Metropole has been remarkably stable since it opened in 2012. Even when chefs have left, the organization has promoted from within, kept popular dishes on the menu, and maintained a certain vibe. Over the past year, Metropole has undergone its biggest transition. Paris-based AccorHotels bought a majority stake in the restaurant’s parent company, 21c Museum Hotels, which began in Louisville. After the acquisition, Executive Chef Jared Bennett, who had been with the restaurant since it opened, left to work at Fairfax distillery Karrikin Spirits.
The organization, as it did when original Executive Chef Michael Paley left in 2014, chose to maintain consistency rather than reinvent itself. Metropole’s new chef, David Kelsey, has been with the business since 2014, and his new menu will feel familiar to anyone who has eaten at the restaurant before, from the famous burnt carrot salad, which dates back to Paley’s tenure, to several of the side dishes.
The menu still feels very much like Metropole, with a balance between sophistication and rusticity. Flavors that were once brought out by the open hearth in the back of the kitchen (it’s since been removed) are now replicated with a clay oven, a grill, and a plancha. There is still a focus on freshness and a refreshing tendency to lavish attention on the vegetable side of things.
Near the end of Bennett’s tenure, which was generally marked by excellence, I noticed a certain dropping off. From lackadaisical service, with lots of elegantly dressed people circulating without doing a whole lot, to a lack of consistency in the kitchen, Metropole seemed to have lost some of its sparkle.
One advantage of keeping a steady course as an organization is that deviations can be noticed and corrected fairly quickly. Several months into Kelsey’s tenure, Metropole is clearly well on its way to becoming itself again. The service is solid and attentive, and some of the new food is starting to hum with the restaurant’s old vitality.
When many restaurants struggle to even put out vegetarian dishes, let alone great ones, Metropole’s vegetarian fare contains many of its most inventive and delightful creations. The chilled cantaloupe soup has a creamy note from coconut milk and a hint of spice floating in at the end of every bite to balance the subtle, melon-y sweetness. Crunch from a benne seed (an unusually nutty variety of sesame) cracker and a dollop of chilled pesto make this a perfect opening to a summer meal.
The mixed grain salad is just as good, with a whirlwind of elements that come together beautifully, including quinoa and wheat berries, bright green broccoli, fiery Fresno chiles, a perfectly balanced vinaigrette, and a sweet pea puree and farmer’s cheese to provide rewards of sweetness and cream.
Other parts of the menu were still good, but I sometimes missed the hint of intrigue and surprise—the elements that wake up each bite and grab your attention—found in the vegetarian dishes. The garlic butter shrimp, which comes to the table whole and needs to be peeled, piping hot, by hand, is very satisfying and rich, but it felt like many dishes I have had before. The strip loin is well executed, but the flavors of the elote (Mexican street corn), foundational to this dish, while tasty enough, are somewhat cliché. There wasn’t that bit of mystery or sense of extra care to carry it beyond merely good.
Part of Metropole’s distinctiveness has always been its charring, and some of its best dishes wouldn’t be as successful without it. The burnt carrot salad, for example—good as ever, even after all these years—turns the normally shy and unassuming root into the brash star of the dish. The bold char on the carrots makes them almost aggressive, but is balanced and softened by the creamy bits of avocado. Pickled onions add punches of spice and sourness; toasted pumpkin seeds add crunch. This dish shows, along with a few others, how blackening can reveal entirely unanticipated dimensions of an ingredient.
In certain dishes, though, I wondered if the technique was truly elevating a dish. The diver sea scallops entrée, for example, felt like it had been assembled from parts: acidic bites of cherry tomato, largely flavorless Caulilini (a fairly unnecessary new broccoli-kale hybrid), and underneath it all, leeks that had been charred so intensely that I found them difficult to cut through, let alone eat. Gently grilling a leek can bring out its tender sweetness and butteriness, but in this case it was tough and tasted ashy. Overall, it was a misuse of the cooking method and a waste of some beautiful scallops.
A misstep like this, though, is rare at Metropole. There is a fair amount of inspiration, and plenty of ordinary goodness, from the local cheeses to the solid desserts. The fancy “candy bar,” with its light and crispy peanut filling and ring of cacao nibs and caramel, encapsulates Metropole’s vibe at its best: fun and whimsical, but rooted in careful execution of deep and satisfying flavors.
Metropole, 609 Walnut St., downtown, (513) 578-6660