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The past is never past, but refired and refined for the times.
Chef Michael Paley exudes the calm, urbane confidence of a man who always knows how to find a cab. The New Jersey native converses with a mastery of detail that never steers him toward over-sharing or bravado. Yes, he is the executive chef at Metropole, the signature restaurant of the artfully cool 21c Museum Hotel, a job title that you might expect to come freighted with bravado. But he garnishes his answers carefully, offering a hint of nuance only to clarify, never to cloud. Soft-spoken and focused, Paley brings that almost architectural restraint to his craft. Elements are never simply piled on but rather seek to balance. Even on his morning produce reconnoiter he finds himself mentally pairing flavors before specific dishes are even conceived. His sleek, muscular menu changes quickly, always attentive to the strengths of his kitchen and tuned to the seasonality of his raw materials. For Paley, the details are best understood when interconnected.
This sensibility isn’t limited to the kitchen. 21c seeks to be a sort of cultural multiplier, a free, open-to-the-public modern art space inside a boutique hotel. Like its first incarnation in Louisville, the site was chosen carefully to highlight the reflowering of an urban core; owners Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson selected the Metropole Hotel at Sixth and Walnut, long ago listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Built in 1912 as a 10-story luxury hotel, the site gradually faded into disrepair. The hotel functioned as low-income public housing for nearly 40 years prior to its restoration, which proved the source of a rancorous dispute with remaining tenants. And while I’ll stay mum about the amount of time I’d spent in the building before the three-year, $57.8 million renovation was completed last fall, let’s just say the weathered tile flooring and wrought-iron staircase looked quite familiar.
A glance at Metropole’s kitchen brings it all into focus. Gleaming new ovens and prep surfaces sit beside Paley’s daring brainchild, a custom-built wood-burning fireplace where embers from smoldering hardwood are redirected under dual cooking surfaces. Paley relies heavily on his chapa, a stainless steel griddle on legs that is used extensively in Argentine cooking. “We wanted the food to be good but not showy,” he says. “The question is how we stay connected to what we’re trying to do. How do we challenge ourselves?”
That is, as always, the question. The fireplace forces the kitchen staff to become elemental masters of fire, of moisture, of wood and air. Never mind overcooking dinner; any lapse in concentration or miscalculation of temperature or air flow can smoke out a dining room in seconds.
The challenge lies in highlighting the kitchen’s key strength—the lingering, savory char of fireplace-cooked food—without detracting from the bright flavors born of Paley’s Southern European ethos. To his credit, Metropole never seems to use the fireplace as a gimmick. Much of the menu shows a careful interplay between caramelization and brightness, and Paley’s best dishes almost become Zen koans of what doesn’t happen.
This restraint is best expressed in the melon salad, a seasonal offering. Succulent rounds of watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew are tossed with mint and burrata and then finished with crisp chunks of roasted pork belly. The luscious harmony is only possible because the pork isn’t overly assertive or fatty, just a rich, meaty note tuned to its surroundings.
The shaved ham platter deftly merges the violence of the fireplace with more diplomatic flavors. Soft Iowa country ham melts on the tongue, chased by peaches seared to the texture of warm mandarin oranges and a gentle parmesan aioli that didn’t reveal its saltiness until well after the other ingredients showed themselves. While the boiled peanuts proved a slightly chalky, undercooked distraction, the plate works by gently nudging the ham in several different but complimentary directions.
Seared octopus is worth considering even for those put off by hot pepper. The meat, firm yet astonishingly tender, was slightly caramelized from a moment over the fire. This sweet tenderness proved a more than adequate foil to the piquant chickpea and currant sauté; if the octopus had been too chewy, the slivers of Fresno pepper would have detonated prematurely. It’s impressive for such a difficult ingredient to be confidently presented in a way that leaves so little room for error.
I liked the Hampshire pork chop. Though perhaps a bit pricey, the skillful preparation is worth the expense. A lemony brine rendered the flesh tender and salty. The final sear added a light crisp, and the chop had a gentle doneness gradient as the knife worked inward. The surprise: that Paley is able to coax richness from such a lean cut. Along with roasted peaches and a savory cashew puree, the chop was served with glazed turnips, one of the few missed opportunities of the evening. While fully cooked, the turnips were mildly flavored; just a few more seconds on the chapa might have resulted in a more complex perfume.
Quibbles aside, the chop embodies Paley’s balancing act. The chef is quick to point out the skill and passion of local vendors, and adds that the restaurant works for the farm as much as the farm works for the restaurant. To that end, Metropole’s best efforts arrive relatively unencumbered. A lesser talent might have tried to reinvent the pork chop for Cincinnati, but it speaks to Paley’s unadorned self-confidence that he’s willing to simply allow us to appreciate it again.
Desserts at Metropole share the same architecture: Key flavors are supported by thoughtful accents, but never overwhelmed. The tony dark chocolate tart paired a dense, almost truffle-like layer of chocolate with a toothsome cookie crust and a scoop of gentle white chocolate ice cream; beautifully presented, the aggressive touches—a candied olive garnish and a dusting of coarse salt—bent the sweetness gracefully. The powerful interplay of peach, bourbon, and mint leaves in the peach cobbler registered as an instant flavor memory to anyone who has set foot in the South.
Metropole is open for lunch, too, offering streamlined versions of several dinner choices. My bison burger arrived perfectly medium-rare, holding its own against a pleasantly forward pimento aioli. I should have taken my server’s advice and had a “shrub,” a mistake not repeated on a subsequent visit. A permutation of sharab, the Arabic noun for drink, the shrubs were far from the mixological dystopia that came to mind when I heard “vinegar cocktail.” Macerated fruit is cut with an acidic solution and drawn out by a final layer of fresh flavors. While served as non-alcoholic refreshers at lunchtime, the shrubs take a more serious turn at dinnertime. Case in point: the brilliant Jimmy Piper, which pairs raspberry, vanilla, and cilantro with a lingering rye whiskey finish.
Cities, like museums and chefs, seldom throw anything away. Streetcorners can be neglected for a time, exhibits can be archived, ideas can lie fallow. But with Sixth and Walnut growing into downtown’s most significant cultural showplace, the opportunity exists for a neighborhood to smartly reconnect with its past. 21c fits well into its new/old skin. At its best, Metropole has that same harmony, with Paley being careful not to use tradition as a crutch or modernity as an excuse. Always there is balance.