Meet Me at the Metro

The Hyde Park group lands another downtown winner.

The Metropolitan Café 1352 West Sixth Street Lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; café menu, 2 to 5 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until midnight; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.


Chef Robin Wilkins, formerly of Napa Valley Grille, - has made a welcome Metro stop. - Walter  Novak
Chef Robin Wilkins, formerly of Napa Valley Grille, has made a welcome Metro stop.
The southwest corner of West Sixth and St. Clair is once again abuzz with the well-heeled trendinistas who have given Warehouse District dining its undeniable panache. Remodeled, redecorated, and renamed by owners Joe Saccone, Richard Hauck, and Alton F. Doody Jr. (head honchos of the ever-expanding Hyde Park Restaurant Systems Inc.), the former Piccolo Mondo space -- prime real estate with an enviable urban view -- has been transformed into a smart art-deco-influenced dining room with attentive service and a modern American menu of substantial steaks and seafood.

While that menu, with its 20-ounce Porterhouse and wood-grilled sea bass, will undoubtedly seem familiar to fans of the other Hyde Park holdings, including the seven Hyde Park Grilles around the state and in New Orleans and Blake's Seafood Grill in Chagrin Falls, this is not to imply that the Metropolitan Café is anybody's clone. Despite its corporate ownership, the Metro has enough energy and authentic style to be properly considered an original.

The large, mostly wide-open space includes four distinct dining areas and a central black-granite-topped island bar. Soft recessed lighting wafts upward toward the high pressed-tin ceiling, then drifts back down into the room with a subtle sepia glow. Against that dusky backdrop, tabletops sparkle with candlelight and gleaming bistro-style dishware, and two walls of floor-to-ceiling windows admit an up-close view of the downtown skyline. Except in the area around the bar, the former stone floors have been replaced with carpet and hardwood, and a few fat, upholstered armchairs, in deep jewel tones, are scattered among the tables. Still, the noise level is high, and sometimes only the thumping beat of the house music -- mostly modern jazz and techno on this night -- is audible above the happy babble.

Chef Robin Wilkins (here after a brief stint at Beachwood's Napa Valley Grille) and his crew do a good job of infusing the food with personality while still adhering to the Hyde Park cookbook. À la carte side dishes, like horseradish-spiked mashed potatoes and a very grown-up version of macaroni and cheese, with mostaccioli rigate enrobed in nutty Gruyère and finished with a layer of buttery bread crumbs, are audacious and delicious. Salads -- say, the long grilled asparagus nestled in a pouch of ruby radicchio on a sleek black plate, sided with thin wafers of Parmigiano Reggiano and curls of prosciutto; or perhaps the tongue-tingling red-wine poached pear, fanned out beside a tangle of emerald field greens and finished with candied pine nuts, crumbled Gorgonzola, and a fruity pear au jus vinaigrette -- are as flavorful as they are beautifully composed. And a bowl of chowder, pastel yellow and crammed with tender bits of shrimp, corn, potatoes, red and green pepper, celery, and onion in a thin but richly flavored cream broth, is sweet, fresh, and stout.

As expected, the kitchen also knows what to do with a prime piece of beef. At lunch, a huge New York strip steak sandwich, done to an aromatic medium-rare and served with creamy saut´ed onions and mushrooms on a slab of grilled ciabatta bread, was almost melt-in-your-mouth tender and full of beefy taste. And at dinner, the Surf & Turf, with its crisp cold-water lobster tail, plump filet mignon, and a toss of smoky grilled vegetables, was a pricey but perfectly executed splurge that more than lived up to our expectations.

A lovely filet of "lacquered" salmon, brushed with a fragrant ginger glaze, was also first-rate. Only a few BTUs shy of sashimi, the sweet filet rested on a silky green island of wilted spinach, in a shallow pool of miso broth. Given the gentle treatment the salmon had enjoyed, we were surprised to find a portion of pistachio-crusted grouper just a bit past perfectly done: While we had no complaints about its flavor, its texture was drier than it needed to be. Happily, the grouper's juicy underpinnings of grilled fennel bulb and artichoke, in a sparkling lemon-basil vinaigrette, almost completely made up for it.

At lunchtime, the veal meatloaf was a treat. A blend of ground meat, vegetables, and spices, wrapped in perky peppered bacon and finished on the wood grill, the entr´e had the dense, moist texture of a pât´, as well as an understated flavor nicely set off by an accompanying brown veal gravy. However, an intense and ultimately overwhelming starter of wild-mushroom-and-blue-cheese ravioli proved too heavy for a first course; the dish is also available as an entr´e, where it seems more likely to please, rather than pummel, the palate. And an appetizer of Shellfish Seviche Cocktail, described on the menu as lobster, shrimp, and scallops, turned out to be mostly large hunks of none-too-tender calamari. Even more disappointing, it was given a nontraditional finish of crème frâiche, which served to mute the effervescent citrus-and-chile rush that sevicheheads crave.

On the other hand, the staff has created an ambiance that could hardly be more tasty. Bartenders proved generous and efficient, servers were relaxed and knowledgeable, and at least three members of management, as well as Chef Wilkins, took turns circulating through the dining room to check on guests' satisfaction on a recent Saturday night. Another thoughtful touch: While the open floor plan leaves no room for a coat check, plenty of sturdy coat trees are planted throughout the space to hold one's wrap far above floor level, eliminating the pesky problem of having servers tromp across that precious full-length fur all night long.

For dessert, there are a half-dozen pretty, calorie-laden confections, including tiramisu, white chocolate strawberry shortcake, and a well-done rendition of vanilla bean crème brûl´e. Chocolate-Caramel Torte -- moist chocolate-and-caramel cake topped with a layer of delicate ganache and served on commingled puddles of chocolate and caramel sauces -- was good, although terrifically rich. But a warm, rustic Apple Galette lost points for its flaccid crust and its not especially flavorful filling. Truth be told, the desserts that stand out the most in our own sweet tooth's memory are the ribbed martini glasses filled with ice creams and sorbets from Mitchell's Homemade Ice Cream in Westlake. Their secret recipe Chocolate-Chocolate Chunk ice cream is a rich matrix of dense, bittersweet ice cream supporting chewy little chunks of fudge. And three pudgy scoops of shocking pink sorbet, flavored with a sweet-tart blend of cranberry, Cointreau, and Citron vodka, would bring any meal to a light and sophisticated conclusion.

For their newest restaurant's logo, the Hyde Park people have recruited Cleveland's handsome Guardians of Transportation -- the burly sandstone fiduciaries of the Hope Memorial Bridge -- and their manly images are scattered throughout the restaurant, most visibly on a frosted-glass panel near the front door. It's always a pleasure to see those strapping fellows, winged, garlanded, and cradling the history of transportation in the palms of their hands. And here among the big, urbane crowds at the Metropolitan, the boys seem right at home.

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