Let's get small

"You gotta keep up with the times," explained a server at the incongruously hip Metro Lounge in the very traditional Oxford Inn. Since 1987, when Joe's Army and Navy Store was still the main reason for coming to the sleepy suburb that was Royal Oak, the Oxford Inn has been a popular dining spot in the unfashionable section of town that begins across the railroad tracks south of Lincoln.

Last February, in an attempt to catch up with national trends and perhaps to lure more of the youthful crowd from watering holes north of Lincoln, owner Bob Higgins opened the Metro Lounge, a completely separate small-plates operation within the Oxford Inn. Experienced chef Mark Platz presides over that part of the Inn's kitchen devoted exclusively to the Lounge.

If Higgins has guessed correctly, we may have to invent a name for the relatively underdeveloped area on Main south of Lincoln that is likely to flourish in years to come. We could call it SOMA but San Francisco's "south of Market" neighborhood and Aldous Huxley have a lease on that acronym, so how about SOLI?

Leading the way to SOLI will be the Metro Lounge, a dark, spacious barroom with a fireplace, European posters and art deco light fixtures on the walls, and a cozy outdoor terrace. It is located at the rear of the Oxford Inn, a sprawling, half-timbered, pub-like, full-service restaurant that retains its menu of escargot, shrimp cocktail, beef, fish and chips, celebrated ribs and even that rarely seen classic, oysters Rockefeller.

In contrast, the Metro Lounge offers more than 20 small plates along with (from the Oxford Inn's menu) four salads and a soup of the day and, especially, 30 ultra-trendy mixed drinks. While diners next door are ordering Manhattans and martinis, those in the Lounge are selecting such "chocolicious" drinks ($8-$10 for a 10 oz. glass) as a martini composed of raspberry vodka, white chocolate, Godiva liqueur and raspberry Chambord.

Although the servers call their globally eclectic fare tapas, they are thousands of culinary miles distant from Spain and are served in portions that resemble small entrées more than small plates. Nonetheless, many of them are commendable, and if you can do without veggies or a bread basket, they can constitute a filling and varied meal at a reasonable price, as long as you don't overdose on cherry cosmopolitans or fuzzy navels.

As for reasonable prices, most every plate and drink is half-price from Monday through Friday, from 5 to 7 p.m., and all night on Mondays. Now those are happy hours!

The small plates average around $8. Beginning with cold items, a half-pound of tiny marinated mussels, steamed in a jalapeño, white wine and garlic marinade, enlivened by a tangy Dijon-horseradish sauce, is a bargain at $5. If you need healthy food, a generous helping of spinach salad, with mushrooms, grapes, mandarin oranges and pecans, enhanced by a sweet Vidalia vinaigrette, will do the trick. Indeed, most of the dishes are significantly enhanced by Platz's varied dressings and dips.

Featured among the warm dishes is teriyaki chicken, marinated sautéed breasts served on skewers with contrapuntal cold Asian noodles and a sharp wasabi sauce. From the sea, another keeper is corn-flake-encrusted salmon, fried and brought to life with a Cajun tartar sauce. And the tender, flash-fried calamari Caparetto, which fortunately is lightly floured and involves more than just rings, is enlivened by two sauces, the expected cocktail sauce and an unusual tomato-pesto combo.

Among other items on the changing menu may be sirloin sliders, vegetable lasagna, blackened fish mixed grill, Oriental sesame chicken and barbecue ribs. Although beer and the aforementioned specialty drinks appear to be the most popular beverages among the small platers in the Metro Lounge, Higgins does offer a handful of well-known bottles of wine, most of which, like Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc, are gently marked up to the low 20s.

Just about all the desserts revolve around ice cream, with the cream puff ($6) a pleasant way to end the dinner if you still need sweets after those colorful sweet cocktails.

Because it is primarily a bar that serves tapas along with those signature drinks, the Metro Lounge permits smoking throughout the premises. With several muted television sets tuned to Tiger baseball, rock music in the background, and sometimes boisterous crowds sharing their appetizers, this is not the place for a quiet romantic interlude — try one of the dimly lit booths next door for that. But the Metro Lounge does deliver a commendable small-plate experience, an experience that should contribute to the area south of Main in Royal Oak developing into a destination for the hordes of local loft-dwellers and boulevardiers on the lookout for a new hot spot to spend the evening, even if it is in the old Oxford Inn.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected]

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].

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