Michael Gonzalez might be Wichita’s most unpredictable — and most predictable — chef.
Gonzalez rose to local foodie fame in 2005, when he opened a sandwich and hot dog cart in the food court at Towne East Square. It was an instant success, partially because his crunchy sandwiches were freshly made with gourmet ingredients, elevating them above typical food court fare. And Gonzalez, whose theatrical kitchen style has shades of Emeril Lagasse, attracted big crowds that would result in long lines.
His professional and personal life have been filled with drama during the past several years, though. Gonzalez opened a second location in Andover, only to battle for control of it in a marital dispute. He got it, but sold the restaurant to a former employee in early 2011. Later that year, he partnered with owners of Encore nightclub to serve his food out of their bar, but that was short-lived.
And last month, he surprised fans by abruptly selling the mall cart to a former customer, who is moving it to Arkansas. There’s also talk of Gonzalez opening another restaurant, this one possibly in the soon-to-be re-imagined Union Station in downtown Wichita.
But Gonzalez’s fans likely would follow him anywhere. His food remains consistently good, especially his signature dishes that he’s taken with him from venture to venture: his Cuban sandwich, Infamous Bob sandwich, grilled asparagus and Cuban flan.
ON THE MENU: Gonzalez’s somewhat incongruent menu includes all of his famous-from-the-mall sandwiches, plus a list of 11 styles of Nathan’s All Beef franks. It also offers a couple of pasta dishes, steak, a salmon dish, a burger and several rotating specials. Many dishes on the menu are listed along with Michael-esque quotes. (The Italian Chicken: “Forget about it. A sandwich with flair.” The Cuban: “Say hello to my little friend.”)
DON’T-MISS DISHES: We visited Metro Grill on a recent warm Friday evening and sat outside on the front patio, enjoying the breeze and listening as the sound of live jazz music wafted outside. (Gonzalez invites jazz acts to perform in the restaurant every Thursday and Friday night, and the Friday act is a particularly engaging duo.)
We started the meal with our waitresses’ suggestion: an appetizer of two breaded and fried eggplant medallions topped with a buttery sauce and garnished with beautiful edible flowers. The dish was unique and well-seasoned, and the eggplant had a nice, not-too-mushy texture. (The flowers tasted good, too.)
We also decided to try the chef’s nightly special after diners at a neighboring table said it was good. The dish was $15.99, served with a soup or salad, and featured slow-cooked Cuban pot roast served with rigatoni pasta and a rich, deeply flavored sauce. The pasta and roast were an odd combination, but the sauce on the dish — spiked with what tasted like annatto — was sop-it-up-with-bread delicious.
The Steak Christopher ($14.95), which I’ve had at several of Gonzalez’s previous restaurants, was good, though the chef had out-of-character trouble getting it to me cooked correctly. I ordered it medium rare, and the first plate arrived decidedly well-done. On the second try, it was cold-center red, which is not my preference, but I ate it anyway. And I ate it all. The 5-ounce sirloin was topped with a delicious balsamic demi-glace and sat atop a delicious potato hash made with rosemary, garlic and grape tomatoes. A couple of spears of the chef’s famous grilled asparagus — always deliciously out of place in the mall food court — fit in just fine at the Waterfront and fished the plate nicely.
We also sampled the Pasta V.I.P. ($11.95), a lovely-to-look-at dish composed of linguine fini topped with a white wine garlic sauce and sauteed with pine nuts, eggplant, cherry tomatoes, arugula and asparagus, then topped with seared chicken and shrimp. The flavor was simple and light and good to the last bite.
Though it didn’t fit in with the rest of our classy meal, we decided to sample a Chicago dog ($3.95), and Gonzalez cut it into five individual bites so we could all sample it. This dog is done the right way, with toppings of mustard, sport peppers, relish, diced onions, tomatoes, pickle and celery salt. The quality of the Nathan’s dog added to its appeal, and we’d definitely order it again when we visit for lunch.
Well, we might order it again: Whether eating lunch or dinner at Metro Grill, it’s difficult to beat the sandwich master’s Cuban, Infamous Bob and mahi mahi sandwiches, all made famous at the mall.
They’re all served on expertly toasted bread and piled high with fresh, quality ingredients that a typical sub shop employee likely would not recognize. We ordered our favorite — the Infamous Bob ($7.95, $9.95 with choice of side) — and it was as fabulous as ever, stuffed with seasoned chicken, sauteed mushrooms, ham, bacon, garlic basil mayo, Roma tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, greens and a balsamic/olive oil dressing. Though we liked things about all the dishes we ordered, we all agreed the Bob was still the best.
For dessert, we were offered a choice of tiramisu, cannoli or Cuban flan, which is the only one made in-house. We ordered the flan ($5.95) and were not disappointed. Though it was a small serving for the price, the custard had a wonderful firm texture, and the layer of caramel coating the top added to its amazingness.
AMBIANCE: The long and skinny dining room is small but clean and bright, with a mural of the New York City skyline on the wall. There’s a bar that overlooks the kitchen, though Gonzalez is still a few weeks away from getting his liquor license. A dramatic and big aquarium filled with tropical fish decorates the front of the restaurant, and indoor diners can watch Gonzalez in action while they eat.
PRICE RANGE: Sandwiches are $7.95. Hot dogs are $3.50 to $3.95. Entrees are $7.95 to $15.99. Desserts are $5.95.
SERVICE: Our waitress was perky and mostly on top of our needs and requests.