Heidi Flett postponed her return to her native Australia to help revive the fortunes of London's Metro. Fiona Sims went to see how she was doing.
Tucked away in a basement in London's Basil Street, Metro has had its ups and downs - or should that be highs and lows? In its heyday, in the early 1990s, punters were known to dance on the tables, fuelled by copious amounts of bubbly. Now it's more of a local workers' canteen - albeit for Harrods.
However, David and Joseph Levin, who own Metro, the adjacent Capital hotel and the small L'Hotel above, felt that it was time to get the small eaterie back on track with the kind of food that made its name in the first place, and to bring back some of that early 1990s buzz.
Enter Heidi Flett. The Sydney-born chef made a name for herself at the White Horse in Parson's Green, London, with her superior pub grub and cuisine à la bière in the pub's adjacent restaurant. She had heard about Metro's former glories and put off her return down under to rise to the Levins' challenge of bringing back its sparkle.
Out went club sandwiches, omelettes and steak baguettes and in came baked cheese soufflé with spiced quince and rocket salad (£6.50), calamari with endive, baby cos, parsely and a‹oli (£7) and slow-cooked duck with braised red cabbage and mash (£10).
Flett has a brigade of three - herself, her sous chef Leonardo Gonçalves, and a kitchen porter - who chat with customers from the open kitchen. General manager is Isabel Murphy who, along with the majority of staff, is a former River Café employee.
On a Saturday lunch in early January, Flett and company did 96 covers in the 37-seat restaurant. "And it's getting busier and busier," she says. "Word of mouth is very important to us." Metro is open for breakfast from 8.30am to 11.30am, lunch from noon to 3pm, and dinner from 6pm to 10pm, attracting guests from the Levins' hotels, plus shoppers, workers and locals. Average spend per head, including wine, is between £15 and £20.
The menu changes "in bits and pieces", with two daily changing fish and soup specials. Most popular dishes so far include potato gnocchi with bacon, mushroom and Parmesan (£6.50) and the duck. Most expensive is the chargrilled rib-eye steak with red wine butter and potato wedges (£12.50).
The desserts are all made in-house. Displayed on the bar top are a moist chocolate torte, small quince tarts and lemon curd tarts, which "fly out the door", ranging in price from £1.50 for a large chocolate cookie to £4.75 for the torte.
Instead of cooking with beer, as she did at the White Horse, Flett says: "I now cook with lots of wine. The souffl‚ has some sweet wine in it, the duck is cooked with red wine, and the steak is served with a red wine butter. I may introduce some beer dishes in the future, though - I've certainly got to do something about the beer list."
She plans to introduce Chimay, Budvar and Hoegaarden. The wine list is to get an overhaul too, and the new list will be ready in the spring.
The interior is also getting a few tweaks: linen tablecloths and a new wooden floor will be the most significant changes. "We did think about changing the name, too," says Flett. "It's in discussion, but most people would prefer that we stick to Metro. As David Levin says, they wouldn't change the name of the Ritz, would they?"
Metro, 28 Basil Street, Knightsbridge, London SW3 1AS. Tel: 020 7589 6286
Baked field mushrooms with goats' cheese and thyme, £6
Chicken liver pâté with pear chutney and toast, £5.50
Smoked haddock fish cake with poached egg and horseradish aïoli, £8.50
Honey-glazed pork shin with seeded mustard mash, £9.50
Fresh linguine with tomato, aubergine, feta and olives, £7.50
Roast chicken with polenta, red peppers and salsa verde, £10.50
Chocolate torte, £4.75
Quince tart, £4.75