It's an oft-spouted cliché that humans eat first with their eyes. In the age of Instagram, though, that bon mot might be taken one step further — sometimes we eat only with our eyes. Follow enough restaurants, blogs or social "influencers" on any app and your feed can become as visually enticing as an eight-course meal, though far less satisfying.
At Kali, the newish restaurant on Melrose from former Patina chef Kevin Meehan and former Providence wine director Drew Langley, there is no shortage of beautiful things to feed your iPhone: an artfully assembled crudo speckled with edible flowers and dried citrus, for instance, or a dense quenelle of chocolate cremeux decorated with sprigs of mints.
It might come as a surprise, then, that the most brilliant dish at Kali is also the downright ugliest. Meehan cooks down dark brown wheat berries — fat kernels that vaguely resemble Sugar Smacks — until they reach the toothsome texture of Italian carnaroli rice. Atop the wheatberries sits a crunchy wafer, tinted black by garlic that the kitchen ferments in-house but looking a lot like burnt cheese. The wafer itself is made from toasted Fiscalini cheddar, a sharp aged cheese from California that more resembles Parmesan than the stuff Tillamook churns out. Although the gnarly black-on-brown heap looks like something fed to a submarine crew, the combination of rich, savory and salty is immediately familiar. This is risotto — a fantastic one at that — in a beggar's disguise. To roll out another cliché: Looks aren't everything.
Meehan broke off from the world of fine dining back in 2012, leaving Patina to launch an underground pop-up restaurant, Kali Dining, which he ran out of his garage. Part of the pop-up's conceit was that it featured only ingredients sourced from California, a challenge that continued when the former pop-up morphed into a brick-and-mortar restaurant a few months ago. Along with Meehan came the chef's longtime best friend, Drew Langley, a guy whose wine and beverage acumen, after a decade of stocking the cellars at Providence, is among the sharpest in town.
Their new space on Melrose, a former Italian bistro located near Paramount Studios, is stark and understated, accented by a couple of splashy modernist paintings hanging from the off-white walls. A long marble bar sits in front of the open kitchen, an ideal vantage point for sipping a cocktail while watching the kitchen crew work the pass, or perhaps for counting the various cuts of meat inside the dry-age refrigerator.
The cocktails are simple and refreshing, intended to pair with food rather than be attractions on their own (although the Vangelis, a gin sour with a hint of cherry vanilla shrub, would certainly be welcome at any cocktail bar). And although Langley keeps a larger collection of bottles in a rear wine room — you get the feeling that if you wanted to blow out your wallet on Grand Cru, Kali could accommodate you — the list of wines by the glass is surprisingly accessible, with a handful of affordable French wines among a few indie-cool California producers. There's also homemade kombucha, if you'd prefer, served on its own or spiked with whatever fruit is in season. At $8 per glass, it's advisable to sip slowly.
As you'd imagine from a kitchen whose boundaries lie at the state line, Kali's roster of dishes changes often. The menu is broken down into first courses and second courses, though it's possible to order a few of the first-course items as an entree portion at a higher price. There's also the option of a tasting menu, which pulls five courses off the regular menu for $65 ($90 with wine pairings), a fairly fantastic deal as far as tasting menus of this caliber.
If you were to judge it from your Instagram feed alone, Meehan's cooking would seem much more avant-garde than it actually is — much of the food here aims for comfort rather than shock. Take a half avocado charred on the grill and served with a raw salad of shaved vegetables. Rather than offset the avocado's natural creaminess with hits of acid, Meehan doubles down on unsaturated fats, topping the lush green fruit with pistachios and a heavy drizzle of olive oil. In other dishes he opts for the softer, deeper flavor of preserved lemon (he cures them himself) rather than the brightness of fresh lemon, as with a dollop of preserved lemon curd that acts as a vegan "egg yolk" perched in the middle of a chopped beet tartare.
The comfort factor is cranked up further with Meehan's pastas. A bowl of potato agnolotti with ridgeback prawns swims in creamy shellfish stock that's as decadent as any New England chowder — and twice as good when mopped up with a rosemary bread roll. Nubs of cavatelli pasta are stained green with nettles, tossed with creme fraiche, then topped with wild pink peppercorns and flash-fried parsley for an effect that is at once mac and cheese and also cacio e pepe.
There are rare occasions in which mellowness becomes blandness — a filet of cod with a soft crust of almond flour was perfectly cooked but tasted mostly like white-on-white.
You're more likely to encounter a hit, such as a grilled pork loin paired with tart, celery-apple puree and the pencil-thin root vegetable salsify, which is roasted and then coated in ash to resemble tiny tangled branches. It's a bizarre-looking forestscape that tastes both bleak and bright, conjuring the moment after a spring rainstorm.
For dessert, there are a few scoops of toasted meringue ice cream (imagine a far superior version of Cold Stone's sweet cream flavor) topped with shaved candied egg yolk. For each order, Meehan comes to the table and explains that he cured the yolks in salt and sugar until they resembled firm yellow orbs. The brightly yellow shavings aren't quite sweet and aren't quite savory, and the dish would be far less memorable without their subtle injection of umami. Afterward there are petit fours: sugar-coated jellies made from reduced red wine and white chocolate truffles studded with bits of black olive.
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It's little joys like those petit fours, or the bread service with whipped yogurt butter, or your napkin being neatly folded when you return from the restroom, that make the common restaurant refrain "casual yet upscale dining" seem like less of a contradiction. It's tempting to find a label that applies to Meehan and Langley's very personal project — the laid-back neighborhood gem, the freewheeling chef's counter, or maybe the ambitious temple of haute cuisine — but it's probably more accurate to simply call it a well-polished restaurant. That cliché, at least, is hard to wear thin.
KALI | Three stars | 5722 Melrose Ave., Hollywood | (323) 871-4160 | kalirestaurant.com | Mon.-Sat., 6-10 p.m. | Full bar | Valet parking