If indeed good things come in small packages, then Metropol restaurant should have been good. Lucky for us, with one nagging exception, the place was magnificent.
Metropol is a tiny, chic bar and restaurant on West Short Street. It is in a building that once housed the Lexington Post Office and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Upon entering, it's clear how small the place is: stairs to the right, three tables on the left and a bar with maybe five or six stools in the back. Most diners are seated upstairs in one of two dining rooms — one in the front, one in the back. With lights on dimmers, both rooms were restful spaces of light and shadow, and the tables were beautifully napped.
On my first trip, we were seated in the back dining room (less formal, an under-the-eaves kind of space) at a table that was barely big enough for a gnat to land on. I was offered a larger table, but I thought it would be interesting to see how they handled the tight situation. Everything went well.
The meal was a five-course dinner — we tried a little bit of everything and blew the budget. We even ordered braised rabbit ($30). It had been dredged in flour, browned and braised in broth. It was succulent and rich, served with a light Dijon mustard-based cream sauce.
Our other entree was seafood fettuccine ($26), with tiny bay scallops, crab claws, shrimp and a spicy lobster-tomato sauce. The fettuccine was perfectly cooked al dente. The sauce might have been too spicy for many, but I loved it.
Our appetizers (both $10.50) were coquilles St. Jacques — a gratin of tiny bay scallops in a rich beurre blanc topped with Gruyère cheese — and steak tartare with onion and capers. It's not hamburger, but a filet of beef scraped (with a spoon) and blended with egg, onion and capers. It's never been one of my favorites, but my dinner companion loved it.
We didn't think Metropol could get any better, but it did on the second trip.
We were seated in the front dining room (more formal, with high ceilings) at a six-seat table. The food was extraordinary.
The only appetizer we ordered was a rich pâté de foie gras, served with toast points and what, under dimmed lighting, looked like chopped onion. We skipped the pile of onion — I didn't want such a harsh flavor with something so delicate as the very mild pâté.
But after we had finished the pâté, I tasted the “onion.” We couldn't figure out what it was. It had an extraordinary fruity, perfumey flavor. We asked and were told it was Granny Smith apples with the chef's special (and secret) ingredients.
Like a good chef, Mo Mouktafi made his rounds to the various tables. We weren't going to let him get away until he told us what he did to the apples. Mouktafi, clearly a supremely talented chef, insisted it was a secret, but then he relented. He said he added just a touch of orange flower water. It changed apples into ambrosia. I can't tell you how much this dish cost, because it didn't make it on the bill. But it was a special New Year's appetizer and probably won't be available when you read this.
It didn't stop there. We also split the crab and avocado salad ($10.50). Lump crab and chopped avocado were piled high, but there were other ingredients playing on our senses. The menu said it had a roasted bell pepper vinaigrette, but there was something else — cumin, maybe? Mouktafi confirmed that it was cumin. But it was so light, it wasn't screaming cumin. It added another facet to a complex dish of marvelous flavors.
Entrees were better than those on the first trip. We ordered the only true vegetarian dish on the menu: pasta bella ($21). Fettuccine, again perfect al dente, was mixed with mushrooms, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives and sun-dried tomatoes. A pesto sauce made this dish. Pesto is another screamer and tends to overwhelm anything it's near, but it had been blended with white wine and God only knows what else, lightening it so much that the pesto became a background flavor. We could taste the mushrooms and artichoke hearts. It was marvelously fresh tasting.
The other entrée was Chilean sea bass perigourdine ($28), served with slender haricots verts and new potatoes. The Chilean sea bass, perfectly pan-seared, is a marvelous albeit politically sensitive fish, but the rich truffle sauce elevated it to greatness. They could have ladled the sauce over shoe leather and made that taste good.
We tried all four desserts, but our favorites were crème brûlée ($7.50) — huge vanilla-flavored custard — and apple bread pudding ($7.50). The pudding was less sweet than most, but most are too sweet. Wonderful.
Now, the nagging problem with The Metropol: On both visits, we were served old coffee at the end of dinner. Both times, it had been on the burner way too long. An easy fix, but still a blemish on two otherwise extraordinary meals.
Dinner for two on the first visit was $175, including two glasses each of Leatherwood cabernet sauvignon ($9 each) and tax but not tip. The second visit was $117, including two glasses each of the same wine and tax but not tip. The pâté was left off the bill; that would have added $15 to $18.
If you can stand the tab in these tough times, you'll love Metropol.