Dining Out at the Met Back Bay
The fourth incarnation of the Chestnut Hill original brings the suburbs to the city.
Met Back Bay serves factory food in a factory setting. That may sound harsh, but I have to admire Kathy Sidell Trustman, the owner (and not just because she married somebody I went to college with). It’s a locally designed, locally built factory. And it works.
The original Metropolitan Club in Chestnut Hill manages to be both a sleek, urban bar and a steakhouse — and to offer the same sort of sophistication, comfort, and gloss that keeps Jamie Mammano’s in-city haunts Mistral and Sorellina full of well-heeled older customers. When I first dined at the Chestnut Hill location, I was struck by a certain symmetry to another local spot: Trustman’s sister, Stephanie Sidell Sokolove, brought a Newton feel to the Back Bay many years ago when she opened Stephanie’s on Newbury. Trustman in turn brought theBack Bay to the ’burbs with that first Metropolitan Club. Now Trustman has put her new Met Club practically across the street from her sister’s restaurant, in the space that was Joe’s American Bar and Grill. (Joe’s is still around, but smaller and down the street.)
Perhaps true to pattern, Trustman has made this fourth place (the other two are in Dedham and Natick) more suburban-seeming than even the Chestnut Hill mothership. Met Back Bay is big and beige, and looks like it could be in a mall or a mall hotel. It’s comfortable, pleasant, and impersonal. So is the food. But there’s one thing both un-urban and unsuburban about it — and it’s the only reason I can think of to send any real Bostonian there: good prices. Met Back Bay offers better value than many restaurants nearby — most of which aren’t nearly as enjoyable to dine in — for large (but not oversize) portions of decent steakhouse fare.
Nothing much tries for distinction, but that’s not the point. It’s a sprawling menu, and the place is built for volume. One dish did manage to spark my interest, and I hope not just because every server said it was his or her favorite: TW’s Steakhouse Kobe tips with roasted cipollini onions and jalapeños ($25). Economy cuts of luxurious meat turn out to be a terrific idea, at least when they’re marinated in a gloppy, sweet-and-hot sauce with pretty much everything in it — raisins, garlic, anchovies, bacon, tomatoes, and Montreal steak seasoning (a dried-herb mixture favored by meat cooks). The tender steak stood up to grilling and didn’t really need that slew of ingredients to pick up flavor — but with the layer of char that the sauce helped thicken, it became a kind of beef flavor bomb.
The rest of the meats paled in comparison. Of the steaks I tried, only the 32-ounce Meyer dry-aged rib-eye for two (predictably expensive at $66, but three people could easily share it) came close — yet not close enough. Rib-eye should have everything: juice, taste you only find close to the bone, texture that’s the right cross between London-broil leather and filet-mignon butter. The kitchen wrecked a good part of this: Both portions arrived sliced, which surprised me and shocked the steak lovers at the table. Still, it had more flavor than the New York prime sirloin ($38), which lacked a satisfying char (maybe it needs some of the sauce from the Kobe tips?), or tenderness, or much of anything to make it memorable or worth the price.
The smaller-ticket items were impressive because they delivered more than you’d expect. Those $25 Kobe tips easily outflanked (sorry) the steaks, and rigatoni Bolognese ($11 for a very generous half portion, a fairly incredible bargain) had better, richer meat flavor than the steaks, too. This may have had something to do with the fact that the Bolognese was full of meat: a mixture of ground pork, veal, and beef. I remember being impressed by the made-to-order tomato sauce at the Chestnut Hill location; this Bolognese was creamy from actual cream, and the rigatoni was cooked perfectly al dente. It was a satisfying dish and a good deal.
Fish entrées arrived looking unremarkable, but had a way of vanishing. Roast Maine cod with quinoa and charred broccoli ($23) gained flavor from currant and pine-nut purées, as well as the chili-spiked broccolini by its side. It was more interesting than the grilled artichoke starter ($12), which, while bland, did have a nice crust of grana Padano. Center-cut tuna steak with brown rice and spicy green beans ($28) followed a similar formula: generously but not excessively portioned, healthful, and balanced if a bit bland — the kind of entrée a rushed kitchen can reliably put out in quantity.
And then there’s the dish I shouldn’t admit was my favorite, because nothing on it was made in the kitchen: the house ham and cheese board ($24), a gigantic spread of superior cold cuts and big wedges of artisanal New England cheese. In fact, Met Back Bay has created an entire ham and cheese bar downstairs, with a selection of six hams and sausages and five cheeses. This is a great idea for a quick lunch or substantial bar food, and comes with bread, made in-house but unfortunately not well suited to cheese. Two people can make a meal of that board. I was impressed by the soft, just-sliced freshness of the Niman Ranch ham and of the La Quercia prosciutto (still not as good as Italian, but hey, it’s domestic). A table of six devoured all the meat — and there was a lot — in about two minutes. That left most of the cheese for me. (That night, all were from sought-after Vermont cheesemakers like Cabot, Consider Bardwell Farm, and Thistle Hill — and all were in impeccable condition.)
Ham and cheese bar: excellent. The bar bar, though, needs breaking in. Friends described a comedy of errors in trying to order a caipirinha. (First they were out of cachaça and rum, then they were out of neither, and later the server brought white rum when my friends specified golden.) There was, though, a remarkable cosmopolitan, full of fresh-tasting blood-orange juice and reasonably priced at $10.
As with the bar, dinner service was intermittently informed, if friendly, and one server often interrupted with nervous conversation. (Others were both outgoing and professional.)
Desserts (all $8) ended the meal as it began, which is to say unmemorably but with generous portions. Apple cider doughnuts are the safest bet, especially if they’re right out of the fryer so the cinnamon sugar melts onto the warm, not-too-greasy surface. And the “Met Cake,” a version of the ubiquitous molten chocolate cake served with caramel-fudge swirl, is just what you want to cap off a meal of steakhouse excess. Turns out the best part of Met Back Bay is that you can have your steak and cake and afford them, too.
1) Wild arugula with pecorino, shaved mushrooms, and Trufflebert hazelnuts, $12
2) Apple cider donuts with cinnamon sugar and a side of creme anglaise, $8
3) Scottish salmon with local barley, miso eggplant, and almonds, $22
Plus | House ham and cheese board, $24 | TW’s Steakhouse Kobe tips, $25 | Long-bone Meyer dry-aged rib-eye for two, $66
Met Back Bay, 279 Dartmouth St., Boston, 617-267-0451, metbackbay.com.
Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at the Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.