Metropolitan Coffeehouse & Wine Bar has a certain je ne sais quoi.
The eatery — a Federal Hill mainstay, serving three meals a day since 2004 — is excessively charming, with a look lifted right out of Paris' Left Bank. Dark painted wood, golden walls and twinkling lights decorate the petite space. It would be no surprise to spy Hemingway, tucked in a corner, scribbling away.
Despite the distinctly Parisian feel, Metropolitan's menu and drinks list tell an international story, representing flavors from all over the world. And the prompt and friendly service is a far cry from the stereotypical snobby French waiter.
On a recent Thursday night, an event in the upstairs dining room meant all diners were relegated to the cozy downstairs, crowded with a small bar and well-worn tables.
We snagged the last two bar seats, giving us easy access to a crew of helpful bartenders. Over the course of the evening, we realized how lucky we were, as dozens of diners stopped by in search of a table. The crowd at Metropolitan looked to be in it for the long haul, too. Tables did not turn over quickly.
Metropolitan's warm atmosphere (and close tables) inspired chatty friendliness, giving the space a sophisticated, buzzy air. We found ourselves actively eavesdropping on our seat-neighbors, who had engaged the bar staff in a lively debate abut the merits of different Baltimore restaurants (a favorite topic of ours).
Metropolitan has a full bar, but its diverse and thoughtful wine and beer selections make it hard to consider anything else.
We started with peaty, malt-heavy Old Chub ($4), a dark Scotch ale brewed in Colorado. From the wine list, we tried a glass of Ergo Tempranillo ($8.50) from Spanish winemaker Martin Codax.
With pleasant fruitiness and a smooth mouthfeel, the wine was an especially good match for a starter of grilled sausage and tangy whole-grain mustard ($7).
The sausage plate was tasty but a bit confusing. It was billed as a combination of grilled wild boar and smoked duck sausages, but if both types of meat were on the plate, we couldn't distinguish between the two.
Plus, the plate was disorganized. It looked as if the sausage, sliced into small rounds, had been thrown on top of a bed of greens. The garnishes — mustard, cornichons and a few bread rounds — received similarly sloppy placement.
Still, the sausage rounds were full of savory flavor. Mild in terms of spice, but packed with herbs, the sausage was a good start to the meal.
The Metropolitan dinner menu covers many bases, from breezy salads to comfort food. The spicy beef salad ($12) managed to be both light and satisfying at the same time.
Thinly sliced strips of beef, marinated in a sauce that was more spiced than spicy, topped a giant salad of finely chopped cucumber, red onion, tomato, cilantro, mint and greens, tossed with a Japanese-inspired ginger dressing.
The vegetables were bright, ripe and lovely, and though the meat wasn't fork-tender, it absorbed its marinade well.
Between the variety of vegetables, the marinade, and the dressing, the salad was packed with strong but not overwhelming flavor.
Our other entree — Dr. Emily's chicken pasta ($17), named after a longtime Metropolitan customer — occupied the other end of the flavor spectrum.
Tender chunks of sauteed chicken breast, tossed with mushrooms, walnuts, basil and garlic and served over rose sauce-dressed penne, was earthy and creamy. Prime comfort food.
With the pasta, we drank a fruity Malbec, Revolution, from Argentina ($7). Malbec pairs easily with food, and this wine's dry finish and mild oak played well with the pasta's nutty, creamy sauce.
Though obviously busy, the bartenders were prompt with refills and answers to questions, and the food was well-timed as it came out of the kitchen.
On the bartender's recommendation, we ended the meal with a steaming bowl of bread pudding ($6). The pudding itself was very good — warm and sweet — but the kitchen hid its light under a barrel, topping the dessert with a pile of whipped cream, chocolate sauce and colored sprinkles. It looked like a kid's sundae, though the taste was more grown-up.
After dinner, we resisted the urge to have just one more glass of wine.
But with bartenders at the ready and intriguing conversations all around us, it would've been easy to give in to temptation.
Metropolitan Coffeehouse and Wine Bar
Back story: Opened in 2004, Federal Hill's Metropolitan Coffeehouse and Wine Bar fills numerous roles. It is open early for coffee and breakfast, serves lunch during the day, and offers good dinners — along with sophisticated drinks — in the evenings.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: The spicy beef salad — a bright mix of cucumber, tomato, red onion, cilantro, mint and greens tossed with ginger dressing and topped with thinly sliced strips of steak — is a surprising find on a wine bar menu, but its freshness and zesty flavor make it a winner.
Where: 902 Charles St.
Contact: 410-234-0235; http://www.metrobalto.com
Open: Monday-Wednesday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Accepted for dinner for parties of 6 or more
[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very Good: ***; Good: **; Promising: *]Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun