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For all its beauty and charm, the romanticism of its past glories and the constant crowd of tourists, one thing which Venice is not known for is its fine dining. The main areas are mostly always choking with tourists and one cannot escape the feeling that any good meal in a central location will inevitably attract a 'tourist premium'. Moreover, the local population is not large relative to the volume of the transient population, many of which are only there for the day, hence restaurants will generally find it hard to rely on the steady support of local diners but will have to focus their attention on the visitors instead.
For that reason, it was with some level of skepticism that I made bookings to eat at two of the finer restaurants in Venice, the Metropole (the "Met", a 2 Michelin star restaurant) and Ristorante Quadri, both of which were highly regarded from reviews I had seen on the internet. Coincidentally, the Metropole was located at the hotel of the same name where we were staying in Venice, so this made it all the more convenient and we avoided having to dress up and navigate the dark streets of Venice again (like we did the previous night). The hotel sits along the main stretch of luxury hotels, facing the lagoon, and is 200m from Saint Mark's Square. Being just next to the San Zaccaria ferry terminal, it is extremely convenient to get there by boat (not to mention that the hotel has its own private pier for those who prefer to travel by private water taxi).
In addition to its superb location, Hotel Metropole is a very unique hotel which prides itself on its collection of antiques. The rooms and common areas are decorated densely with all sorts of interesting antique pieces from furniture, luggage, paper fans, stuffed animals, old clocks and sculptures.
The Met restaurant is on the ground floor of the hotel, just across from the reception, and is a rectangular dining space with entrance through the middle. We were given a table on the elevated platform next to the fireplace, which was rather private. The dining room exuded an old world charm with its dark wood antique furniture, glass cabinet of antique cigarette holders, pill boxes and other collectibles, and bronze renaissance sculptures.
The restaurant is helmed by Chef Corrado Fasolato, a fast-rising chef who only 2 years ago achieved his second Michelin star for the Met. He is renowned for his modern fusion cooking, and had cut his teeth under renowned Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi and the famous Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame.
We chose the "Since 1992" menu which was a collection of his best dishes since he started cooking in 1992 (the year behind the dish title is the year he created it), as it was the one which would showcase his standout dishes most clearly. Moreover, strangely, his other degustation menu which would include his current creations didn't allow diners to take photographs of the food (and this was clearly stated in the menu). I have a philosophical disagreement with restaurants who don't allow diners to take pictures of the food which they have ordered and will pay for, but that is for another time. Surprisingly, the degustation menu was rather reasonably priced. At EUR110 and an additional EUR45 for the wine pairing (which we went for as well), it would be one of the cheaper meals I would have had in a 2 Michelin star restaurant in Italy, especially since this was Venice (and not the countryside).
Before we ordered our food, we were given a water menu, listing out several different types of mineral water, both natural and fizzy. Apparently the difference was in the acidity/alkalinity and the taste. We couldn't tell the difference so went with the one our waiter recommended.
Amuse bouche was a rather refreshing clear tomato consommé. The waiter left a pot of the consommé on the table in case we wanted more.
Red mullets with a tomato, mint, lemon-grass and "Spritz" coconut (2002) - This was very good. There was a strong suggestion of Thai flavours (because of the lemongrass, coconut and mint). It was also the first hint of the chef's predilection for meringue as the lemongrass and coconut was in meringue form.
Adriatic scallops injected with their own coral, potato puree, chanterelle mushrooms, peaches, Sevruga caviar and violets crunchy nougat (2007) - The scallops were juicy and cooked well and the purple potato puree was nice but the dish seemed too busy for our liking. The caviar was lost in the sea of conflicting colours and flavours and seemed irrelevant.
Soup with squid dumplings and ginger, with veal sweetbreads and tuna botargo (2009) - This tasted mushy and once again there were too many things going on in the dish such that it was hard to tell what it was all about.
The unique experience of cuttlefish "fettuccine"... but don't expect any pasta... (1996) - This was very interesting and very good. Though it looked like white pasta (looked more like Chinese rice flat noodles to me), it was actually very thin strips of cuttlefish instead. The line of egg yolk sauce and bacon bits evoked memories of carbonara when eaten together with the cuttlefish. This was very innovative and was only one of the few dishes which really came off that night.
Mille-feuille of goose foie gras smoked and grilled with basil, pear and "Corallo" coffee sprinkling (2006) - This was when the dinner started going spectacularly wrong. We were told to eat a bit of each at the same time, but the millefeuille was so hard to cut that the only way was to pop the whole thing in the mouth. Besides, none of the tastes came off and it was a bland and very disappointing dish.
Loin of venison cooked on the ... contrary, wood flavoring in a .... fake grill (2000) - Another unfathomable dish. They cooked the venison in the form of a meatball in a chinese bamboo basket with herbs which cannot be eaten, and on the plate were crisps, and balsamic meringue and some cream. When eaten together, the balsamic totally overpowered the meat and nothing about any of the tastes together made any sense to us.
Grilled boned pigeon with smoked eel, lychees and chocolate shavings (2009) - This was supposed to be about the pigeon, but once again everything else overpowered the meat. The pigeon itself was cooked well (but was such a small piece) and it was really bizarre finding a piece of unagi in this dish. This dish had no direction and no focus and was poorly executed.
It's a matter of pleasant sensations: rhum and tobacco (1998) - Just when we thought the meal couldn't get any worse, redemption came in the form of the dessert. This was a recreation of the cigar and rum. The cigar was the egg roll filled with cream (and some grey powder on the plate to simulate ash) whereby the cream (which was sweet) had the unique aftertaste of a cigar. This may not be suitable for people who haven't smoked a cigar or detest how it tastes, but is nonetheless a very clever concoction.
Petit four was very strange. None of us had a birthday at that time.
Final Thoughts: This was a meal of extremes. On one hand, there were some original creations which were very good (i.e. the red mullet, the cuttlefish "fettuccine" and the cigar dessert), but the others were plain baffling. Not to say that they were cooked poorly, but that they were not well thought out and had no logic to it, especially in the way the various components of each dish were supposed to complement each other but ended up clashing horribly. The wine pairing was good and we had some (albeit a lot of) very good wines, a beer and a rum. Service was quite snooty as well and we didn't feel particularly well treated. On the flip side, the meal was quite reasonably priced and our earlier fears of an exorbitant bill for a restaurant at this location were unfounded. There are rumors that Chef Corrado is leaving or may have left the Met at the time we were dining there, and we wonder if this had any bearing on the very inconsistent meal we had there.
Update: In the 2012 Italy Michelin Guide released after our trip, the Met lost both its Michelin stars on the basis of the departure of Chef Corrado, this would explain our disappointing meal there
Despite the hotel interior looking quite creepy (with dark and sometimes musky smelling common areas populated by strange antiques) and tacky with its all-red theme, it was a really comfortable and luxurious hotel with spacious rooms and excellent service by its receptionists and concierges. Add to that its excellent location and uber-chic Oriental bar, this is certainly a destination hotel in its own right.
We'd be happy to stay here again but to eat here again, not so sure.