Exurban legend 

The Metropolitan Cafe offers quality and originality uncommon in the townships

click to enlarge Braised lamb with pappardelle pasta and braised vegetables in natural pan sauce from the Metropolitan Café in Shelby Township. - MT PHOTO: ROB WIDDIS
  • MT photo: Rob Widdis
  • Braised lamb with pappardelle pasta and braised vegetables in natural pan sauce from the Metropolitan Café in Shelby Township.

The Metropolitan Café

52969 Van Dyke Ave., Shelby Twp.
586-991-6104

themetroshelby.com

As though sculpted from a monolith of tan brick, the intersection of 24 Mile Road and Van Dyke Avenue doesn't look a whole lot different from the intersections a mile or so north or a mile or so west. But if the sprawl of southeast Michigan has a lesson to teach, it might be that looks can be deceiving.

The Metropolitan Café proves as much, offering quality and originality uncommon throughout much of metro Detroit, let alone Shelby Township.

However anonymous the exterior may seem, the restaurant brims with a unique personality, joyfully cultivated by executive chef Alexis Henslee and omnipresent proprietor Gary Barney. The decor is more contemporary than nearby alternatives, the waitstaff is exceptionally friendly, and the back wall showcases interesting Detroit photography by the Eastside Camera Club.

More often than not, Barney can be seen greeting guests at the door and stopping in at each table, and occasionally, Henslee emerges from the kitchen to discuss her food — which employs a number of ingredients from local farms — with regulars. The genuine, welcoming attitude so familiar in the eastern burbs permeates the restaurant, reconciling the seemingly disparate aims of a comfortable neighborhood atmosphere and interesting approaches to cuisine.

Creativity is indeed the watchword here: The menu defies categorization except to say that it's universally delicious.

Chef Henslee, an energetic young woman whose earlier credits include stints at Latitude and Tribute, seems to have a knack for turning common ingredients into something unexpected.

Among the clearest illustrations of the approach is the sublimation of Macomb County's flagship fish, lake perch, into a clever plate with Mediterranean flair. In contrast to the customary lemon wedge, artichoke and tomato confit and fried capers adorn their perch, which carries the requisite tartness with much more flavor — a true east side classic, truly reinvented.

Every entrée is given a similar re-examination: Chicken, often a safe haven at other establishments for less adventurous diners, is accompanied by a powerfully flavored, rich polenta. Encrusted in pieces of bacon and shallots and served over potatoes, spinach and onions drowning in gorgonzola cheese, the beef tenderloin likewise elevates simplicity to hedonistic joy for $25. And the braised lamb served atop pappardelle ought to become a local favorite for its eyebrow-raising, complex, savory flavors unassumingly packaged as a pasta dish.

A second regular seafood option, a Greek-inspired salmon fillet at $17, looks heavy-handed — but instead, the wide-ranging flavors of olives, roasted beets, feta, and cucumbers create a sweet-and-salty backdrop for the fish and a heaping portion of Israeli couscous. A grilled romaine heart adds a surprising crunch.

Portion sizes should never be a concern at the Metropolitan Cafe, nor should prices: The entrée that one gets for $15 or $18 is sufficient for a meal.

The breadth of Chef Henslee's culinary influences is particularly evident with each of the starters. A longstanding love for Mexican food is manifest in the chicken tostadas and, more interestingly, in the calamari, accented with Latin and Asian flavors in the form of black bean, mango, spicy peppers and lime.

An increasingly trendy pairing is that of chorizo sausage and dates, but the execution here is second to none — moist throughout with spiciness nicely offset by the sweetness of an accompanying red pepper sauce.

Most of the small plates are sharable, but feel free to be selfish with the $8 burger, prepared perfectly to order and topped with bacon and shallots, and the homemade potato chips, freshly fried throughout the day and served with a blue cheese sauce.

Henslee is a former pastry chef, and like the rest of the menu, her desserts balance comfort and cleverness. Commonly seen around the dining room is the "Hot Chocolate," more a pun than a literal description. At the bottom of a heap of churros, chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce is a spicy chipotle-chocolate brownie with a nice touch of heat.

Also consider trying her cr�me br�lée, made with an elegant touch of rosewater and a homemade fruit compote.

Service here ranges in quality: It's not uncommon for a plate to be swept away before others at the table have nearly finished, but it's more common to be pleasantly surprised at how thoroughly a server can address any question regarding the menu or nightly specials.

If anything is noticeably amiss at the Metropolitan Café, it's surely the drinks program, which features a short menu of largely mass-produced wines, none of which will be of interest to enthusiasts. The cocktail list features a number of sugary creations, some of which are too cloying, though the bartender made a fine Manhattan when called upon to do so.

That said, the restaurant already has clear designs on showcasing what it can do with a more adventurous selection of libations through the orchestration of beer and wine dinners, a few of which are already planned for the coming weeks.

Chef Henslee seems more than able to offer exotic cuisine under candlelight should she want to someday, but she and Barney understand their current niche, and provide their patrons the best combination of creativity and comfort Macomb County has to offer.

The Metropolitan Café is open 11-2 a.m. Monday-Friday 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturdays, and 4 p.m.-midnight Sunday.

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