Taking It Downtown
It's easy to imagine The Metropolitan on any corner in downtown Boston or Chicago. Unlike most Dallas restaurants parked in strip malls, high-rises or on thoroughfare frontage roads, The Metropolitan is in a structure older than your average Weezer fan. Lots older.
The Metropolitan is part of the Stone Street Historic District, a street that was converted into a "pocket park" in the mid-1950s. Yet it's an island, an enclave, a quaint little piece of revitalized urban real estate (with a fountain) parked among dreadful and deteriorating postwar architecture downtown. The Metropolitan's beautiful digs were assembled sometime between 1894 and 1918. The building The Metropolitan inhabits was at various times a Leggett Drug store, part of Woolworth's, Samuel Hargreaves Bookbinding, Rex Tailors and a couple of woolen outlets.
So this space has seasoning. The bar surfaces--one upstairs, one down--are recycled pine rafter beams. It's an odd bar-top selection, yet these surfaces are beautiful, embracing an unobtrusive kind of earthen grace that makes a glass of wine taste more like the dirt it came from. (And that's a good thing.) And pine, being a soft wood, is especially vulnerable to nicks and dings. Just think of the history they will collect in a very short time. The Metropolitan also has polished hardwood floors, lots of used brick and huge windows to give diners and imbibers an IMAX view of the downtown urban pulse that Dallas doesn't have.
The service is stellar (servers surreptitiously slip flatware pieces onto your place setting when the busboy absconds with them), and the wood tables are nearly as beautiful as the bar surfaces. The Metropolitan as currently drafted is more of a yuppie watering hole than a culinary event (chain-smokers belly up with abandon, but you hardly notice, the air is so efficiently vacuumed).
The eating part just hasn't reached the promise of the structure, one of the few fragments of Victorian-era architecture left in Dallas. That isn't to say the menu is a yawning cavity. The starter slate occupies top notches. Chicken lettuce wraps were light and brisk, with cool cupped leaves of iceberg placed like petals around a ramekin of chicken not too heavily seasoned. Consequently, they were more refreshing than assertive, though that isn't to say they weren't outspoken. The chicken, shreds swimming in a khaki-hued sauce and topped with crispy rice noodles, was lush and chewy.
So were the meats on the skewers, wooden pokers impaling strips of rich beef and moist tender chicken for plunging into a trio of sauces: soy-ginger, chili sauce and habanero cream. The skewers crisscrossed in a tangle of spindles over a centerpiece salad of crunchy, deseeded cucumber, bok choy and carrot splashed with a soy dressing.
But the most compelling arrangement was the ahi tuna salad: small heat-kissed medallions flaming their rosy hue next to a patch of greens leaning into a pinch of desperately fresh pickled ginger. Doused with a punchy, soy-lime vinaigrette, the salad was recklessly striped with thin strips of mango that picked up the dressing tang and calmed it with exotic tropical sweetness. The tuna was not of a superior grade. Missing was the racy silkiness that melts in your mouth, the sensual mutilation that lets mouthparts flirt unencumbered with exhilarating gore. These medallions had a slight stringiness, wrenching the mind from its savage reverie (tendons and muscular toughness in the raw come down hard on exotic daydreaming). Still, the near-raw meat was cool and smooth.
Tony Knight, who did time at The Mansion before he opened his own restaurant, Aransas Pass, crafts all this. After he sold the Aransas handiwork, Knight commanded the kitchens at North/South, the Bent Tree Country Club and Lombardi Mare. He has a little work to do here, though, because The Metropolitan menu dances a jarring kitchen twitch, flitting from sublime to gruesome.
It starts with fish. Pan-roasted halibut snoring on Swiss chard and citrus-chardonnay sauce was barely seasoned, if at all, and was firm, bordering on hard. Still, it was amazingly moist for its condition, but the sauce, a deep puddle of cool milky vapidness, contained not a spark to fend off the pointlessness with which it flirted. Citrus? Chardonnay? They must have been diverted to the bar blender.
Chicken scallopini piccata was equally ineffectual. Though the menu sees fit to point out that the dish is rendered from a "pounded 8 oz chicken breast," to us the meat seemed more whipped with fettuccine if it was in fact abused at all. The meat was thick (most restaurants in Dallas seem oblivious to the fact that scallopini and piccata are created with very thin pieces of veal or chicken, not cutlets as thick as falsie padding) and topped with herbs. It was settled on a cushion of al dente angel hair pasta gummed with an insipid cream sauce, similar to the milky lotion moisturizing the halibut. The effect was viscous and heavy, not light and brisk, as it would be if there were a hint of lemon, a standard piccata ingredient.
The pace picks up, though, with the 10-ounce fillet: a deliciously rich and juicy piece of tenderness. But that same beef (in a 6-ounce version) stink-bombed in the surf-and-turf ensemble. It wasn't the meat that was so much the degrading element (it was tough, but flavorful, dressed as it was in a bourbon shallot demi glace). It was the frightening Australian lobster tail swishing in chardonnay beurre blanc. The tail smelled fishy, and portions were translucent and mushy, as if it hadn't been cooked thoroughly. Our server insisted it was. So we picked at it and fiddled with a rosary, praying we wouldn't turn green at 3 a.m.
Our prayers were answered in the form of pork, that other white meat that used to turn people green if it wasn't cooked into a flak vest. This was the star of the menu. Heck, this would be the star of any menu, and it only costs 14 bucks. It wasn't pink in the center, but it was soaked with juice and plush with tenderness. The chop lounged on a bed of Granny Smith apples and was dressed with restrained doses of honey and thyme, creating an appealing range of flavors that were more savory than sweet.
Meat loaf was also good, but not so much because of the meat--a mixture of ground veal and sirloin--but because of how it was stuffed and dressed. The interior was infested with portobello mushrooms and spinach, which injected some earthy consonance. But the tomato gravy pushed it over the top. This sauce was brisk and rich, a tonic to jab the palate out of meat-loaf idleness.
Dessert suffered from the same waffles as the entrée slate. The blueberry crisp, topped with walnuts, was dry and pasty, more like a Powerbar than a meal finale. In contrast, the seven-layer chocolate cake bulged with chocolate richness, but not the kind that clogs your taste buds with a cloying blitzkrieg. This was deft richness.
The Metropolitan is the work of Joe Tillotson, Scott Cecil and Richard Winfield, who drafted such Dallas relics as the Barley House, East Side Grill and Muddy Waters. Here, they've thrown the dice on downtown (Jeroboam's success notwithstanding). If they could just get the spatulas to turn up sevens more consistently, they might be able to move on to building The Metropolitan into a Victorian-style house of evening vigor. Let's pray they do. Dallas desperately needs this strain of vitality.
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