Head straight for the grilled

Restaurant: At Kali's Court, seafood is the specialty, and dishes from the grill are especially good

Sunday Gourmet

May 23, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,sun restaurant critic

Telly Stroumbis hasn't had the best of luck with his restaurants. There was Champagne Tony's in the Belvedere and then Santi's in Middle River, both of which are now history. But if there's anything to the cliche about the third time being the charm, he could make it with Kali's Court. The potential is there.

Comparisons are inevitable with the nearby Black Olive, which was a huge hit when it opened in 1997. Surely Stroumbis and his partner, Vasili Keramidas, noted how well the Greek seafood restaurant does with its formula of extraordinarily fresh fish prepared in uncomplicated ways.

Kali's Court doesn't have the deceptively simple but sophisticated style that the Black Olive does, but then it isn't trying to. Lavish amounts of money have been spent on renovations of what was once a warehouse on Thames Street. The result is a handsomely appointed bar, a mezzanine dining room and a charming brick courtyard. Half of the restaurant's name comes from that courtyard; the other half is in honor of Keramidas' mother, Kaliope.

As for the food, I'd recommend ordering almost anything that's been grilled -- as much of it is here. Marinated calamari (grilled, not fried) was nothing short of spectacular, with a chewy-tender texture and marvelous smoky flavor.

The specialty is charbroiled whole fish. Our choices that night were rockfish, red snapper and Carolina sea bass. I had the rockfish, its flesh sweet and moist with just a hint of char. The delicate flavor was set off by olive oil, lemon juice, capers and a sprinkling of fresh green herbs. The fish, backbone removed, was prettily arranged with freshly steamed broccoli and cauliflower.

If a whole fish seems like too much work for you, various fillets are available, most of them prepared quite simply. Grouper, for instance, is one of two "brick oven specialties," the other being rockfish. The moist fillet was topped with sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives and a lemon sauce. Good, but I preferred the flavorful whole fish.

Not everything on the short menu is fish, but all of it is fairly straightforward -- shrimp, a steak, veal or lamb chops, crab cakes.

You can't fault Kali's fine crab cakes, which are all lump crab meat seasoned so they have a fiery bite. But I have to admit I sometimes miss a bit of filler. It's the same progression that happened to martinis, where eventually the bartender simply waved the bottle of vermouth over the glass to create the ultimate dry one.

But back to dinner. Not only seafood comes out of the restaurant's brick oven: An appetizer of baby eggplant was superb -- split, topped with fresh tomatoes and cheese and baked until soft, hot and just slightly smoky-flavored.

The brick-oven oysters weren't quite so successful. The oysters themselves were fat and flavorful, but I wasn't won over by the topping of feta and spinach; the flavors were too dominant.

If these sound a bit heavy as a starter, you could opt for a wonderfully simple baby arugula salad, the pleasantly bitter greens set off by grated Asiago cheese and balsamic vinegar.

Whatever I have to say about the desserts at Kali's Court may be outmoded by now. Our waitress told us the restaurant was still trying out providers and might eventually make its own. This night the dessert tray contained four different kinds of cheesecake and not much else, just a nondescript layer cake. It was good, fresh cheesecake -- but if you weren't a cheesecake fan and didn't want a piece of nondescript cake, you were out of luck.

Kali's Court

Food: * * *

service: * * *

atmosphere: * * *

Where: 1606 Thames St.

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner.

Prices: Appetizers: $5.25-$8.95; main courses: $15.25-$24.95.

Call: 410-276-4700

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

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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