As promised in 21c Museum Hotel Trifecta – The Plan, after visiting The Hive we went to the Metropole in Cincinnati Ohio. Here is its restaurant review… Team Mago stumbled into 21c’s Cincinnati property after twelve hours on the road. Fulvia’s immediate reaction upon entering lobby was spot on: “I don’t think we’re in Bentonville anymore, Toto.”
Indeed, it took less than a second to encounter photos showcasing human female breasts, penis-shaped swan necks, and (my personal favorite) deer heads festooned in S&M leather masks straight out of Pulp Fiction to include a red ball mouth gag. I was simultaneously relieved by 21c’s dedication to edgy modern art and assailed by grudging admiration for their marketing team’s ability to figure out just how each of their properties can venture into the avante garde.
We had a half hour to kill before our 8 PM reservations so while Fulvia, Aristippus, and Agricola headed for the bar, I jumped into the shower where tiles in the shape of more female breasts added to my swelling sense of well-being. The rooms are Spartan and modern. The dominant color theme is white, the flat screen huge, the bed amazingly comfortable, and coffee supplied by a Nespresso machine tucked away next to the minibar. Although the rooms are very artsy, 21c makes a lot of Samolians on business travel expense accounts, so there are enough plugs semi-hidden on the utilitarian desk to charge at least four devices simultaneously. In short, the rooms were nice enough to prompt Aristippus (who is nearing retirement) to inquire as to discounts for long-term stays. The friendly front desk hottie informed us that such arrangements are indeed possible through the reservations department.
I found my half-in-the-bag companions drinking jack and coke like the Taliban had just thrown pontoon bridges across the Ohio river and would soon be within RPG range. The Metropole bar is a pleasant, if severely linear, space separate from the dining room where very competent mixologists backed up by a battalion of small batch bourbons ply their trade. There is also a rotating selection of five craft beers on tap as well as a lengthy assortment of wines by the glass, which are actually quarter bottle carafes—so the rather steep prices actually buy you a very generous glass and a half of good vino.
I herded the rest of Team Mago to our extremely comfortable open-ended booth that allowed us each a very nice view of the restaurant. The Metropole space is a renovation designed by Deborah Berke Partner Architects, which left the original mosaic floors intact and provided plenty of wall space for the 21c signature rotating collections of modern art. What I liked best, however, was that the Metropole design team eschewed the post-modern caverns of the other 21c restaurants for drop ceilings that add intimacy and dampen ambient noise.
The one major flaw is the inexplicable decision not to show case the enormous wood-burning fireplace that is the foundation of Chef Michael Paley’s cuisine. This magnificent piece of retro-culinary technology is isolated from most diners by not one, but two trench lines formed by a prep counter and a pass. And, like The Hive, there is no real chef’s table, but a communal bench to which overflow and walk-ins are shuttled for a convivial cheek by jowl experience that bears little or no resemblance to the ringside seat effect of, say, Stephanie Izzard’s Girl and the Goat or a more traditional chef’s table set inside a separate kitchen familiar to many acolytes of gourmet temples around the world. What were the Deborah Berke Partner Architects thinking? The communal table is juxtaposed by a glassed in triclinium where the elite dine in full view of the plebs (another shared feature with the Hive).
Design faux pax not withstanding, Metropole has been a success from the get-go. Whether it was intra-corporate poaching or inspired operational planning, bringing in Chef Paley to launch the Metropole turned out to be a good move. Previously the executive chef at 21c’s Proof on Main in Louisville, Paley brought that experience along with stints working for Daniel Boulud and Drew Nieporent to the Metropole, which was subsequently nominated (though not awarded) for best new restaurant in 2013 by Bon Appetite Magazine. Chef Paley brought several faves from the Proof menu as well, such as the charred octopus, warm ricotta, and his signature burger (although Metropole’s is a 50/50 bison and beef brisket mix as opposed to pure buffalo at Proof).
Metropole serves high-end modern American cuisine. The ingredients are sourced locally with a religious fever, and the fireplace wrinkle produces bold and unusual flavor profiles. The menu is on the small side but changes frequently enough to eschew the need for specials to round it out.
The menu—the vast majority of which passes through that marvelous fireplace—is divided into four categories: 1) starters for the table, 2) appetizers, 3) entrees, 4) vegetables and grains. We fell upon them all like starving locusts. Our table starter consisted of housemade coppa and country pâté accompanied by Truffle Tremor goat cheese (from California), smoked grapes (told ya!), fermented carrots, and local honey.
The coppa was just OK, dry, salty, and not very flavorful. I am not a big fan of every restaurant doing its own charcuterie these days, especially as our shores play host to an increasing number of world-class salumiers. The pâté was quite good, but the smoked grapes stole the show (one of many fireplace tours de force we ingested over the course of the evening) The cheese was fine, but it was supposed to be truffled and as far as I could tell there were no chips of edible black diamonds as described by our waiter (were we victim of a mix-up on the goat cheese, getting the French instead of the, counterintuitively, truffled Californian?).
Waygu beef tartare accompanied by crispy shallots, egg yolk, frisee, and toast was the best protein of the evening. Amazing cubettes of red buttah were served old school style with a raw egg yolk and cornichons. The shallots added a nice texture contrast to the unctuous beef, but the frisee and especially the stone ground mustard were unnecessary distractions. The toasted sourdough bread was so good that we ordered several more helpings with which to build eclectic pannini utilizing bits from many dishes.
Burnt Carrots salad with avocado, pickled onion, feta, cilantro, and pumpkin seeds kicked off the evenings veggie fest that went so far as to threaten my long-held carnivorous fundamentalism. Team Mago spontaneously awarded these wonderful carrots the coveted dish o’ the dinner (DOTD, pronounced dot-dee) accolade.
We had enjoyed the tender seared octopus twice at Proof on Main, but the Metropole version is a noticeable improvement on an already fine dish. The ubiquitous fireplace certainly had something to do with this apotheosis, but it was the fresh chickpeas, currents, and blood orange supremes that really elevated the humble cephalopod mollusk.
Pan roasted scallops with red wattle lardo, oak broth, and preserved lemon potatoes was a unidimensional disappointment. The overly salty oak broth annihilated all other flavors, especially the lardo, which was important to the success of the dish. The taters (rounds of fingerlings on the bottom in the broth) seemed superfluous, and I could not taste the preserved lemon. The scallops were, however, correctly cooked and tasted just fine when eaten sans oak juice.
Slow cooked pork shoulder served on top of charred parsnip and rutabaga-Moretti polenta with lacinato kale, and pork jus was a very competently executed dish, but it seemed somehow out of place on our table. Perhaps this was due to its lack of acquaintance with the wood fired wonder. You would think that we would have been saturated with wood smoke in all of its manifestations, but the opposite was true. We wanted more and we were about to get it in spades with a trio of sides.
Roasted root vegetables in the form of parsley root, parsnips, and black salsify served with beet greens and ricotta salata were stellar accompaniments to the various proteins we sampled. The sweet and savory roots were further enhanced by a well timed hit of vinegar. ‘Chaat’ 8 was a take on Indian savory snacks. This dish was a duet sung by the fireplace and the fryolater involving charred green beans, cheddar curds, cubed beets, crispy chick peas, and cilantro pesto. Eaten together, the smoky beans and crunchy chickpeas were a revelation in flavor and texture.
Another great veggie side, charred Brussels sprouts with dates, bespoke pancetta, smoked walnuts, and cider vinegar, was nothing short of spectacular. What a contrast with The Hive’s sorry sprouts. The pancetta was better than the coppa and should replace it in the shared plates sections, while the pickles and walnuts added both flavor and texture layers to the dish.
OK, I know that I have been going heavy on the hearth hyperbole, but f**k the fireplace: the best thing we ate at the Metropole were the french fries. They were ethereally crisp on the outside and meltingly spudilicious on the inside. Aristippus, already in the throes of culinary ecstasy over the sourdough bread called for a verdict of BFFE (that would be best french fries ever) by acclamation, which was duly rendered. We learned a couple more things about these Platonic form potatoes from the sommelier of all people, namely that they are triple cooked (water blanch, oil blanch, oil fry) and that they can be ordered without the accompanying burger (although there is no such offering on the menu). Fortunately, our sommelier heard Fulvia wishing we could have fries for dessert (there might have been alcohol involved) and offered to put an order in for us—talk about the wish becoming the father to the fries!
I have already sung the praises of the sourdough but we also sampled a wonderful rye. The Metropole gets its bread from Blue Oven Bakery in Williamsburg, Ohio but they smoke their own butter and it rocks.
We only had room for 21c’s famous cotton candy for desert. Cotton candy is served in lieu of pettifores at all 21c restaurants and the flavor is determined by the color of each hotel’s plastic penguins (I’m serious). Cincinnati’s penguins are yellow so Metropole serves lemon cotton candy, which is not nearly as good as The Hive’s green apple.
Our wine is a saga of leaving fish to find fish. What do I mean? Well, if you are catching fish in one place and you leave it for another, you are being probabilistically stupid. We started our evening with H, an Argentinian 50/50 Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon blend recommended by our waiter (H, Allamand, Mendoza, Argentina). We drank the 2010 vintage of which a mere 2,800 bottles were produced. It was the very definition of a cow poop wine with a barnyard nose giving way to leather, hung game, black truffles, prunes and raisins. The long finish had marmite notes and terroir out the ass.
I’m on this comparison kick with respect to wine right now and I have to say that it is not really working out. I asked the sommelier for another recommendation and she came up with a 2001 La Rioja Alta Gran Riserva 904. Rated 96 by the Robert Parker studio, it should have been the capstone of the evening, but we should have drunk it first and it should have breathed for several hours prior to that. At 13 years of age this wine is still a toddler and Metropole’s cellar temperature is low enough to insure a very slow evolution on top of that. Its Tempranillo and Graciano varietals produce a complex nose of incense and balsamic vinegar followed by loads of spicy jammy black fruit, but this voluptuous body is encased in a tannic armor that requires vigorous decanting, aeration, and significant breathing time; or better yet about a decade of additional cellaring. This wine will easily last until 2040. Bottom line, we should have stuck with H or called a day ahead of time to arrange the proper foreplay for such a reluctant beauty.
To add insult to wallet injury, we were forced to drink wine out of the same shitty glasses that 21c seems bent on inflicting throughout their entire restaurant empire. I had a long and frustrating chat with the sommelier about how their glasses are really big and how sommelier trainees actually use smaller glasses and how difficult it is to take care of Riedel crystal, blah, blah, blah. At least the Metropole has Bordeaux style as well as Burgundy style glasses so we could drink out of the right type of jelly jar. Note to Melanie Tapp, 21c Food and Beverage Director: when people pay a shit load of hard earned ducats for your wine, they should be able to drink it from decent stemware. Given the hideous level of mark-up that all restaurants charge on high-end grape juice (I know its how you make your money, but still) you should give a little back to your best customers in appreciation of their loyalty by making some Riedel-level glasses available. Make your numbers on the mid-level dipsomaniacs, but treat the whales like the endangered species they are going to become in the 21c ecosystem if you continue to serve them exquisite wine in institutional glasses.
Metropole is clearly superior to The Hive, primarily because it is in the hands of a veteran chef who is at the top of his game. But greater talent also begets greater expectations. Having eaten several times at Proof during Chef Paley’s tenure, I found that, culinary technology notwithstanding, his most impressive offerings are almost always found amongst the small plates and sides. Now that he has made his bones at Proof, Metropole, and Garage Bar (the wildly popular Louisville artisan pizzeria), I would like to see Chef Paley stretch, if not break, his culinary template by turning the Metropole into an all small plates restaurant and take that fireplace for a real walk on the wild side. Common’ chef, ask yourself “what would Mago do?”