Eating in an underground cavern freaked out my friend Laura. Our group of five sat in one of the private stone-wall alcoves carved out of the tasteful and hip new underground restaurant space, Metropolitain. Laura's husband pointed out that she grew up on a tropical island where there were no basements hence, her brush with cellar-phobia.
As Laura soon found out, there is something so soothing about an underground urban eatery. There is no car noise. There's the slight but instantaneous thrill of going down the rabbit hole, or in the case of Metropolitain, down the elegantly designed ironwork staircase.
At the bottom of the stairs is one of the prettiest and warmest interiors in Colorado Springs, done in golds and oranges, wood, brick and stone, with subtle lighting and a fascinating variety of comfortable seating options: on a small balcony overlooking the bar, in a quiet cubbyhole, or at one of the comfy tables in the main dining room.
Good jazz from the unobtrusive sound system, the clink and tinkle of glasses and forks, and the steady but low-key buzz of voices fill the space. And the menu is unlike anything else downtown.
Our group ordered several "small plates" appetizer-sized portions and shared. Black Mussels Pernod ($11), fragrant steamed mussels with lemon and parsley in anise and herb-flavored broth, was ample enough for all of us to have several and to sop up the sauce with bread crusts throughout the meal.
Thai Chicken Lollipops ($8), four to a plate, came with a sweet chili sauce on the side. We nibbled on the Mushroom Medley ($8) and wanted to know what the secret was behind the clean, sweet sauce, then snickered a little when the chef told us the secret ingredient was fennel pollen. Laura, an accomplished horticulturist, was skeptical, but we agreed that if we ever saw a container of the magic powder, we'd take it home.
The hit of the taste-fest was the roasted tomato, mozzarella, pepperoni, basil and balsamic pizza ($8), with its thin, buttery, crisp crust.
We shared crme brule ($6), dense and eggy, and an outrageously rich chocolate espresso cognac mousse ($7) for dessert. No one was left wanting.
Metropolitain's bar is designed for solo eating, and I've indulged several times in the past few weeks. The tuna tartare four colorful discs of finely chopped raw tuna, sprinkled with scallions was served with a delicious vinaigrette flavored with candied ginger. The Crostini Metropolitain ($6) was stellar, a row of carefully constructed toasts with toppings on a rectangular plate. Balsamic marinated chickpeas were tasty, but a little roly-poly for finger food; the olive tapenade with roasted red bell pepper and goat cheese was savory and salty. The piece de resistance was a sort of dessert crostini: gorgonzola, thinly sliced pear and walnut, topped with nutmeg-scented fig preserves and a sprinkle of pea shoots.
I've had only one disappointment at Metropolitain, a lunch cioppino in which the fish had sat too long and turned gray and mushy. But I'm looking forward to a return lunch visit to try one of their ample sandwiches, either the leg of lamb or Tony's open-faced steak. Not everything here is delicate finger food; the night menu offers a self-proclaimed Damn Good Reuben ($9). I'd recommend you try it with the crisp and hearty sweet-potato fries.
101 E. Kiowa St., just east of Tejon Street (the subway-style entry is in the middle of the sidewalk), 302-0280
Lunch hours: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner hours: Daily, 4-10 p.m., with small plates available from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.