"Everyone looks so familiar," I said to the three men behind the counter at MetroFresh (931 Monroe Drive, 404-724-0155). "Where did you guys used to work?"
"Maybe you saw us in the theater," one of them said.
"I got recognized the other day for the first time," a young man behind me said before I could reply. "It was kind of cool but kind of weird."
It's true. I was surrounded by actors and, although I couldn't place any of them, I did later learn that this new cafe in Midtown Promenade has been opened by Mitchell Anderson, a veteran actor who played, among many other roles, Dr. McGuire on "Doogie Howser, M.D." and Ross on "Party of Five."
After 20 years of acting, Anderson apprenticed himself for two years to Jennifer Levison of Buckhead's Souper Jenny. Now he has opened his own venue featuring "fresh food fast." And, like Levison, he employs thespians who, I suppose, can effectively act polite when they'd rather throw a bowl of chili in the face of a whining customer.
MetroFresh is, design-wise, very West Hollywood. It reminds me a bit of cafes I've visited on Santa Monica Boulevard: white-washed, sparely decorated, functional but sleek seating, an almost clinical feel appealing to gym bunnies who eat to feed their muscles.
That's not to say the food isn't good. In fact, it's just what Midtown has needed -- a menu of wholesome, fresh food that changes daily. Think Whole Foods, but artier, cheaper, tastier. Negotiating the menu is actually a little complicated. It's divided into soups, sides, sandwiches and two entrees -- simple enough. But the entrees are available only after 5:30 p.m., so if you don't want a sandwich at lunch or if the dinnertime entrees don't appeal, you have to assemble your meal out of side dishes and soups. But some of the sides can be more substantial than the entrees. And some dishes can be combined in ways that reduce price. Oy. I recommend you just point at what you like and hand over your credit card.
I've visited three times. Of the three soups I've tried, my favorite has been the Mexican turkey meatball soup, full of rice and veggies and juicy little meatballs with terrific zing. Butternut squash and pumpkin soup, scattered with toasted pecans, was pure autumn comfort and uncontaminated by the usual excess of sugar. An eponymous turkey chili ("Mitchili") -- bought from a refrigerator case full of yesterday's soups -- was a bit bland.
I've tried three entrees. Half a baked chicken featured moist flesh and crispy skin, slightly sticky with a honey-jerk seasoning. Halved red and yellow peppers were stuffed with goat cheese, herbs and chunks of bread. I found them a bit too heavy on the bread and, in any case, they function better as a side dish than as a main course. But I guess ovo-lacto vegetarians will disagree.
It is with the side dishes that you can do the most adventuring. My fave so far has been eggplant wrapped around fresh figs with a bit of goat cheese. What a weirdly wonderful combination -- all those seeds and velvety textures. I'm not sure where Anderson managed to find baby arugula -- it's hard to come by these days -- but he makes a killer salad of it, tossed with fresh orange slices, crumbled goat cheese and citrus vinaigrette.
I've also tried a whole ripe avocado, halved and filled with diced tomatoes sharply seasoned with basil vinaigrette. Someone will likely warn you that the horseradish slaw is "hot." It is not. Mine was mildly seasoned, apparently with fresh horseradish that's combined with cabbage and carrots. A whole steamed artichoke with a garlicky dip was, alas, on the stringy side -- so much so that I was too exhausted to eat the bottom. A chicken salad, herbed and dotted with dried cranberries, needed an extra shot of mayo, but on the whole had great flavor.
Desserts are perfunctory offerings -- lemon bars from an outside bakery, for example. Don't bother.
I'm going to predict MetroFresh does a great business. The thing I like most is that the food can be packed up and taken home to resemble a real home-cooked meal. Some of the food, I have to say, doesn't travel terribly well or, like the eggplant roulade, suffers when refrigerated and needs to be brought back to room temperature before serving. And occasionally the seasoning is too heavy-handed. But, overall, this is a terrific remedy to Midtown's burned-out culinary trendiness.
Here and there
The worst news I've heard in a long time is the closing of Iris in East Atlanta. The restaurant was one of the best boutique-type in our city. As if that's not shocking enough, the Heaping Bowl and Brew, the restaurant that really began the gentrification of East Atlanta, has closed, too. ...
Drew van Leuvan, the chef who made Toast such a hit, has become the new chef of Spice, replacing Paul Albrecht, who is undertaking an independent restaurant project. I hope the change will revitalize Spice. ...
Canton House, which arguably features the city's best dim sum, has reopened to its fans' great delight. ...
The Fifth Group, whose restaurants include South City Kitchen, La Tavola and Sala, plan to open Ecco, a Euro bistro at Seventh Street in Midtown. Look for a spring opening. ...
Peasant redux: John Oetgen has been hired as one of the designers of Bob Amick's newest, Trois, a French bistro. Oetgen designed many of the original Peasant restaurants, of which Amick was an owner, in the '80s. His design at Mick's was one of the city's first creative retro interiors. ...
A real bagel in Midtown at last? Maybe so. Goldberg's, maker of the city's best bagels on Roswell Road, is opening a location at Colony Square.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.