After a foray to Kathmandu, Metro Cafe returns to its French roots
A half-score (or so) years ago, there came to the border country between the upper and lower Haight a restaurant called Metro Café. The place was an offshoot of Baker Street Bistro, and, like its progenitor, it was rather wonderful and quite affordable. In the mid-aughts the restaurant morphed into Metro Kathmandu, which served a Nepalese-Indian menu. The change was improbable, but the food was just as good in its way. Now, after a too-short run, Metro Kathmandu has disappeared, only to become ... Metro Café again.
Actually, it hasn't altogether disappeared: the look of the dining room remains the same, with a tendency toward red and umber tones and fanciful light fixtures that look like bubbles of colored Plexiglass that someone sawed off the bottoms of. Nor is it quite accurate, perhaps, to speak of the new Metro Café as a return of the original. There are points of similarity, yes, mainly in the emphasis on a three-course prix-fixe menu. At $25, it's quite a bit more than in the good old days (on the order of $10 more), but what isn't? It's still a good deal, especially when you consider that you can have any starter, main dish, and dessert. And no surcharges for the fancier stuff like New York steak or duck confit. I call that sporting.
But the food doesn't seem to be quite as pointedly French as the last time. The pediment of Chef Jacques Rousseau's style is unmistakably Gallic he offers snails, and need we say more? but the menu is Californian, not French. There are dishes here you'd have a tough time finding in Paris and not just macaroni and cheese ($8), although Metro's version is quite tony, with cheddar, Swiss, and Parmesan mingling under a thick crust of garlic-bread crumbs. The only thing missing was a bit of salt, but this was easily added from a shaker already on the table. We liked the serving dish, an earthenware crock in the shape of a paddle.
Equally in a Ameri-Cali, if more elevated, vein was a plate of grilled squid ($6.50), accompanied by white beans, bits of frisee and chopped black olives, and a beguilingly fragrant olive oil infused with preserved lemon. The pieces of squid were beautifully tender no small trick; squid overcooks and toughens easily while the lemon oil cast a spell like sunshine over everything.
And I do not think you'd easily find in Paris any preparation to match the baby back ribs ($15), with their glaze of honey, cardamom, and coffee darkly sweet but also a little smoky, like a demitasse of espresso with a half-cube of sugar. Since pork is naturally sweet, a sly mix of sweetness and smoke produced a complex harmony with the meat. The ribs arrived atop a generous slathering of green lentils, properly cooked al dente.
As for the ultimate French treat, les esgargots ($7): they came discreetly swaddled in pastry pockets that looked like empanadas. There was plenty of garlic on hand and, on the floor of the plate, a garish pool of red-pepper purée; these were quite useful flourishes if you needed some distraction from the advertised main ingredient. But the real main ingredient turned out not to be snails but pastry.
Duck confit ($16) is another quintessentially French dish, and Rousseau's kitchen handles it with aplomb. The result: tender, juicy meat inside appealingly crisp, golden skin. The potatoes landaise did not particularly impress, however; instead of the traditional Pyrenees-style version, of potato cubes fried with onion, garlic, and ham, Metro offered what appeared to be handful of roasted, and underseasoned, potato quarters. An underseasoned potato is a piteous thing, naked and flabby, even if there's some red-pepper purée on the plate for consolation.
The dessert list is the most purely French sector of the menu. Tarte tatin? Check. It costs $6 and is distinguished by large chunks of apple that are the shape of Gary Oldman's strange, puffy hair in Dracula. The apple also retained some of its texture a plus but I did suspect the kitchen had used big, sweetish apples (maybe some sort of Delicious) rather than one of the smaller, sourer, denser varieties that, in my experience, work better in this tart.
The one non-French note struck among the desserts involved the chocolate cake ($6), which turned out to be a layered mousse cake that included a stratum of raspberry preserves. Sort of a variation on the Viennese specialty Sachertorte, with the raspberry preserves substituted for apricot. I like these kinds of small flourishes, which go a long way toward lifting the pall of enslavement that can sometimes hang over French-influenced restaurants in our corner of the New World. If, at some point, Metro Café becomes Cosmo Café, I would gladly clink my champagne flute.
Dinner: Sun.Thurs., 5:3010 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 5:3011 p.m.
Brunch: Sat.Sun., 9:30 a.m.2:30 p.m.
311 Divisadero, SF
Beer and wine