Be All That You Can Be
Metropolitan Could be an All-Purpose Destination if it Can Solve its Identity Crisis
I enjoy myself more in a restaurant that knows what it wants to be. When the general idea seems confused or halfhearted, I get anxious, maybe lose a little confidence. Metropolitan Coffee House and Wine Bar opened recently in a real stumper of a location. Originally the home of One World Café, and more recently Caffe Brio, the Federal Hill building’s trickster layout—downstairs, small and cozy; upstairs, larger and less so—just plain worked in its grungy coffeehouse days. Folks came in, ordered at the counter, and found a place to sprawl. Caffe Brio, which came next, threw out most of One World’s popular and niche-earning vegan-friendly menu items and replaced them with deeply dull café fare. More troubling, though, was the unsettling post-coffeehouse space—was it still just for casual drop-bys, or something more? This latest incarnation, Metropolitan, has already made obvious improvements—in the kitchen, especially, but some spiffy cosmetic upgrades, too—but the central problem—what is this place?—lingers.
Most people coming in for dinner will want to sit downstairs, near the lively new wine bar, but there are now fewer tables than ever down here. With fresh paint and open passageways, the upstairs dining rooms are much happier places to be, but it still feels as though it’s a novelty for the staff when customers want to dine up there. And it just doesn’t feel right to put wait-served tables next to laptop-using coffee drinkers.
The current menu comes across as tentative, caught between coffeehouse offerings and the kind of upscale café that would complement a wine bar. Run-of-the-mill light fare, sandwiches, and salads dominate the selection, with only a handful of real dinner entrées (all specials) to choose from. Here’s the thing: The quality and assurance of these entrées suggest a kitchen ready for whatever mission it’s assigned.
Salmon ($16) actually tastes like something here. Rolled in black-and-white sesame seeds (very pretty), then pan-seared and baked with a soy-ginger sauce, the fish was moist and pleasingly salty but still intensely salmon-flavored—absolutely the nicest example of this much-abused fish I’ve tasted out in a long time. A lovely pasta dish ($18) brimming with fresh shrimp, healthy hunks of crabmeat, and vivid vegetables proved another winner from the abbreviated dinner menu. When asked to, the kitchen adroitly substituted a creamy garlic sauce for the billed sun-dried tomato sauce, an impromptu achievement that suggests a deft, caring chef. Another potentially dull dinner dish turned out with panache.
Selections from the regular menu—a shrimp quesadilla ($11) and a turkey Reuben ($7)—turned out well above average. The quesadilla benefited from proficient grilling, a blend of just enough quality cheddar and Monterey Jack, and a generous scattering of firm shrimp. The Reuben had been fused into a good and greasy, messy thing, and, as is almost never the case, the turkey itself was juicy and flavorful. The potential downside for Metropolitan in offering fare like this—and stuffed mushrooms, grilled cheese, club sandwiches—is that it doesn’t make me want to drink wine.
Another selection from the special menu, did, though: a superbly crafted American artisinal cheese platter ($11) featuring a spiky Gouda; a crumbly, sharp, aged cheese; and the exemplary Mount Tam triple cream from Cowgirl Creamery—a selection chosen and constructed by someone whose sophistication needs to exert itself here more, at least when the lights go down for the evening.
So, how can Metropolitan be a breakfast-and-coffee spot by day and wine bar by night while still accommodating neighborhood folks with low-priced fare throughout the day? Here are two places that make it work. Sascha’s 527 uses a temporal solution, enhanced by careful lighting choices: casual counter service by day, upscale table service at night. City Café makes it work by gently separating its coffeehouse and finer-dining spaces, while keeping available most menu items to both sides.
Metropolitan has made strides; I’d like to see them make more. The wine choices here are smart and original—why not tell us more about them and make more of them available by the glass? Taste notes on the wine list would make the going easier for neophytes, and it’s time to get rid of the tacky stapled-together wine lists. I’d like to see the old ramshackle One World Café furniture replaced, eventually, with something more uniformly contemporary. Be that place you want to be.