For such a young restaurant, Metropolitain has quite a past.
It opened to rave reviews, which praised both the innovative cuisine of Chef Brian Sack and the swank downtown, subterranean space. Its acclaim and immense popularity made it a crowning achievement for Tony Leahy, a pioneering Springs restaurateur.
Then, in spring 2006, partners Kimball Bayles and Brent Beavers closed Sencha, bought Metropolitain from Leahy, took over and cleaned house. Their relationship soon soured, and Bayles has since escorted an array of chefs into, and then out of, Metropolitain's kitchen (though Beavers' trademark Sencha salad still haunts the menu). At last, however, Bayles thinks he's found his man in newcomer Marcus McCoy, a 16-year veteran of eastern and southeastern U.S. kitchens.
Recent forays into Metropolitain's stone-walled sanctum indicate McCoy certainly has the culinary chops. Execution has been nearly flawless, as with fresh arugula wilted so skillfully that its ribs stay cool and crunchy.
McCoy's also taken total control of the dining experience, making everything from bread to dessert. His breads, paired with customized compound butters, have ranged from white with dried fruits to a dense beer-wheat variety. For dessert, he stuffs poached pears with creamy goat cheese and sets them afloat on a port wine reduction.
As good as the components are in Metropolitain's dishes, they don't always make sense as ensembles. The Metro Mussels ($10), for example, feature nicely steamed bivalves swimming in a Gorgonzola cheese broth. Although velvety, rich and positively delicious, the sauce overwhelms the mussels' briny sweetness. Another dish marries scallops with risotto ($24), both of which are outstanding alone but lose their individuality in a sea of creamy sameness when eaten together. And both dishes seem too heavy to end a 90-degree day.
Other selections work brilliantly. A rusty, chile-spiked rub coats three large prawns in the Springs Shrimp starter ($10). The corn and tomato relish on which they sit provides excellent contrast in flavor and texture. A sizable salad of arugula ($9), topped with roast duck, goat cheese, pears and walnuts hits all the right notes; its (sweet) fig and vanilla vinaigrette plays nicely with the peppery greens.
McCoy easily traverses the culinary atlas. A wafer-thin crust of charred peppercorns frames numerous translucent ruby slices of yellowfin tuna ($22), which shine against mounds of wasabi and pickled ginger. Served with a very Mediterranean vegetable saut, the two meaty lamb loin chops ($22) sit on Israeli couscous, facing a pond of raitta (or raita), an Indian cucumber sauce. Whole fennel seeds work like a needle in the raitta, pulling the Mediterranean thread through and showcasing McCoy's versatility.
Starters range from $8 to $13, and mains $18 to $26, but portions are generous. Additionally, a lounge menu tops out at $13 and is available until the wee hours. The real pinch comes on the wine list, which favors New World reds made from Zinfandel, Syrah and Pinot Noir, at more than double retail cost. Whites offer greater geographic and varietal variation, but at similarly hefty tariffs.
Metropolitain has all the ingredients for success: a talented chef, friendly and attentive staff, a great downtown location, and an established reputation for good cocktails. Bayles, McCoy and company are now fine-tuning the recipe that brings those ingredients together.
101 N. Tejon St., #10 (enter on Kiowa), 302-0280, themetropolitaindowntown.com
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 4 p.m. to midnight; Friday-Saturday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.