A funky, neighborly place that is striving to be more

The Metropolitan isn't afraid to offer intriguing dishes

Sunday Gourmet

February 27, 2005|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

I like a restaurant that bites off more than it can chew.

The Metropolitan, located where the One World Cafe and then Caffe Brio used to be, calls itself a coffeehouse and wine bar. It looks like a coffeehouse and wine bar. But the food produced by chef Antoine Petteway suggests that this funky Federal Hill spot has greater aspirations.

I was walking by in late December and was drawn into the Metropolitan by the ambitious New Year's Eve menu posted on the door. It just didn't seem like a lobster-and-champagne kind of place. But I loved how friendly the bartender and the people sitting at the handsome wine bar were. They showed me the regular dinner menu, intriguing in its own right, and urged me to come back.

And so I did, although I wanted to be eating at the bar (as a lot of folks do) instead of the dining room on the mezzanine. Not that there's anything wrong with it; it's just not exactly cozy. There are exposed brick walls, bare floors, and tables and chairs - too close together - that look like holdovers from the previous cafes. Whether you like the Metropolitan may depend on whether you need a white tablecloth to enjoy oysters Rockefeller and veal Francaise.

If you feel like bar chow, there's always the light fare section. The Metropolitan's idea of light fare has more to do with a light wallet than what's on the plate. My favorite example of this is the two large pieces of meatloaf smothered in gravy, mashed potatoes and fresh green beans for eight bucks. Acceptable but not to die for. Not that any of the food is dreadfully expensive. I was struck by the $16 prime rib, which the waitress said is a crowd pleaser, but finally decided there were more interesting choices on the menu.

If the kitchen has a fault, it's that sometimes too much is going on in one dish. This isn't a grievous fault. Rockfish Mediterranean-style means that the mild-mannered fish is gussied up with olives, spinach, tomatoes and onions, not to mention feta cheese. A boneless chicken breast is wrapped around spinach, chopped portobello mushroom and feta, then bathed in a chipotle cream sauce so spicy your hair will catch on fire if you're not careful.

My favorite of our entrees was Crystal's Caribbean Stew, with shrimp, scallops, rockfish and mussels swimming in coconut milk jazzed up with vaguely tropical spices. Everything was fresh, nothing was overcooked, and the flavors were subtly appealing.

Following a trend these days, Metropolitan has inexpensive entrees and expensive appetizers - the latter serving as the restaurant's version of tapas. A selection of delicately smoked salmon, whitefish and rockfish was elaborately garnished with capers, onions, crackers, parsley and the like. It's a pretty dish, and one large enough to serve as a starter for a whole table.

If you don't have preconceived notions about what, say, shrimp in garlic sauce should be, all the better. I loved the dish, but I recognized that the friend who ordered it might have been expecting, well, shrimp in garlic sauce. Instead, each fat shrimp was sauteed and propped up on a small slice of toasted baguette. A light, and decidedly non-garlickly, cream sauce flowed around them. Don't change a thing, except maybe the name.

Occasionally, the kitchen sleepwalks through a dish. Even I was bored by the portobello "pizza," with a mushroom cap for the crust, a filling that involved a lot of marinara sauce and squash, and a heavy topping of melted cheese. Oysters Rockefeller were better, although a version involving bacon with the spinach isn't my favorite.

The Metropolitan has an intriguing but not extensive wine list, good coffee and desserts that might as well be skipped. The various cakes, made off the premises, simply weren't as fresh as they should have been. Cutting down on the number of choices might help.

I may have to give the Metropolitan my Best New Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year award. Of course, that doesn't help much unless your neighborhood is Federal Hill. And it's early days yet. But I like the fact it's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I like the fact that you can sit at the bar and have a three-course meal. And I particularly like the fact that the kitchen isn't afraid to spread its wings and fly a little bit, even if that flying just involves bathing seafood in coconut milk.

Metropolitan Coffee House and Wine Bar

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: **

Where: 902 S. Charles St., Federal Hill

Hours: Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $7-$12; Entrees: $8-$20

Call: 410-234-0235@

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