Eye-catching food, intriguing flavors, cool setting

Artful presentations add up to the right combination

Sunday Gourmet

September 18, 2005|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

For a town as steeped in history as Annapolis is, it has a lot of restaurants that look to the future instead of the past. The newest is the Metropolitan, an engaging combination of cutting-edge style, frenetically high energy and quiet artistry in the kitchen.

The contemporary space, which takes up several floors, is minimalist but comfortable. The whites and creams of the decor are soothing, a stark contrast to the young, jazzed-up bar crowds. If the weather stays nice, make the trek up three flights of stairs to eat on the roof. As on the lower floors, there's a lively bar scene and the music is loud, but the dining area is set a little apart. It's pleasant eating under the stars.

Built-in benches, covered with white cushions and fat white throw pillows, line the walls. The tables are set with white linen and candles. And, of course, Annapolis is spread out below. There's only one negative: It gets too dark to see the food after awhile, in spite of the candles.

And you want to see this food. Each dish is eye-catching.

The menu is divided into First Plates, Next, Mains, Small Plates, and Table Plates (side dishes to share). I'd like to see a little more consistency here. Next (two salads and a soup) could be Second Plates and Mains could be Really Big Plates.

Not amused? Just think of the menu as entrees and a lot of smaller dishes you can order in any combination.

The talented chef is J.J. Minetola, who turns out some sure-fire hits like sea scallops wrapped in prosciutto with a scattering of chopped pistachio and beet foam, a flavorful red froth that serves as a sauce for the scallops. He excels at quite distinct and intriguing flavor combinations. A molded crab claw and avocado salad, for instance, is surrounded by a bit of sweet potato puree, lime oil and fresh cilantro.

Some of his combinations startle but hit the bull's-eye, like quail, warm and scented with hazelnut, paired with chocolate sauce (think mole sauce, not ice cream) on a bed of mache for color. Some are almost too beautiful to eat, such as an heirloom tomato consomme, but don't work quite as well together. The consomme is made of two different types of tomatoes, and looks like a yin-yang symbol -- a yin-yang symbol decorated with small fresh mozzarella balls, basil and lumps of crab meat. It's one ingredient too many. The several different flavored breads with herb-flavored butter also deliver mild ingredient overload.

This isn't a serious problem. Nothing clashes, and most of the surprises are pleasant. Rare slices of lamb co-exist happily with mashed rutabaga and Swiss chard, with a wine vinegar reduction that works beautifully to tie them together.

Spearfish, as meaty as tuna but more delicate in taste, blossoms when married to baby carrots and cauliflower puree, with a spicy-sweet carrot "paint" decorating the stark white plate.

Asparagus tortelloni, with mushrooms and cheese, seem almost ordinary in comparison, but in their flavorful simplicity they come as something of a relief. The same could be said of the fat, fresh salmon matched up with artichokes and oyster mushrooms. A house-made mustard sauce adds a welcome zing.

Metropolitan's desserts, as elaborate and as successful as most of the rest of the menu, also stress good looks as well as substance. The lime mousse tart, a sort of dandied-up key lime pie, becomes a pink-and-green thing of beauty when paired with fresh strawberries and strawberry gelato.

Chocolate lovers should zero in on the chocolat royale hazelnut crunch, with a chocolate truffle and vanilla ice cream, although a multi-layered mocha mousse with chocolate-Grand Marnier ice cream gives it a run for its money.

Panna cotta made with buttermilk, which has notes of mango and apricot, gets high marks for the most refreshing dessert in recent memory.

Metropolitan, like many new restaurants, is that uneasy combination of lounge-on-steroids and serious restaurant. If you need less noise to appreciate good food fully, you won't be happy here. Or you could just wait till the Next Big Thing comes along, and then you'll be able to give Chef Minetola's cooking the attention it deserves.

Metropolitan

Food: *** (3 stars)

Service: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Atmosphere: *** (3 stars)

Where: 169 West St., Annapolis

Hours: Open for dinner daily

Prices: Small plates, $8-$19; Entrees: $22-$36

Call: 410-268-7733

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Just ask

Have a question about dining out in the Baltimore area?

Ask Elizabeth Large, The Sun's restaurant critic. E-mail questions to elizabeth.large@ baltsun.com, or mail to Elizabeth Large, The Sun, Features, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21278. Answers to selected questions will appear in the Modern Life section.

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