Third Restaurant by Owners of Kali's Court Another Winner
The Kali's Court people, who also brought us Mezze, have now opened their third space, Meli (1636 Thames St.,  534-6354). It's a hat trick for Vasilios Keramidas. Billed, coyly, as a "patisserie and bistro," Meli--Greek for honey, and could we please not call it "Mellie's"--is just down the block from Keramidas' other two restaurants, closer to Broadway, attached to the Admiral Fell Inn, but not in the chancy basement space that once held Savannah and most recently True.
Can't picture it? No wonder, Meli's entrance was blocked during its opening weeks by loud and sprawling street construction. Even now, unobscured, Meli reveals just a sliver of itself to passers-by--only the patisserie counter and the chic little bar with its hot orange bar stools are visible--but there's more. Beyond the bar is a sexily plush two-level dining room: The ground-floor area is lovely, with a ceiling that is half blue-sky mural, half plaster in a honeycomb pattern, and wooden tables and pretty banquettes are arranged with sightlines in mind. Downstairs is loungy with sofas, chaises, and semiprivate areas that are just begging for birthday dinners, engagement parties, competitive footsie. The bathrooms are cool, too, with the two genders sharing the same sinks and mirrors.
Meli looks expensive, and it can be. But it doesn't have to be--entrées are priced $20 and below, appetizers hover around $10. Meli is intended, at least ostensibly, as a what-you-will kind of space. Maybe a breakfast pastry one day (daytime hours start soon), a few glasses of wine and a cheese or charcuterie plate the next, and then a full meal another. But let's be real, once you're in, you're staying. It takes just one look at the grilled tomato salad ($9), drizzled with balsamic honey, red and yellow slices alternating with grilled halloumi cheese; or one bite of the roasted butternut squash ravioli ($10), imprinted with candied almonds.
Yes, honey shows up in unexpected places, with pancetta and corn shoots on seared diver scallops ($12), infused with citrus as a condiment for pistachio-crusted lamb chops ($20), and with lavender as a glaze for a gorgeous hunk of salmon ($20). The thing is, this sweetness is never cloying--well, almost with the salmon--and these are good, well-crafted honeys, used sparingly. We've all been treating sweetness pretty shabbily; maybe it's time to bring it in from the cold, at least sometimes.
The dining experience at Meli recalls times at the great and wonderful Mezze; stuff keeps coming out and it all looks and tastes great. Pristine cheese plates ($15), garnished with caper berries and quince paste, a lobster-and-mac ($11) to remember, with Gruyère and aged cheddar, flavored with bacon, textured with panko and crispy onions--seriously, this is making me hungry. There's a model of a tuna tartare ($12), glistening red, flattered with a dollop of balsamic caviar, tempura-ed white anchovy, and a fine salad with almond-flecked baked goat cheese. All of this, from executive chef Rashad Edwards, is refreshing and restorative.
Entrées are properly plated affairs. Those lamb chops, pink and meaty, are presented with butternut squash risotto, a battered langoustine, and a plucky little tomato ragout. The veal hanger steak ($19) gets a woodsy chanterelle mushroom ragout, young asparagus, and feathery light butternut squash chips. The melt-away tuna burger ($17), really a pile of just-holding-together tuna, is spread with homemade Boursin, pancetta, and mâche. The accompanying fries, you know what, they're not so great.
For that matter, the bistro steak sandwich ($16), with port-wine cheddar, caramelized onions, and horseradish aioli, is something that didn't taste as good as it sounded, maybe because the meat had been sliced too thinly.
And then, there's the 18-item dessert menu. Yes to the kataifi ($7), shredded phyllo with vanilla custard and crushed pistachio, yes to the vanilla bean crème brûlée ($7), and yes to the honey-soaked pound cake with honey ice cream ($7). Yes to the wine list, no to the martini menu (only because it eats into the food budget).