With businesses thriving around the Downtown Mall and West Main Street areas, including wine shops, popular art galleries and bookstores announcing new exhibits and weekly readings, Charlottesville definitely has the beginnings of a more cosmopolitan culture. And although the city is still far from urban, the style, service and sophistication of the Metropolitain restaurant will leave any patron feeling like they have entered one of the better dining establishments of a major East Coast city.
Entering the restaurant at 214 W. Water Street, diners move through a large glass enclosed passage where they can observe the dining room on either side as they approach the host and the kitchen - which is open and in the center of the room, flanked on both sides by booths and tables. Soft jazz floats overhead in the large eating room, which is starkly modern with angular furniture and flat, rectangular paintings on the walls. Servers are instantly detectable, wearing all black as opposed to the kitchen staff's white costumes. All of the servers are pleasant and attentive, watching tables from a distance to make sure no request or desire goes unanswered.
General Manager Ken Wooten said owner/chefs Tim Burgess and Vincent Derquenne envisioned a New York style restaurant when they founded Metropolitain in 1991. The restaurant moved to its present location in 1995, but the same "big city" feeling remains - and this atmosphere is definitely unique among most of Charlottesville's finer dining establishments.
Aside from Metropolitain's uncommon urban feel, the cuisine is also quite unique for Charlottesville. Wooten describes the food as "A fusion of classical French cuisine with contemporary Asian influences - but mostly it reflects the two chefs."
Burgess trained in West Virginia and Derquenne in Brittany, France, so the restaurant is a mixture of the duo's styles - combining their French and Southern training.
Meticulous planning has gone into the setting and atmosphere at Metropolitain, and the conception and preparation of the food is no exception. All of the dishes appear to be meticulously and artistically crafted, with sauces and garnishes adorning every plate in intricate patterns. Appetizers are certainly some of the most creative dishes, and they range from an asparagus soup with shitake fennel salad to rabbit spring rolls or even seared foie gras. Varying in cost from $6.50 to $12.95, the appetizers are some of the most tantelizing items on the menu. Dishes that appear in this section of the menu, like Metropolitain's signature shrimp cakes - which have remained on the menu for nine years - are favorites with both new and regular customers.
Following the first course, each customer receives a small cup of lemon sorbet. A custom appearing more and more in many American dining establishments, this sorbet was the perfect preparation for the entrées. This thoughtful addition to the meal should not be a surprise, because as the restaurant attempts to be more urban, little touches like sorbet help make the transition from small town to metropolis complete.
Diners on the adventurous side will surely enjoy the main courses at Metropolitain. Servers are always ready to explain anything on the menu, which includes entrées like the traditional rack of lamb, rabbit, sesame crusted Atlantic salmon and beef loin paired with horseradish crusted beef shortribs. Entrées are priced from around $18 for some vegetarian and simpler entrées up to $27.50 for prime cuts of meat and the more complicated dishes.
Vegetarians often have a difficult time finding innovative and tasty dishes at many restaurants, but the choices at Metropolitain are far above those at standard eating establishments. The Wellington of portabella - stuffed with the mushroom, ratatouille and spinach over a vegetable medley and reduction - is excellent. Like most of the other plates, this meal looks more like a sculpture than a delectable dinner, but once the diner dives in, they won't be disappointed. With a flaky crust, and a hint of curry, this dish delights the tastebuds. The portabella is cooked well, and is not oily and greasy like this type of mushroom can often be. The sauce it is served over, a creamy concoction of carrots and possibly tomatoes, adds the perfect touch of sweetness to the dish. Together the combination is almost flawless - ranging from slight Eastern spices to sweet Southern veggies.
Fish lovers will definitely be intrigued by the skate, a type of ray that tastes like a cross between a fish and a crab. It is not rubbery like one might think, but light and flaky, and so moist that it truly does melt in the mouth. Served in a rich butter sauce with asparagus, tomatoes and potato slices, the skate is really a must try. The butter sauce, however, makes the dish a little too heavy - and frankly, the skate and veggies are good enough by themselves that they don't need such a rich covering. But if one is willing to take on the calories, every bite of the skate is worth savoring.
Moving onto the dessert menu, customers will notice many dishes based on seasonal fruits - and all of them priced at $6.50. The Grand Mariner crème brulée is one of the more tempting selections, and patrons will not be disappointed. It is perfectly prepared with the traditional sugar-crusted exterior, but it is not rich - though the Grand Mariner makes the custard a little stronger than the average crème brulée. The custard filling is delicious and not heavy, and accented with fresh raspberries, this dessert is a nice, light finale to any evening.
While all of the dishes on the menu looked interesting, most plates don't stick around for very long. Burgess and Derquenne try to change the menu often - small changes are made daily, and a complete overhaul occurs every month.
"Our goal is to consistently challenge the palate of Charlottesville," he said.
Metropolitain certainly succeeds in creating challenging dishes and offering a change from other restaurants in the area. The large dining room and loud atmosphere - it can get noisy on weekends - can be distracting, but Wooten assures that some small renovations will take place over the summer to ensure a somewhat more intimate atmosphere. But as long as the service, food and setting don't alter too much, this restaurant will continue to please and provide an exciting deviation from the small town norm.