Restaurant Review: The Metropolitan Café

Savory Surprise: The Metropolitan Café in Shelby Township may appear routine, but its cuisine is anything but

Despite the urban ring to the name, The Metropolitan Café is much closer to the lush farmland of northern Macomb County than it is to the city lights — geographically, that is.

Perched on the corner of Van Dyke and 24 Mile Road, it hides its high culinary ambitions in a casual, sports-bar like setting that seems to be just another routine spot where you might find hot wings and mozzarella sticks.

Not at all. There’s much more to this Shelby Township restaurant than meets the eye. Proprietor Gary Barney —making his first foray into a sole-ownership role after several years as a partner at Ferndale’s New Orleans-themed Howe’s Bayou — had definite ideas about what he wanted.

And they went well beyond the brick and mortar. Putting the place together from scratch (he had what was essentially a clean canvas in a newly constructed building), he gave the single large room a contemporary flair. Indirect lighting, some that emanates from eye-catching, hand-blown amber glass teardrop lamps over the granite-topped bar, lends ambience, as does a ceiling with exposed ductwork, and the requisite television screens — yes, but not too many.

Seating options range from tall bar-style tables to conventional height, and an especially nice corner is fitted with black-leather couches and one table for six.

The restaurant’s name is significant. It suggests that, even though it occupies what might be considered an out-of-the-way location, it’s as dedicated to a sophisticated menu as any destination in downtown Detroit or Birmingham.

All of the surprises come out of the kitchen, which is in the hands of executive chef Alexis Henslee, a graduate of the Schoolcraft College culinary program and a protégé of chef Rich Travis, who recommended her for The Metropolitan Café post.

Travis, now executive chef at Forté in Birmingham, first met Henslee seven years ago, when he was heading the kitchen at Latitude, the former restaurant in Bay Harbor on Lake Michigan. He hired the then 23-year-old Petoskey native as a pastry assistant. She quickly rose through the ranks, putting pastry aside for cooking on the line.

“She was very hardworking and dedicated to the food. She had a passion for food, working with the seasons and quality ingredients. You don’t often find that,” Travis says, adding as a postscript: “I always like to have women in my kitchen. They work three times as hard as the guys to prove themselves.”

That’s something the Metropolitan’s Barney learned about Henslee in the first nine months of his enterprise. In addition to having creative flair and a focus on fresh ingredients, she’s almost tireless in her devotion to her craft.

The ambitious menu begins with a list of small plates. Some are as simple as crisp, warm house-made potato chips dusted with rosemary salt and accompanied by a subtle blue-cheese dipping sauce. Others are more elaborate, such as chorizo-stuffed dates with charred red pepper and tomato sauce, manchego cheese, and arugula attractively served on pure-white or clear-glass plates.

Even something as basic as beer-battered fish and chips gets a distinctive twist. The batter is made with Michigan boutique beer and served with the house potato chips rather than French fries.

Henslee uses local ingredients whenever possible and, in the summer and fall, she depends on local farmers — especially Gass Centennial Farm in Ray Township. “What potential this young chef has,” says Ellen Gass, who has been growing fresh produce, including heirloom and cherry tomatoes, basil, sugar-snap peas, zucchini, lettuces, fennel bulbs, and herbs, for local chefs since the 1980s.

In addition to her seasonal approach, the young chef’s appreciation for Mexican food is evident in such dishes as the chicken tostada with cumin-scented black beans and lime sour cream, as well as in one of the desserts, called Hot Chocolate. “Hot” refers not to temperature, but to the chipotle pepper that gives an intriguingly spicy kick to the chocolate sauce that’s poured over chocolate ice cream. A warm churro (cinnamon-sugar dusted sweet-dough spiral) completes the dish, and the spiciness of the chocolate sauce is the best kind, tiptoeing up to but not shocking the palate.

Henslee also includes elements of Asian and Mediterranean cuisine. There’s a salad of shrimp with feta, asparagus, tomato, and mixed greens dressed in lemon-caper vinaigrette; mussels in white-wine cream sauce with grape tomatoes and toasted bread also show that touch.

An imaginative dish, a twist on Greek salad called Hot Greek Salmon, combines sautéed salmon with couscous, roasted beets, feta cheese, olives, and a touch of red onion on a romaine heart that has been lightly broiled. It’s served at lunch and dinner.

The Szechuan-spiced calamari with chile/lime aioli and salsa, which combines the sweetness of mango with the counterpoint of black beans, could easily make the traditional shrimp cocktail seem boring, although that’s available, too. Spring rolls filled with stir-fried vegetables and served with a spicy plum sauce also evoke the Far East. Henslee’s style, it’s quickly apparent, can’t be crammed into any neat little boxes.

Going beyond the small-plates assortment at dinner is a selection of “big” plates, including a bacon-and-shallot-crusted filet mignon in red-wine sauce that’s notable. It’s served with Yukon gold mashed potatoes, wilted spinach, and Gorgonzola-sparked onions. A less successful big plate is marinated pork tenderloin that was overpowered by stone-ground mustard sauce.

The lunch menu offers some interesting salads and sandwiches, the standout of which is the New England crab-cake sandwich, an almost fluffy crab cake that’s light years from the hockey pucks sometimes served by that name. It’s teamed with arugula, bacon, lemon-caper vinaigrette, and house-made “Kelly’s” tartar sauce.

Kelly is Henslee’s younger sister, now 22, who has followed her path all the way from Latitude, where she started training at the age of 15. She’s now the pastry chef in the family.

The wine list is a work in progress. Barney is a believer in featuring lesser-known boutique wines that can be served in a reasonable price range, such as Alfredo Roca pinot noir from Argentina and Terra Andina Carmenere from Chile, as well as several wines from Michigan vineyards.

While service is sometimes not crisply professional, it’s nonetheless friendly and helpful, and the hands-on proprietor is usually right there working with the staff.

The Metropolitan Café gives the east side something to brag about.

L & D Mon.-Fri., D Sat.-Sun. 52969 Van Dyke at 24 Mile Road, Shelby Township; 586-991-6104

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