Restaurant Reviews

Up, Out And Down

The opening act was almost comic. The setup: waiting at the sparsely attended bar for a dinner companion to arrive, ordering vodka martini up with a twist, "a martini, please." The improv take: After searching for a couple minutes the bartender decides they've run out of Monopolowa. How 'bout Stoli? Another fruitless search--out of that, as well. Fine, just pick anything. Eventually we ended up with a tumbler full of ice drizzled with a little bit of the stinging spirit. Then we crossed over to the near-empty restaurant side and asked for calamari to start. A few minutes passed before the waiter returned and informed us the kitchen ran out. Hmmm...out of Mono, out of Stoli, out of calamari--but no crowd.

Our second visit introduced an almost tragic twist. An appetizer order of chile-roasted shrimp was not fully cooked. Oh, the outer layer appeared firm and white. Inside, however, was a chewy, opaque gray, disturbing mass.

Before our third trip to the Knox-Henderson strip mall, we decided a little Vaudevillean buffoonery trumped the possibility of a gut-wrenching near-death experience. In other words, we opted to start our evening once again at the bar. True to form, staff members poked around for our request, uncertain of stock. We cut off their search and just ordered beer--Duvel, to be exact. The bartender handed it to us without a glass, which isn't a problem to fans of smooth domestic longneck brands. Belgian ales, however, generally require a vessel to curb the sting of carbonation and open up the flavors. Some of the brews are so finicky as to demand glasses of peculiar shapes and sizes. Now at our table on the restaurant side, we called for another round. The waiter began dumping our Duvel into a common pint glass with gusto. The first drops splashed against the bottom and began to foam up furiously. He apologized, disappeared for a moment, then let us know new drinks were on the way and that the bartender told him Duvel should be poured into a tulip-shaped glass. Shortly after that announcement, he brought the replacement...in another common pint glass.

Bah-dah-bum.

The denouement is strangely anticlimactic, even misleading. Clouseau-esque errors don't extend too far into the experience. And the dining crowd missed out on little failures common to a restaurant's opening, for the most part. Only one other four-top graced the dining room during our stay on a Thursday night. Saturday evening welcomed a modest group as well. The following Wednesday, everyone at the bar appeared to be friends of staff members. Considering the unintentional tragicomic events greeting us on each of three visits, one would expect a dinner memorable for clumsy service or woeful meals--something to explain the empty tables.

Ah, but here's the feel-good plot twist: In the end, Metro Grill is nothing like the bumbling, stumbling place we just described.

Remember Jaden's? Mark and Dirk Kelcher's fancy, overhyped bar/restaurant/VIP club flopped. The new iteration was downscaled to a "grill" concept. The menu reads like one of those something-for-everyone diners--you know, burgers and chicken-fried steak, soups and sandwiches, rib eye steaks and chicken breasts. No more paid memberships, no more cool door guys. More flat screen TVs. It's as if Robert Johnson tried to play intricate blues, failed to catch on and disappeared for a while to learn "Chopsticks" on a piano.

Transformations such as this take a little time. The slapstick routines we encountered at the bar represent growing pains or incomplete training. We attribute the near-empty dining room more to the previous fiasco than any current failing. Indeed, considering price points and the "average Joe" menu, there are some welcome surprises at Metro Grill. The burger, for instance, balances the robust char and meaty comfort of the perfect all-American patty. But these burgers are stuffed, meaning patrons select from a list of ingredients--bacon, roasted garlic, sautéed mushrooms and the like--which end up as a thin strata molded inside the burger. The result is an intricate medley of flavors hiding like a shy child behind the bold taste of ground beef, catching your attention momentarily, enticing you. The child becomes a focal point, even while dodging your gaze. For instance, a burger enhanced with bacon and jalapeño with a topping of blue cheese first struck us as nothing more than a great piece of meat just flicked from the backyard grill onto a squishy bun. Then a little waft of smokiness and sharper notes from the other selections strolled lightly across the palate. Finally the varying textures came into play. It was a great experience. Even the loaded version, a seemingly frightening mélange of everything on their list, presented subdued taps of must, smoke and a subtle bitter/sweet/vegetal essence poking through. The only flaw is the medley of cheeses, which melt into a blob of indistinguishable flavors. Better to stick with a single topping rather than harm an otherwise great burger.

Texans in our group raved over the chicken-fried steak. According to the waiter, kitchen staff marinate hunks of red meat for a few weeks before pounding all the character out of it. The shell, however, was good and crunchy, with an easy little kick of spice. Instead of the usual pasty white gravy, Metro Grill ladles out a rich, tangy pool resembling buttermilk. It's a sharp accompaniment. Three forms of potato flashed in oil were equally surprising. Natural cut fries approach excellence--crisp but not greasy. Although most restaurants serve the other all-American dish, one rarely finds French fries so, well, right. The so-called Metro fries are little medallions fried up and doused with enough spicy seasoning that they take on a rusty hue. A deft hand slices house-cut potato chips so thin they almost appear transparent. Again, they're brittle and sprinkled with just the right amount of salt.

Good stuff. On the other hand, we can't forget the kitchen handed us a plate of supposedly roasted shrimp.

Not everything works well here. Center-cut pork chops sit drenched in a coffee glaze on a bed of white cheddar grits. The meat itself is decent and the sauce a brilliant declination of bitter, sweet and Southwestern notes. Unfortunately the latter must interact with a pile of ground corn less forgiving when introduced to strong flavors. To bite into grits fully sopped in coffee is to experience an unpleasantly face-twisting acridity. Suggestion: Serve the grits in a separate dish, and the entrée works. Texas catfish should awaken whatever Cro-Magnon traits still exist in modern palates. Remember, digging into a good, fresh mud-dweller is like eating all the muck settled onto the bottom of a still, brown river. An acquired taste, certainly, but Metro Grill's version is merely bland. The salmon BLT sandwich sounds interesting enough--seared fish sharing a bun with the usual stuff. Too bad the salmon was dry and basic, the bacon minimal. Each bite made us regret the selection.

None of the appetizers stood out. Well, except for the shrimp, but that's more of a nightmare. We sampled a monotonous crab and spinach dip, its life quenched by hollow flavors, vaguely one-dimensional crab cakes buried under a colorful pile of slaw and corn which proved much more intriguing, along with a nondescript shrimp (of the popcorn variety) and chorizo quesadilla.

But this is no longer Jaden's, no longer pretending to be a hip destination for gourmands. Hordes of people gulp up equally monotonous spinach dips at chain restaurants, after all. There's nothing really to dislike about Metro Grill. OK, the raw shrimp--we're still miffed about that. Blah apps and inoffensive fried catfish, though, appeal to those looking for nothing more than an evening of mindless shoveling.

That's most of us.

So, white chili (meaning chicken and northern white beans instead of beef and...and...hey, no beans in Texas chili, damn it) seems adventurous, what with the addition of peanut butter to the mix. Really, however, it's of the middling sort. A whiff of grade-school lunchroom aroma hits the nose, but after that, muddled peanuts only lend a thicker mouth feel. The other soup, tomato corn bisque, starts with a nice starchy-sweet undertone before the dominant wham of poblano kicks in. Wedge salad? A good tart and salty dressing over a prosaic chunk of iceberg lettuce.

Let's not forget the burgers and fries, well worth the short jaunt from wherever. By downscaling, the owners are headed in the right direction. 4425 N. Central Expressway. 214-261-6000. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $-$$

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Dave Faries
Contact: Dave Faries

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