August 5, 2010 at 1:00 am

Molly Abraham

Metropolitan Cafe menu is upscale and accessible

Steamed clams in white wine sauce are indicative of the high-level cuisine at Metropolitan Cafe in Shelby Township. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

Its name -- the Metropolitan Cafe -- makes it sound like a big-city restaurant. The location, however, is a long way from bright lights.

Still, Gary Barney's new restaurant looks and feels urban, just as its name implies.

The Metropolitan Cafe is something different for the neighborhood a few miles north of Utica, where Italian restaurants and sports bars predominate. It is sophisticated but with an accessible menu and stylish decor, including a black granite-topped bar, hand-blown, amber glass hanging lamps and big uncovered windows under spinning ceiling fans.

The proximity to farmland is something Barney and executive chef Alexis Henslee are finding to be a real bonus.

Much of the fresh produce -- including heirloom and cherry tomatoes, basil, sugar snap peas, zucchini, a mix of lettuces and fennel bulbs -- comes from Gass Centennial Farm. Fresh corn and tomatoes are from Goike Farms. Both are located in nearby Ray Township.

Schoolcraft College-trained Henslee, formerly chef de cuisine under Rich Travis at Tribute, has written a very appealing menu of small plates -- known here as metro plates -- including smoked salmon "cigars" with Boursin cheese, capers and onions wrapped in a crepe; an interesting take on oysters Rockefeller with arugula, Parmesan and prosciutto; and irresistible fresh, warm potato chips made with redskin potatoes and sprigs of rosemary, set off by a subtle blue cheese dipping sauce.

The potato chips are intended as a sharable dish, but they are so delicious you may be tempted to save them for yourself.

Distinctive touches are scattered throughout the menu. The chef's love for Mexican food can be seen in the slow-roasted pork tostado with cumin-scented black beans, and there are also chorizo-stuffed dates with charred red peppers and tomato sauce, manchego cheese and arugula, all attractively served on pure white plates.

But south of the border is far from the only influence.

Touches of both Asia and the Mediterranean also appear.

Szechuan calamari with mango and black bean salsa and chili lime aioli, and vegetable spring rolls with spicy plum sauce have an Asian spin.

A salad of shrimp with feta, asparagus, tomato and mixed greens in lemon caper vinaigrette, and the metro plate selection of mussels in white wine cream sauce with toasted bread show a Mediterranean touch.

I love a menu like this, which really can't be categorized.

You can see the Mexican inspiration in one of the desserts -- "Hot Chocolate." Hot refers not to the temperature, but to the chipotle pepper that enlivens the chocolate sauce poured over chocolate ice cream. A warm churro (cinnamon-sugar dusted sweet dough spiral) finishes off the dish.

Henslee, who trained as a pastry chef, also makes a classic crme brle, but adds rose water and fresh berries. Such distinctive touches are visible throughout the menu.

Service by the young, black-clad staff is friendly and knowledgeable, and the hands-on proprietor, formerly a partner at Howe's Bayou in Ferndale, is obviously enjoying his new enterprise, which has only been open since May.

It certainly looks like a winner.

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Maria Gehart, left, Julie Gerds, and Patti Kuppe, all of Shelby Township, ...
Proprietor Gary Barney's new Metropolitan Cafe has an urban feel. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)
A tempura squash blossom tops the Metropolitan Cafe's ... (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)
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