You have to pick your way through a mall lot jammed with Escalades and Siennas, through awkward clusters of teen girls in Nicole Richie sunglasses sipping Jamba Juices, and when you finally make it to Metro Lafayette the restaurant it could hardly look less promising. Blank, like a suburban tavern, the kind of place whose anonymous facade gives the clientele plenty of cover. But through this discouraging set of obstacles lurks a surprise. Here you'll find some of the most delightful, casually urbane dishes to grace the East Bay since the early days of Pearl Oyster Bar.
The two-month-old restaurant's scale alone is buzzworthy. A space that housed a string of crappy suburban Italian places has new life as a spare, contemporary suite of dining spaces with a whiff of Hockney's Los Angeles. Think lobbylike: cinderblock and glass and dark, slatey tile. A central bar with a peek through to the semi-open kitchen, with everything banked to face the huge patio.
Metro is a first venture for Jack Moore, a Lafayette resident with a long résumé in power restaurants. Most recently Moore was superchef Thomas Keller's director of operations, the guy who opened Bouchon in Yountville and Las Vegas. He brings a power restaurant guy's eye for detail to this unlikely setting, wedged between that teeming parking lot and traffic-choked Mount Diablo Boulevard. You sense a whiff of Keller in Moore's choice of silverware (Christofle) and plates (Bernardaud). It's the kind of gleaming stuff you pick up and go Whoa.
But such classy minutiae don't add up to stuffy. Partly it's the waitstaff. Several look like Lamorinda college kids on summer hiatus, scrubbed and handsome, in crisp brown shirts and black French aprons. Partly it's Moore himself, who comes off like a soccer dad in his polo shirt and unfashionable wire-rim glasses. Only he's one who pauses to uncork a Viognier, or help a couple of ladies spoon a salad onto share plates.
Really, though, it's the food that lends Metro its gorgeously breezy vibe. Take the sashimi with black truffle dressing. Thick slices of raw albacore tuna nestle up against each other in a neat row, under a neatly drizzled line of truffle-flecked vinaigrette. With an aroma that fuses the sweetness of potting soil with the pungency of sweaty socks, black truffle was the tuna's ideal shadow. A complex and delicately yeasty foil the Japanese call this effect umami. East-West fusion is seldom so subtle.
A heap of mingled green and golden zucchini slices accompanied the sashimi. They were flecked with bits of olive, capers, and flat-leaf parsley. The raw zucchini appeared to have been salted to disgorge excess moisture, yielding a texture that landed somewhere between crisp and limp. It was no more than a garnish, but this one little clump of squashes provided more than a clue that the kitchen keeps to the details.
If the sashimi sounds familiar, it's because you've been there before. Metro's sober-looking chef hunched over plates at the waiter pick-up counter is Mark Lusardi, a guy whose résumé runs longer than Moore's. He may be best known for the aforementioned Pearl, the martini and ahi poke place in Rockridge that lent a lot of urban gloss to its block. Lusardi's long career also spans San Francisco's fusiony Aqua, the pricey ashram of raw-foods cuisine called Roxanne's, and the first incarnation of Berkeley's Taste, for which he was a consultant.
But Pearl was, I don't know, Lusardi's breakout album. His grafting of Asian and Mediterranean onto stripped-down contemporary showed tremendous confidence, and an original voice, despite working in a style that lesser chefs had driven into cliché. Pearl's luster faded last year when Lusardi left; on a recent visit, the chef's signature misoyaki black cod was like an image photocopied so many times it'd gone all fuzzy.
For Lusardi fans, it's what's sure to make the dishes at Metro seem so satisfying the sense that something that'd become muddled is once again pristine. East of the Tunnel, Lusardi's cod dish tasted far brighter: big, curved flakes of grilled fish whose texture contained a double whammy of lobsterlike firmness and oils that made it feel nearly as rich as foie gras in the mouth. A salty, delicately beery flavor of white miso spread through the flesh.
Metro's tuna poke puts to shame other restaurants' sloppy, hashlike versions. Lusardi goes big: hefty cubes of flesh completely free of the ghostly wisps of connective membrane that can make poke the seafood equivalent of gristly. The tuna squares appeared through their martini glass like impossibly rarefied Knox blocks, spooned next to equally hefty squares of Japanese cucumber. Everything was stained with a salty dressing of soy and sesame oil and, probably, the Thai chile sauce called Sriracha.
Poke is a Lusardi classic. Same with the raw bar's daily selection of oysters. You can get a single or double flight to taste each, although teasing out the Rhode Island Ninigret Cup from the Deep Bay Belon might prove tricky. Our waiter was a bust, rattling off his cheat sheet without pointing to a single bivalve.
Maine peekytoe crab cakes have the poke's same whiff of redemption. They seemed to have none of the filler breadcrumbs or mashed potato or gobs of store-bought mayo that turn most crab cakes fatally clunky. Lusardi's version had a hint of the souffle, a fragile structure that seemed to disappear behind the crab's own sealike sweetness, under a sparse coating of crunchy breadcrumbs.
Moore told me his original concept, even before he'd hired Lusardi, was to revive the great California brasserie of twenty years ago, when Jeremiah Tower presided over the seminal San Francisco restaurant Stars, where Moore was a waiter. Metro's semideconstructed croque monsieur (a grilled open-face with smoky Niman ham and a cheesy bechamel sauce) is the chef's stab at French brasserie. It was far from perfect the sauce was only lukewarm. Still, it offered a glimpse of the restaurant as more than just a mashup of Lusardi's greatest hits. Call it Metro's second biggest surprise. The first is the delight of finding it at all.