When Kali's Court first opened seven years ago, it quickly become known for its very fresh seafood prepared in uncomplicated ways. It had a crab cake, but it was a simple crab cake (almost nothing but jumbo crab meat, in other words). The best thing on the menu was the whole grilled fish with capers, lemon juice, olive oil and herbs.
Add to that good service and a beautiful setting, and the owners had a hit on their hands. Kali's Court quickly became a local favorite for expense-account meals and romantic dinners - and one of the few places in Fells Point that insisted on a dress code (business casual or dressier). A few years later Mezze opened next door, with small plates for those who wanted a more casual version of Kali's Mediterranean food.
Kali's Court still has one of Baltimore's most inviting dining rooms, with handsome dark woods and patterned rugs covering the old stone floors. Fells Point staples like exposed brick and a tin ceiling take on a romantic glow as mirrors reflect candles on each white-clothed table. The charming courtyard in front with its umbrella tables was covered in snow the night we were there, but in good weather these are some of the best tables in Baltimore.
I don't remember being so impressed by the looks of the place seven years ago, but I do remember the food was more consistent. Some of our meal this time was very good indeed. Some wasn't. And the service was as inconsistent as the food. We were alternately pampered and ignored by our waitress - puzzling for this expensive a restaurant.
The menu these days seems more ambitious than it used to be, with dishes like monkfish osso buco with shrimp, mussels, smoked haddie, cannellini beans and ratatouille. There are a few more meat dishes, like beef tenderloin paired with short ribs, than I remember. But the signature dishes are still the grilled whole fish and the jumbo lump crab cakes.
The whole fish - bronzini, sea bream, or black bass - are filleted in the kitchen after being grilled, which purists say dries them out. I don't know if that was it, or simply that the bronzini was overcooked, but it seemed a shame. The fish was beautifully fresh, and the simplicity of its caper-lemon sauce allowed its delicate flavor to come through - but nothing makes up for dry fish.
The crab cakes, two huge mounds of backfin and a bit of binder, had been cooked too long as well. Even the Old Bay aioli, asparagus and grilled tomatoes - almost perfect accompaniments - couldn't rescue them.
Two more complicated preparations were more successful. Swordfish "filet mignon," a steak-shaped round of white, meaty fish, had enough character to stand up to a fine veal reduction sauce. Roast fingerling potatoes continued the meat-and-potatoes theme.
Salmon, grilled just past the gelatinous stage, tasted firm and moist, perked up by a grilled shrimp and beurre blanc. It was artfully arranged on greens and couscous, and offered an array of flavors, colors and textures.
Some of the first courses are even more elaborate than the entrees. Sundried tomatoes give baby artichokes and goat cheese a bit of zing; and if that isn't enough zing for you, they are sauced with both lemon creme fraiche and a black olive vinaigrette. Crisp bruschetta rounds out the plate.
Artichoke makes its appearance again in a graceful descendant of spanakopita, with flaky phyllo pastry, crab lumps and Swiss chard. Like other dishes here, it's attractively decorated with squiggles of sauces and sprinklings of herbs.
But simplicity won the day with perfectly seared sea scallops, fat and juicy, and a platter of raw oysters around mignonette (vinaigrette) sauce. This evening, the choices were plump, salty Delaware oysters or more delicate Prince Edward Islanders, small and sweet. You could also mix and match.
Desserts suffered the same inconsistency as what came before. The two rounds of baklava were so uninspired I ate only one, and I'm a baklava devotee. The potentially wonderful almond-crusted amaretto cheesecake had no real flavor of almonds, although if it had been sold as plain cheesecake it would have been a winner. Potentially wonderful warm chocolate bread pudding was a little dry.
Forget those and head straight for the chocolate chunk creme brulee. The chocolate chunks melt invitingly through the warm custard and enhance its crackly topping.
Kali's Court is still one of Fells Point's premier restaurants, well worth the price of admission if you know the right things to order - as I'm sure regulars do. But when the average price of entrees hovers just below the $30 mark, I want everything on the menu to be just about perfect.
Address: 1606 Thames St., Fells Point
Hours: Open for dinner nightly and Sunday brunch
Prices: Appetizers, $12-$70; entrees, $26-$34
FOOD: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)
SERVICE: ** (2 STARS)
ATMOSPHERE: *** 1/2 (3 1/2 STARS)