Sample and swap at Kali's Court Mezze

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Translate mezze as appetizer; that's close enough. Kali's Court, the popular Greek seafood restaurant in Fells Point, translates mezze as appetizers and anything else you might eat that fits on a small plate, from baby lamb chops to apple strudel.

Kali's Court is one of the few restaurants in Fells Point with a dress code that's more strict than "shirts and shoes must be worn." (I've heard a couple of complaints that you can't eat there in shorts.) So it doesn't surprise me that when the owners decided to expand, they opened a casual place adjacent to the main restaurant. There's now a spot for almost everyone (wearing almost anything) who likes Mediterranean food or seafood.

Kali's Court Mezze isn't primarily a restaurant -- which isn't a bad thing. It's a bar with a few tables on the ground floor and a tiny nonsmoking dining room upstairs. The front opens up so completely that if you're sitting at one of the first-floor tables it's almost like eating outside. (By the time you read this, Mezze may have gotten its permit for tables on the sidewalk.) This is a hip little place, as far as the decor is concerned, but nobody notices. They're too busy drinking, noshing and having a good time.

You sit down, you order glasses of sangria. (Unfortunately, you can't order pitchers of sangria, so the bar tab can mount quickly.) The waitress brings you warm pita and a selection of Mediterranean olives. You can stop there, or order a couple of dips for the table like baba ghannouj or hummus. If you feel a little hungrier, create a real dinner of the small plates, from soup (minestrone or gazpacho) to nuts (baklava with a walnut filling). Most people, though, order a dish here and a dish there, as the fancy strikes them. The waitress brings extra plates and everyone shares.

Some dishes are more conducive to sharing than others. A chilled beet salad is enough for four people to each get a generous spoonful. It's a pretty composition of beets, canned mandarin orange sections and crunchy walnuts. (It would be even better with fresh oranges.) On the other hand, two tender halves of crisp-skinned quail propped up against a little mound of cloud-like mashed potatoes were delicious but didn't quite work as something to pass around the table.

Four of us ordered as if we were ordering dinner, an appetizer each and then something that could be considered a main course. We didn't end up eating that way, though, which was fun. As soon as a dish was ready, the waitress brought it to the table and we passed it around.

If I had to pick one dish that I'd want to keep to myself, it would be the stuffed grape leaves filled with seasoned rice. The leaves had an unusual crisp edge to them that was very appealing, and instead of the promised egg-lemon sauce, they came with tzatziki. Normally I'd be grumpy about an unannounced substitution, but the yogurt flavored with cucumber, dill and garlic was an even better sauce.

Along those same lines, but more of a meal, are the rice-stuffed green peppers. (Not much of a tapas, though; the two peppers are awkward to share.) Lima beans baked with onions and herbs are less interesting than they sound -- they taste like traditionally overcooked Greek vegetables -- but a spoonful of them does round out an hors d'oeuvre plate.

Oysters on the half shell baked with spinach and feta showcase the kitchen's ability to put a Mediterranean spin on a traditional seafood dish (in this case, oysters Rockefeller). But if you're looking for something filling and homey, try the tuna salad, made with diced fresh tuna, potatoes, dill and mayonnaise. You may never go back to canned.

You can't go to a Greek restaurant and not have lamb. There are baby lamb chops, but for better shareability, we ordered the braised lamb, cooked to fall-off-the-bone tenderness and then arranged on mashed potatoes -- not a lot of it, just enough to make you wish for a bit more.

Yes, there are desserts: a classic -- i.e., runny but good -- Greek rice pudding with strawberries, a light tiramisu, a baklava with too much filling and not enough pastry, and an apple strudel with pastry but almost no filling.

If you're ordering sangria, however, you may not need them. The glasses are filled with such a variety of fruit, including blueberries, finely chopped nectarines and apples, that they do very well for dessert.

Kali's Court Mezze has been hopping almost from the moment it opened a couple of months ago, or so I hear. It has a built-in customer base because of its popular parent. And then, what's not to like? The new place offers a let-the-good-times-roll atmosphere and bar food for people who want something a little more interesting than Buffalo wings with their drinks.

Kali's Court Mezze

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 1606 Thames St., Fells Point

Hours: Open daily for dinner

Prices: $2.95-$11.95

Call: 410-563-7600

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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