For the past few years, Metropole has struck me as being in a rut. The menu was chugging along, serving a lot of the same food they had served for years, without the sense of invention or excitement that had marked its early days, or the long tenure of Chef Jared Bennett. What a relief it is, now, to see an almost entirely new menu under Executive Chef Vanessa Miller. When I ate there, it was early spring, and dishes were full of the first products of the season—pea shoots, radishes, asparagus, and a few strawberries.
Miller’s style is less playful than the old Metropole, but direct, uncluttered, and often more satisfying. The chef says she tries to keep plates as simple as possible, with a focus on self-editing and a belief that ingredients, from carrots to scallops, “should look and taste like what they are.”
One dish exemplifies her vision at its most successful: the jam and cheese toast. She takes two excellent local products—Urban Stead’s gouda and Sixteen Bricks bread—and makes them sing with a beautiful house-made jam that changes with the seasons (during our visit, it was rose and raspberry). In each bite, you get the luscious and creamy, the tart, and a little sparkle of prickly spice from pink peppercorns in the jam. Utterly simple in conception, there is still a complexity and roundness that makes the dish intriguing to the last bite.
This dish is only one of many highlights. The kitchen clearly has a special knack with pasta. The tagliatelle was beautifully made, tender without losing texture or definition. That night, the carbonara was made with lobster instead of crab, lightly blistered asparagus, still fresh and crisp, with a perfect balance between spice and citrusy brightness. Dishes like this—or the New York strip with mashed potatoes and broccolini—don’t try to reinvent the wheel, but highlight the quality of the meat and produce. As Miller mentioned, you taste what they are as much as you taste what the kitchen has done to them.
A few of the dishes, though, show what might make the new Metropole unique on our culinary landscape. Miller has a gift for creating fascinating flavor and textural combinations, like the sweet-and-savory black sesame granola served with the tuna crudo. Several of my favorite dishes straddled the line between sweet and savory. The scallop dish, in particular, was fascinating, as it kept defying normal categories, with savory lentils dotted with sliced strawberries, and the naturally sweet scallops paired with pecans and another granola-like breadcrumb topping. It felt odd, at times, but also very intriguing and, after I wrapped my head around it, totally delicious.
The menu is so thoroughly transformed that I was surprised to see one holdover from the restaurant’s old days: the famous burnt carrot salad. Fans of this dish and its tart pickled onions, creamy avocado, and intense charred flavor will be surprised if they order it today. The carrots are whole and tender crisp, not burnt at all, and the entire dish is saucier and redolent of sesame, without the sour Latin-tinged flavors it once had. This strikes me as one of Miller’s few mistakes. If you keep an iconic dish on the menu, you’d better keep it the same. Holding onto a name that’s no longer accurate just ends up being confusing for diners. The dish, also, felt much muddier and unfocused than the others, and contained the only real execution error of the meal—a seriously underripe avocado. It’s time to forget about the old Metropole, get this dish off the menu, and celebrate the many new and excellent things that Miller is cooking up.
When we ate at Metropole, the fog of 2020 was starting to lift, and the restaurant was filling up again—albeit with the tables still farther apart than they once were. The big yellow penguins were making the rounds again, the zingy lemon cotton candy came at the end of the meal, and there were interesting new tapestries in the neighboring gallery. The vibe was good, and part of this vibe, I think, relates to the sense of respect for staff that comes across when you talk to Miller. There are little signs of this respect if you look for them. I noticed, for example, the menu calls out the initials of the bartenders who developed each unique cocktail. There was even a menu item where you could buy a round for the kitchen staff. During a hard service, Miller says the staff always sends up a little cheer when they hear that one of these gifts has been ordered.
During the past year, it’s been hard not to notice that the people who actually keep our society running—from delivery drivers to grocery store workers—aren’t paid very well. Equally vital contributions are made by the people who grow, harvest, prepare, and serve our food. Even small gestures of respect, like a line in the menu, are important.
Lots of changes are coming to Metropole as the year continues. The menu will transition to summer as soon as fresh corn and tomatoes are available. Pasta offerings will expand and the rooftop bar will start serving more dishes, particularly more fresh seafood. Thanks to Miller, a lot to look forward to. Metropole, I’m glad to say, is back on its feet again.
Metropole, 609 Walnut St., downtown, (513) 578-6660