Naming your restaurant after one ingredient can be a dangerous thing. As appealing as it might seem, it does limit the chef unless the ingredient is something commonly used in both sweet and savory dishes, such as, say, butter.
Vasilios Keramidas and the Kali's Restaurant Group decided to take the chance. But when they opened their patisserie and bistro to complement their fine dining and midprice options (Kali's Court and Mezze), they did something wise: They gave the business a Greek name. Meli means "honey," but the name doesn't seem like such a commitment when it's not in English. If executive chef Rashad Edwards decides he doesn't want to use honey in a certain dish, I don't think anyone really notices.
Plenty of his dishes do, however, contain honey - usually in small amounts, except for the excellent desserts. Other flavors in the dish tend to dominate, so I'm not sure anyone can really tell if Edwards is cooking with, for instance, premium saffron honey or some basic store brand. In some popular dishes, like the steak au poivre with bistro fries, fried onions and oxtail sauce, there's no mention of honey at all. And I doubt if honey made its way into the enormous mound of steamed mussels, either. Their sauce tasted of tomato, garlic, basil and lemon, without a trace of sweetness.
Honey is as much a decor theme as an ingredient, with dozens of gourmet honeys arrayed on honeycomb-shaped shelves in the patisserie. The ceiling is honeycombed, as is the mezzanine railing. But Meli's colors, vivid blues and orange, are much bolder than you might expect from the name. So is the food.
The fact that Meli calls itself a patisserie and bistro could mislead you. The seating around the pastry case is minimal. The bistro side has several levels, with clever little semi-private spaces and a lounge downstairs. Meli is much more a night spot - and already a popular one - than a sweet little place to have dessert, although you can certainly do that.
Daintiness doesn't enter into the equation, except for a tiny amuse bouche of grilled watermelon. Instead you can get a tuna burger with fries, a charcuterie plate or pistachio-crusted lamb chops. Some of the dishes are heavy-handed, like the bistro steak sandwich, which you could duplicate by putting pot roast on a baguette that was spread with port-wine cheddar. What happened to thinly sliced steak?
Others show more finesse, even if they aren't to die for. Some dishes startle and amuse, like the "breakfast" of pork tenderloin with tiny fried quail eggs, brioche toast and honey. A doll-sized grapefruit shooter comes on the plate as well.
A fat fillet of salmon, served with Peruvian potatoes and baby bok choy, benefits from a glaze of lavender honey. Grilled red and yellow tomato slices are surprisingly good for this time of year, and can stand up to the full-bodied halloumi, a goat and sheep's cheese from Cyprus. Balsamic honey is the flavor accent.
Sweetbreads are one of those savory dishes that blossom with a touch of sweetness, but it's provided more by the apples and raisin spoon bread that accompany them than by honey. Ravioli stuffed with butternut squash stand up to candied almonds and honey butter; they don't taste too much like dessert.
Where honey most comes into its own is exactly where you'd expect: the seasonal dessert menu of 15 choices. There is, not unexpectedly, as good a baklava as you'll find in Baltimore; but the clear winner is a moist citrus poundcake, soaked in honey, with a delicate homemade honey ice cream. Although various other temptations are available, those are the ones I'd recommend.
The restaurant is off to a good start, but I'm hoping the kitchen will lighten the menu as we get into the summer months. I'm impressed that none of the entrees costs more than $20, and plenty of the appetizers are hefty enough to serve as a light supper. Meli is an enjoyable addition to the Fells Point dining scene, tipping the balance even further away from taverns and bars with pub grub. Baltimoreans have already discovered and are embracing it.