At Bluegrass Tavern, Patrick Morrow's food fit the atmosphere to a T. It was as though the restaurant were designed around his culinary leanings, which are rooted in the vernacular of the American South. What I loved most about Bluegrass (and this is still true under Morrow's replacement, Ray Kumm) is how much in sync everything was. The servers at Bluegrass were wholly and enthusiastically behind Morrow's food, and Christopher Coker's wine list and bourbon-obsessed cocktail menu were perfect complements.
In late March, Patrick Morrow left Bluegrass Tavern in South Baltimore to join the Kali's Restaurant Group. First stop for him at Kali's is Meli, where he's been given the duties, if not the title, of executive chef.
Meli, which opened in 2007, still looks as glamorously inviting as it ever has. No, it looks better. The little patisserie counter, which made for a jarring entrance, is gone, replaced by an extension of the bar area, which has been softened and darkened. The Rita St. Clair-designed dining rooms remain one of the city's most plushly chic spaces, all swoons and swirls, with good sightlines from every table. The only detractor when we visited: the egregious Eurobeat music, appropriate for the bar area but not the dining room.
It's early on, but so far Morrow and Meli have yet to arrive at that beautiful state of being. It's simply a matter of the food not matching the drapes. This is more apparent with the top part of Meli's new single-page menu (the snacks and appetizers) than the bottom part (entrees and light fare like sandwiches and pastas). Up top, there are the charcuterie, cheese plates of American artisanal cheese, the pickled seasonal vegetables, a venison tartare. A snack of pickled vegetables was disappointingly commonplace, but a snack of spring radishes was a glory, a mix of French breakfast and big black radishes, sliced in translucent loops, tossed with frisee, and dressed with an herby pesto. As a novelty, fresh garbanzo beans (they're green) are served edamame-style.
First courses for us included a plate of beautifully considered panko-encrusted oysters, served in an egg-caper sauce with freshly grated horseradish and a serving of delightful chicken-fried sweetbreads, served with pickled cherries, a bourbon cherry reduction and bacon jam, Morrow's calling-card condiment. Somewhere, people have grown bored with charcuterie plates, but I haven't. Morrow is in fine form at Meli, working with an all-American lineup: pork liver mousse, country pork pate, American prosciutto and house-cured ham.
The best-looking entree was our least favorite. Morrow's elaborate Crispy Chicken involves flash-frying a rice-flour coated half chicken that has been already taken through a sous vide process. Sliced and splayed, set over a farro-and-cucumber salad and topped with a fennel slaw, it's a wower. But the chicken was dry and the other ingredients felt incongruous and effortful.
A comparatively simple entree of pan-roasted veal breast and calves liver is much more up the kitchen's alley and much more satisfying. Served with honeyed pearl onions and tiny new potatoes, the only embellishment here is a gloss of strawberry balsamic. The standout entree, though, was a delicate plating of pan-roasted scallops, served with crispy artichokes and a dreamy, creamy artichoke purees. This was food that you wanted to go very slowly with. (When placed next to the studly $24 veal dish, though, the $27 scallop entree may strike some diners as little precious.)
From a light-fare section that includes a hamburger and crab cake, we were coaxed to try a dish of fettuccine with oysters and wild mushrooms in a cream sauce. Extremely, almost absurdly rich, this is not the kind of food to incorporate into a multi-course meal. It's an intense dish, bordering wickedly on being too heavy, but the flavors are distinct and robust. It should be taken by itself, with a beefy chardonnay.
If the appetizers seem like Morrow's sensibilities have been pasted onto Meli, the entree course is comparatively seamless. The dessert list, though, looks like the old, pre-Morrow Meli, a collection, mostly, of Greek pastries like baklava and galaktoboureko. They're good here, but they don't logically follow what's come before.
Nevertheless, I'm encouraged. My concerns about Meli have little to do with the particulars, and more about the place's vision. If you didn't know the pre-Morrow Meli, you may not even guess that there have been changes. And not every restaurant needs to be pinned down and defined. But if you asked me what kind of place Meli was, I don't think I would know what to tell you. The service we had was blameless, but we didn't come across the kind of passionate devotion that Morrow's food was routinely afforded at Bluegrass. There you knew the staff truly loved the food; at Meli, you weren't even sure they had seen it before.
The Morrow and Meli story intrigues me. I'll be watching, and I'll certainly be dropping in.
Where:1636 Thames St., Fells Point
Contact: 410-534-6354, http://www.kalismeli.com
Hours: Open for dinner daily, for lunch on weekdays and for brunch on weekends.
Prices: Appetizers, $8-$15; Entrees, $19-$27
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭