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Keeping Up With the Lolas 

Can a suburban eatery compete with its downtown neighbors?

Lemon-basil cream sauce and artichoke risotto help wild Atlantic salmon leap with flavor. - WALTER NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Lemon-basil cream sauce and artichoke risotto help wild Atlantic salmon leap with flavor.
It's a land of strip malls and mini-plazas out here, the retail marts strung along U.S. 20 like children's plastic beads. The farther east we drive -- through Mentor and into Painesville Township -- the shinier the beads become, until we start to believe that they're emerging from the once-wooded landscape just before we pass.

Cookie-cutter suburbia seems an odd setting for an upscale eatery -- particularly one that likes to position itself as an alternative to the downtown Cleveland dining scene. In place of a buzzing street, The Metro Seafood & Steakhouse's sidewalk patio overlooks a vast asphalt parking lot; instead of a bustling urban marketplace, the nearest neighbor is a car dealer.

Inside the two-year-old restaurant, things get stranger still, with a carnival-like décor done up in shades of melon, green apple, scarlet, plum, and banana. Black-linen-topped tables are illuminated by oversize pendant lamps with gauzy fabric shades. Neon sconces line the mirrored back wall, their purple glow bouncing off the black granite-topped bar. Like a dripping faucet, the infernal Sinatra tinkles insistently in the background. "Straight out of the '90s," a companion sniffs.

In comparison to all this decorative hoopla, executive chef Bill Hawes' big menu seems downright staid, starting off with everyday crowd-pleasers like calamari, mussels, and spinach dip, meandering through a lineup of steaks, seafood, and pasta, pausing for the small collection of daily specials (also steaks, seafood, and pasta), and winding up with a tired triumvirate of treats: cheesecake, tiramisu, and chocolate mousse.

On the other hand, "old-fashioned" can be praiseworthy when it comes to prices, and here we stand impressed. Spaghetti and meatballs runs for $10.95; ahi tuna goes for $17; and a plush, well marbled, and vigorously seasoned 16-ounce rib steak (a special) sets us back a mere $20.95 -- a crisp tossed salad, freshly baked bread, sautéed mushrooms, baked potato, and mixed vegetables included. In a nod to kids, calorie-counters, and seniors, many of the dishes are available in "petite" portions, at even lower prices.

But the most important discovery is that nearly everything is remarkably well executed. That includes the simple house salad, a cool toss of leaf lettuces (a happy change from the expected iceberg), a few bits of tomato and red onion, and a thick, robust slather of housemade blue-cheese dressing. With the salads arrive diminutive slices of sweet, yeasty, made-from-scratch loaves, served with an actual slab of butter, not those messy foil-wrapped packets. Unfortunately, tonight it seems the bread was held in the warming drawer too long: The dainty slices are dry as toast.

A starter of breaded and fried mozzarella is well prepared, if predictable, with a crisp crumb coating and a splash of well-balanced marinara on the side. And if it doesn't exactly set off culinary fireworks, it does play nicely with our perfectly made Filthy Dirty Martinis ($10), generous shake-ups of Grey Goose and olive juice, with a garnish of blue-cheese-stuffed olives. (Alternatively, a small but serviceable international wine list offers a lineup of familiar names -- Fat Bastard, Ravenswood, and the like -- by the glass and by the bottle, mostly priced at under $25. And as befits a steakhouse, a more expensive reserve list pulls out the usual big guns -- fat, juicy reds like Silver Oak, Far Niente, and Merryvale.)

There's not a lot of lobster on the lobster bruschetta, and what there is tastes pretty bland; but the supporting cast -- ripe tomato, fresh basil, garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, and Romano cheese -- provides a juicy blast of summery flavor notes. On the side, more of that luscious marinara expands the chorus.

Clearly, Hawes is a chef who's not afraid of seasonings, and his openhanded use of garlic, butter, and fresh rosemary makes memorable an otherwise routine entrée of roasted pork tenderloin and smashed redskins. A toss of penne, grilled chicken, olives, and veggies (Chicken Aglio) lacks sass. But a prudent application of lemon-basil cream sauce adds savory dimension to an ample portion of wild Atlantic salmon, evenly seared to medium-rare, and served on a bed of flawless artichoke risotto.

The service has a few rough patches. On our first visit, salads arrive before we've finished our apps, and entrées show up while we're still enjoying our salads. On a second visit, inexperience is the culprit: Friendly but clueless, our young "trainee" never refills our drinks, forgets to bring our leftovers, and, while she knows enough to ask if we'd like dessert, she can't tell us the choices.

We should have taken this as a warning -- the desserts obviously don't overwhelm her -- but we order the chocolate mousse anyway. Served in a martini glass, it's lugubriously greasy -- wholly unworthy of its calories.

The Metro, it seems, is a place still looking for its niche. Owned by real-estate developer Tom Riebe and operated so far by several managers -- including Hawes, who recently added the management chapeau to his cap collection -- the eatery has already tried and discarded a couple of personas, including lunch venue and late-night hot spot. Sunday brunch has replaced lunch, and the large private dining-area-cum-dance-floor now hosts musical entertainment only sporadically.

Out-of-the-way location and oddball décor aside, though, the restaurant has at least one marketable asset: as quality and price go, dinner here is an enormous bargain. Does it rival downtown dining? Hardly. But it makes a great addition to its own suburban landscape.

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