1636 Thames St.,  534-6354, kalismeli.com
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When Meli opened in 2007 as the third in what is now a quartet of Kali’s enterprises, it was billed as a patisserie and bistro, and honey (“meli” in Greek) was the underlying and playful, though never dominant, menu ingredient.
Fast forward to 2012. The restaurant has changed executive chefs, most recently Audiel Vera*, a former Kali's Restaurant Group sous chef; the restaurant has shed its pastry counter; and along the way it has revised its name to Meli American Bistro. The menu offers tame fare—roasted chicken, pan-seared pork chops, steaks, surf and turf—and Alexi Murdoch, Keane, and other voices of indie soft rock whisper through the sound system, making the earth-toned dining area with its swirly upholstery and overstuffed banquettes feel a little like a hotel lobby.
Is Meli a completely new restaurant? Not entirely. As then City Paper critic Richard Gorelick wrote in his Omnivore column in early 2008 (April 23), Meli is still “intended, at least ostensibly, as a what-you-will kind of space,” whether it be drinks at the blue-lit bar or downstairs lounge or a meal in the more formal dining room. Appetizers here could properly be called small plates, given their generous portions, and could easily substitute as an entrée. Soups and salads full of thoughtful garnishes, like the smoked bleu cheese and translucent slices of watermelon radishes in the house salad ($8), are well-sized too, giving diners the flexibility of a lighter meal.
But in that 2008 review, Gorelick also noted that Meli “looks expensive, and it can be.” And if you go the traditional route of appetizer, entrée, dessert (plus a drink or two), you may be served a bill that will raise eyebrows. Apps here run in the $11-$16 range and entrées come in between $19 and $30—not exactly out of line in the new world of bistro dining, but a lot for a meal that, at least on this evening, feels a little dull in spots.
This may be exacerbated by expectations. While Mezze continues to delight with its Mediterranean tapas and Adela offers some clever takes on Spain, Meli’s menu offers few surprises. Appetizers include crab dip and cake, lobster mac ‘n’ cheese, and fried calamari (OK, so it also offers lamb cheeks), and some dishes are better executed than others. Carrot soup ($8, soup du jour) needs salt but still has a lovely note of Indian spices (coriander, maybe?) and a creamy texture unburdened by heaviness. But Vera’s version of shrimp and grits ($14), smothered in peppers and olive oil, will numb your lips and leave you gasping for water and reaching for the corn muffin that accompanies the dish to quench the fire.
Garnishes both elevate and distract from entrées. A perfectly fine New York strip ($24) is made even better by a tangle of perfectly done frites, and a thick fillet of monkfish ($24) is given a boost by a colorful vegetable confetti of beets and radishes, an unlikely combination but one that somehow works. Still, roasted turnips and parsnips can’t disguise the fattiness of the veal chop ($24), but points for serving the chop with a risotto made with veal stock, a nice change from potatoes. And the only really pleasing things about the duck confit entrée ($21), two oversalted legs served with an unappealing cold slick of squash purée spiked with vanilla, are the too-few nubs of duck sausage scattered over the plate. The texture of the duck is right, but the overseasoning makes it hard to dig in.
Meli’s desserts feature both standards, such as crème brûlée and cheesecake, and some real Mediterranean treats, such as kataifi, baklava, and galaktoboureko ($8), warm pastry-wrapped custard that would make as decadent a breakfast as it does comforting dessert. The wine list favors the New World and by-the-glass prices hover around $10, as do cocktails. Service is proficient and friendly, but still something feels missing here—a distinction, a raison d'être, a menu and a character that set Meli apart from all the other bistro-style restaurants in town. Right now, that’s a little hard to find.
Meli is open for dinner seven days and brunch on Sunday.
* Correction: This review initially misidentified the current executive chef of Meli as Patrick Morrow, who served as executive chef before Audiel Vera. City Paper regrets the error.