Six years after opening, Kali's small-plates restaurant still shines
Kali's Mezze doesn't have quite the visibility of the other Kali's enterprises. There's no wrought-iron balcony a la Kali's Court. No bright, wide windows to lure folks in, like Kali's Meli. No will-it-make-it-in-this-space anticipation, like the soon to be opened Tapas Adela (also owned by the Kali's Court folks). And yet, a recent visit reminded why folks still pack Kali's Mezze a half dozen years after its opening. Not only is the food dynamic, but you'll be hard pressed to find a similar menu so well executed anywhere else in the city. Is there another casual fine-dining spot where you'd feel tempted to filch the crispy cheese pie at the too-close table next to you while you contemplate plates of fatoush or horta or pastirma? Exactly.
As its name suggests, Mezze's menu is all small plates; the least expensive ones, like tapenade or an order of imported feta cheese, start at $3.95, and the most expensive (jumbo lump crab cakes) run up to $13.95. Packed in between are recognizable mainstays of Mediterranean tables--garlicky hummus, flaky spinach pie, mashed-potato-enriched bacalao and skordalia--as well as fried shark fritters and pastitsio, and two pages of vegetarian dishes like falafel, goat cheese-stuffed roasted peppers, and zucchini fritters. Of course, the trouble with this embarrassment of riches is deciding what not to try.
Most folks might be tempted to overlook oven-baked lima beans with onions and fresh herbs ($6.95), but the plump, broad beans boast a silky, savory richness. I only wish they had been served with some bread to soak up the beans' dill-flecked tomato sauce. Oven-roasted eggplant, known as imam bayildi or "the priest fainted" ($7.95), made us swoon, too, for the way the onions and eggplant melted together under its blanket of haloumi cheese. Olive-oil poached tuna ($7.95) was a study in balance with soft, sweet chunks of tuna sharing the plate with lemony wisps of asparagus.
I was unfamiliar with pastirma ($6.95), phyllo stuffed with what was described on the menu as cured beef and "assorted Mediterranean cheeses," but after one bite, I was quickly on board with its subtle, dusky mix of herb and meat and tomato brightness. And the merguez ($8.95), fat little fingers of dark spicy lamb sausages served over pebbly black lentils was another winner.
Less successful, though perhaps worth trying again on a night when the kitchen is less busy, were giant spinach fritters ($5.95) the size of large broccoli florets, crispy outside, but slightly undercooked and gummy inside. Fattoush ($5.95) dazzled with the lemony pungency of sumac, but the chunks of pita could have been smaller and more integrated into the rest of the salad. Three grilled sardines ($9.95) arrived at the table silvery charred, but not filleted, and preparing them to be shared at the table was a challenge due to the combination of my inexpert filleting skills, a dark room, a small table, and lack of a proper knife. What meat we extracted was fine, but I'm not sure it was worth the effort.
Desserts, however, are worth an extra lap around the track the next morning. To like Mediterranean desserts, you have to like sweet, but creaminess and honey seems like perfect foil to garlic and earthiness. Pistachio-vanilla custard kataifi ($5.95) combines creamy and crunchy (from the shredded wheat-like kataifi), and galaktoboureko ($5.95) is splendid and just like Greek grandmas at the city's Greek festivals make, with crispy phyllo encasing a not-too-sweet, blandly comforting custard. Silifke yogurt ($5.95) drizzled with Attiki honey and a scattering of walnuts reminds you that healthy can also be luscious.
Those who practice the small-plate option regularly know its pitfalls: ordering multiple dishes can run up the bill and the result is often not enough food. Perhaps we chose well, but four of us sharing eight mezze and three desserts left the table more than satisfied. And our reasonable check would have been more reasonable if we had had the foresight to order wine by the bottle from Mezze's well-chosen wine list, which covers the Mediterranean broadly to include wines from Santorini and the terrific Chateau Musar from Lebanon as well as Italy, Spain, and the south of France.
Mezze has its quirks. The service is perfunctory, if not quite indifferent, beer is available only in bottles, and tables are close. And if you sit in the snug bar areas downstairs, I imagine the nudges of diners passing through on their way to the upstairs dining room will get annoying pretty quickly. But a week later, I'm still thinking about pastirma.