BY ALEX SUNDSTROM
Visiting the Metropolis Cafe reminded me a lot of the 1927 Fritz Lang movie of the same name, where exploited underground workers make the lives of the elite pleasant. Here a grim, dystopic dinner service pays the restaurant’s bills, so it can support a delicious and ethereal brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.
Coming from Cambridge to visit Boston’s South End on a weekend is a nice reminder of how much an area’s population influences the food. Harvard Square’s indiscriminate students and tourists make the food utterly wretched, and at the other end of the spectrum, the South End’s population of gay men drives up the food quality immensely.
Brunch is the best thing the South End has to offer – Tremont Street offers one of the largest clusters of airy, well-designed restaurants jousting for brunch excellence on the East Coast. It’s hard to say exactly why it’s so popular here – maybe the gay aren’t worried about undermining their masculinity by drinking mimosas and eating complicated egg dishes? In any case, breakfast food was never better, and the Metropolis Cafe is the best of the lot.
Restaurant pancakes are usually lumpy discs of woe and sadness soaked in corn syrup. Pancakes offered with bananas or blueberries usually means a cold lump of fruit on top of the sadness-corn syrup mixture. At, say, SoundBites in Somerville, the current Best of Boston award holder for pancakes, the pancake exterior is cooked to a brown dustiness.
Metropolis Cafe’s pancakes ($6.95 for a three-pancake stack) are perfectly fluffy, with just the slightest sour hint of buttermilk. And even though it’s not terribly difficult to go find some fresh fruit and toss it into the batter, almost nobody gets it right. Here, the bananas cooked to a sweet, stringy softness – blueberries, chocolate and strawberries are also available. There was no charge for the maple syrup, unlike at SoundBites and its wretched cousins. Metropolis even managed to produce some freshly whipped cream upon request.
The huevos rancheros ($9.95) demonstrate a great facility with eggs – they’re perfectly scrambled and paired with just the right amount of sour cream and mashed black bean salsa. Tables are a bit crowded together, but the service is unhurried and the dangling glass dodecahedron-like baubles are fun to look at.
After dark, Tremont Street looks more sinister, and Metropolis Cafe sustains its brunchly paradise by serving inconsistent food to its customers. The restaurant switched chefs in the last year or so – the menu’s prices have gone down by a few dollars, but the biggest change is in the typeface. If you notice that a restaurant has replaced an elegant font with Courier New, as happened here, you should probably take it as a bit of an ominous sign – maybe they’re trying to lower expectations?
A cod and crab cake ($9.95) keeps up the Courier New expectations by being impossibly spongy, firm and fish-tasting, violating a crab cake’s only mandate – that it not require a knife to cut. The “duck confit,” ($18.95) despite our waiter’s enthusiastic recommendation, was a mere dried-out duck thigh atop some awful mealy gnocchi filled with finely chopped nuts.
Simple vegetables are a lot better, at least – sauteed spinach ($4.95) was nice and vinegary and served with the right amount of garlic, and the olive oil filled with cloves of roasted garlic that was provided with the bread was a nice touch. The risotto ($16.95) was flavorful and properly cooked despite being drowned in a too-cheesy white-wine sauce. The two meager scallops and chewy pancetta added nothing, however.
Dessert is the strongest reminder that the deft brunch hands do not work the dinner shift. Banana bread pudding ($4.95) managed to deliver gummy bread and odd-tasting chunks of incredibly underripe banana. In other words, no longer could the restaurant manage the task of inserting fruit product into bread product without fouling it up. So if you don’t want to feel like one of the proletarian masses, visit Metropolis Cafe for brunch and enjoy your pancakes of success.
584 Tremont St.South End, Boston
Brunch 9-3 Saturday-SundayDinner 5:30-10 Sunday-Wednesday, 5:30-11 Thursday-Saturday