its sizeable international population and its proliferation of sushi joints, the noggins might not seem especially out of the ordinary. But McBride, the former chef at D.C.’s Blue Duck Tavern, is testing this garnish for an entirely different market: Atlantic City.
If all goes as planned, the gritty gambling town on the Jersey Shore will represent the first trans-Beltway effort by McBride and his equally D.C.-regional collaborator, Robert Weidmaier, proprietor of Marcel’s and Brasserie Beck. The duo is opening a new 230-seat eatery inside Revel Atlantic City, the state-government-backed, 47-story hotel tower and resort slated to be the newest competitor to A.C. landmarks like Harrah’s, the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa, and Caesar’s.
Atlantic City, of course, has made some significant gustatory strides in recent years, importing kitchens created by the likes of San Francisco-based Michael Mina, New York-based Bobby Flay, and Philadelphia-based Stephen Starr. McBride and Weidmaier are perhaps its first D.C.-bred toques. But like the already established celebrity chefs who regularly helm eateries in tourist towns like Atlantic City and Las Vegas, they’re hoping to become national players.
And the vehicle for their pan-American ambitions is one that Washington diners—at least those among them willing to brave suburban Maryland—would recognize. They’re calling it Mussel Bar—just like Weidmaier’s existing beer-centric, steamed mollusk-based eatery in Bethesda.
Of course, the actual establishment will feel more like Weidmaier’s more sophisticated Brasserie Beck, located downtown. “It’ll be definitely a little more upscale dining than the Mussel Bar,” says McBride. The restaurant, he points out, “sits right on the edge of the casino floor.” The new venue will feature, among other things, an open kitchen “so that everyone has a view from the dining room,” he says, as well as a proper stage for other performances, including live music.
While the current suburban Maryland location has its charms—“it is what it is and it works,” says McBride—the partners are hoping the flashier Atlantic City venue will redefine the brand for future expansion.
The foray onto the national stage suggests a new benchmark for D.C. chefs: the ability to extend name recognition and reach beyond the Beltway. Sure, there are a couple of local cooking celebrities who have already managed to open restaurants in far-flung places. Both José Andrés and Michel Richard operate eateries in Las Vegas, for instance. Andrés’ empire also extends to Los Angeles, Miami and, coming soon, Puerto Rico.
But few others have managed to make it farther than Tysons.
In Atlantic City, McBride and Weidmaier round out an impressive lineup of bold-named chefs from other cities, including Philadelphia’s Jose Garces and New York’s Marc Forgione, all of whom have been recruited to help make Revel a respectable dining destination. That’s what the hotel’s developers hope, at any rate: Weidmaier says executives from Revel Entertainment approached him after dining at Marcel’s one night four years ago and suggested he bring his business to Jersey.
“At the beginning, I was kind of, like, Atlantic City? I don’t know,” Weidmaier says. It took a few trips to some of the Jersey city’s newer resorts before the Marcel’s boss was sold on the idea. “I was amazed at how nice The Water Club and the Borgata was,” he says, “and how packed the restaurants were—even during a recession.”
For the local guys’ purposes, however, the seaside setting is just a launching pad—an example of what can be done elsewhere up and down the East Coast and beyond. “We’ve been approached from as far away as New Orleans,” says McBride. To hear him tell it, the pair has multiple concepts in mind for multiple locations, including an altogether different restaurant of McBride’s own design somewhere in the D.C. area.
But first, they’ll need to get the Jersey joint up and running. The goal is to open on Mar. 15. And there’s still a lot to do.
The duo has hired a chef de cuisine from Oakland, Calif. to head-up the staff. They’re still looking for sous chefs, among other positions, to round out the kitchen crew. Prospective candidates, know this: love of travel is a big plus. “We’re looking for guys that we can move to A.C. and move to different cities as we build,” McBride says. “We’re going to build a farm team for the future.”
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On Friday afternoon, McBride is working in the kitchen at Brasserie Beck, testing new recipes for the beachfront launch. One dish is a traditional onion soup with a slight spin: a gruyere soufflé on top of the standard crouton. (“Needs more cheese,” he decides after sampling the delicate topping.) Another is a homemade shrimp ravioli made from wonton skins, tossed in a creamy butter and white wine sauce with fresh-cut corn. Fried shrimp heads or not, he thinks the pasta will prove quite popular come summertime, when the restaurateurs expect to “get hammered,” he says—at least in terms of foot-traffic.
McBride is also tinkering with what could be the most important component to the menu in Atlantic City: the steak. The seaside town has about as many steakhouses as casinos and a prime cut of beef is virtually obligatory for any restaurant that wants to lure high rollers.
“We want a sexy steak,” McBride says, brandishing two substantial cuts of beef, a 52-ounce porterhouse and a noticeably smaller but still considerable tomahawk chop. He plans to cook both and see which works best. “We’re going to do this in more of an Italian style,” says McBride. “We’re going to crust it heavily, with salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary, thyme, and we’re going to put it on the grill until we get a huge char on it.”
As he chops up the seasonings, McBride dishes a bit about his new deal with Weidmaier, a guy he’s known for more than 20 years. “I had a few things that I wanted to do,” he says. “He had a few things that he wanted to do. We decided to team up and do ’em together.” Normally, you’d expect the pairing of two big-name chefs to quickly devolve into irreconcilable ego-clashes. But so far, McBride says, things are working out nicely.
Locals who don’t want to drive to Atlantic City to lose at blackjack can also sample McBride’s current handiwork on what he says is a revamped menu at Brasserie Beck, where he’s attempting to refocus the kitchen on “traditional techniques and the long slow cook.” Working with new chef de cuisine Will Morris, McBride’s already jettisoned the restaurant’s previous incarnation of a cassoulet, which he describes as a sort of modern deconstructed version, and replaced it with a more classic style. He’s also streamlined the varieties of mussels available, reducing the options from nine to five. The old lamb ragout pasta is gone, but McBride has added salmon cooked inside parchment paper. In a few months, he aims to introduce new plats du jour and more seafood.
“I would like to see things like octopus and squid on the menu,” McBride says. “In researching the brasseries of Belgium, you know, they were kind of a seafaring nation. And there was a lot of seafood to be had. Not enough here.”
In interviews, McBride casts Weidmaier as a partner. But while it’s true that McBride has an interest in the shared venture, the Marcel’s proprietor is the boss. “I brought Brian in as basically my corporate chef for all my restaurants,” Weidmaier says. “I needed to bring in a seasoned chef that I trust as a good friend to help me expand and do what I want to do.”
In exchange for his chef-partner’s culinary retooling, Weidmaier will be backing McBride in developing a new restaurant concept that is all his own. He doesn’t elaborate on what it will be. “I don’t believe necessarily in chef-driven concepts,” McBride says. “I like concepts. Concepts last forever. Chefs come and go….You have to come up with the right concept and then the concept will continue.” He says he hopes to include a retail component to the standard sit-down dining experience.
After some substantial grilling time, McBride slices his two test steaks into thin slivers, almost like roast beef—a style he cribbed from former Tosca chef Cesare Lanfranconi. He suggests that the skinny cuts help to even out the steak’s inherent saltiness. “Cutting it like this gives you all that flavor, but it doesn’t overpower you,” he says.
McBride plates the sliced meats alongside their bones and adds a little red wine jus. But the key ingredient comes last: fresh-squeezed lemon splashed all over. “This makes the difference right here,” he says.
Maybe the best part about launching a new restaurant on the Jersey shore: McBride and Weidmaier get a crash pad on the beach. Leasing such a spot is another item on McBride’s to-do list this week. It’s the sort of set up one might expect to attract some of the Jersey shore’s most nefarious characters. McBride fields that question with a wry grin.
“That was the whole PR plan—get Snooki in sometime,” he says. “We joke around. But, hey, who knows?”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
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