Astor Place Bar & Grill, with chef Johnny Vinczencz at the helm, was not too long ago considered one of the Beach's better dining establishments. Thus it came as something of a surprise when Hotel Astor owner Karim Masri shut the restaurant for extensive renovations, and re-opened it in December with a new name, new look, and new chef.
The more modern moniker, Metro Kitchen & Bar, is an improvement -- Astor Place sounded rather old-timey. The redesign, too, represents a positive change -- by replacing bright colors with earth tones, removing bulky banquettes, and in general trimming down the décor, the space has acquired an Oriental-style minimalism that seemingly expands the airiness provided by a partial glass ceiling and curved glass wall leading outdoors. The swimming pool has been covered up, and now there are many more seats available for alfresco dining -- most likely little consolation to hotel guests who show up in the garden café wearing Speedos and puzzled looks.
Johnny V moved on to the greener pastures of Delray Beach's Sundy House, and new chef Rob Boone has been given the unenviable task of trying to fill the Caribbean cowboy's big boots. Boone arrives with a strong background, having worked with such luminous restaurant professionals as Charlie Trotter, Norman Van Aken, and, most recently, Cameron Diaz at Bambu. His menu at Metro is a short, smart assemblage of world ingredients forged into what has come to be known as contemporary American cuisine.
He's brought along his Bambu sushi chef, Deden Bandi, and four "raw and marinated" appetizers constitute some of the best offerings here: succulent slices of local snapper with udon noodles, cashews, and a sweet soy glaze; Island Creek oysters with green apple; diced tuna belly with mirin, citrus zest, and freshly grated horseradish; and five rolled-up slices of spicy octopus carpaccio, bathed in a hot garlic and chili sauce, punctuated with rings of jalapeño pepper, and complemented by a spicy/sweet salsa of cucumber threads, diced peppers, and cilantro. Starters are supposed to stimulate, and these do so in dramatic fashion.
Red miso soup likewise left a strong imprint on the taste buds, but not in a good way. Red miso is richer and more potent than the white variety most are accustomed to, and though the thick broth was generously stocked with cubes of Japanese omelet, tofu, julienned shiitake mushrooms, and snippets of scallion and carrot, those at our table found it too salty.
Two soft disks of Armagnac-scented foie gras, small in size but plump with full flavor, came creatively accompanied with sautéed radishes, orange fillets, and a splash of aged balsamico. Had the baguette croutons below been "crusty" as advertised, rather than soft and soggy, this would have been a stellar starter. A trio of sea scallops had more serious defects, the bivalves bloated with a bland, watery quality, and lightly sautéed rather than seared -- thus no caramelized crunch that a crisp, well-spiced crust would have provided. A preserved lemon vinaigrette lacked any bracing citrus spike, and matchsticks of sweet beet were barely seasoned. Although the scallops were tender, and the combo of flavors contained, on paper at least, an appealing play of sweet and sour, overall the dish was oomphless.
The grade of "big eye" tuna, one of eight entrées, would not make a fishmonger marvel, but the deep red slices possessed an alluring hint of citrus while parsnip purée, smokily braised collard greens, and port-wine sauce provided warmly satisfying support. Bold jolts of garlic and herbs boosted a Black Angus hangar steak, which was richly complemented with sweet Cahors wine sauce, a Romano-cheesy potato gratin, and grilled asparagus spears.
Those two dishes, along with other main courses such as organic chicken with saged jus, strip steak with truffled French fries, and duck with grilled apples, might be characterized as modern comfort food. It's usually pleasing when such cuisine conjurs nostalgic memories of another time and place, but I can't say I was thrilled when Metro's veal cutlet brought me back to my old high school cafeteria. I don't know what they used to pound the veal, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn it was a bunker-buster. The bread crumbs, rather than lightly clinging to the veal, stuck to the paper-thin meat like sand on a wet foot. Woody, inedible ends were left on three grilled stalks of asparagus, and a side of spaetzle was so rubbery I was tempted to drop a few pieces on the floor to see how high they'd bounce. It was also unseasoned, and there were no salt and pepper shakers on the tables. No one came by with a pepper mill.
Service was often neglectful. During one visit, on a slow evening, a hustling busperson was practically the only worker to be seen. Our waiter was harder to find than Osama bin Laden, and when he did show up he could only recommend vaguely appropriate wines for our food. On a busier return engagement a different waiter performed admirably, but service was still sloppy, this time due to poor backup -- bread unreplenished, water glasses unfilled, and so on. Actually we didn't really want more bread, as it wasn't particularly fresh.
Before Metro opened, Masri boasted that it would be priced with locals in mind. He kept his word concerning wines -- there are 25 bottles at $25 each. But an appetizer, entrée, and dessert for two, with tax and tip, not water, wine, or coffee, will come to about $120. Maybe this is chump change to Masri, but regular working folks will only shell out this much money for special occasions, or for those times they might just desire a dining experience defined by service and cuisine of a higher caliber than found here.
On the other hand, Metro is proving to be popular with one type of local -- the party crowd. Around 10:00 p.m. the room fills up, the music pumps up, and the scene heats up. This is when Metro succeeds -- it's hip, it's lively, and while the cuisine doesn't quite make it as fine dining, it definitely qualifies as excellent bar food.
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