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Club Gets Its Cue From Billiards

February 25, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Just when we are getting used to Euro-trash, along comes Eurasia-trash, the stylistic theme at Irvine's new Metropolis.

Metropolis thinks of itself as a club, but it also happens to be a restaurant, exactly the type one might encounter in a larger, more style-conscious urban area, such as lower Manhattan or the industrial sector of downtown Los Angeles. The color scheme of gold, black and iridescent shades gives it a futuristic, ultra-slick gloss.

It taxes the mind to think of this cavernous structure as a restaurant, but in fact it is effectively two. Anyone wishing to dine at Metropolis can choose between Japanese cuisine served at a long, luxurious marble sushi bar or trendy '90s fare at tall plastic tables in the club's rear.

The dining areas are roped off in the manner of the high-roller area of a Las Vegas casino, and just getting back to them is no mean feat. One runs a gantlet of "Alice in Wonderland" metal sculpture, stairways leading to semiprivate bars on various levels, a semicircle of ornately designed pool tables and even a few purple velvet love seats, all faintly illuminated by spidery lights and glowing shapes.

And perhaps my age is showing, but oh, the noise! As in almost any properly non-dweeby club, amplified rap and techno-pop music blasts away, penetrating to the very soul, on omnipresent speakers that seem suspended in space.

The fashion-plate crowd you'll literally bump into are mostly students at nearby UC Irvine, here to be seen and to play pool at the club's 18 billiard tables. Incidentally, it's worth a visit just to look at these state-of-the-art tables, smartly surfaced in camel-colored felt. Even when the sushi bar has open seating, expect a sign-up for pool.

The resurgence of pool among this crowd is a phenomenon even a UCI sociologist would be hard-pressed to explain, like the bowling craze in the '50s. Pool seems to be the force which draws the crowd at Metropolis, even more than the food and music. (Of course, sushi is not exactly traditional pool-shark food. If it were, Minnesota Fats might have been known as Minnesota Slim.)

You know what to expect at the sushi bar, of course, where three young, brash and infuriatingly hip native Japanese hold court. Happily, as sushi-makers they are perfectly competent, serving up a variety of good sushi, sashimi and innovative hand rolls at dazzling speed. But don't bother shouting your sushi order over the din. Just write it down on the paper provided for you, a device never more handy than in a rock-loud club like this one.

The most interesting creations come in roll form. Caterpillar roll, a dish that has not yet swept Japan, is so named because it wears a shiny green coat of thinly sliced avocado on the outside. Think of this one as a cunning variation of the crab- and avocado-stuffed California roll.

Tempura roll is crunchy, a long column of sticky rice with chopped pieces of shrimp tempura on the inside and a "skin" of tempura batter and tiny masago. Masago are smelt eggs and their salty, tangy pop makes this dish a real kick. Spicy tuna hand roll, in contrast, is sort of a seaweed-wrapped ice cream cone made with finely minced fish. The sushi maker will want to know how much red pepper to add to the filling, and brother, he won't be coy about it.

Beyond that are delicious yellowtail sashimi, good uni --hunks of buttery, creamy sea urchin with an oddball taste and texture that people seem either to hate or love--and a few overwrought cooked dishes, mostly things baked in foil with unappetizing gobs of mayonnaise.

If cooked food is your thing, you'd better head for one of those tall tables, because the sushi chefs don't permit customers to invade the sushi bar with foreign-devil dishes. You may feel silly sitting on the tall stools as well, with your feet dangling in the air. Remember when you were a kid at the soda fountain? That's the idea, I guess.

At the tall tables, you get a mixed menu of appetizers, salads, sandwiches and hot plates, all of which come out of a back kitchen not nearly as accomplished as the sushi bar. Thai chicken salad, for example--grilled chicken, fried rice noodles, lettuce, roasted peanuts, cilantro and green onions--is as disturbingly sweet as it might be in a chain restaurant, probably because of the sesame oil-based dressing.

Then there are dishes like lime marinated chicken, a traditional turkey dinner or meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy. The chicken is quite good, served alongside sensational garlic mashed potatoes, the best non-Japanese food in the club.

The meatloaf is anemic, though, cut into thin slices and topped with a presumptuous heap of red ketchup. The turkey dinner is a complete write-off. The thick slices of meat come from a commercial breast, the stuffing tastes as if it comes from a mix and the whole thing is blanketed in a pasty yellow gravy.

Dessert consists of equally commercial cheesecake, assorted ice cream or a concoction known as mud pie, a mile-high slice of ice cream pie on an unctuous peanut butter cookie crust. This dessert is pure wretched excess, an unintentional metaphor for the surroundings. But then, maybe I wouldn't have felt that way about the dessert, or the club, 20 years back.

Metropolis is moderately priced. Sushi and hand rolls are $3 to $7. Appetizers, salads and sandwiches are $3.50 to $8.95. Plates are $7.50 to $8.75.

* METROPOLIS

4225 Campus Drive, Irvine.

(714) 725-0300.

Lunch and dinner Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday till 3 a.m.

American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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