Few restaurants are perfect. And most of us don't demand perfection anyway. We just want to have a place to hang, eat, and drink, secure in the knowledge that we're not going to be poisoned, insulted, or spilled upon, n'est-ce pas? Such is the raison d'être for the "brasserie," a French invention named for the verb brasser, to brew, as in beer. In French culture, there's a brasserie in most neighborhoods — it's the go-to place at the end of a long day. You end up there for your pint or your Pernod and maybe for a plate of mussels frites or a hanger steak smothered in red wine sauce.
Patriotic Americans used to be infuriated by places like this, back in the day when John Kerry was reciting all his presidential campaign speeches in French. But as Kerry would say, Bonjour: It's a new era. Even McCain thinks so. American war heroes and winos are now permitted to speak the words Gamay Beaujolais without sneering, and ever since French President Nicolas Sarkozy first rolled a friendly eye in our direction, bistros and brasseries have been throwing open their doors all over the damned place.
Pistache, for example, has opened in downtown West Palm. The Breakers added L'Escalier Brasserie in Palm Beach. Suddenly, there are creperies galore. And Egyptian restaurateur Karim El Sherif has debuted the classy Métronome in Palm Beach Gardens. Métronome is one of a bunch of restaurants to have opened in the Gardens of late, occupying a place in one of the fancy new strip malls bordering PGA Boulevard a bit west of 1-95. I've reviewed a few of them in this column and gone away unimpressed — Métronome is the exception. And while I wish El Sherif had plunked his brasserie down on some bustling South Florida main street instead of out in nowheresville, I'll take what I can get, even if putting a chic eatery on West PGA Boulevard is like putting lipstick on a pit bull.
El Sherif, who has done time working at Daniel and Le Bernardin, owns a similar and well-reviewed bistro on Manhattan's upper east side, Montparnasse Café. The menu at Métronome is identical, featuring the kinds of dishes the French love to tuck into with a bottle of Belgian beer or a glass of house burgundy. You've got your coq au vin, your goat cheese tart, your steak or moules frites, your hamburger, your bouillabaisse, your roast chicken. There's house-made duck paté, snails, soupe à l'oignon. And specials like homemade boudin blanc with apples sautéed in Calvados. In keeping with the tradition of the kind of "regular" place you might contemplate visiting two or three times a week, prices are moderate — with entrées ranging from $15.50 for a burger to $18 for roast free-range chicken and $26 for a black angus sirloin au poivre or a bowl of bouillabaisse.
To wash down these homey plats, Métronome has a wonderful selection of everyday wines featuring French bottles at reasonable prices. And a generous list by the glass and half bottle. The wines by the glass include half a dozen champagnes, like a couple of delicious rose bubblies (such as Nicolas Feuillatte, $15) and white burgundy from Saint-Véran ($11). I always appreciate the gesture of half bottles too — it implies that some of us might like a glass with dinner but not necessarily want to get a full drunk on. We're the kind of people who take wine drinking a bit for granted.
El Sherif has commandeered a large space here, maybe too large; both times I've visited (on Friday and Tuesday), it's been half empty. A patio with cheery umbrella tables faces the dreaded PGA Boulevard, but it's been made nice with woven red-and-white wicker seating and zinc-topped tables, altogether pleasant. Inside, gigantic, kitschy French ad posters run along the walls, and you can sink back in comfortable, U-shaped booths done up in red leather. Tile mosaic floors make the place feel cool and chic. Bartenders mix French martinis (vodka, white Lillet, chambord, $9) at an elegant, long bar.
So far, so great. Métronome is my kind of place — elegant without being stuffy. And good news for September: They're participating in Flavor Palm Beach this month, so you can get a three-course practice meal for $30. You have to ask (maybe more than once) for the Flavor menu, but if you're into bargains, this is a good one. Your choice includes the terrific country duck paté, chunky pink meat studded with peppercorns, a green salad and pickled cornichons on the side as an appetizer; hanger steak with red wine sauce and fries or vegetable risotto for an entrée; and homemade profiteroles for dessert, among other options. You probably cut around $20 off the price of dinner for two this way, and it's enough to make you want to come back and order on the regular menu.
That regular menu, overseen by chef Miguel Flores — or I should say menus, as Métronome serves lunch, tapas, dinner, and brunch on weekends — offers enough variety to keep a regular customer busy. Tapas and appetizers include a charcuterie platter with duck breast, prosciutto, paté, and rosette de Lyons (a dry pork sausage); complex, vegetal mushroom ravioli in rich brown gravy ($10); merguez sausages and plateau de mer; goat cheese fritters; sautéed baby calamari. There's roast snapper and coq au vin; sides of skinny French beans, leak and potato gratin, or ratatouille, and always, of course, the cones of addictive fries: hot, salty, sheened with oil. Our cheeseburger ($16.50) with melted Gruyère and mushrooms finally convinced me that the French can indeed make a great burger. Vegetable risotto, loaded with parmesan and flecked with peas, carrots, green onion, and red pepper, had a dense, creamy richness. And a nightly special turned out to be an uncommon surprise: boudin blanc ($9.50), homemade milky-white chicken and pork sausage served with sautéed apples and spicy, fragrant Calvados sauce.
Such were the highlights. I have a few niggling complaints. The bread isn't very good — thin toast slices with both the bouillabaisse and the paté were stale on two visits. A basketful of chewy, slightly sweet wheat bread served before dinner was blah. "Bouillabaisse" made a stab at authenticity but just ended up being fish stew. Not that I expect racasse and conger eel in a Florida bouillabaisse, but the same-old, same-old piscinary staples (shrimp, scallops, mussels, squid) are a bore. It would have been fun, for example, had the broth been poured over the grilled toast with rouille in the classic style (the rouille, made from saffron, garlic, mayo, and cayenne pepper, came on the side); or if they'd engaged the spirit of bouillabaisse if not the specifically French ingredients by going native — pink Gulf shrimp, Florida clams, Florida spiny lobster, golden crab, and pompano, for instance. Frankly, I've eaten this so-called bouillabaisse in many iterations at dozens of South Florida restaurants, and it doesn't do a thing for me.
Wavering faith was fully restored with dessert. Cakes, tarts, and various fripperies are made in house, and they're fully scrumptious. A paper-thin apple tart ($7.50) topped with ice cream had the right balance of sweet, tart, and crunchy. Profiteroles ($7.50, or included on the Flavor menu), puff pastries sandwiching vanilla ice cream and drizzled with dark chocolate sauce, were light as prayers. A bottomless dish of coffee-flavored panna cotta ($7.50) sprinkled with chocolate cookie crumbs offered variations on the theme of cream. Yum.
I've managed to make myself ravenous for another francofied "(h)amberger" just writing this column. I'll take that as a standing dinner invitation.