A Shining Metropolis

 

Americans love comeback stories. Celebrities seem to garner more luster when they rebound from shocking scandal, disastrous marriages, rehab or obscurity. Think Cher. Or John Travolta, Rob Lowe, Pam Grier and — who would have thunk it — Gong Show creator and self-proclaimed “paid assassin” Chuck Barris.

Kansas City hasn’t had nearly enough celebrity comebacks — though comedy-club impresario Stan Glazer might qualify if he wins the mayoral election. Recently, however, a few restaurants have made notable returns. Two months ago, Forbes Cross revived his long-closed Michael Forbes Grill — complete with its signature “Greek” salad and fried catfish — in attractive new Prairie Village digs. And in Westport, the fate of the thirteen-year-old Metropolis American Grill took an unexpected twist when it closed last April but reopened with a new name at the end of 2002.

Granted, it’s not a dramatically new name. A slightly new name, sort of like Dionne Warwick dropping the “e” off her last name in the 1980s, or Patty Duke Astin becoming simply Patty Duke after she divorced John Astin, or Puff Daddy morphing into P. Diddy. The tiny restaurant is now called the Metropolis City Grill, and the sole owner is David Rabinowitz, who was once the manager of Westport’s long-gone Prospect Restaurant and who later owned the old Metropolis with Steve Chick, who isn’t there anymore.

“That’s one reason I’ll start going back,” said my ill-tempered friend Ned. “Steve Chick would stand at the bar and glare at me,” Ned said, explaining why he stopped eating at Metropolis.

I reminded Ned that plenty of other restaurant owners in town don’t relish his vocal complaining; they’re just more discreet about it. Still, Ned wasn’t the only diner to claim that, of the two former partners, Chick seemed to warm up only to a favored few, whereas Rabinowitz was more democratic when it came to customer relations. But how democratic can you be when your clientele is predominantly the well-dressed, well-coiffed, well-heeled country club crowd? On the two nights I dined at the reopened restaurant, it was thick with doctors, lawyers and socialites — and gay men, who have been fiercely loyal since the place opened in 1989.

Back then, this eastern stretch of Westport Road had a lot more cachet. Chick and Rabinowitz took over a storefront that had been occupied by a long-forgotten joint called Pig Snoot Heaven; when Metropolis debuted, with its charcoal-gray carpet and shiny black walls, society florist Bob Trapp had a shop across the street and the stylish clothing store Asiatica was barely a kimono’s length away. “When the place first opened,” Ned recalled, “the Metropolis parking lot was filled with Mercedes and the dining room was like a Chanel showroom.” Now, though the neighborhood is no less interesting, it is less alluring to the Mission Hills crowd.

Still, at least one Mercedes was in the lot on one recent night that didn’t start out particularly well. During the cold winter months, Rabinowitz is making his customers enter the restaurant through the back door. “A blast of cold air comes into the dining room when the front door opens,” Rabinowitz explains; the back-door plan is a temporary solution until he can move the restaurant’s entrance and its bar into the vacant space next door. But the arrangement irked my A-list friend Marilyn, who had to look at a Dumpster in the parking lot, then pass the kitchen on her way to the dining room. It was shock enough that she had to calm herself with a Grey Goose martini.

Marilyn’s nerves dejangled after the drink arrived and after she had eaten a paper-thin slice of chef Paul Mullins’ mushroom strudel, arranged like delicate petals on a pool of salmon-colored safflower herb sauce. And her spirits brightened considerably when another appetizer arrived: cold pink shrimp splashed with a citrusy Dijon sauce, bits of red onion and crumbles of feta.

“It’s fabulous,” said my friend Bob, who had come along for dinner. We didn’t think we knew a soul in the restaurant when we sat down, but a woman sitting at a nearby table cheerily waved to Marilyn, who put on her glasses after tentatively waving back. “She looks vaguely familiar,” Marilyn whispered. “But then again, everyone in here does. Vaguely.”

I was much more familiar with my entré than I was with the other customers. The curried chicken was a favorite at the old Prospect — a tender pile of sautéed chicken, broccoli and peanuts tossed in a mild, golden cream sauce with fresh mango-and-pineapple chutney over fragrant jasmine rice. It wasn’t particularly spicy, but that was just fine, because I’d also ordered my green salad with the house dressing, which turned out to be a fiery-orange tongue burner studded with blue cheese. Who could taste anything but chilies?

Conversely, Bob’s salad had a creamy asparagus dressing that tasted more like yogurt and cucumber. But he loved it nearly as much as his entré, an elegant variation on pasta alla carbonara. It was the most unrustic version I’d ever seen, dainty with artfully positioned green peas and tiny dark curls of pancetta. Equally sculptural was Marilyn’s ziggurat of wild mushroom risotto topped with a fan of meaty, grilled portabella mushroom slices.

She adored the dish, and so did I. It was a bit strange, however, that the menu’s detailing of its many ingredients — the mushroom carpaccio, the goat cheese crème fraîche, the balsamic syrup — read like a recipe.

My friend Lou Jane Temple, the cookbook writer, and her daughter, Reagan Walker, who is also a food writer, agreed with me a few nights later. “The menu descriptions are too long,” Lou Jane said, shaking her head. “You don’t need to list every single ingredient.”

With so many fussy diners these days, maybe you do. Besides, I was intrigued to order the Tuna Tartare because the menu described it as “wrapped in a Thai pancake.” Gift-wrapped was more like it: The marinated raw fish was folded into a purse-shaped rice pancake that almost floated off the plate; a wedge of “toasted cheese” looked like an expensive Judith Leiber handbag, sequined with bits of pecan and glossy black sesame seeds, rising up from a shiny pool of jalapeño jelly and accessorized with a bulb of underbaked garlic.

Although the food at Metropolis is fabulous, taste is less important here than style. Servers don’t just deliver plates from the kitchen; they vogue them out, with each dish teased, fluffed, painted and posed. You don’t know whether to start eating or applaud. I’ll do both when it comes to a juicy hunk of bone-in “Porterhouse” pork “lacquered” with a glaze of sweet tamarind and lemongrass — even if it is a little too dry. And the favorite fowl, Mahogany Chicken, may sound like a shade of Revlon nail polish, but it’s one of the best birds in town, juicy and moist under a sleek coating of balsamic vinegar and sun-dried tomato.

One of the restaurant’s newer dishes is a burly slab of salmon grilled Mojito-style, flavored with lemon, lime, mint and a shot of vodka, and glazed with sweet-tart blood orange. A creamy corn flan and a salty, starchy “pâté” of black beans made beautiful sides.

Desserts might have been designed by Bill Blass, too. A pistachio-hazelnut cookie shaped like a derby and filled with a fluffy, sweet cream cheese and jewel-like fresh berries was almost too pretty to tear into and eat. And the White Chocolate Flan would be better named White Chocolate Flannel; it’s less an eggy custard than a dense, comforting layer of caramel-drenched confection topped fetchingly with a gilded diadem of spun sugar.

In the fashion world, there’s no such thing as a comeback. Every trend gets revived and recycled sooner or later. At the “new” Metropolis, the food is just as inspired and the service is just as slick. It’s as if the place never said good-bye.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews