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Méli restaurant review: A Greek club that’s worth joining

The young Méli Wine & Mezze in Adams Morgan makes a lovely landing for drinks and dips. Just one problem: The restaurant on the ground floor of the luxe Silva apartment building plays hard to get.

Because of where it’s staged, the sleek Greek retreat isn’t allowed to announce itself with exterior lights or signage beyond a little sandwich board posted on the sidewalk, near a path on the left side of the residence. Further, multiple glass doors lead into the Silva, and the official entrance to Méli (pronounced MEL-ee) has changed a couple of times since it rolled out in May. First-timers tend to be confused as they approach; customers watching the hunt from behind the picture windows tend to wave them toward where they need to go. The staff’s most recent solution was to write the name of the restaurant several times in green chalk on the concrete path and place a little table with a sign outside the appropriate entry.

Méli is the latest from Eastern Point Collective, places to eat and drink on the Hill — the Duck & the Peach, La Collina, the Wells — from founder Hollis Wells Silverman, the former chief operating officer with ThinkFoodGroup in DC. Before the pandemic, the Silva’s developer, EastBanc, enlisted her to come up with a dining amenity for its residents. A survey of Adams Morgan — cuisines it had and lacked — led Wells Silverman to suggest something Greek.

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Conveniently, the executive chef is Katarina Petonito, also the top toque at the Duck & the Peach, who knows from hummus and skewers, having cooked a lot of Greek in her career, most recently at the late Kapnos Kouzina in Bethesda. Her chef de cuisine at Méli is Keri Wieczorek, who attended the CIA — make that the Culinary Institute of America — at the same time as Petonito, and went on to work at such diverse restaurants as Vidalia, Ripple and Rappahannock Oyster Bar. Their menu is small enough that two of you could graze through it in a couple of visits, but with sufficient diversions to keep you coming back.

Here’s our old friend hummus, creamy chickpeas pulsing with garlic and cumin and set off with coins of roasted carrot and fiery harissa “crunch.” A spread of roasted red peppers and Fresno chiles arrives with a carpet of tangy feta cheese and some nice heat from harissa. For balance, there’s tzatziki, cool with cucumber and yogurt. For $28, you can get all three generous dips, which come with the choice of warm pita bread or sturdy fried pita chips. Both make good scoops, but the fried ones are like Doritos in my house: dangerous.

Méli translates from Greek to “honey” and “members,” an apt title for a venue that is zoned as a club and charges a $25 annual membership fee for two diners (or $50 for up to five). There’s no hard sell. Walk in without a reservation, and the staff briefly explains the deal. Patrons can try before they buy. The money, minus credit card processing fees, goes to the neighborhood Reed Cooke Club, which distributes it to 10 or so local nonprofits, including Christ House, Jubilee Jobs and Sitar Arts Center. For the price of a couple of cocktails, subscribers can do some good outside the Silva’s walls. (Residents get free membership; takeout and delivery do not require signing up.)

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Beyond the dips, there are gigante beans, their red pepper sauce enlivened with sherry vinegar, and falafel, their centers bright green with cilantro, dill and parsley. The fritters are served with parsley, onion and mint, what Petonito calls a “universal salad” for its ability to match with anything. (Membership has its privileges; the falafel are sent out as a gratis welcome after you sign up.) In late summer, the mezze spoke to the season with runner beans, charred on the grill and sprinkled with Aleppo pepper. The only small plate I didn’t want to finish was a sturdy slice of halloumi whose strawberry and honey accents tasted like breakfast-bordering-on-dessert for dinner.

Given the frequency with which restaurant visits anywhere begin with a server asking, “Any allergies or dietary restrictions?,” it’s nice to see the pro-active approach taken by Méli, whose menu lists allergens alongside prices. The restaurant also offers a $10 kids meal that is bound to make parents happy: grilled chicken offered with orzo, good and green with spinach pesto, and whatever fruit is in season.

A section called “Off the grill” gathers skewered dishes: meat (ropy beef and lamb), vegetable (mushrooms, onions and eggplant) and chicken souvlaki. (The ground meat option is juicy if sometimes salty. The chicken picks up savor from its paste of oregano, thyme, lemon and olive oil.) There are also prawns, sassy with lemon and harissa. Keeping their heads on ensures the prawns don’t dry out when they’re cooked. The chicken picks up savor from its paste of oregano, thyme, lemon and olive oil. Any dinner is better with a cocktail to start (hot nights were cooler for a daiquiri infused with cucumber juice and oregano) and a bowl of golden baked, fried potatoes embedded in the “universal” salad.

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Any meal is also enhanced by the wine service from general manager Danya Degen, also a sunny presence behind the bar, which seems to be a draw for the building’s residents, who wander in from the lobby. Degen, who moved over from the Duck & the Peach and previously served as wine director at Little Pearl, takes her Greek wines, but not their descriptions, seriously. A white wine is compared to “when you get ocean spray in your mouth by accident,” and a red wine’s cherry and cola notes channel “a grown-up Dr Pepper.” Degen is all about fun points of reference. Here’s a toast (clink!) to demystifying Greek wine.

The dining area is about 30 seats, not including the cafe tables parked outside, a destination for customers with dogs in tow or business calls to take. The interior, which has the feel of a museum cafe, is spare and clean — and loud, no thanks to the kaolin clay porcelain floors, marble tables and soaring ceiling. The clatter doesn’t keep patrons from lingering over wine or the ethereal milk pudding speckled with vanilla bean paste and scented with orange blossom water. A finish of candied orange peel delivers a light crackle.

Since rolling out, Méli has ditched counter service and QR codes; Degen says no one was ordering wines they couldn’t pronounce without some face time with staff who could. The chefs are also testing some fresh ideas. Petonito forecasts some larger dishes, including whole fish and chicken, and possibly breakfast later this year.

I’m a reluctant joiner. But I’m making an exception for Méli — especially now that I know where to find it.

1630 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-978-2333. Open for indoor and outdoor dining and takeout and delivery 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Prices: appetizers $7 to $28, skewers $10 to $35. Sound check: 77 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restrooms.

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