Given that most restaurant names are usually self-evident (Charleston equals Carolina coastal cuisine; Lebanese Taverna equals Lebanese tavern food), parsing one isn't usually a revelatory exercise. But let me dwell a minute on Meli Patisserie & Bistro, as doing so may uncover a few things you should know before you go.
First, the "patisserie" part. If you're imagining a little French pastry shop where you'll be dipping croissants into steaming bowls of café au lait at tiny marble-topped tables, think again. I'm not quite sure why owner Vasilios Keramidas—the man behind Kali's Court and Mezze down the street—chose to put you in mind of a Parisian bakery.
Yes, there's a little pastry case at the bar up front, and, yes, if you push it, you might call some of the mostly Mediterranean cuisine French-inflected, but Meli is in fact a full-fledged restaurant, and a rather luxurious-looking one at that. And after you've partaken of the full menu of small plates and entrées, there's a good chance you won't even have room to sample from the ample dessert menu (18 and counting).
And "bistro?" Uh, no. Even that's a misleading moniker for the plush, spacious dining room and the velvet-draped lounge below. This is a restaurant, folks.
Now about "Meli." Here's where you can, indeed, take the name literally, perhaps more than you'd imagine. The word is Greek for honey, and at Meli, this isn't just a sweet (sorry, I couldn't resist) name for a Greek guy's restaurant.
The main dining room is bathed in golden tones and honey-colored wood. Look up and you'll notice that half the ceiling is a plaster-cast honeycomb; the steel railings around the sweeping staircase down to the lounge are likewise . . . honeycombs. There's even a Meli-tini, composed of—you guessed it—honey liqueur.
Most notably, Chef Rashad Edwards uses honey as a signature ingredient that wends its way through nearly every item on the menu, savory and sweet. It's a daring ploy for a town not particularly known for adventurousness in dining. But even if you think you don't like honey, give Meli a try before anything changes. You might just like what you taste.
Take, for example, an absolutely smashing appetizer of seared diver scallops. Gorgeously colorful on the plate, this composed salad of butter-soft scallops is garnished with bright green corn shoots, delicate mâche, and miniature purple-tinged orchids. A subtle acacia honey vinaigrette brings out the sweetness of the scallops without being cloying, and flavors balance perfectly.
Similarly, the honey butter in a small plate of roasted butternut squash ravioli pleasantly forces you to identify different degrees of sweetness: the earthy sugar of squash, the gentle lushness of the honeyed butter, and a high, singing top note of crunchy, candied almonds.
Elsewhere on the appetizer menu, Edwards knows when to lay off. Tuna tartare garnished with tempura white anchovy doesn't want honey, and it doesn't get any—it's superb on its own. And another appetizer, the grilled tomato salad, falls flat not because of the balsamic honey dressing, but because grilling can't disguise the fact that these tomatoes are wan and mushy.
The sweet with savory formula yields a mixed bag with the entrées as well. The judicious use of a citrus honey condiment tempers the intense flavor of rare lamb chops crusted with pistachios and complements the accompanying butternut squash risotto. But one night, my friend Meg viewed the honeycomb lurking beneath her lavender-honey-glazed salmon with alarm. The glaze was plenty sweet enough, but a whole honeycomb? Definite overkill.
That night, I loved elements of my grilled pork tenderloin, which our waiter described as "breakfast for dinner." The sweet and juicy pork, tiny quail eggs, and rich miniature brioche were all quite fine. Not so much the potatoes, which weren't "crispy" as advertised but soggy, or the shot of wild strawberry elixir meant to cut the richness of the meat. Cute, but it tasted like nothing more than sugar water.
Señor M's roasted Cornish hen, on the other hand, was an unqualified success, crisp-skinned and luscious meat beneath, with amarena cherries providing a tart kick of barely sweet goodness. On another visit, M scored big with an incongruous-sounding tuna burger topped with house-made boursin and pancetta.
We confess that after ploughing through appetizers and entrees, dessert amounted to sharing a nice but unspectacular vanilla bean crème brûlée, and, on another night, a big bowl of berries glazed with—what else?—honey-infused crème anglaise. With so much sweetness in the savory parts of the meal, it's hard to imagine jumping at the chance to splurge on a honey-soaked citrus pound cake with honey ice cream. Maybe if you're dropping in for dessert.
On the whole, though, Meli is in most ways a very pleasant place to dine, and we applaud its willingness to experiment with signature flavors and offbeat combinations. And we're also eager to applaud any restaurant whose price point is considerably lower than the lovely surroundings would suggest. It may not be a patisserie or a bistro, but Meli is definitely a fine dining experience.
One note that has nothing to do with food, though: Can we put the kibosh right now on the trend of placing unisex sinks outside restaurant bathrooms? My guess is that someone (most likely a guy) thought this was an ideal spot for a chance meeting of potential romantic partners. But no single woman wants to meet the man of her dreams while she's, uh, fixing her face; and it was clear from their look of sheer panic that the guys who walked in while Meg and I were washing our hands were thinking they'd accidentally wandered into the ladies' room. Let's say they made a beeline for the exit.