New chef Hersh brings imagination to Kali's fare

Sun Restaurant Critic

I'm not sure how much difference a change of chefs makes to a successful restaurant. No matter how talented the new man in the kitchen is, the owners will want to stick with what's been working. In the case of Kali's Court, that's been very fresh fish and very large crab cakes delivered in an elegant, dressy setting.

This winter, Kali's brought in Damon Hersh, when former executive chef Rashad Edwards left to open the restaurant group's newest project, a bistro and patisserie called Meli. Hersh is best known to Baltimoreans as the chef who opened Louisiana in Fells Point. You would expect him to put his individual stamp on the menu, but there must be some pressure to keep it as it is.

Still, some of his signature dishes are available. We wanted to try them, so we avoided what I think are the safest choices at Kali's: the grilled whole bronzino or dourade, or the fat crab cakes with an Old Bay aioli.

Kali's Court has always had the feeling of a special occasion or expense account restaurant, but I don't remember it being so breathtakingly expensive. Although the serious wine list offers plenty of bottles in three figures, there are still some moderately priced choices. The same can't be said of the menu, where entrees are all in the thirties.

You get what you pay for, at least as far as the surroundings are concerned. The dining room and bar have a luxurious fin de siecle feel, with mahogany and mirrors, period light fixtures, Oriental rugs, comfortable seating, white linens and red roses on each table. The tables are a little closer together than I like when I'm spending this kind of money, but not annoyingly so.

This time round the service was on target, too: pleasant, efficient and unobtrusive.

Only the food was a bit uneven. Some of it was fabulous - the kitchen works with very fresh fish, so almost anything in the seafood line is probably a safe bet. Hersh accompanies a perfectly grilled mahi-mahi fillet with oxtail dumplings and brussels sprouts, a surprising combination that works. Skate wing, which benefited from a lemony butter sauce, was served dramatically over nutty-flavored, black-hued forbidden rice with an orchid for garnish. Broccolini glistened with pomegranate seeds.

But note I said "probably a safe bet." The seafood in the bouillabaisse was wonderful (lobster, mussels, big shrimp, pieces of mahi and another fish I couldn't identify), but its broth tasted of tomatoes and not a lot else. It wasn't bad, just not up to the standards of our other seafood dishes.

Another special, a stuffed pork chop, began with a magnificent chop but had a lot going on: apricots, walnuts and feta cheese. The couscous that came with it had notes of apple and sage, and a bit of lamb sausage rounded it out.

There's nothing simple either about the first course of ravioli accented with sage and stuffed with scallop. The other flavors on the plate included pear, parmesan cheese, nutmeg, raisins and a butter sauce. If all you want are scallops and pasta, you're out of luck; but if you think of it as a buttery, fruity pasta dish, it's satisfying.

First courses tend to fine-dining classics like caviar, foie gras and oysters, balanced with Greek-accented specialties. The best of these was fat little phyllo pastries stuffed with lump crab and artichoke hearts, with a red-pepper sauce giving the crisp bites a pleasant jolt. Although now that I think about it, I can't really say they were better than the grilled calamari, tender and smoky, with a fennel, red onion and apple slaw.

Kali's divides its menu into first, second and third courses. We tried the "Seasonal Soup," which was carrot and too sweet for my taste. I doubt if most people get through all three courses and order dessert.

Desserts are, surprisingly, almost exclusively Greek - including a fine baklava - though the rest of the menu isn't. There is a chocolate chunk creme brulee, which seems to be a specialty of the house and shouldn't be missed.

Although Hersh has been running the kitchen of Kali's and Mezze next door since just after the new year, I get the sense he's still trying to find the balance between what has worked well up till now and how much he will remake the menu in his style. I was a harsher critic of our meal than I might otherwise be because it was so very expensive. Even when things aren't perfect, Hersh's food is never lackluster or unimaginative.

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