What a comfort it is to return, year after year, to a beloved restaurant and not be disappointed. That’s been my experience at Metropole, the flagship restaurant at downtown’s 21c Museum Hotel and a beacon of reliability in Cincinnati.
When I had the chance to check out the cooking of Metropole’s new chef, not yet one year at the helm, downtown was still taking baby steps to recover from the tribulations of 2020. A Cincinnati native, Vanessa Miller had come on board as executive chef in the fall after more than a decade at restaurant positions in Massachusetts and New York. I’d hoped that she would have the support — and the chops — to maintain the high standards that Metropole has achieved since its opening in 2012.
Miller’s stint at Metropole goes back to August 2020, just over a month after the restaurant reopened from last spring’s lockdown. With hotel business at a virtual standstill, Metropole no longer served breakfast and lunch upon reopening; more than a year later, the schedule remains at dinner seven nights a week along with weekend brunch.
The reduced meal service reflects an industry-wide struggle to find not only adequate staff but also enough diners to justify three-meal-a-day scheduling. Hotel occupancy determines that breakfast and downtown workers supply the bulk of lunch traffic. Neither measure has come anywhere near 2019 numbers; for at least the next few months Miller expects the dining schedule will stay as it is.
Another casualty of our stumbling recovery has been 21c’s rooftop cocktail terrace, which reopened in May to a lot of fanfare about its expanded drink and food menu. That opening coincided with the first rush of newly vaccinated Cincinnatians breaking their cabin fever and inundating some of their old favorite haunts. Cue the hordes flocking to the roof at 21c, and the staff just couldn’t keep up with demand.
For now, Miller said, the team has decided to focus on Metropole. The upstairs bar is closed to the public and, at least for a while, will only be available for private events.
Luckily, the ground-floor Metropole itself has a wonderful bar, even without a city view — the drinks staff is among the most creative and knowledgeable in town. The quality of these libations might merit a strategy to drink cocktails through dinner, skipping wine, in case you want to try several offerings from the current list.
When I dined with two friends from Chicago recently, we indeed started with something from the bar. The seven-item list of house concoctions included a couple of lighter drinks and a few spirit-forward mixtures, all with made-up names such as Suze-y Q (gin, Suze liqueur, sweet vermouth and bitters; $10) and a vegetal drink called Persephone’s Return (snap-pea-infused gin, jasmine and the herbal liqueur Dolin Genepy des Alpes; $13). I opted for Old French Quarter, a delicious rye-based creation with B&B and three different bitters ($15). My friend ordered one of the lighter combos, called Red Leather, Yellow Leather and made with prosecco, sherry, amaro and strawberry-rhubarb syrup ($13).
Chef Miller’s late-summer menu offered many enticements, with more than a half-dozen appetizers, four salads, three pastas and seven entrees. Miller said this was the fifth or sixth menu under her supervision and has achieved what she has been striving for. This menu represents “well-executed food that’s playful and fun without being too fussy,” she said. “And it feels very much like now — like late summer.”
At dinner, my friends and I had to make hard choices and asked our server lots of questions before we could hone in on what to order. Menu discussion, therefore, took up most of our cocktail time, as veteran server Dave Leyton knew every ingredient and flavor laced through each dish and helped steer us right.
What turned out to be our consensus favorite dish of the meal came with the first course: cornmeal-crusted calamari with pickled plums and radish sprouts ($12), which had been one of Leyton’s suggestions as we dithered between it and a couple other starters. The squid itself was first-rate, fresh as could be, and the result of flash-frying produced a dish with perfect crunch and no hint of grease.
Along with the calamari, we shared grilled bread with burrata cheese ($13) and a strawberry and snap pea salad ($11). The bread topping included sliced fresh asparagus and an onion confit, while the salad featured red quinoa, spinach, crumbled goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette. Longtime fans of this restaurant will be happy to know that you can still get the burnt carrot salad ($10) with avocado and feta.
In a phone interview some days after our dinner, Miller mentioned how satisfied she was with Metropole’s “pasta program,” a comment that made me regret having passed up the tagliatelle carbonara ($29) or the fazzoletti ($25). King crab, sweet corn and other ingredients graced the tagliatelle while the other pasta dish featured smoked tomatoes, black-eyed peas and burrata.
But that evening we settled on salmon, duck and scallops. A lot of care went into the roasted duck breast ($29), meaty slices cooked exactly to order, with nicely browned rims of fat. It was decadent in the best possible way, accompanied by duck-fat-braised wild rice, bits of charred radishes and green apple for flavor and texture contrasts. I loved the menu description of seared sea scallops with lentils, fennel, pecan and pickled strawberries ($30), with some of those ingredients among my favorites. But the dish underperformed for me, lacking in any crunchy element, and I couldn’t get into the pickled strawberries.
For dessert, a dish of chocolate ice cream with a scoop of rose sorbet ($8) surprised and delighted us. If you love the scent of roses, then do hope that Metropole keeps making this icy treat. Each bite floods you with that scent as it tickles your tongue with its flavor.
For me, the sorbet rendered our other chosen dessert an also-ran. Not that there’s anything wrong at all with chocolate coconut crunch ($10), sort of a candy bar on a plate, with chocolate mousse, caramel crunch cake and coconut caramel sauce.
After dinner, we strolled through the hotel’s adjacent Contemporary art galleries and thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit. Be sure to allow time to enjoy this special feature of a unique Cincinnati dining experience.
Metropole at 21c, 609 Walnut St., Downtown, metropoleonwalnut.com.
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