Dining Out: The Next Stop

It would be hard for me to be happy without knowing that Amanda Lydon is cooking somewhere in or around Boston. Since her triumphant star-is-born tour of duty as replacement chef at Truc (now back in the confident hands of founding chef and co-owner Corinna Mozo), Lydon's uniquely clear, true flavors have had fans eagerly anticipating her next posting. A year ago, that lucky restaurant was announced as Metro, a très French brasserie that was to open in the spring at the site of the old Cottonwood Café in Cambridge's Porter Square.

As that spring opening date came and went, I would encounter an increasingly frustrated Lydon frequenting our local farmer's market over the long, lingering summer, wishing she could take a few crates of the produce to her restaurant kitchen rather than a few bags to her home, where she was testing recipes while Metro remained endlessly under construction.

The new restaurant finally opened in October. It will take a few more months to work out the glitches inevitable in running such a big enterprise. This isn't surprising. Lydon went from cooking in a boutique South End restaurant with no more than 50 seats, which was open only for dinner, to a restaurant of 200 seats serving three meals a day.

A big, bustling brasserie is not a boutique. It's a lot harder to order a few crates of vegetables from a favorite farmer. You can't cook every dish yourself or even watch it very closely, no matter how much you want to. Despite this, Metro is already a superior brasserie, with one knockout and several very good dishes, and good value all around.

It suffers, however, from its unwieldy size and its location in a mall. Although locally owned (by the group that also operates the big, popular bars Vox Populi and Barcode), it could pass as one of the neighboring chain restaurants. The attempts at authentic atmosphere are more earnest than successful. There are beige wave-pattern mosaic floor tiles, a beige-painted pressed-tin ceiling, and big mirrors behind the long bar with colored glass inserts whose sandblasted letters read “bières” and “eaux de vie.” It's all too shiny and literal, as if someone went to Home Depot and asked for the Paris Bistro line. It's best to sit in the bar (you'll have to put up with smokers) or in the booths by the windows; the big room behind the bar is badly lit and seems particularly bare, although the space between tables is generous.

Metro strives for but has none of the panache of Brasserie Jo, perhaps because it had a much smaller budget. Yet much of the food already handily outdoes Brasserie Jo. Even if Jo has just the right 1930s Montparnasse utilitarian luxe, it often serves food that tastes the way Metro looks: formulated to simulate a bistro rather than actually being one. (I should say that I have a great fondness for Brasserie Jo and consider it a Symphony and general late-night standby.) Lydon may be swimming against the tide in trying to put a personal stamp on so many plates going out, but she succeeds more often than she fails.

Take the multitiered, spectacular plateau de fruits de mer, or round platters of fresh seafood on ice. Balthazar, in New York's SoHo, put these back on the map with its vast aluminum-plate constructions that seem about to spill their icy and briny contents onto the whole table; these became the plats de choix of every model and movie star visiting New York. Brasserie Jo offered them from the first, but they never had anything like the freshness or integrity of the local oysters, Wellfleet littlenecks, topnecks, shrimp, marinated mussels, and New Bedford scallops seasoned with an herb vinaigrette that are served at Metro. A generous petit plateau offers good value for $19; for full table-tipping effect, order the grand plateau for $39.

Among the standout hors d'oeuvres, a simple stacked roasted beet and blue cheese salad ($8) is pretty and tasty; the plump, perfectly crisped frogs' legs with garlic and parsley ($9.50) will convert even avowed frogophobes (related to, but not to be confused with Francophobes) into mini-drumstick snitchers; and the chicken liver terrine ($6.95), pink and creamy as a mousse, would make the ideal schmear for Melba toast. There are no bagels for such schmearing, but there are homemade baguettes and whole-wheat bread. Both loaves were remarkably different each of the three times I tasted them, becoming progressively less salty and more airy-textured—the right direction.

Several Metro stops ahead of the main “plats” is gigot à sept heures, or seven-hour leg of lamb ($18.95), which I wound up tasting four times thanks to lamb-loving guests. I could taste it to the end of the line. The meat (shoulder blade, Lydon later told me) is beautifully browned but completely soft, unctuous-textured from gelatin rather than fat, the brown sauce deeply flavored with allspice, fennel seed, cinnamon, orange, and tomato that slowly simmer together for hours. This dish came from Lydon's Armenian mother, and it's heaven.

I remember loving this dish in its Truc iteration, but not being blissed out, as I was at Metro. Finding her mother's original cut of lamb served Lydon's need to lower food costs and keep entrée prices well below other “fine-dining” restaurants'. But the cost-trimming tells in other dishes. The French fries are as good as ever, crisp shoestrings with steak frites ($18.95), but the meat, a nice medium rare and from the top-notch Niman Ranch, was tough on two tastings, and the garlic butter went to better use as a frites dip. Lydon later told me that she gnashed her teeth when one of my guests ordered duck breast ($21.95) well done. She wanted to “intervene,” she said, perhaps sending a waiter or coming to the table herself to explain that the meat would simply not taste good this way. But with so many meals to serve, there was no time. And, indeed, the meat was dry and flavorless, although it was, in fact, quite pink.

I don't doubt that Lydon will rise to the challenges of high volume and a low budget. Already the coq au vin ($19) —a bistro litmus test—has gone from featuring unevenly cooked meat, brown-skinned but pink in the middle, to moist and done throughout, with the skin still properly crisped. The wine and veal-stock sauce, sharpened with red-wine vinegar and enriched with homemade crème fraîche, is exemplary, dosed with Gallic restraint. Perhaps the French stay so maddeningly thin because cost-conscious chefs are so careful about portions.

Lee Napoli, a pastry chef whose talent I've long admired and enjoyed at Maison Robert and then at Anago, is similarly settling in. Her bread, as noted, is lightening; the crêpes at lunch, sweet or savory (priced by number, starting at $3.95 for one, $7.95 for three), make you think you're at the Place St. Michel. A cranberry sorbet ($6.95) at dinner was bitter and mealy, but at the same meal a pear charlotte—oven-poached fruit encased in butter-browned bread, with homemade caramel-walnut ice cream ($7.75)—was rich tasting yet light feeling, the ideal after-dinner combination.

Service is unsure and sometimes haphazard, with some waiters knowledgeable and others, frankly, lost. Seating delays and problems with the timing of courses also need fixing. The wine list does not. It's full of reasonably priced and well-chosen bottles, all of them French (and good Alsatians, too, like a 1998 Domaine Schlumberger Gewürztraminer for $36), with just a few very worthwhile splurges (1997 Château Marbuzet St. Estèphe for $86).

It's all on the way to becoming the city's best place to find the food Lydon tried on a trip to Paris where she avoided anything over $30 a head—quite a trick. “We ate very, very well and felt better for it the next day,” Lydon told me. I felt better than I usually do after avowedly French dinners, too.