The newest upscale dining experiences in Annapolis are the antithesis of the old money/Topsider/yacht basin scene downtown. Metropolitan, a gleaming study in white leather and mahogany, and its little sister, Lemongrass, all river rock brown and the color of its name, are rooted among century-old rowhouses along the -- until recently -- decidedly uncool part of West Street, the historic inland approach to the capital city.
The setting of these neighboring restaurants is the only traditional thing about them.
A sleek mini-skyscraper has been inserted on a formerly vacant lot between two rowhouses. It's a playful reflection of the West End's emerging skyline. Step inside Metropolitan's angular structure and you'll find a wine bar, with sofas for lounging, on the ground level and a handsome wood-and-chrome staircase to a bar and dining room on the second floor. Climb another flight of stairs to reach a rooftop patio.
Echoes of Miami's South Beach? Maybe. But I think of it as Sydney chic: more of a cross between New York and San Francisco. Either way, Annapolis has a major new dining destination.
The people behind both restaurants are the same folks who swept into town six years ago to open Tsunami: Gavin Buckley, Jody Danek, Kristin Lewis and Julie Williams. Buckley, Danek and their longtime chef at Tsunami, Stanley Hsu, are partners in Lemongrass. Buckley, Danek, Lewis, Williams and new managing partners Scott and Gabrielle Herbst are the forces behind Metropolitan.
Tiny Lemongrass, in an adjacent rowhouse, is hardly bigger than a bar, with a decibel level in the stratosphere. It packs in a dozen seats along a banquette on one side of the room, 14 on another banquette on the opposite wall, 14 tall bar stools at a long communal table in the center, a couple of separate tables and a four-stool bar. Except for the leather-clad banquettes, there are no soft surfaces.
The wait for seating can be as long as 90 minutes, and reservations are not taken.
Thai-born Vipa Thanakitkuntron leads a kitchen staff of five Thai chefs in offering an authentic experience in homeland cuisine, though it might not be quite the same as the westernized versions of some dishes. The steamed dumplings are a study in subtlety, the papaya salad and grilled beef salad turn up the heat and the crispy duck is crisp and tasty at the same time.
A word of caution: There are no friendly one-, two- or three-pepper ratings to signal exactly how fiery a dish might be, so if you have a low heat threshold, be certain to ask.
Next door at Metropolitan, executive chef J.J. Minetola and sous chef Darby Butts are veterans of Tsunami's Asian fusion kitchen. But here, it's New American cuisine all the way, from the wine bar to the rooftop.
Seek out the second-floor dining room for an oasis from the throbbing lounge scene. The tables, widely spaced and dressed in white linens, are complemented by comfortable white leather chairs. All of these creamy whites stand out against deep mahogany paneling that stops just short of the ceiling to expose brick walls. Floor-to-ceiling white curtains divide the room into small, intimate spaces. The white china takes intriguing shapes: teardrops, squares, ovals. Even the menus are bound in white leather. It might all have been a little too heavenly if the servers hadn't been dressed in down-to-earth black.
The menu allows for a personal tasting sampler: Most of the main courses are also available as small plates. It's a perfect way to eat on a hot summer night when too much of any one food just doesn't seem appetizing. The well-chosen wine list offers many good selections in the $20- to $35-a-bottle range and more than a dozen wines by the glass.
Although the kitchen is still working out kinks -- not enough salt here, a question of timing there -- the results so far are interesting and delicious.
An amuse-bouche, a one- or two-bite gift, arrives first and provides a tantalizing taste of what the kitchen has to offer. One night it was a morsel of spearfish atop a cucumber slice, drizzled with cilantro oil; another night, a sliver of cod was wrapped in a paper-thin slice of potato.
Five tiny, pristine Kumomoto oysters are presented on a long, rectangular plate and each is topped with a yuzu gelee, or citrus jelly. They are briny and citrusy and a wonderfully cool way to start your meal.
Just as cool and refreshing is tomato consomme, poured from a carafe into a large, oval soup bowl that already holds a mound of sweet lump crab. The crab claw and avocado salad -- though tasty and well matched -- suffers by comparison. A salad of red lentils, suffused with citrus and accented with heads-on shrimp, is a lively starter that needed just a bit of salt.
Two of the most expensive starters or appetizers -- Kobe beef tartare and a clever foie gras BLT -- seemed to miss the mark, by varying degrees.
The Kobe beef was hand-diced and accented with bits of preserved lemon. The meat had a silken texture, but not a lot of taste. It was another instance of a dish that needed more salt or a saltier component. A side order of Metropolitan fries, served with a porcini ketchup, made up for any flaws in the tartare.
The foie gras BLT is a playful dish: The ripe flesh of two small tomatoes topped by crisp slices of applewood-smoked bacon adorn one portion of a plate while a perfectly seared medallion of foie gras is perched on a brioche crouton. The juices from the foie gras should have soaked into the bread, but the crouton was toasted to the point of being dry and hard, and all that succulence was just a little puddle on the plate.
There were no such missteps in the roasted lamb entree. The lamb was cooked just to medium rare and splayed across a mound of sauteed Swiss chard and buttery-rich mashed rutabagas.
The lobster and risotto main dish was a lovely marriage of lobster and creamy rice. But both were cool, as though they had sat waiting to be served. A side order of risotto on another visit was warm and creamy as a Venetian grandmother's.
Pastry chef Lee Blackwood, whose background includes work at the District's Galileo and the White House, continues Metropolitan's inventive streak. Panna cotta, made with buttermilk and layered with apricots, had just the right bite. Her Pink and Green dessert pairs luscious strawberry gelato with a vivid green lime mousse tart, which was just too green for me.
But her passion fruit consomme, a cool fruit soup, with ethereal chocolate ravioli is the kind of original dish that will keep me returning to Metropolitan.
Lemongrass, 167 West St., Annapolis, 410-280-0086. No reservations accepted. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 to 10 p.m. Sundays. Appetizers, $3.50 to $7.95; entrees at lunch, $5.95 to $14.95; entrees at dinner, $7.95 to $14.95. Handicapped accessible.
Metropolitan, 169 West St., Annapolis, 410-268-7733. Reservations recommended. Hours: 5 to 11 p.m. daily, drinks served until 2 a.m. Appetizers and small plates, $7 to $19; main courses, $22 to $36; desserts, $7 to $10. First floor only is handicapped accessible.
If you have a food-related event or favorite restaurant that you think deserves attention, contact Nancy Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.